October 17, 2002
Magnolias and Menorahs
"Shalom Y'all: Images of Jewish Life in the American South" photography by Bill Aron, text by Vicki Reikes Fox (Algonquin Books, $24.95).
While the idea of Southern Jews may be as improbable for some as snacking on matzah while drinking a mint julep, in fact, the American South has had a thriving Jewish community since the early 1700s.
In their new book, "Shalom Y'all: Images of Jewish Life in the American South" photographer Bill Aron and writer Vicki Reikes Fox have complied a series of joyful black-and-white photographs and text celebrating this dual community: Southerners as defined by their location and lifestyle, Jews by virtue of their religion and their heritage.
Although the Jewish South has gained increased prominence in the popular imagination over the last few years -- with books such as "The Ladies Auxiliary" about Memphis Jews by Tova Mirvis (Ballantine Books, 2000) and "My Father's People" (Louisiana State University Press, 2002), a memoir of growing up Jewish in the South by Louis Decimus Rubin -- "Shalom Y'all" is the first book to document modern Southern Jews with photography.
While the original Jewish settlers in the South during the 1700s were Sephardic, Ashkenazic Jewish peddlers were instrumental in helping to settle the South throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Traveling from town to town to sell their wares, they eventually established stores and raised families. They participated in civic life, built synagogues and established cemeteries.
"Southern and Jewish are two words not often associated with each other," said Aron, whose poetic images of Jews in America and abroad are featured prominently in collections from the Museum of Modern Art to the Skirball Cultural Center. Aron said that "Shalom Y'all" attempts to link them in a comprehensive look at the Southern Jewish experience. "The book presents a multidimensional portrait of contemporary Jewish life in the deep South as it has evolved from the early 1700s."
That evolution has taken Jews from being peddlers to politicians. Aron tried to preserve the unique traditions of the Southern Jews he encountered. He captured sukkot decorated with recently harvested cotton in Mississippi; Joe's Dreyfus Store Restaurant, opened in the late 1800s by Theodore Dreyfus in Lavonia, La., and a Jewish shrimper in New Orleans.
Over the last 12 years, the writer and photographer traveled throughout the deep South to Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama, photographing and collecting stories about the Southern Jewish life. "We tried to tell the unique story of the Southern Jewish experience through three distinct voices: Photographs, a narrative woven into descriptive captions of the photographs and stories told by Southern Jews about being Jewish in the South," Aron explained.
Joe Erber, one of Aron's subjects who lives in Greenwood, Miss., spoke of the dual identity he faced as a Southern Jew, "When I started school at Peter Rabbit kindergarten, I learned 'Shema Yisrael' was for home and synagogue, and 'Our Father who art in heaven' was for kindergarten."
Most of their subjects handled their hyphenated identity with an ease and grace that surprised Aron, who for his entire life has lived in cities with large Jewish populations -- Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.
"As a Jew who lives surrounded by Jews, you take a sense of normalcy in being Jewish for granted. The real difference between Southern Jews and big-city Jews is that when you're in the big city you happen to be Jewish; when you are in the South your Judaism brands you."
Aron and Fox were linked to their subjects by the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, just outside Jackson, Miss., of which Fox is a founding project director. While at the museum, Fox had the idea of going around to photograph the disappearing small-town Jewish communities and the vibrant large-city communities in the South, which the museum was documenting, and brought Aron to the project. An exhibit of the photographs has been organized by the Skirball Cultural Center and will debut there Dec. 12. It will then travel across the country.
Fox, a native of Hattiesburg, Miss., has kept her lilting accent despite having lived in Los Angeles for 17 years. "This project gave me the opportunity to tell the story of my heritage," Fox told The Journal. "We were also able to tell the story of Southern Jews through an artistic eye. It is a little recognized story outside of the South -- its history and complexities are unique from the mainstream Jewish American experience and all the richer for it."
To learn more about Bill Aron's work visit www.billaron.com. To learn more about the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, which is part of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, visit www.msje.org .