Like any good Southerner, Brian Bain eats moon pies and punctuates his sentences with "y'all." But Bain is also Jewish, which colors his experience as a third-generation Southerner in a unique way.
In his documentary film, "Shalom Y'all," Bain set out to explore exactly what being both Jewish and Southern actually means. Bain travels through the buckle of the Bible Belt, stopping in small towns where once-thriving Jewish communities have now dwindled to single-digit populations, and he juxtaposes these with flourishing communities in places like Atlanta. He visits genteel mansions still occupied by aging Jewish Southern belles and explores the legacy and the part Jews played in historical Southern milestones, including the Civil War and the Civil Rights era.
"Truthfully, my grandfather really was the catalyst for the journey," Bain said in a phone conversation from Dallas, where he relocated after his New Orleans home was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. He was referring to Leonard Bain, a retired traveling hat salesman and silent film editor who was 99, in 2002, when the film was made. The elder Bain has since died at the age of 101.
"Growing up, I remember him telling us stories about his travels through the South and spending the Sabbath away from home with Jewish merchants, and how he had this interesting connection with other Jews from the South. I really wanted to get my grandfather on film and just talking to him reminded me of the bigger story of the Jewish South."
"Shalom Y'all" explores issues of identity and submersion into a larger culture. It is, in many respects, a quirky documentary filled with characters and incidents that might be at home in a Christopher Guest film. In Natchez, Miss., there is Zelda Millstein, who still dresses in Antebellum hoop skirts, and Jay Lehman, a grocery store owner who sells pickled pigs feet and who, as a younger man, participated proudly in the Natchez Confederate Pageant -- a homage to the pre-Civil War era. Then there is the older Natchez couple whom Bain interviews sitting in the pews of their synagogue, which once boasted 200 families. Now they get five people for Friday night services.
"Except when the student rabbi comes," says the husband. "Then we get eight."
Bain hopes to return to New Orleans as soon as his home is habitable, and he says he has high hopes for the future of the Southern Jewish community.
"Young people have left and found new opportunities, and my parents' generation is pushing toward retirement, but I think it is going to be interesting period of rebuilding for the Jewish community" in the South, he said. "I am optimistic because the community is strong and tight knit, so I have no doubt that it will persevere."
The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring is screening "Shalom Y'all" on Feb. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at 1525 S. Robertson Blvd. For more information, call (310) 552-2007, or visit www.circlesocal.org.
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