by Sophie McNeil Wolf with Garrad Lee
I’m nestled shoulder to shoulder, tables linked end to end spanning the entire width of Chris and Rachel Myers’ Fondren home. We’ve dipped our bitter herbs in water and just finished eating a delicious apple chutney and matzah. The group flips their program pages and I have to smile as we all slip into singing the next Seder song to the Dionne Warwick tune “I Say a Little Prayer for You.” I can’t help but think, “Where else could this be happening but Fondren?”
Rachel Myers loves to teach others about Jewish traditions. Professionally, as the Museum and Special Project Coordinator at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), she gets to travel around and share stories with a wide array of different groups who travel to Mississippi. Sharing these practices and stories with others is a way for Rachel to stay connected to her roots. “I probably wouldn’t participate in as much if I was in a larger Jewish community,” the Connecticut native admits. “But here, I get to put on the teacher hat and celebrate things in a different way than I would back home.”
This story isn’t unfamiliar throughout the neighborhood – the Jewish community is alive and thriving in Fondren. Just a few weeks ago, I hear that Rabbi Matt Dreffin and his wife Erica are putting up the sukkah, a hut-like structure created to celebrate Sukkot, on their patio a few streets over and friends are going to go help decorate.
“My friend and neighbor, Todd, had never built a sukkah before. I’m probably the first rabbi to live next door to him. But when I called on him to help with this unique construction project, he immediately lent his very valuable hands. We set to work, and after a couple hours and about four runs to Home Depot, we had the basic backyard sukkah fashioned in the backyard,” he said.
Dr. Stuart Rockoff, Executive Director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, also calls Fondren home and, like the Myers, loves to host events, including a Hanukah celebration. “We enjoy sharing these traditions, in addition to dreidel games and lighting the menorah, with our friends in Fondren.”
And for Abby Klionsky, one of eight Education Fellows at the ISJL, sharing traditions with non-Jewish neighbors goes right along with celebrating the traditions with a growing community of Jewish people in Fondren. “Getting together to celebrate Shabbat or holidays has been a great way to meet other members of the Jewish community and to learn about the traditions most important to each of us,” she says. “Although most of our gatherings are centered around a Jewish celebration of sorts, we invite our non-Jewish friends so that we can share our traditions and culture, and, let’s be real, our food, with all of the people we enjoy spending time with.”
For Dreffin, southern hospitality is a perfect compliment to the hospitality of Jewish practice and culture. “No matter the weather or the builders, the sense of community this construction can bring is always incredible.” As for your neighbor, will you work together again on other projects like the sukkah? “We’re already thinking of ways to improve it for next year. Together.”
Understanding Jewish Traditions
A Jewish ritual feast that marks the beginning of the holiday of Passover. The Seder is a ritual performed by a community or by multiple generations of a family, involving a retelling of the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. Seder customs include telling the story, discussing the story, drinking four cups of wine, eating matza, partaking of symbolic foods placed on the Passover Seder Plate, and reclining in celebration of freedom.
Feast of the Tabernacles marks the end of the harvest time and thus of the agricultural year in the Land of Israel. Sukkoth also commemorates the Exodus and the dependence of the People of Israel on the will of God. Sukkah – walled structures covered with plant material and adorned with hanging decorations.
Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the heroic story of the Maccabees defeating the Syrian-Greeks who ruled over Israel. In Hebrew, “Hanukkah” means “dedication”; the holiday gets its name from the re-dedication of the Temple that occurred after the Maccabees’ victory. Hanukkah is a fun holiday, full of food, family, dreidel games, and more. Most Hanukkah celebrations takes place at home. Central to the holiday is the lighting of the menorah. To commemorate the miracle of oil, it is traditional to eat food fried in oil. The most familiar Hanukkah foods are potato pancakes, called latkes, and jelly donuts, called sufganiyot.
Originally posted in 2015.