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The Nitty-Grits-y: An Extremely Brief Crash-Course of Southern Jewish History

Posted on July 30th, 2015 by

“So the consensus is that Elizabeth just melted cheese into a box of cornmeal, right?” I addressed the table of laughing interns in the break room, making sure I was up to date with the debate over whether or not she actually prepared grits the night before, or some unknown mystery substance from a bulk package at the store– I’d missed some information after laughing too loudly. The giggles continued as Elizabeth tried to scowl at me, to which I retorted with “don’t worry, everyone makes mistakes!”

“NO, that’s not the final answer! We still haven’t gotten everyone’s opinion!” Elizabeth tries to hold onto her hope and her dignity as she passes the Tupperware container of chunky yellow quicksand to Tracie, our Projects Manager, and we beg for an expert opinion to settle the dispute.

Jewish Food? Coarse White Grits on Spoon

Jewish Food?

After almost an hour of the Great Grits Debacle of 2015, we interns were aware of our inability to differentiate grits from, apparently, everything else, which was as disappointing as it was inspiring. Intern Wrangler Rachel suggested we use this as a learning experience, to which I replied “challenge accepted” and began researching the intersection of two environments: that of grits, and that of Jews.

While the former seems to have a relatively specific point of origin: grits are a maize-based porridge, typically eaten at breakfast, and are of Native American origin.The word itself, “grits,” comes from the Old English “grytt,” meaning “coarse meal.” The latter, however, might not prove as easy to define. Honing such a skill for millennia, Jews have grown to be impressive shapeshifters, even assimilators, into whichever culture by which they find themselves surrounded. Especially in a country with such a variation of culture as America. As the early settlers started to expand down the Atlantic coast and further west, Jews began to do the same: in fact, two Jewish merchants from Virginia, Isaiah Isaacs and Jacob Cohen, were among the settlers commissioned by the government to explore areas of what is now Kentucky. But it wasn’t just Jews from more northern colonies and states wanderlusting over new places to live; when mass immigration from Europe commenced around the 19th century, waves of Jews from the Old Country claimed new Jewish-American beginnings in the South, accepting the challenge to thrive under the Confederacy, and they did. Personalities like Judah Benjamin, a lawyer and diplomat who, some argue, would come to be one of the most influential Jews in the Senate, began to pop up around the South, and Jews became such a part of the South that at 1800, Charleston had more Jews than any city in the States at that time, with a population of over a thousand Jews (it might not sound like much now, but it was a huge deal at the time!), and there is documentation of General Robert E. Lee, in responding to a rabbi in Virginia, turning down a request for Jewish soldiers to be able to honor the high holidays during the Civil War, citing that “neither you nor any other member of the Jewish congregation would wish to jeopardize a cause you have so much at heart by the withdrawal, even for a season, of a portion of its defenders.”
The Jewish presence in the South has fluctuated in terms of exact numbers, but what hasn’t changed is our response to a new culture, and how we make it our own. So, whatever it was in that Tupperware container that Elizabeth brought from home, it definitely belongs in the JMM breakroom refrigerator.

Interested in finding out more about Southern Jewish life and food? Check out:

From Free Republic: A Tribe Apart: Jews of the American South

From NPR: Souther Jews Put Their Spin On Soul Food – interview with Marcie Ferris Cohen, author of “Matzah Ball Gumbo”

From Tablet Magazine: A TASTE OF THE JEWISH SOUTH: Jewish food festivals across the South by Joan Nathan.

Also from Tablet Magazine: Kosher Soul Food Brings Together African-American and Jewish Cuisine by Michael Twitty.

Southern Jewish Life Magazine

IMG_1605A blog post by Museum Intern Rachel Sweren. To read more posts by interns click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland