Forward Thinking

Joseph Stalks Us in Memphis

By Sigal Samuel and Anne Cohen

Jews pop up in unexpected places in Memphis, Tennessee. Here are six things that surprised us in the Blues City.

1) Joseph Is Stalking Us


The biblical Joseph is stalking us in the South. We first came across him in Alabama, when we drove through Dothan, a town with a fledgling Jewish community. The town’s name comes from a verse in the Torah: When Joseph goes out to check on his shepherd brothers, he’s told that they’ve gone to Dothan. When he gets there, the brothers — jealous of him for being the family favorite — sell him into slavery. We have no idea why the early settlers of Alabama thought it would be a good idea to name their town after this obscure biblical hamlet — but the choice of name is painfully ironic: it references a story about slavery, and we all know what part Alabama played in that dark chapter of history.

Joseph showed up again in Memphis on our visit to the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. A plaque marking the spot quotes that exact same Joseph story: “They said one to another, ‘Behold, here cometh the dreamer. Let us slay him and we shall see what will become of his dream.’”

2) A Talmudic Freedom Summer


The Lorraine Motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, which traces the struggle of African Americans from slavery to civil rights. Jewish references are everywhere. Take the rabbi who visited Parchman Prison in Mississippi to counsel the Freedom Riders incarcerated there. When the warden warned him not to give the prisoners any information about what was happening in the outside world, he replied, “You mean, I can’t tell them that Roger Maris just hit his 62nd home run?” When the warden said no, the rabbi kept up the back-and-forth, listing more and more things that he couldn’t say — all within hearing distance of the prisoners. How Talmudic.

Walking into the Freedom Summer exhibit is like flipping through a Jewish summer camp photo album. Many of the white college kids who came down to Mississippi to help register black voters in 1964 were Northern Jews — and it shows. Three famous faces stand out: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two Jewish volunteers, were brutally lynched by the Ku Klux Klan along with James Chaney, a black activist from Mississippi.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: civil rights, Tennessee, South, Memphis, Martin Luther King, Lorraine Motel, Jewish in Dixie, Jewish, Baron Hirsch synagogue, 2 Sephardis Go South, road trip

Meet the McJunkins (They're Jewish!)

By Julie Wiener

Alexander Rapaport

(JTA) — Just in time for Shavuot, with its reading of the Book of Ruth about Judaism’s first convert, a Tennessee family of 12’s conversion to Judaism has prompted an outpouring of support from Brooklyn’s haredi Orthodox community.

On Sunday, Sholom and Nechama (originally Chad and Libby) McJunkin brought their 10 children to Brooklyn to complete 12 conversions and have a Jewish wedding ceremony.

Their wedding, held in the backyard of Rabbi Tzvi Mandel’s house adjacent to his small synagogue in Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood, attracted 100 people. Many of the guests were gift-bearing strangers who had learned about the family through an impromptu surprise online wedding registry established Saturday night by Alexander Rapaport, executive director of the kosher soup kitchen Masbia.

The online registry, which was featured Sunday in the Vos Iz Neias newspaper, includes various staples, such as Judaica and kosher grocery gift certificates, for the family’s newfound Orthodox Jewish life. By midday Tuesday it had raised almost $10,000 from 235 people.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: shavuot, conversion, TENNESSEE, MCJUNKIN




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