Image: “The Seven Days of Creation” by Laurie Gross Studios of Santa Barbara, CA. These tapestries hang in the sanctuary at Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville, TN. Read more about them on The Temple website.
I had the pleasure of observing Rosh Hashanah in Nashville with Congregation Ohabai Sholom, also known as The Temple. One aspect of the service moved me beyond all others, and it caught me completely by surprise.
I arrived early and found a seat. The rabbis tell us that before prayer, we should pray that we pray well, so that’s what I was doing – at least, that’s what I was doing until jet lag caught up with me and I began to doze. I rested in a place between awake and asleep, relaxed and floating.
People began to enter, and as always happens with a big holiday service, they greeted one another and chatted: “Shanah tovah!” “How’s your mama doing?” “Oh my goodness, he’s grown so much!” “Can you believe this weather we’re having?” It was just small talk, but as I sat with my eyes closed, I began to cry.
They were southern voices, speaking with southern accents. They were in fact Nashville accents, the men’s slightly different from the women’s, all with a musical quality that sang to me. I cried because they were Jewish southern voices.
I have lived in California for 30 years, but I still have a strong Southern accent. At one point I tried to lose it, and someone tried to congratulate me on dropping “that ignorant sounding accent.” I immediately resolved that I would go to my grave sounding this way! After all, I spent the first 30 years of my life in the South; for better and worse, it is a part of my identity.
Jews seem particularly bothered by the accent. Some respond by complimenting me on my “cute twang” (I HATE that phrase) or tease me with exaggerated imitations of my accent. All of it serves to remind me that I’m Other, not one of the gang – even when it is intended as a joke or a compliment, it is distancing. I realize this is only a minor taste of what Jews of Color and other “others” encounter, but it wears on me. So far I’ve managed to be polite.
Sometimes it is funny. When I lived in Israel, Israelis would be puzzled by my insistence that I was m’Artzot-haBrit [from the United States.] They associated Americans with coastal accents from New York and Los Angeles. I learned to say that I was mi-TehnehSEE and then they’d ask if I knew Johnny Cash. That always made me laugh.
I internalized the idea that there are no Jews with southern accents. Certainly I didn’t know any rabbis with much of one (maybe the teasing got to them, I don’t know.) But on Rosh HaShanah morning, with my heart breaking over my brother, suddenly I was surrounded by a sea of beautiful soft southern speech, my mamaloshen [mother-tongue,] and all of it indubitably Jewish Southern speech. I wept, and was comforted.
Shanah Tovah, y’all.
Update: I am sorry to say that my brother passed away after a long battle with his injuries on September 3, 2018. I will say that the High Holy Days will never be quite the same.