Being a Jew in Georgia can be challenging.
I was born and raised in the state, the setting for such celluloid classics as “Deliverance,” “Gone With the Wind” and “Fried Green Tomatoes.” Truth to tell, however, I don’t own a shotgun or live on a plantation, and I don’t particularly care for fried foods.
Georgia is a land of stereotypes – some true, some not so much. But being different in the Land of Cotton can be tough.
For decades, being Jewish in the Deep South was not only unacceptable, it was downright dangerous. And while life here still isn’t perfect, I think it’s important that Jewish young people remain proud of who they are and their rich history and culture.
I’ve met many people in school who say they’ve never known a practicing Jew. In fact, one of the most common questions people ask me is, “Are you ‘Jewish,’ or ‘Jew-ish’?”
When dealing with such issues, Arielle Berne, a 21-year-old student at the University of Georgia, thinks that honesty is always the best policy.
“I actually really like telling people that I’m Jewish,” she said. “It’s a big part of who I am, and I don’t feel like a person really knows me unless they know my heritage.”
Fortunatley, UGA has a fairly liberal environment with numerous Jewish organizations. We have a Hillel and Chabad house, great places to worship and socialize; two Jewish fraternities and a Jewish sorority. That’s not bad for a university far below the Mason-Dixon where Jews remain a minority.
But even in this liberal and accepting environment, some Jewish students are uncomfortable embracing their identity.
In 2010, an issue focusing on Jewish beliefs and identity surfaced in the Red & Black, the campus newspaper published by students. A member of UGA’s Jewish sorority wrote an opinion piece complaining that Jewish students wouldn’t be reimbursed for football tickets for a game that fell on Yom Kippur.
Some students were unhappy with the column. Surprisingly, most of the resistance came from other Jews on campus. In fact, a group of girls in the Jewish sorority bullied her and attempted to write a letter of apology to the Red & Black, but that letter was never published, and the young woman who wrote the original column remained steadfast in her beliefs.
As for myself, I’ve only had one bad experience after telling someone that I was Jewish during my four years at the university: While at lunch with some friends, I was introduced to my friend Rosalie’s classmate. I made a joke about how Jews love to eat – well, we really do – and the classmate didn’t take it very well.
She started to berate me and harp on the treatment of Palestinians in Israel, adding that the U.S. shouldn’t always come to the defense of the Jewish homeland because “it’s evil!”
When she finished, I made it clear I was proud of being a Jew, then pointed out I wasn’t an Israeli and had little control over politics in the Middle East.
Like all forms of expression, there’s a time and place when it is acceptable to express your religious beliefs. There are also times when it’s simply not necessary.
Arielle, my friend and fellow student at Georgia, sums up the experience as a Southern Jew quite nicely. The only times she feels the need to suppress her Jewish identity, she says, is when she volunteers or babysits at churches or for Christian organizations.
“I am stepping onto someone else’s religious ground, and it’s not the time or place for me to promote my own beliefs,” Arielle said. “But if anyone at these places were to ask me about my religious affiliation, I would giggle and tell them, ‘I’m Jewish, y’all!’”
BY SARAH CHANIN / For the Atlanta Jewish Times
Editor’s note: Sarah Chanin is a student at the University of Georgia.