President’s Column: Southern Comfort
“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,” goes the song from Porgy and Bess, immediately evoking the American South for all of us. The lyrics and music were written, of course, not by an authentic Southerner, but by Ira and Jacob Gershowitz of Brooklyn, the latter better known as George Gershwin. Gershwin’s biographers have pointed to Jewish resonance in his work, positing that “It Ain’t Necessarily So” sounds like the haftara blessings.
I’ve always felt that Gershwin was attracted to the tale of human rescue because of his family history.
Porgy and Bess was set in Charleston, South Carolina, and Gershwin traveled there from Brooklyn to absorb the atmosphere. I, too, traveled to Charleston recently to speak at a Hadassah donors lunch. I thought back to the time when, as a young adult, I was shocked the first time I heard a Southern Jew say, gei shloffen, y’all! Growing up in the Bronx and Queens, I assumed that most Jews talked like I did and was surprised to learn that Charleston had a lively Jewish community with roots going back to 1695. Jewish merchants were welcomed in Carolina when they faced discrimination elsewhere, and by 1800 Charleston could boast the country’s largest Jewish community.
The Porgy and Bess story took place around 1930. Interestingly, we have handwritten notes in a 1929 ledger book from the Charleston Hadassah chapter. What were the Hadassah women of Charleston doing then? They were running membership drives, civic activities, providing entertainment for chapter meetings and, in those years before statehood, raising money for the United Palestine Appeal. They expressed their firm support for the still controversial movement called Zionism and they were getting ready for the upcoming national convention.
Many years have passed since i heard my first gei shloffen, y’all, but I still get a thrill at all the regional accents at a Hadassah convention. I’m looking forward now to Southern Jewish charm and the energy of 2,000 Zionists as we prepare for Hadassah’s 92nd national convention, which will take place in Nashville next month under the theme, “Step to the Rhythm of Our Lives.” Like Charleston, Nashville has a proud Jewish history, and Jews have played an important role in Tennessee and its lively music industry. The summertime temperature and the heat we generate from our spirited debates will be tempered by air-conditioning, so the living will, indeed, be easy as we catch up on the past year and plan Hadassah’s future. This convention is going to be a lot of fun, so bring along your significant Associates.
Prominent among the achievements we’ll be celebrating is our recent recognition by the Genetics Policy Institute for being the volunteer organization that has done the most to promote stem cell research in the United States. I’m so proud of Hadassah for embracing and carrying through on this cause.
Just as we are strengthened by bonding with our sisters in Zionism, our children and grandchildren need to meet their Zionist peers from Seattle to San Juan. There’s no better place for them to build their Jewish identities and to have a marvelous time than our Young Judaea summer camps: Camp Tel Yehudah and the regional camps in New York, North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin and Oregon.
This year we have a watershed event in my family: Rebecca, my oldest grandchild, is taking part in Machon, our summer program in Israel. This is her first chance to discover Israel with kids her own age and to personalize her connection to our homeland. She’ll see with her own eyes and feel with her own heart what up to now has been an inheritance from the generations of Zionists before her. I feel great knowing that the Hadassah family in Israel will be there for my granddaughter as a safety net when she’s 7,000 miles away (not that I’m worried!). Rebecca is a talented writer, and when I help her pack, I’ll be tucking in a diary for her to record those first impressions.
Then I’ll head to Nashville. It’s summertime, after all. I hope your summer is a time of replenishment.
L’hitraot in Nashville, y’all!