The Peddler's Grandson: Growing Up Jewish In Mississippi excerpt
In his autobiographical book, The Peddler’s Grandson: Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi, Edward Cohen describes what it was like to grow up with the dual identity of a southern Jew, who is viewed as an outsider both in the south and within the Jewish community.
During recess at Boyd and in gym at Murrah, the teachers organized a game in which everyone would encircle one person in the middle and try to hit him with a soccer ball. The child in the middle desperately tried to dodge the ball and could only end his torment if by luck he managed to catch it. The person who had thrown it would take his turn in the middle. The game was called, by students and teachers alike, “nigger baby.” No one ever remarked on the name. All I could think, as I threw the ball, was that I was glad it wasn’t “Jew baby.”
I’d worked at cultural anonymity since that first Rosh Hashanah when I was six, just as my predecessors had done when they moved the Sabbath to Sunday. I had been, at different stages of my life, proudly Jewish, then proudly southern, often simultaneously both, and it had always seemed possible to resolve or at least ignore the inherent contradictions. But during the civil rights struggle, my two selves, southern and Jewish, were torn apart.
I was profoundly ambivalent about the coming revolution, as were, I think, most of the Jews in Jackson. One part of me was deeply ashamed of and angry with Mississippi—with the Clarion-Ledger’s daily incendiary rhetoric about “mongrelization” and “race mixers,” with those surging riot police for that one moment I’d been in their path, with the idiocy of my classmates and their racial slurs, with the mulish intransigence of our leaders…Every new arrest, every new racial murder, made me want to disown my native state, which, along with Alabama, was nationally synonymous with prejudice and hatred.
Yet when I read the pious articles condemning Mississippi in the New York Times and the more strident screeds in the Village Voice, my southern side would get its back up, with contradictory and equal passion. Self-righteousness had always brought out the rebel in me, and the northerners who’s taken it upon themselves to cure our ills seemed fueled with a healthy dose of it. I knew things were desperately wrong in Mississippi, but, having a southerner’s pride, I didn’t like being told by outsiders how to fix it. They’ve got plenty wrong in their own backyards, I thought of the busloads of shining-eyed white students coming down like missionaries.
Edward Cohen describes what it was like to grow up with the dual identity of a southern Jew, who is viewed as an outsider both in the south and with in the Jewish community.