Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Stella's Southern Soujourn* (and the North!)

(If you look at nothing else from this post, search "Mississippi River" on this page and scroll down to those photos.)

I'll open with this beautiful sunset shot from my favorite place in Jackson. Its location is a secret divulged only to those who make the trek down here to visit! (I'm looking at you, Anna Rubin!)

A few weeks ago I received a very special letter from my 8-year-old cousin, Isabel. Her third grade class was beginning a Flat Stanley/Flat Stella project, and Isabel had sent me her Flat Stella to take around with me on my travels to help her and her classmates learn about other parts of the country. I got the letter right on time to bring Flat Stella with on my weekend visit to the Jewish community in Shreveport, Louisiana!

It turns out that B'nai Zion, the congregation I work with in Shreveport, livestreams all of its services so that those who are unable to attend are still able to be a part of a Shabbat (and other) service. That means that, unbeknownst to me at the time, my d'var Torah ("sermon") was actually recorded, and is now available on YouTube! Skip ahead to 1:03:18 to get to me (I speak for about 5 minutes).

The ISJL staff have a bit of an obsession with strawberry pie from Strawn's Eat Shop, and whenever someone passes through Shreveport they're supposed to bring back (at least) one for the office. Stella and I had no choice but to oblige!

There's a beautiful, privately-funded "garden" (nature preserve? It's much bigger than a garden...) at the Norton Art Gallery in Shreveport. There are succulents and flowers and sculptures and bushes, and a faint smell of Etrog that I couldn't shake (one day, cameras will capture smell. Wait, apparently there's already one that can?). It was amazing. I'll definitely be back at this garden on my next visit. 
Obligatory "Welcome to Mississippi" photo with Stella.

I happened to be crossing the Mississippi River at the Louisiana-Mississippi border right at sunset, so obviously I had to stop at the state welcome center. I stayed to watch the sun go all the way down, and then continued back to Jackson.

When in the capital, one should see the Capitol! 

With the State Seal at the Department of Transportation. I'd be prouder of this photo if the Department of Transportation were a bit, shall I say, better at its job. The potholes here are worse year-round than they are in Chicago after a bad storm; and although I've seen buses and people waiting at bus stops (often sitting on milk-crates, since many bus-stops don't have shelters or benches, despite the Mississippi sun), I've never actually seen a bus stop to pick up passengers at one of the aforementioned bus stops. Oh, and sidewalks are severely lacking (the intersection referenced in that article is right near my house).
Stella learned a little history on her visit, too--we made a stop to the placard marking the site of the Greyhound bus station where a busload of Freedom Riders attempted to integrate the station. Needless to say, they were jailed. (Actually, I wrote a term paper last spring about failure to enforce court-legislated integration in various arenas of public transportation)

More State Seal

With the Confederate-inspired flag of Mississippi. (Oh, jeez.)

The art museum was closed, but the outside is still pretty cool, so it was worth a visit to show Stella.

One of my favorite parts of showing Flat Stella around town was that I got to explore places I'd never been before, too! I hadn't even known where City Hall was, but because I was just wandering around downtown, we stumbled across it (and the statue of Andrew Jackson, for whom Jackson is named).

The painted traffic/utility boxes downtown are one example of the cool art stuff that's beginning to go on in Jackson.

At the Governor's Mansion

I just liked this one :) Thought I was annoyed to find out that my new phone takes photos with a funky aspect ratio, and it's impossible to print this scaled to 4:6 without lopping off either Stella or the "I" at the end.

Then I went home to Chicago for Rosh Hashanah and got to hand-deliver Stella (and printed photos of our adventures) to Isabel. It was great to be home: I went straight from the airport with all of my stuff to Wrigley to watch the Cubs beat the Cardinals in extra-innings at the second-to-last game in Wrigley before they mess it up; I got to spend time with two close friends I hadn't seen in a while; I went out for drinks with high school friends and our calculus teacher (highly recommended!); had a delicious and raucous birthday/Rosh Hashanah afternoon with my grandma, aunt, uncle, and cousins (and librarian!); spent time at the Lake; and went to loud sing-a-long Hadar-y Rosh Hashanah services at Hillel. 

My transit route was kind of wacky: I drove to Memphis to fly to Chicago, since I'd racked up lots of miles on Southwest but they stopped flying to Jackson in June. It was a nice drive, though, and it meant that I was conscious of the geography of where I was flying--right over the Mississippi River, at sunset!

And on the way back, same thing--flew right over the Mississippi River. Absolutely stunning to look at from above. 

Here's a closer shot of Mississippi River. Since I landed back in Memphis at 11am, I spent the rest of the day wandering around the city, which obviously included 2 hours walking along the river. About two weeks ago they finished putting in a "pop-up fitness park," financed by the Memphis Grizzlies, along the riverwalk. It's a really cool idea, and people were using all of the equipment as I walked by--it's just a little disappointing to learn that it's only temporary, because so far it seems pretty successful. 

After my river stroll, I headed to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 (click that link. Seriously). The docent told me that "it's self-guided, but mostly people spend around 2 hours at the museum." Four hours later, I was scrambling to get through the last few rooms of the first of two buildings. It's an incredibly well-done museum--thorough, engaging, interactive--and I'd highly recommend it to anyone planning to be in Memphis.

I mentioned earlier the term paper I wrote about legislation to desegregation public transportation--that was for a seminar on the Civil Rights Movement I took with Prof. Joshua Guild (the books from that course are among the ones shredded/recycled by the USPS). In any case, one of the things I remember most prominently from the class was the Doll Test that helped convince the Supreme Court in its Brown v. Board decision in 1954. These are the dolls that were used in some of Kenneth and Mamie Clark's experiments.
And now I'm in town for half a second before heading to New Orleans for Yom Kippur and Williamsburg (VA) for Sukkot and Hot Springs (AR) for post-Simchat Torah hiking!

*Shoutout to Beth Kander for putting up a Stella post on the ISJL's Facebook page!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

This Really Should Be Two Posts, or From Texas to Virginia, and Back Again

At the ISJL, we like to boast that the 13-state region we define as "the South" extends all the way from Virginia to Texas. I'm fortunate that the communities I'm working with this year represent the full range, and my most recent set of visits had me traveling from one to the other in a giant mega-trip. On August 12 I woke up at 4:30am to make a 6 o'clock flight to DC; from there, we rented a car and traversed the state of Virginia, making stops as far west as Blacksburg (practically in West Virginia) and ending up back east in Williamsburg (practically in the bay). After a day in DC (more details later), I flew directly to San Antonio, stayed there for a couple days, then drove to Houston and flew back to Jackson from there a couple days later.

But let's back up (I think I've started most of my Jackson posts this way; that's what happens when the frequency of posts don't keep up with the frequency of events).

August kicked off with a visit to the community I work with in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I met with all of the teachers at the religious school and led a text study I'd prepared for the occasion. It was a quick visit--just one night--and from there we* headed over the Texas state line (at Bethany, LA/TX--the town straddles the states, apparently) and kept driving and driving and driving until we got to Galveston, TX, which is actually an island.
*On these summer visits, I was always traveling with at least one coworker. Instead of confusing you by introducing lots of names, I'll just stick to the general "we."

We had  a day of free time in Galveston, so we hit the town touring. Galveston is an old port city, dating from the early-ish 1800s (it was the capital of the Republic of Texas! Remember that that existed?), and I'd been hoping to make it to Galveston ever since I learned about it while interning at the ISJL in 2012 (more on this later.)
One of the places we visited was Bishop's Palace, an old Victorian house. Initially a private home, the Diocese purchased the building in the 1920s (it's across the street from a beautiful, all-white Catholic church, the columns of which frame the photo you're looking at). Bishop's Palace was one of the few buildings to survive the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which to this day remains the deadliest hurricane to hit the United States.  

The hotel we were staying in was right on the beach, so to keep up my streak of going to beaches on workdays, I made sure to take a nice, long walk on the sand (and to take a couple dips when it got too hot, which happened frequently.) 

Back in Jackson. I took a detour home one day and passed a sign for a farmers' market I'd never even heard about before.  The farmers' market I knew about is only open twice a week, at inconvenient times; this one is opened 7 days a week until 6pm. Now I go there a couple times a week, and the vendors recognize me and have been supplying my taste-buds with new fruits I'd never heard of before: I've now tried muscadines (kind of like concord grapes, but the size of cherry tomatoes) and scuppernongs* (kind of like muscadines, but sweeter), and I've also tried boiled peanuts which are just as slimy as they sound.
*Spelling that word felt very much like the "creative spelling" I was encouraged to do in kindergarten. The sound I heard come out of the vendor's mouth was more like "scupanon," but Google told me that was definitely wrong.
Here's where the whirlwind MS->VA->TX->MS tour begins:
Lynchburg is one of two communities in Virginia that I work with. I'm pretty sure your first reaction to that sentence was "Lynchburg? What an awful name for a town!" There is, of course, a story. The town of Lynchburg, I learned, is name for its founder John Lynch (not to be confused with John R. Lynch , the first black person elected as Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, in 1873). The Lynchburg John Lynch established the town as a center of commerce; legend has it that his brother, Charles Lynch, is responsible for the word "lynch" as it is defined today.
As soon as we rolled over the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains I remembered why I'd heard of Lynchburg before: Lynchburg was the home of none other than Jerry Falwell, who I'd never heard of before I took a fantastic class with Julian Zelizer and Kevin Kruse junior year (people still at Princeton: take HIS 361!) and learned all I ever wanted to know (and more) about Falwell. Falwell was the founder of the Moral Majority movement, which effectively brought about the rise of the religious right's involvement in politics. There's a lot more I could say about him, but I'd rather not. The only other thing I'll add is that Lynchburg is also home to Liberty University, the college he founded that espouses the very conservative, very evangelical Christianity he preached. I was told by someone I met that "half the town is Liberty, and the other half is liberal." Interesting contrast in that statement alone.
I'll just close with this assessment: Lynchburg is one of the most beautiful towns I've ever been in. It's surrounded by mountains on all sides (we've already decided that my spring visit to the community will include a hiking trip!), and the main drag in town is dotted with a bunch of "play me" pianos like the ones I saw in Munich last year which, obviously, I played.

The way my flight plans worked out, I had a whole day to spend in DC. Turns out, so did my Grandma! We had a lovely family reunion with the Halper side of the family. (Thanks to the Meyer sisters for the shirt! #whitetext)

On the morning of my free day, I paid a visit to Henry Morgenthau III, a member of Princeton's class of 1939 and the second-oldest alumnus I interviewed for my thesis. Henry told me about a "new friend" of his and then inscribed his family memoirs to me as his "good young friend." As I've written elsewhere, May we all continue to make new friends well into our 10th decade! 

After a long day of exploring the Smithsonians and strolling along the Mall, we headed to Julie's for Shabbat and had a big Shabbat dinner at a friend's house. It was so great to be able to swing a visit with a friend off a work visit!
I headed straight from DC to San Antonio, one of two Texas communities I'm working with this year. I was staying about 3 minutes from Dwight D. Eisenhower Park, where I went hiking both mornings and saw these purple cacti.
Sometime on the previous Texas trip (the one mentioned at the top of this post), my phone began behaving strangely; the screen would flash and peter out, and often looked the way TVs used to when the reception was bad. Fortunately, I thought ahead and borrow a friend's old flip-phone, so I was prepared when mine died completely in San Antonio and was able to temporarily transfer my number to the flip-phone. I am now the proud (?) owner of a Windows Phone on a Cricket plan. We'll see how that goes.

I pride myself on my Jewish Geography abilities (for the unfamiliar, Jewish Geography is basically an attempt to figure out which people you know in common when you meet someone new. These days, Facebook does it for you). My trip to San Antonio brought a huge success, involving my thesis, the ISJL, and the Galveston Project that I'd learned about when I interned here, which brought Jewish immigrants through the port at Galveston (rather than Ellis Island) between 1907-1914. I won't go into all the details here, since I wrote an entire post about it on the ISJL's blog, "Southern and Jewish" and you can read it there, but I'll include a snippet:

"Long story short, if it weren’t for Macy’s great-grandfather, Henry Cohen might not have moved to Galveston, there might not have been a Galveston Project, Ruth Cohen and Ephraim Frisch might not have gotten married, there would have been no David Frisch, and thus no one to lead Shabbat services at Princeton in the late 1930s.
I should probably just get the ISJL logo emblazoned on my thesis now…"
After a short detour to Houston (where I'd actually been a week-and-a-half earlier on the drive back from Galveston), I flew back to Jackson just in time for... my friend Thomas to visit! It was great to have some downtime with a good friend after more than a week on the road.

I finally made it to Jackson's monthly group bike ride a couple weeks ago. There were about 15 riders total, and a wide range of ages represented, though I was definitely the youngest (upon hearing that I'd just finished my undergrad, one guy laughed--literally--and said, "No way! You must be a child prodigy, how old are you!?" And when I said "I'll be 23 next month," he laughed again.) 

I missed last month's Fondren After 5 (FA5 is my neighborhood's monthly "Late Thursdays"), so I was glad to be in town for this month's. The weather was cooler than in June, there seemed to be more musicians and artists out, and in general it was nice to walk around having been here for a couple months already. Next time I'm going to bring a book and park myself at one of the "stages" and just enjoy the music. 

This was the sky we got to enjoy while walking around at FA5. 

This too.

For those who have been following the Lost Box Saga intently and have been perched on the edge of their seats waiting for the next installment, I'm sorry to inform you that it's over (and not because I have my books). As some of you know, I managed (after much difficulty) to get in contact with the Customer Relations Manager at Atlanta's Dead Letter Center (actually, the Mail Recovery Center, MRC), where my books were supposedly sent. After much back-and-forth, I was told that my books were considered "used book[s] with no value and [they] would be recycled"--which was worse than my worst fear, that they'd merely be auctioned off. 

I should clarify that the reason my books have "no value"--and are thus assigned to the recycle pile not the auction pile--is because they were not signed by the author and are not "unique."  Which means that all three of the copies of The Coming Economic Armageddon by David Jeremiah, pictured at the top of this pile of books up for auction, must be signed by the author, right? Or something.
But let's go back to a second to the fact that the MRC recycles books! Rather than, I don't know, donating them to chronically underfunded public schools? [Since sending an email suggesting as much more than a week ago, I've received no word from the MRC rep with whom I was in contact; to be fair, she was fairly decent at responding to the two other emails I sent.] The Georgia public school system itself is 40th in the nation when it comes to per-student funding, and this year the system is underfunded by about $747 million. But that's fine, just "recycle" the books instead of donating them. 

I guess I'll just have to start rebuilding my book collection. Suggestions welcome! 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The First Road Trip

In the time since the last post I've done quite a bit of driving and seen lots of very cool things, both in Mississippi and elsewhere.

A quick arithmetic briefing before I get into details:
American Military Bases Count: nonzero
Sate Count: +1 (current total: 38, though maybe up to 40.)
State Capitals Count: +1 (current total: 15, plus maybe one or two more?)
Synagogue Count: +3 (current total: I have no idea. Probably >100)

The first few pictures are pre-trip:
Last weekend there was a neighborhood picnic in the park around the corner from my house, the park where the community garden is. Pretty much the only foods there that were vegetarian-friendly were the desserts, which was fine by me. Apple pie, brownies, cookies, raspberry tortes, watermelon...yum! Then I stayed at the park for a while reading In the Time of the Butterflies (Julia Alvarez) in my hammock. I'd seen the movie in Spanish class in high school, but missed most of it because we weren't allowed to have the subtitles on. 

I went back for more figs, I couldn't help it! They're so deliciously sweet.

The art museum has a hexagonal display of hexagonal mirrors at slightly different angles such that the above effect is achieved. Pretty cool.
The Natchez Trace runs from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN (440 miles), including a stretch through Jackson. The trace consists both of a parkway and of a walking/biking trail, and a couple weeks ago I decided to check it out, as it's the closest thing to hiking in this part of the state. (Actually, in most of the state: Woodall "Mountain" in Tishomingo State Park--in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains--is the highest point in Mississippi and is a whopping 807 feet. But it's so far north it's practically Tennessee).
I think it could be really cool to bike the entirety of the Trace when I finish my two years here.
When I saw the sun setting I realized I should probably head back to the car, but I stayed to watch just a bit longer. One thing I've noticed in Mississippi is that there's so much sky here! There aren't really any tall buildings (the tallest in the state is 348 feet and it's in Biloxi; the tallest in Jackson is 318 feet, and it's the only one over 300 feet), so there's nothing really to break up views of long stretches of the sky.
Sunset at the Trace.
More from the Trace
On my drive back from the Trace I pulled into a parking lot to watch the end of sunset because it was just as beautiful there.
On Tuesday morning of this past week, two of my coworkers picked me up in our rental car so we could hit the road for our first community visit road trip of the summer. Summer visits are designed to take advantage of geography, so the three of us went together to hit the northeastern part of the Florida panhandle and southwestern Alabama in Dothan (my community).

We looked at our driving route and saw that I-98 bumped right up against De Soto National Forest and decided that would be a nice lunch spot on our way out of Mississippi. Only when we drove into the park and followed what looked like a sign for a trailhead, it turned out that somehow we'd entered Camp Shelby, a joint-forces military training camp in use since World War I. Oops. We're not sure why the Arabic (?) is there--maybe to help the soldiers acclimate to what they'll see when they're deployed?
This is who we were sharing the road with. Nobody told us to leave, and nobody asked us what we were doing there.
We left Camp Shelby and soon enough passed a sign for Lake Perry, where we (finally) ate our picnic lunches.
One of the stained glass windows in the chapel of Temple Emanu-El in Dothan, AL, one of the communities I'll be working in this year. Dothan is actually one of the few small-town Jewish communities the ISJL works with that I'd heard of before taking this job because last year it made the the pages of the New York Times with a story about a "Family Relocation Project" that aimed to bring 20 Jewish families to the congregation/community by 2016, and in exchanged offered $50,000 to each family.
Funny and irrelevant side note: The website, which I thought was the synagogue's website, is in Japanese.
Florida's capitol in Tallahassee! Actually, the building in the front (with the ridiculous candycane awnings) is the Old State Capitol. The tall building in the back is where state proceedings actually happen now. At our pizza parlor meeting with members of the congregation we met a Tallahassee newbie and history buff who offered to take us to see the Old Capitol Museum and the state history museum the next day, which we happily took advantage of.
Inside the (new) capitol building. I'd never been to Florida before, so this trip added me both a state and a capital to my list.
Turns out we had almost a whole day of down-time in Tallahassee, and everybody we asked said the best thing to do would be to go to Wakulla Springs State Park.  I was picturing something along the lines of Yellowstone's hot springs and geysers, but when we got there it was actually a mini-lake with a high-dive and docks. And the water was free-zing.  I made sure to dunk all the way under to make my mama proud before we headed off to find some trails. Those weird stump-y things coming up from the swampy ground are actually tree roots!
Apparently, Wakulla is the world's "largest and deepest freshwater spring"--and unlike the big body of freshwater I'm used to from home, this one has alligators in it.
Some 'shrooms.
Since our first "event" of the day on Friday was services at the synagogue, we left Tallahassee early enough to have time to play at the beach in Panama City in the Gulf! It was glorious. I've never been in a natural body of water that warm before--the water felt like it was at least air temperature, if not body temperature (which were probably not that different from each other on that day, actually).

Thanks Gideon for having an ~~~ moment and writing to me about your State Count right when I was trying to figure out mine. Though this website is intended for tracking your election predictions, it's also a really good way of marking which states you've been to (and how many total electoral votes you've hit). So here's the key: BLUE (38) means I've been there. RED (2) means I'm not sure. And TAN (10) means I haven't. [A note about qualifications: Everyone has their own rules about how to count where they've been. Some say just driving through is enough, some say airports count. My rule is that I have to use a non-airport restroom.]
Now I'm back in Jackson until I head to Shreveport, LA (and Galveston, TX) on Aug. 6.