For those of you who don’t know me personally, or follow me on Facebook, I’ve temporarily left my home in Jerusalem to spend a year serving as the interim rabbi for Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Alabama. While I love living in Israel, I also love serving as a congregational rabbi, so an interim assignment was a good choice for me – I get to do congregational work without moving my permanent home from Israel back to the US.
For people who know me, going to Alabama may seem a somewhat “random” choice – and it’s certainly not somewhere I would have expected to be spending significant time. But there were several attractions to Birmingham, besides the Temple Beth-El community, which so far has been great. I’ve never spent much time in the Deep South before, so I figured it would be an adventure; as a bonus they don’t have “winter” down here. My attitude toward winter is that I like to visit it to go skiing, but I don’t want to live somewhere that I have to shovel my driveway in the winter.
Being an Israeli posting from Jerusalem, for some friends that’s getting commentary from an “exotic foreign location.” When hearing I was going to be spending a year in Alabama one friend quipped, “I look forward to your reports from a different, exotic, foreign location.”
So my first “report from the South” follows.
There have been ways that being here has been consistent with my expectations, and some things that have been surprising.
Things that have surprised me about Birmingham:
- Scenic beauty. I guess I was expecting Alabama to be flat and boring. Instead it’s incredibly green, and hilly. They describe the area as being in the “foothills of the Appalachians.” I’ve found lots of good places to run.
- Great food. There are some really good restaurants here. I’ve had very good seafood, pizza, Thai food, and Indian food. The Mexican I’ve had so far (other than Chipotle) was a little disappointing. I’ve also been to a local place, Niki’s West, for some local cuisine that was quite good.
- The humidity. OK, I knew it was going to be humid. But I knew that in an abstract, intellectual sort of way. Even though the temperatures are very similar to what I’m used to back home in Jerusalem – 90’s during the day, 70’s at night – the humidity makes it far more unpleasant. Running in a dry 80F in Jerusalem is fine. Running when the temp is 80 and the humidity is 80 is not so much fun. I didn’t really understand ahead of time how big a difference the humidity would make. I’ve been getting up at 5am and running at 530 before 7am minyan to try and beat the heat.
- People seem to really be into fitness. I see a lot of other people out running at 5am. There are a lot of gyms and health clubs. I think there’s a stereotype of America away from the coasts or Rocky Mountains as being filled with obese couch potatoes, and that doesn’t seem to be the case in Birmingham.
- The shul manages to keep two daily minyanim going, morning and evening, and almost always has a minyan. That’s a lot of dedication you don’t often see in mid-size Conservative synagogues.
- I knew I was moving to the “Bible Belt” – found it interesting to note this morning that a lot of businesses and museums don’t open until 1pm on Sunday. So much for my plan to take my daughter Devorah (who’s here with me for a month) to the Civil Rights Institute this morning (it’s Sunday as I write this).
Things that have not surprised me:
- Southern hospitality is legendary, and I have not been disappointed. Hospitality, welcoming visitors, is one of my favorite mitzvot (commandments). The people here have all been great, I’ve made several friends already. Devorah said she kind of gets tired of all the “Hi, how are y’all doin’ today?” from the clerks in the stores. I don’t mind it. 🙂
- There are remnants of the civil rights struggles of the 60s to be found. Some Ku Klux Klan flyers were distributed to homes in a neighborhood not that far from here. While legal segregation of course is long gone, there is still some “de facto” segregation. Birmingham is 73% black; nearby Mountain Brook, where most of the Jews live (and where the best schools are located) is 98.8% white – only .3% black. Given that Mountain Brook is famous for having good schools, I would have expected more upper middle class blacks to want to also live there. With 73% of the population of Birmingham being black, I would expect there should be a goodly number of upper middle class blacks in the metro area.
Overall, I’m enjoying myself so far. Birmingham is a good location for exploring the South. It’s reasonable driving distance (even more reasonable flying in a small plane distance) from the beach, Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, and everything in between. Devorah and I enjoyed an outing to the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. Obviously I knew there was a lot of space stuff in Huntsville, but I don’t think I really understood how large a role the area plays in America’s space programs.
I think it’s going to be a good year!