A Southern Journey

Hi friends, and greetings from Florida. Thanks for stopping by. Those of you who read my last post will have a sense of my journey already, but for those who are visiting for the first time, here’s a little refresher:

I left San Diego at the beginning of April, and made my way quickly through Arizona and New Mexico. I spent a few days in Texas, then wound my way down through Louisiana, Mississipi, and Alabama until I got to my cousins’ home in Mobile. The story picks up there.

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I made it to Mobile on a Wednesday, and enjoyed a full week with various cousins and friends. Some highlights included our Passover Seder that Friday night, with 45 people gathered in my cousins’ garage; a trip to Gulf Shores, AL, where I channeled my inner San Diegan and lived as a beach bum for a couple of days; and little moments of connection with cousins I hadn’t seen in years. (I think I also wrote my first hit song: “Tennen’s Stinky Feet”.) Some lowlights included my first encounter with fire ants; a pretty nasty stomach bug that knocked me out for a couple of days; and waking up every morning at 7am to the sound of basketballs ricocheting off my front bumper (damn kids!). All in all, though, I was so glad to have some time to reconnect with my extended family and not have any long drives to make.

From Mobile I headed back west to New Orleans, where I stayed with an old friend who is now a rabbi there. I admit that I could’ve done more sightseeing and/or partying in a city with so much of both to offer. But over the course of a few days, I played a round of disc golf in the city’s biggest park, visited the New Orleans Museum of Art, ate some Po’ Boys and beignets, and strolled for a few hours around the French Quarter. The standout experience, though, was my first time at Tuoro Synagogue’s annual Jazz Fest Shabbat service.

For the last 28 years, on the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Tuoro puts on a service like none other I’ve ever seen. In addition to the 30-voice volunteer synagogue choir, the synagogue brings in the Panorama Jazz Band to accompany the service, and invites a guest artist to perform. This year, the Lost Bayou Ramblers (an awesome Cajun band) and Aurora Nealand (saxophone/woodwinds) performed together, debuting a new musical setting of a traditional Hebrew prayer (with a verse in Creole), and offering four or five songs in more of a concert setting. If you ever have a chance to attend this service, I cannot recommend it highly enough; it is a completely novel Jewish prayer experience.

Anyway, I can now say that I’ve been to New Orleans, and also feel that I ought to go back someday to take advantage of all the city has to offer. Still, I was grateful for the chance to spend a little time there and soak up the history, even just a little. From New Orleans I drove back to Mobile for another quick visit with my cousins, and then to Fairhope, AL, where I performed at the local Unitarian Fellowship.

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When I left San Diego, I knew that I’d be traveling through the South. What I didn’t know is that that journey would end up feeling like a pilgrimage. As I made my way up from Mobile Bay towards Atlanta, I stopped for a day in Montgomery, AL, a place I’d read and heard much about but never really planned to visit. I am so glad that I did. Montgomery is where Rosa Parks kept her seat on the bus, and where the Black community’s subsequent boycott of the public transit system led to its desegregation. It was the terminus of the renowned march from Selma, and featured in the story of the brave Freedom Riders.

Montgomery is currently the site of a number of museums and memorials dedicated to preserving the history of racism and civil rights activism in Alabama and beyond. My visit began with a trip to the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, perhaps better known as the memorial to the victims of lynchings. Even before I reached the memorial, I was shocked when the shuttle bus driver pointed to a beautiful fountain in downtown Montgomery and said matter-of-factly “That fountain used to be the auction block.” Tears welled in my eyes at the dichotomy between the magnificent fountain that stands there now and the gut-wrenching practices of human trafficking and family separation that were perpetuated there. (Sound familiar?)

I entered the memorial and walked through on my own, past statues of slaves bound together with ropes and chains, until I reached the beginning of the memorial’s most striking features: rows upon rows massive rusted metal blocks, one for every U.S. county in which a documented lynching occurred. As you walk through the memorial, reading names of victims, the floor slopes gradually downward while the memorial structures remain at the same height such that eventually you end up walking among and then below hundreds of brown bodies, hanging from the ceiling. To say that the imagery is evocative doesn’t cut it. And I wept, my body heaving with grief for the cruelty and pain that was so commonplace in our collective past. The memorial’s path then takes you outside, past what look like rows of benches but are really duplicates of every monument inside the memorial. The goal is for every county in which there was a documented lynching to claim their monument and erect in their county, taking the work of the memorial out of Montgomery and into the national sphere. I’d be happy to help in any way I can anybody who’d like to make that happen in their county.

From the memorial, I rode the shuttle bus in silence back to the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum downtown. (The EJI also administers the memorial.) The museum traces the Black American experience “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration.” I will say that while the museum expertly connects in a single narrative the eras of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, mass incarceration, and Black Lives Matter, I wish I had seen it first; I might have been more open to learning the information it presented. After my experience at the memorial, though, I could only process so much. Still, if you ever have the chance to visit the South - and I urge you to do so - add Montgomery to your itinerary and spend some time there. One day wasn’t really enough, and I do hope to go back again someday.

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From Montgomery I headed to Atlanta, where I had the chance to visit The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and museum, the Reverend’s childhood home, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. At the King Center, I learned about the Reverend and much about Coretta Scott King (who was an accomplished performer of freedom songs). I also saw a picture of Rosa Parks, Rev. King and Pete Seeger at the Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee, which brings tears to my eyes even now, more than a week later. At the King family home down the street from the King Center, I saw the very same piano that a young M.L. took piano lessons on in the 1930s. More tears flowed as I mourned the loss of this country’s greatest Prophet.

The Civil Rights Museum was also an incredibly powerful experience, with a simulation of what it might’ve been like to participate in a lunch counter sit-in, a “wall of fame” of segregationists including some of the most vile and disgusting quotes and laws that I have ever read, and a trip upstairs to a balcony, where I learned about Dr. King’s assassination and funeral proceedings. The top floor featured an exhibit on athletes who broke barriers, and in addition to the folks who might come to mind (Jackie Robinson, the Williams sisters, Colin Kaepernick, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Greg Luganis, etc.), I learned the story of Glenn Burke, a major league baseball player for the Dodgers and A’s who came out as gay during his professional career and is, as far as I know, the only major leaguer to do have ever done so.

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Among the many deeply moving experiences I had during my week in Atlanta, I also saw a the Padres beat the Braves, played a few good rounds of disc golf, had a great Shabbat dinner with a family whose Sephardic ancestry gave us lots in common, found a little romance, spent time with family, and performed/spoke at the First Existentialist Congregation of Atlanta.

I then turned southward, offering a concert with Temple Emanu-El in Dothan, Alabama, and then driving down Florida’s gulf coast, where the destruction from Hurricane Michael is still deeply felt and was like nothing I’d every seen. Earlier this week I saw the Tampa Bay Rays win at home, and spent a couple of days in Key West, a tropical, friendly, expensive island paradise.

I find myself today at a Starbucks in Cutler Bay, where the staff have graciously allowed Jackie to sit inside with me (rather than in the van) on a very hot day, and where I’ve been able to catch up on some work and finish this journal entry. I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading it. I haven’t taken very many photos, but I’ll throw some in down below so you can see what I’ve been up to. In the meantime, I’m sending love from the Sunshine State, and as always would love to hear from you with questions, comments, or suggestions for things you’d like to read about.

Cousins Rickie and Larry

Cousins Rickie and Larry

Crypt at The King Center

Crypt at The King Center

Cousins Barbara and Arnie (and Roxy!)

Cousins Barbara and Arnie (and Roxy!)

Disc golf in Panama City, FL

Disc golf in Panama City, FL

Key West sunset

Key West sunset

Key West rooster

Key West rooster

Bahía Honda State Park, FL

Bahía Honda State Park, FL