Deep Southern Fried Religious Beauty

“Come in, come in, we’ll do the best we can…
Come in, come, bring your whole bloody clan…
Take it slow and easy, and I’ll shake you by the hand…
Sit you down, and treat you decent, I’m an Irishman.”

No, I have not officially lost my marbles. A 10 day barnstorming tour of the Deep South led to some awesome foods, interesting social interactions, and cultural experiences I will always cherish.

I was invited to speak in Alabama at the Birmingham Irish Cultural Society St. Patrick’s Day Dinner.

For those wondering, to the best of my knowledge I am 0% Irish. So I was as floored about the invite as anybody else. I am a Brooklyn born New York Jewish fella who was offered an olive branch by Irish Catholics in Alabama. I would like to thank Shana Kluck for setting it up.

I only spoke for about 5 minutes, and then got to observe traditions that were as foreign to me as they were enjoyable. There was the “Tapping of the Furcan,” where a sledgehammer is used to lightly tap the handle on the beer keg in place, making it official to drink from.

Yes, there was a whiskey tasting part of the evening, but I was not interested in perpetuating negative stereotypes. People in the room ate, drank, and were merry, but nobody was falling down drunk. There was no fighting. There were just good people having a great time.

I did not know what to say. It is one thing for a person to poke fun at his own culture, but as an outsider I was not going to make Irish jokes based on overplayed stereotypes. So instead I decided to poke fun at those who do not understand the Irish.

“I called my dad and asked him if I should make a joke about Haggis. He pointed out that Haggis was Scotland, and wanted to know how I could not know the difference between Ireland and Scotland. I reminded him that I went to a New York public school.”

One thing I was able to reinforce within myself was that the Irish and the Jews do share some common bonds. They came here for a better life, faced discrimination, and yet emphatically embraced the American Dream. Despite “Irish need not apply” signs, they helped build this country. Irish communities found the perfect balance between maintaining their heritage and loving their new nation.

The only exposure to Irish culture I had before this evening was watching a few episodes of “The Cavanaughs” a couple of decades ago. It was actually a good show, with Barnard Hughes as the lead character and Art Carney occasionally showing up as the older brother that Hughes referred to as “The Weasel.”

One of the band leaders playing Gaelic music told me he was actually Irish Jewish. There truly are Jews everywhere.

As for the Birmingham Irish Cultural Society, I cannot thank them enough for welcoming me into their hearts and extending a hand of friendship. Irish people are known for this warmth, and so are people from Alabama. The kindness was understandable.

Yet at some point it was time to leave corned beef and cabbage behind and get back to my traditions involving matzoh ball soup. March 17th was St. Patrick’s Day, but the Jews also have a holiday involving heavy doses of libations to the point of incoherence. We actually have two of these holidays, and March 19th was Purim.

My favorite Purim moment was when one of my inebriated friendsĀ  a decade ago yelled out “Who is that Amish guy and why is he wearing the Rabbi’s pants?”

This Purim had me in Bristol, Tennessee. By sheer coincidence, this was the week where over 100,000 NASCAR fans from across the country descended on Bristol for the race. For the fifth straight time, Kyle Busch won at Bristol.

The town does not have an official Rabbi, but Rabbinical studentĀ  Jason Levine comes from Cincinnati twice a month to provide Jewish life for the small but proud Jewish community in Northeastern Tennessee.

He explained to us why dinosaur meat was not kosher, but the main theme of his remarks was a special NASCAR Purim. He blended in the traditions of Judaism with the best traditions of stock car racing.

Afterwards the community played Jewish trivia and NASCAR trivia, and indulged in some March Madness college basketball games.

While Alabama and Tennessee alone would have been Dayenu (sufficient, a Passover reference coming up), Georgia added a whole new level of religious fun.

Ahavath Achim Synagogue in Atlanta had AAbsolut Shabbat. Perhaps an alcohol reference would be better had the initials of the temple not been AA, but everybody is a critic. It was a great service.

A rock band blasted out the Jewish tunes. Guitar solos had me thinking about how cool it would be if Aerosmith or Guns n Roses were Jewish.

(I looked years ago. They are not.)

I had never been to such an intense awesome service before. The band rocked on for close to two hours as passengers chimed in and people danced with passion.

Most Jewish services are followed by some wine and bread, or maybe coffee and cakes. This one had a taco bar. For those wondering how a taco bar fits in, I have no idea. All I know is that tacos are tasty. It was a great Sabbath.

From the Irish in Alabama to the NASCAR Jews in Tennessee to the Hard Rocking Jews in Georgia, Birmingham, Bristol, and Atlanta made for an exciting 10 days.

I hung out with a gay Democrat in Birmingham, encountered one woman who on a whim moved from Birmingham to Bogota, Columbia, and found people in Tennessee who like me love Pat Summitt and loathe Lane Kiffin.

Oh yeah, and the politics was great. The Republican Women’s Federated ladies are real conservative in these parts. I spoke to their state delegation in Alabama and a local Tennessee chapter. I also got to meet the Republican Jewish Coalition of Knoxville. Yes, they exist, and they are loud and proud.

Also, as we all know, Southern women are some of the hottest women in America. When a Southern woman bats her eyelashes, I end up doing things I would not normally do.

One woman who put the hot in Hotlanta suggested I try eating “Beaver Balls.”

There are so many remarks I could make, all of which would get me an angry phone call from my parents.

So all I can say is that I ate Beaver Balls, and the cliche is true. They tasted like chicken, and aren’t half bad with taters. I also enjoyed eating at the Garage Cafe and Sweet Lips Diner, despite neither of them serving Beaver Balls.

So between food, women, and cultural and religious experiences, there was some serious Deep Southern fried religious beauty on this trip.

A flight back to Los Angeles is temporary. The Deep South is too beautiful not to go back to. Maybe there is an Indian festival in Mississippi I could attend. If not, they should start one and give me the credit. If there is alcohol, it could be calledĀ  “Saki and Seikhs.” Given that they do not drink, perhaps this idea should stay on the shelf.

As for me, I know where I will be soon enough, after some stops in Florida, New York, Kentucky, and Ohio.

I’ll be flying down the highway headed West…in a streak of black lightning called the (bandit) Tygrrrr Express.

On to the next adventure.


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