I take for granted being able to “choose” which Protestant church I want to attend on any given Sunday morning. I take for granted that my religious-based Christmas holiday is the one in the “majority.” I take for granted that my religious affiliation is not one I was born into, irrevocably attached to me by a Hebrew name, by affiliation, by blood, and by folkways. Sure, my Christianness, my initial inclination and love for God was born out of a sort of inherited faith, but if I were to leave the religious liturgy of my faith, the separation, some could say, would be fairly cut and dry. If a Jewish person leaves their faith, they don’t leave only a synagogue and liturgy, but a culture and a heritage that is more than a religion; they lose family and they lose, in many ways, a sense of place within their community and isolate from an ethnic identity.
When many people relocate to our tiny hamlet of Oxford, they are thrust for the first time into either a place they consider lush with new exposures and experiences, or an arid, dying, backward Mississippi pit devoid of all culture and diversity. Regardless of your first impression of Oxford, if you have chosen to make this place your home, you’ve most likely had to carve a community out for yourself. I’ve had to do so three or four times, and the Jewish community of Oxford was adrift as well until a group of University professors and locals, including the late Ron Shapiro, decided to do something about it.
The Jewish Federation of Oxford (JFO) was formed in 2012 and became a nonprofit with a twofold mission: one, to cultivate Jewish community life through religious and social programs; two, to face outward, giving back to Oxford through philanthropy, community service, and cultural programs. I learned from talking with many of the founders of JFO this weekend that Ron Shapiro was not only a board member, but also a driving force behind gathering people of Jewish heritage in Oxford and at Ole Miss to build a community. Because he was already great at doing that, his presence will be deeply missed this year as the community he helped foster celebrates the Hanukkah season.
Every year, the The Jewish Federation of Oxford hosts two key dinner events for its members: Bubbe’s Table (Bubbe is a yiddish name for Grandmother) during Hanukkah, and a Passover Seder at RaViNe. They do more than break bread together—The Jewish Federation of Oxford is also dedicated to supporting organizations in the area, such as giving regular donations to Interfaith Compassion Ministries and lending support for the student population on campus with UM Hillel, as well as being a source of contact for other Jewish religious ceremonies.
The Jewish Federation of Oxford was also the driving force behind bringing Marian Blumenthal Lazan, a Holocaust survivor, to the community and campus to share about preserving through adversity and religious persecution to a generation that did not live through such oppression. JFO proactively invites rabbis and others to offer High Holy Day services, like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah services at Paris Yates Chapel at the University of Mississippi, a space that was made possible by Ole Miss ’52 alumnus, Henry Paris, who shares a Jewish heritage, and his wife Rose Marie who shares a Christian background. The Star of David and Cross stained glass in the chapel is a reminder of the union of these two faiths.
On Friday, December 6, 2019, the JFO hosts their third annual Hanukkah celebration dinner, Bubbe’s Table, at The Farmstead from 7 to 9 pm ($40 per ticket, available through Eventbrite at JewishFederationOxfordMS.com). Following in the fashion of the first year (featuring Alon Shaya, John Currence, and Kelly English) and last year (featuring Karen Carrier, Shay Widmer, and Elizabeth Heiskell), the event features high-end ethnic food that is approachable, with a fun and interactive atmosphere. Bubbe’s Table offers time for celebration, and isn’t focused on education per se, but more so an experience and conversation about a culture that is often not given the center stage.
What is most exciting to me, as I look into this special event, is that the Oxford and larger Mississippi community is already rallying with support for this event and wants to see it flourish for years to come. With sponsorship from the venue (Susan Tullos with The Farmstead), Woodbridge wines, Cathead distillery, and Joe Stichcomb of Saint Leo (who is making a fine cocktail with that donated Cathead product), it is a night you won’t want to miss. Joe and I chatted today, and he’s already planning to complement the menu with Cathead distillery’s Old Soul Bourbon mixed with fresh apple juice, ginger, and lemon. Susan Tullos, who manages the hospitality operations at The Farmstead where Bubbe’s Table takes place, was also able to speak on the event:
“The 3rd annual Bubbe’s table event will be held here at The Farmstead,” Susan Tullos said. “The chefs brought in to prepare the meals are always a fabulous culinary experience, and this year Mile End Deli is sure to be a crowd favorite. It is truly a magical evening sharing the food and traditions of the Jewish community under the twinkling stars.”
Mile End Deli is the featured culinary mastermind this year, and their menu looks fantastic. They’ll start the evening with passed Hoyt Dogs (Mile End’s version of ‘pigs-in-a-blanket’), smoked salmon dip with bagel chips, a beet salad, smoked brisket, cheesy noodle kugel, roasted Brussel sprouts, ending with sufganiyot (a sort of Hanukah-jelly-donut tradition).
When I first heard of Bubbe’s Table, I was intrigued, but unsure of how to approach the event. I do not even know the full dates of Hanukkah, or how to spell Hanukkah (Chanukah‽), but I vividly remember the embarrassment I had at the age of 10 attending my cousin Abbey’s Batmitzvah at Temple Israel in Germantown. I’d found one of my favorite foods during the dinner after the service. My mom quelled my excitement over the popcorn shrimp I found on the buffet line, “Shhh, no, Elizabeth. I’m gonna say that’s probably chicken.” Chicken, indeed it was. And my cheeks were beet red for a solid 30 minutes once she explained to me my faux pas.
The thought of going to a Hanukkah celebration was initially intimidating, because being a more sensitive adult now at the age of 29, I want to participate in learning about other people’s cultures and traditions, without offending them. I want to know what makes them feel nostalgic when they peel a potato. I want to know the history of lighting their great great grandmother’s menorah and travelling with it to every place they’ve lived. I want to know this culture, its history, and what it means to the people who live and breathe in the same town as I. And that’s exactly why Bubbe’s Table is here.
Bubbe’s Table invites you, and anyone in the community to be a participant, not just a voyeur, in the celebration of Hanukkah. You don’t need to know Hebrew, pronounce latke correctly, or even dance the hora. If you come to the table on December 6, all are welcome to engage in a night of ethnic food and fellowship while honoring age-old traditions in our little town of Oxford.