While Rabbi Ted Riter said the Jewish and greater communities in Jackson have given him a “great welcome” since he arrived in Mississippi in July, he was “caught off guard” at lunch today when he was thrown out of a local restaurant after the owner used an anti-Jewish slur.
Riter said he was ordering a lunch special and a Greek salad to go at Wraps, a small Greek-style restaurant not far from Beth Israel Congregation and the Institute of Southern Jewish Life office. Beth Israel is the only synagogue in Jackson, and Riter is leading the congregation on an interim basis this year.
The person taking the order, who Riter believes is the owner, asked if he wanted a “full size or a Jewish size.” Riter, who had not identified himself as Jewish, asked what that meant. “It’s small. Jews are cheap and small, everybody knows that” he was told.
When Riter, in disbelief, asked if the person had really just said that, he was asked, “What, are you a Jew?” When Riter said yes, he said the owner “used a lot of F-bombs and a lot of expletives and told me to get out. So I did.”
Riter posted the exchange to his Facebook page, not mentioning the name of the restaurant until other commenters identified Wraps.
Riter noted that there is anti-Semitism in the world, and then there are phrases that have simply become “parts of speech for some people.” Often when someone uses that phrase in front of a Jewish person, they don’t realize the offensive nature and background.
“But this was really pointed” in that rather than apologize or try to minimize it, the owner ordered him to leave. He added. “I don’t know what to make of it.”
Every so often, the phrase “Jew down” or some variant makes the news. Its roots are in an anti-Jewish stereotype of being cheap, though many who are caught saying it state they never made that connection to actual Jews or did not realize its offensive nature.
In 1987, Alabama Governor Guy Hunt was criticized for a speech to the Chilton County peach farmers where he noted that he never tried to “Jew with them.”
In July 2013 a commissioner in Franklin County, in the Florida panhandle, tried to end a debate by saying the council should “not to be up here Jewing over somebody’s pay.”
Reviews on the Eat Jackson website refer to Wraps’ owner as “Jackson’s equivalent to Seinfeld’s ‘Soup Nazi’.” Many commenting on the rabbi’s Facebook post said the owner has a reputation of being abrasive.
Conversely, a worker at the restaurant told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that the owner, John Ellis, “has no racial problems” but “has his own sense of humor.”
When Southern Jewish Life contacted the restaurant, we were told that a comment about the incident “was not going to happen” and the man who answered the phone hung up.
Riter said the incident was a “disappointment,” especially given that it happened the day before Rosh Hashanah begins. “We’re thinking about teshuvah, thinking about forgiveness of others, we are digging so deep, and certainly that is where my mind is right now” in preparing for High Holy Day services. “Going somewhere to simply get a lunch and to be blindsided by that was certainly a surprise.”
The incident has not colored his view of Jackson. Many life-long Jews in Mississippi told him they have never encountered an incident like that, and some have already started posting negative comments about Wraps on restaurant review sites.
Riter said he would be happy to talk with the owner of Wraps, and having been interviewed by two television stations and the local daily paper “I hope that this all leads to dialogue and understanding.” But for now, “I’ve learned of a number of other restaurants I could go to.”