Need a scholar in residence for a weekend? Looking for a speaker who isn’t the standard fare?
For over three decades, Larry Brook has been editor and publisher of Southern Jewish Life, the South’s Jewish magazine, based in Birmingham. After three decades in the back roads of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and northwest Florida, of course he has stories to tell… (For a bio, click here).
He has three main areas for his talks, and can mix and match over a weekend. One area is the Southern Jewish community, and how different it can be from other parts of the country. Second is what was happening in the Southern Jewish community during the Civil Rights Era, when the community was in many ways caught in the middle between the white supremacists and the Black demonstrators, having to work for progress behind the scenes, a precarious position that was not often appreciated by the northern Jews who came to the region to take part. Third is the phenomenon of Christian support for Israel and the growing appreciation for the Jewish community by Christians as part of a massive philosophical change that has taken place in the last couple decades — and that few in the Jewish community are aware of those changes and greet them with understandable skepticism.
Make a partnership out of it! Several of these topics are of interest to Christian audiences, so reach out to a neighboring church for a joint program or series of events, or some can be done as standalones for Christian audiences.
Interested? Click here to inquire about availability.
The Jewish South
“Pot Likker Matzah Balls: How Being A Southern Jew Is Different.” There are apartment buildings in Brooklyn with more Jews than in the entire state of Mississippi. To be a Jew in the South is to be part of a tiny group, where one has to actively pursue being Jewish because it isn’t “in the air” as in other parts of the country. To be a Jew in the South is to be a teacher — teaching our non-Jewish neighbors that we exist… and teaching our Northern brethren that we exist! To be a Jew in the South is to often be the first Jew someone has met, followed by a whole lot of questions. To be a Jew in the South also means absorbing the Southern culture and distinct pace of life… and sometimes even voting for a Republican. And of course, dealing with the exclamations of “There are Jews in Alabama???”
“Thirty Years in the Southern Jewish Back Roads.” While folks in many parts of the country are astonished to learn that there are Jews in the Deep South, Southern Jewish communities have a long history and have played pivotal roles throughout the region. Meet some of the most fascinating and unusual characters from the past 33 years of Southern Jewish journalism. There’s a preacher/cattle breeder in Mississippi who tried to make a red heifer, a guy who turned his property into a scale model of the land of Israel, a lay rabbi from Birmingham whose grave is a tourist attraction for Japanese visitors, what became of the “unknown” Jewish fourth person in the famous photo of Townes van Zandt, a Mardi Gras krewe that mocks the stereotypes of Jews, and so many more characters. There’s also a Jewish immigrant to Alabama who transformed Central America and the fruit business, and had a huge under-reported influence on the establishment of Israel. Not to mention that the first U.S. state to call for the establishment of a Jewish homeland was Alabama, in 1943 — and why, at the inauguration of Alabama’s (non-Jewish) governor in 1995, was the shofar blown and HaTikvah performed?
The Jewish Civil Rights South
“Not Just Black And White: Southern Jews Caught in the Civil Rights Battleground.” While the civil rights era is generally thought of in terms of black and white, the Southern Jewish community was caught in the middle. While the shorthand history is either that Jews marched with the blacks for civil rights, or that Southern Jews did very little for civil rights, the reality was a lot more complicated. There was also a North-South divide as so many northern Jews flocked to the south to demonstrate for civil rights, with Southern Jews resentful of the precarious position they were being put in, while their livelihoods were threatened by boycotts from both sides, and the possibility — and reality — of retaliatory Klan bombings. Nevertheless, many Southern Jews were active behind the scenes, often facing near-impossible tasks as Jim Crow was being pushed aside — and while those Northern Jews kept “butting in.”
“The Envelope, Please: The Story Behind the Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail is one of the most important documents of the 20th century. But those who study it generally get a vastly oversimplified view of what was happening in Birmingham at the time, often vilifying the white moderate clergy, which included one rabbi, who wrote a statement that King was reacting to. This presentation focuses on Rabbi Grafman and his work toward progress, and gives the historical context behind the letter — a city struggling for change with “two governments, a King and a parade every day,” and what prompted the white clergy to make a statement that was actually in line with the opinions of Robert Kennedy and the Washington Post, among others.
“The Sites Your Civil Rights Tour Didn’t See.” Civil rights tourism is very popular, especially among Jewish groups. But in seeing the usual spots — Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Memphis — there are many very significant sites off the main paths that are missed, and many of those are important chapters in American Jewish history. In this multimedia presentation, visit sites from the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, two of whom were Jewish; Klan bombings and attempted bombings of synagogues and Jewish homes, and why the Klan started targeting Jews after the civil rights battles were over; the site of what had been the worst attack in U.S. history on an occupied synagogue building until Tree of Life in 2018; the Jewish angle to the Scottsboro Boys trials and how it set the tone for the decades to follow; and more. This presentation is also available as an online event.
Christian Support for Israel, and the Jewish response
“They Like Us! They Really Like Us?” Christian attitudes toward Jews and Judaism have undergone a sea change over the last few decades. Though there is a proliferation of Christians who express love and solidarity with the Jewish people, and huge support for Israel, many in the Jewish community are unsure how to react and question their motives — and many Christians are surprised by the skepticism they often encounter. This talk explores the massive shift in Christian attitudes, and looks at Christian Zionists and who they really are – and aren’t.
“Where Do You Keep The Animals? What Christians Don’t Realize They Don’t Know About Jews and Judaism.” More Christians are learning about the Jewishness of Jesus, and in the process want to know more about Judaism in general. However, getting that information by looking at the Bible doesn’t always translate to what today’s Jewish community looks like. This talk is an introduction of how Jews and Christians can talk to each other, realizing that while many words may be the same, the meanings are quite different between the faiths, and there is a whole lot more to it than just the question of “Jesus — is he or isn’t he?”
Also… while antisemitism isn’t one of my main topics, I can certainly speak on it…
“The More Things Stay The Same, The More They Change: Identifying and Navigating Today’s Antisemitism.” It used to be so easy — the skinheads, neo-Nazis, white supremacist and Klan types were the antisemites, and it was easy to keep track of them. Now, more of them have come out of the woodwork and feel free to express their hate, but there has also been a rising phenomenon of antisemitism from other directions, especially on college campuses, as antisemitism is expressed under the guise of human rights and promoting equity, where Jews are not considered a minority nor oppressed, often claiming that Jews are at the pinnacle of privilege in society, so Jewish input often isn’t welcome in these spaces. Some of it has been cloaked with extreme anti-Israel or anti-Zionist rhetoric, or dehumanizing Jews in general — and we know what happens when a group is dehumanized in the minds of many.
Temple Beth El, Pensacola
Consulate General of Israel to the Southeast, leading tours of Birmingham’s civil rights district
Southern Jewish Historical Society, bus tour of Jewish Birmingham
Limmud New Orleans
Unified Jewish Congregation of Baton Rouge
Ramah Darom Passover Retreat
Temple Beth-El, Birmingham: Numerous D’vrei Torah
Moderator for online forum with T.K. Thorne, “Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days”
Panel moderator, American Jewish Press Association national convention