Religion & Beliefs

Big Mouth In The South

A Jewish girl moves to the South. Cue the awkward hilarity. Read More

By / May 19, 2011

When my family moved from New Jersey to a suburb of Atlanta in 1989, we had no idea what we were in for. Even before the moving van’s arrival, my mother had already managed to alienate the man behind the deli counter at the Kroger down the street (“Is this the leanest ham you have?” she trumpeted. “Yer not from here, are yew?” the man drawled in reply). The neighbors across the street, hearing we were from the North, brought their snarling Great Dane with them when they came to welcome us to the neighborhood. Shortly after we were settled in, I spotted a bumper sticker on a car in front of me: “Teach a Yankee to Drive: Point His Car North”.

What the fuck were we doing in Georgia?

My father, ever short-sighted when it came to matters of business, had moved us to help the company he worked for branch out in the Southeast. We had no family nor friends further south than Bethesda, Maryland, and those were distant cousins by marriage we never spent much time with anyway. But hey, let’s uproot the whole family and plunk them down in the middle of what I’d imagined as one large peanut field filled with people who didn’t appreciate sarcasm or minorities.

Atlanta did have plenty of culture, of course. I soon found my way to Little Five Points and Virginia Highlands. I was forced to transfer from the small and plenty Jewy Emerson College to the ginormous University of Georgia in Athens. There were two redeeming qualities of once again having to give up my college dreams because of my father (I’d gotten into NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, which he’d refused to pay for, but that’s another story for another time): R.E.M. lived in Athens, and I knew one person already at UGA.

My friend Paul had spent a year in New Jersey, friends with all the people I hung out with in the next town over from mine. He was tall, blond, beautiful, and charmed everyone with his Southern manners. He said “Ma’am” and “Sir”, held doors for the girls, and charmed us all with his accent and humor. When he returned to Georgia to attend college, we’d kept in touch, and he was not only ready to show me the ways of the South, he was my (mostly) platonic roommate my first year at UGA. He tried to get me to soften my Northern accent, tone down my loud mouth, and employ “ma’am” and “sir” in nearly every sentence, because it would get me farther around campus.

For a while, I was treated like a rare specimen around the Drama Department, trolling out my Marisa Tomei impression on demand (quick aside: why can’t Southerners do a Northern accent, while we Northerners can do theirs? It’s true) while learning the Ways of the Old South. They didn’t lose the war, of COURSE they aren’t racists (not overtly, anyways), and you best use your manners at all times.

I did my darndest to maintain, but when you take the Jewish Girl out of New Jersey and put her in the Bible Belt, she just might end up making a big ol’ notch. And one day in a huge lecture hall filled with Southern Baptists, this Jewish Girl did just that.

It was Philosophy 101, a required course for all liberal arts majors. I sat amongst three hundred and fifty or so other people who all regarded the class as something to get through rather than something to enjoy. It was a minor speed bump on the way to our majors, boring lectures and writing assignments.

But not to me. I actually got into the whole thing. I enjoyed the idea of challenging antiquated notions still being honored in modern society. My homework assignments came back with ecstatic notes from the professor (whose name is gone from my memory, so let’s call him Professor Jones), telling me I had a unique perspective, the likes of which he hadn’t seen from a student in years.

Late in the quarter, Prof Jones broke us all into groups of eight and assigned us each a theory to prove. I can’t recall what my group had to prove, but the final group to present had the toughest one of all: they had to ‘prove’ the existence of God.

Good luck there, kids.

I sat towards the back of that cavernous lecture hall and listened as the group used one text, and one text only, to use as their ‘proof’: the New Testament. They literally began reading from Genesis. “In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth.” Apparently, that was proof enough for Joe Bob and Mary Sue standing in the front of the class. It was also proof enough for everyone sitting in the lecture hall, because they were all nodding their heads in agreement. If it was in the Bible, they had all been taught, then it’s true. Professor Jones was craning his neck, looking around. Looking for me, I suspected, because he knew if anyone was going to challenge this group’s theories, it would be the Loudmouth Not from the South.

Finally, the group finished, and Jones asked the class if anyone wanted to challenge the theories that had been presented.

No one raised their hand. NO ONE.

I couldn’t stand it. How could there not be even one other person who wanted to offer a different view? Was I basically taking this Philosophy course in a church? I knew what Jones wanted: a real debate in his class. The rebellion in my stomach had gone from a simmer to a boil in minutes. I raised my hand, Jones called on me, and I spoke.

“Can you prove your theory without using the Bible as a reference?” I asked the group. “Because not everybody believes in the New Testament. It’s not like that book you’re holding fell out of the sky, you’re quoting the beliefs of a bunch of guys who decided to interpret what they thought to be the word of God, and that doesn’t exactly make it cold hard fact.”

Cue uproar.

The group was flustered. An African-American girl in front of me turned around and started waving her hand in my face. “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior!” she yelled. “And I will not have you disrespect my Lord and Savior!”

I stood my ground, calmly, as Jones asked everyone to quiet down. “I respect your beliefs,” I resumed. “But that doesn’t mean I agree with them. So if you could try to explain the existence of a supreme being without quoting the Bible, that’s actually the assignment.”

Professor Jones looked like he’d just discovered the cure for cancer, he was beaming so brightly. “That is exactly right,” he yelled into the microphone on his podium, because the class was making so much noise. “That is exactly right!”

“How dare you let that girl blaspheme in here!” someone yelled.

“This is not a church!” I yelled back, before I could help myself. “And I didn’t say ANYTHING BAD about anyone’s religion!”

All I said was, Prove there’s a God, just don’t use the Bible to do it.

And yeah, that’s a losing argument. Belief and faith are completely different from scientifically proven facts. The assignment wasn’t to make others believe in your version of God; it was to prove beyond a doubt that one exists. No one currently living has seen such a thing. Your belief system should be your own, not something drilled into your head by your elders. We no longer believe a man in a chariot drives the sun across the sky every night, so why does the belief persist in a supreme being no one can claim to have ever put eyes nor hands on? I was raised Jewish, I told this room of immediate enemies, but what if I’d been switched at birth and taken home with a Catholic family (not likely, since I was the only white baby in that Brooklyn hospital nursery at the time, but they didn’t need to know that)? It didn’t matter what points I was making, they were falling on deaf ears. Well, except for the ears of Professor Jones, which were probably doing a special happy dance for the first time in years.

It went on like that until the end of class, and while I didn’t scurry out like a terrified rat, I did feel as though I was being chased as I walked to the shuttle bus. They might as well have been carrying torches. It’s lucky I wasn’t stoned to death.

I went home (deliberately walking past R.E.M.’s office to make me feel better about having to live in a place I didn’t yet belong) and told Paul what had happened. He guffawed at my audacity and predicted my imminent death. “Oh, you Yankee girls,” he teased. “You just love to cause trouble.”

Later that night, I ran into Professor Jones at the Kroger on College Station Road. I figured since I’d kicked up such a fuss, I might as well get all the credit for it that I could. We stood in the frozen food aisle for a good twenty minutes, during which he thanked me profusely for sparking one of the more lively debates he’d ever had in any of his classes.

“What are you majoring in?” Jones asked, after I’d told him about our move South.

“Drama,” I replied.

“You should consider changing it to Philosophy,” he said. “You really do have a very unique mind. You could actually do a lot with a degree in Philosophy, because we need fresh perspectives like yours.”

“What can you actually do with a degree in Philosophy?” I asked. All I could hear in my head was Bea Arthur in History of the World, Part I, saying of Mel Brooks’ stand-up philosopher: “Oh, a bullshit artist!”

Jones laughed. “Teach Philosophy.”

I joined him in his laughter. “Yeah, I think I’ll pass. I don’t think I’m the kind of person who would enjoy teaching anyone anything, because I have no patience for stupid people.”

As he walked away with his groceries, Professor Jones said, “If nothing else, Tara, you need to be in front of people, talking with them, because something about you gets a reaction from an audience like I’ve never seen.”

“I think it’s just that I have a big mouth,” I shrugged. “And I’ve never been afraid to use it, which gets me into trouble. Like, a lot.”

“Don’t ever censor yourself for others, Tara,” he said in parting. “You’ll never regret speaking your true thoughts.”

Jones couldn’t have been more wrongity-wrong. My big mouth has gotten me into plenty of sticky situations where I wish I could have immediately taken back everything that had just spilled out of it. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to curb it when the situation calls for it. I don’t always need to make my displeasure with things known, as difficult as it may be at times. Religion will always be a sore subject for me, because it’s just so…subjective.

Still, I don’t regret standing up for myself in that lecture hall. I’m not a mindless sheep that just accepts everything that’s thrown at me. If something doesn’t sit right in this sieve I call my brain, I’ll question it. After all, I’m the girl who once asked my rabbi why it’s wrong to marry someone for love over religious beliefs without deteriorating into a pillar of salt.

Now, if I could just get someone to hire me to do what Professor Jones said I was born to do, I could seriously believe in anything.