“I’m homesick for a home that I don’t have.” In the opening of their song “Homesick,” the musical duet “Mama Danger” encapsulate so much of the experience of being a Jew in the South. It is an experience that, for all their fondness for it, nevertheless grows increasingly difficult, and even dangerous.
A Jewish Maryland native, Nick Cameron, 23, hails from the town of Ashton in Montgomery County. While he had good memories eating at Ledo Pizza, he described his hometown in general as “suburbia.com.” Cameron’s dad would often fiddle with new guitars, and his family played music around the house. Later, Cameron became involved in musical theatre, joining a rock band in high school. Cameron later enrolled at UNC Asheville to study music technology.
Gabriela Rose, 25, originally hails from Raleigh, North Carolina. Jewish music was quite prominent growing up, including the works of Bob Dylan. After her musical talents were developed by choir directors, she enrolled in UNC Asheville, where she met Cameron at UNC’s choir.
This began a close friendship that would entail a performance at the Obama White House, culminating in their band “Mama Danger.”
Placing their band within the “progressive folk realm” of bluegrass, Cameron said they were influenced by Toby King, an UNC ethnomusicologist. As for Rose, she credited her mother, a piano teacher, as having had “a strong influence on my musical development.”
While expressing genuine affection for the South, they confessed to experiencing an identity conflict. Growing up in Raleigh, “I was often tokenized, and even bullied,” Rose said. She specifically brought up the film “Borat,” and how people misinterpreted its depiction of Central Asian anti-Semitism: “Growing up, people thought ‘Borat’ was making fun of Jewish people. They would say things like ‘throw the Jew down the well.’ That was not great.”
Rose and Cameron agreed that Asheville had a small Jewish community. In Asheville, Cameron said, he was the “one Jewish person people knew.” He mentioned instances of casual bigotry, when people joked “you’re the greedy Jew.”
For Rose’s part, she stated that people vandalized Jewish cemeteries, and posted anti-Semitic flyers. Also, “I work at a local JCC that had a bomb threat called in.”
Events like the attack in Pittsburgh only magnified their anxieties.
“I get nervous,” Rose said. “Working at the Asheville JCC right after Pittsburgh, I had to sit in a three-hour security meeting to learn what to do if attacked, and had to teach 4-year-olds active shooter drills…Seeing the overwhelming presence of Trump supporters, I feel more shy and less willing to demonstrate my identity in certain situations.”
Cameron added: “You become more uncomfortably aware of how you are different…Walking along the street, you can’t really give people the benefit of the doubt anymore.”
Rose and Cameron admitted they had given some thought to potentially leaving the South. “If we were to move, Maryland is a blue state and a reasonable safe haven,” said Cameron.
Rose went on to say: “I definitely dream and talk about it…Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to live in NYC where everybody’s Jewish, a magical faraway place.”
However, “we’re pretty entrenched in the community here,” Cameron said. Rose insisted she still loves the south. “It is an incredibly diverse region, but is dominated by a single demographic that doesn’t recognize other cultures.”
After Pittsburgh, Rose and Cameron turned to music to express their anxieties, and their belief in their people’s resilience. “Homesick,” Rose explained, relies on “a lot of Jewish imagery that I drew on lyrically.” In particular, the line “Stealing songs left unsung” seems a reference to those lost in the Tree of Life attack. Meanwhile, “To ignite this ever-burning flame” was an effort towards “galvanizing people to do what’s right. I wanted to reach people who may feel marginalized in the U.S. and not feel alone, whether its people with a Jewish identity or other identities and creeds.”
When asked if America’s divisions can be healed, Cameron said that “history is like a pendulum. We go through the same phases over and over again, and we are at the side of division, and we will start to swing back soon. People working to change the world, artists trying to change the world will swing the pendulum.”