The only Jewish in small-town of USA Although there are clusters of Jewish people in towns where we are not a minority, my family migrated to the suburbs of Long Island along with Italians and Irish seeking a more promising land. We all lived and played together during an idyllic time to be children. We left the house in the morning and only had to return when the streetlights turned on, or someone’s mother called them in for dinner.
I was never aware of my unique status in the classroom as the only Jewish child until the teacher put me in charge of Chanukah decorations and made sure to add “I have a little dreidel” to our Christmas sing-a-longs. It was fun celebrating the holiday in elementary school. My brother was a grade ahead of me, and the principal shared my last name.
I knew I was different in my classroom, but for the most part, I didn’t feel “other.” That is until one student starting taunting me with some nonsensical phrase that included Jew. Then he accused me of “killing Christ.” I wanted to explain I had nothing to do with it, but the entire experience made very little sense.
As communities joined from different areas in the later grades, there were more Jewish children, but we were still few. We mostly met in youth groups and in Hebrew school, where we learned about our people and our culture. We went through the Bar and Bat Mitzvah whirlwind of social activity, and we could feel a sense of belonging. As an adult, we had moved to Ohio, and I went to a vast big-ten college.
During freshman year, a student from a rural community told me she had never seen a Jew. Emes, (Yiddish for truth) she looked for my horns. I shortly after that joined a Jewish sorority. I didn’t want to isolate myself from my school’s varied cultures, but I wanted some validation and camaraderie. We understood each other and our cultural quirks.
Fast forward to my years as a young earth mother with three kinderlach, (Yiddish for children). My mother (alav ha-shalom) and father (olav hashalom) were from very different backgrounds. My mother came from Brooklyn and spent her youth navigating streetcars and pushcarts while my father grew up in Vermont with grandparents straight from the Shtetl. They compromised their retirement desires by buying a family farm with a cottage to visit on weekends.
The arrangement was that I would live with my family in the main house, and we would maintain it. This family farm was more of a lodge, but it was located in a small rural town. The farm was beautiful when the children were babies. They could run free and play with ducks, rabbits, and chicks we brought into their lives. I stayed pretty much to myself, recognizing we were the only Jews, assuming we would be outcasts.
We drove forty minutes to the main town to visit my parents and siblings on holidays. I never had an issue until I was in the town carry out flipping through a Sunday paper while on line for the register. While I reviewed the coupons, one of the locals jokingly said, “What are you Jewish?” It didn’t occur to me that he might have been referring to the ignorant stereotype of Jewish people being cheap, so we collect coupons? It was a surprising nonsequitur, so I simply replied, “Why, yes I am.” The man, not expecting that reply, stumbled over himself apologetically.
He had seen us around town for years, and it seemed he was trying to say, “Well, you are one of the nice ones.” I smiled politely and let him off the hook without further discussion. While living in that town, I took my oldest daughter to a local school play of Fiddler on the Roof. I thought I might be a bit paranoid, but it appeared people in the audience were looking back at us during the show. It made me nervous, considering my other experiences with ignorance.
During intermission, we went to the requisite bake sale, and the school principal made a beeline toward us. I must admit my stomach jumped. I wasn’t in the mood for more ignorant comments, especially in front of my daughter. She attended a Hebrew day school in the larger town so had been insulated from typical prejudice. To my surprise, the principal asked us what we thought about the play. “Do you think we captured the authenticity of the play?” she asked, seeking what was unmistakably a sense of validation.
Her request was smalltown acceptance rather than the rejection I was expecting. She saw us as the experts, and she was trying to please us. I know the town saw us as exotic and interesting, but it was far better than being seen as interlopers. We never heard or experienced any antisemitism in that small rural town or even ignorance. I learned that I was the one who assumed they would treat me poorly. For the remainder of the time we lived there, I became more invested in the community, and we learned to accept each other.