Actually, Toto, We Are Still In Kansas

Wealthy Mission Hills Is Not Exactly Full of Jews

Kurt Hoffman

By Sophie Unterman

Published July 22, 2014, issue of August 01, 2014.

The morning of the annual Old Mission Hills Fourth of July Party, I warned Adharsh, my boyfriend at the time who was visiting from New Orleans, about what to expect.”

“We’re kind of going to stick out,” I said. “My family, I mean. We always do.”

“Speak for yourself,” he said, grinning. “I came prepared.” He pulled a powder blue polo shirt over his head.

Mission Hills, an enclave of Tudor mansions and stucco haciendas looming atop the hills, is the WASPiest suburb of Kansas City. Local real estate developer J.C. Nichols laid out the plans in 1914, catering to wealthy businessmen who wanted to move away from downtown. The neighborhood is on the Kansas side of Kansas City, bordering State Line Road. Evan Connell set his novels “Mr. Bridge” and “Mrs. Bridge” in the white-columned house he grew up in, and Ernest Hemingway penned “A Farewell to Arms” while living on Indian Lane. A century after the first houses were built, the town has the highest median income of any town in the state, and is, as of 2010, 98.6% white.

Adharsh, is South Indian and frequently gets mistaken for black, but I figured he probably still wouldn’t stick out as much as my mom would.

While the other women clustered around the picnic tables in Lilly Pulitzer sundresses and Brooks Brothers golf separates, their blonde hair glinting in the sun, Mom floated by in her red and blue tie-dyed dress. Her chunky clogs were the only shoes not sinking into the grass. Meanwhile, my dad manned the grill in a slightly less conspicuous untucked shirt and khaki shorts, roasting a couple dozen Hebrew Nationals.

Jews used to be outsiders here, even though Mission Hills was not one of the suburbs to outright ban them. The first Jewish families to move here were also the first Jews to buy their way into the decidedly goyish Kansas City Country Club. They blended in quickly, adopting the neighborhood’s dress code and sending their kids to Pembroke Hill and the Barstow School. And they stuck together — they still do. The Jews of Mission Hills are a tight-knit group, a short list of relatives whose names adorn the brass donor plaques at the New Reform Temple across State Line Road.

I tried to relate some of this background information to Adharsh on the car ride up from New Orleans, but I felt conflicted about my hometown. I love Mission Hills — it’s where I was raised and where my parents, whom I am very close to, still live. I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up there, in an English Tudor on Mission Drive, with a huge backyard perfect for playing make-believe games with my sister Phoebe, like Civil War Orphans and In Hiding (inspired by watching our Holocaust survivor grandmother introduce a local production of “The Diary of Anne Frank”).

But we don’t belong to any of the clubs, and, growing up, I didn’t know most of the neighborhood kids, since they went to private school instead of Prairie Elementary, where Phoebe and I went. They played lacrosse on professionally manicured lawns and walked with each other in the summer to the country clubs, monogrammed canvas pool bags slung over their tanned shoulders. They were polite to me every year at the Fourth of July party, but I don’t think they knew my name.

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