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.

(page 3 of 3)

Mission Hills Jews typically belong to the New Reform Temple, the synagogue where Phoebe and I were bat mitzvahed and confirmed. At High Holiday services, Phoebe and I petted the fur coat slung over the pew in front of us. The grandmothers — garden gnomes in red lipstick and clouds of Chanel No. 5, earlobes sagging with golf ball-sized pearls — pinched my cheeks and purred hello in German accents.

It is the only synagogue in Kansas City, a small congregation of Jews who have belonged for generations. This is a population distinct from the Jews in the far-reaching suburbs who fill the cavernous mega-temples that crank out two or three bar mitzvahs a Saturday. I met some of these kids when I joined a Jewish youth group in high school. They threw parties in ex-urban, treeless back yards, and, like me, went to public school. It took me almost an hour to drive out to some of their houses, tucked into subdivisions with faux-British names, where I got lost in the cul-de-sacs ringed by identical beige split-levels.

I spent every Sunday afternoon out at the Overland Park Jewish Community Center, the site of last spring’s shootings. From New York, I watched the news cameras scan past the parking lot where we had piled into buses for conventions in Omaha and St. Louis, the lobby where we would cluster with bagels from the nearby strip mall before weekly chapter meetings. My family and I were not members there, and there was no chance my parents would be caught in the violence, but I called them anyway, made sure everyone was all right.

Back at the Fourth of July party, Dad finished grilling the hot dogs, and mothers chased kids around with napkins, dabbing ketchup off of linen sundresses. The parade commenced down 59th Street, with the fire truck and a vintage white convertible, Mission Hills Fourth of July Queen perched on the jump seat. Mom introduced Adharsh to everyone. Soon after the parade, the men began to drift away to play in golf tournaments that each of the clubs held, leaving their wives to clean up. Adharsh helped me pluck dozens of little American flags from the curb. I said goodbye to a young couple from the temple who had just moved back to the neighborhood. They kept talking about how good it felt to be back home.

Later that night, Adharsh and I sat on my porch swing, while fireworks from the Mission Hills Country Club thundered in the distance. The next morning we would drive back down to New Orleans, where I was living with him for the summer. He was sharing a duplex with a handful of other med students in Central City, a neighborhood far more colorful this one. Our days down there were filled with reading paperbacks on the porch and cooling off with $2 beers at our favorite bar on Napoleon Avenue. I fit in in New Orleans in a way I didn’t in Mission Hills. Even the Jewish community there was less stuffy. As an undergrad at Tulane, I attended Shabbat dinners at Hillel with my friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish, where we devoured hunks of homemade challah and got tipsy from Manischewitz.

Mom came home from watching the fireworks on the other side of the country club fence, announcing their arrival with a Tarzan yell. Bottle of wine in hand, they joined us on the porch. Mom plopped onto the hammock, and Dad pulled up a chair. It was dark, but we didn’t turn on the lights. Fireflies glittered across our yard, and the moon shone through the sycamore branches. There was a dull hum outside of neighbors walking back from the country clubs, their polite laughter carrying uphill.

If Jews, as a group, aren’t really considered outsiders anymore here, my family still is. We are the wrong kind of Jews for Mission Hills. Mom wears the wrong clothes, Phoebe and I went to the wrong school. There are no snapshots of Mom in the society pages, painted up and smushed next to our neighbors at a Children’s Mercy Hospital fundraiser. She never shops at Halls department store on the Country Club Plaza. Dad doesn’t spend his Fridays playing golf at the club. My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go.

Sophie Unterman grew up in Mission Hills, Kansas. She currently lives in New York, where she is a graduate student at Columbia.

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