Can I Survive Without the Tribe in Goyish Midwest?

Lily Padula

Published July 30, 2014.

The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Join the discussion by commenting on this post, sharing it on Facebook or following the Forward on Twitter. And keep the questions coming. You can email your quandaries, which will remain anonymous, to: seesaw@forward.com

My Husband Got a Great Job, Away from New York

My husband has been offered a terrific, and I mean TERRIFIC, new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?

The Days of the Larry David Jew Are Behind Us

SCOTT PERLO: You’ve got both my sympathy and the furthest thing from it. Here’s the thing: what you’re worried about, that feeling of being surrounded by people who get you because they’re like you, where you’re understood, where you belong - that is a real thing, and it is fair for you to be worried. It’s damn hard to be lonely in that “I don’t make sense here,” way. When I moved for work, I had a list of cities to which I would be willing to move; “strong Jewish community” was right at the top of the list of priorities (I’m a rabbi, what else would you expect?).

Now, here’s the other thing. You feel Jewish in a Larry David sort of way. I take that to mean that you feel ethnically Jewish, culturally Jewish - the kind of Jewish that immediately recognizes the other Jew in the room and has strong feelings about bagels Jewish. And, as you said, the kind of Jewish you can be without trying very hard.

But as an American Jewish community, we’ve made a conscious decision against ethnicity, and for porous boundaries. We have tons of people going out of Judaism. We have tons of people coming into Judaism. And, for the first time in history, we have people recognized as partly Jewish - as you describe your husband.

Which is all to say that, increasingly, we won’t be able to identify other Jews by their ethnic markers because we no longer come from the same ethnicity or ethnicities. And that fact will radically change what it means to belong in Judaism. Actual Jews will make actual gingerbread, a food that would have confounded my Eastern European grandfather.

So move to the decent-sized Midwestern city; move beyond the benign contempt with which most American Jews regard actually practicing our rather storied spiritual tradition; find the definitely-there Jewish community; work at it; add to it. You will create belonging, not just for you, but for those around you.

Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.

There’s More to Judaism Than Geography

HAROLD BERMAN: Is your concern real? It depends. You speak about “feeling Jewish” and “being surrounded by Jews,” but don’t describe your Jewish practice.

Six years ago, we made aliyah. Israel beckoned for many reasons, among them that we lived in a small and declining Jewish community, and yearned for a place where we could live Judaism fully. In Israel, even more than New York, one can feel Jewish without trying hard. But one also can choose to embrace Jewish life like nowhere else. So, being surrounded by Jews can become either a catalyst or a substitute for Jewish engagement.

If New York represents your desire to live among Jews more than non-Jews, then may I humbly suggest that being Jewish is much bigger than that. If however, your concern comes from wanting a community where Jewish life is vibrant, then you have good reason to examine this move. Most Midwestern cities have at least some signs of Jewish life. Many small and mid-size Jewish communities are contracting. So it’s important to find out which way the wind is blowing. But before heading for a major standoff with your husband, it is worth taking a look around. There may be a JCC with a pre-school for your future child; a Chabad rabbi who makes Judaism accessible for all types of Jews; a day school; a Jewish parenting group; adult education programs. And in my experience, smaller Jewish communities often are more welcoming and have a strong sense of community - precisely because in a smaller community, people have to try harder to feel Jewish.

However, if this city is as Jewless as you presume. then it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with your husband. If you ultimately won’t be happy there, then even the best material circumstances won’t compensate for that.

Harold Berman is a veteran Jewish communal professional, and the Director of J-Journey.org, which provides mentoring and support for intermarried families exploring the possibilities of observant Jewish life. Harold is also, with his wife Gayle, the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” about their “intermarriage gone Jewish.”

Smaller Jewish Communities Can Be Amazing

LAUREL SNYDER: I think your concern is real, sure. You’re about to live in a new place, and that’s going to require all sorts of changes. Some will be pleasant (you’ll double your square footage), some will be annoying (nobody will deliver sushi to your door), and some will be Jewish (You should expect to find non-kosher-for-Passover matzohs on the Passover shelf at the Piggly Wiggly. Watch out!)

But I think it’s important to shift your thinking away from what you’re losing, and instead to focus on this as a translation, a redefinition. Identify the good things in the new place, whatever they are.Think of this as a scavenger hunt!

I grew up in Baltimore, and now live in Atlanta (huge Jewish centers) but in fact, my most intense Jewish experiences have been in Chattanooga and Iowa City (I lived in each about 6 years).

In a small town, you won’t find that automatic-Seinfeldian-Jewish-culture, but you’ll gain a tight-knit group of people that really need each other, people brought together by their shared minority status. It sounds funny, maybe, but this can be really a rich and wonderful thing. In a smaller place, Jewish seek each other out. People take on roles they’ve never held before. Holidays tend to be big community events. Everyone pitches in, and and relationships are more likely to cut across generations and denominations.

I remember how, in Iowa City, Chabad davened in the Hillel building. This would never happen in a bigger Jewish community, but nobody in a small town can afford to squabble or be territorial. In a small town, everyone needs each other eventually.

Laurel Snyder is the author of books like “Bigger than a Bread Box” and “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted To Be Kosher.” Find her online at laurelsnyder.com or on Twitter @laurelsnyder.



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