I grew up in Kansas, with parents from Oklahoma, and then went to college in Louisiana before moving to New York, the mystical land my Grandpa Herb talked about. He grew up in Brooklyn, where everyone was Jewish, he told me as I colored my Rudolph Christmas ornament for class.
During the time I lived in New York, I got to eat all the deli food I wanted, get classes and work off on Yom Kippur, hear Yiddish phrases spoken on the subway, feel like other people got me in a way I had never felt growing up in Kansas. And then, in May, I packed up my apartment in Morningside Heights and watched the city disappear from the airplane window. A teaching job in Louisiana had pulled me from the homeland, and I was once again back to living in exile.
I have become a bit of an expert on living as a Jew in non-Jewish America. For those of you I met in college, those New Yorkers losing it on a 95-degree day with 98% percent humidity, those Chicagoans and Bostonians who suddenly dropped into a Kansas grocery store that doesn’t carry real pastrami, allow me to assist you. If you are one of them, or a New York Jew moving out to the rest of the country, don’t fear. Here are a few tips to help you along after you make the exodus into the great unknown:
1. Capitalize on the convenient lack of knowledge about Jewish holidays.
When I was in eighth grade and unprepared for an upcoming French test, I told my teacher that I was very sorry but I couldn’t take an exam that day, as it was Yom Shalom. I was being strategic, of course; it was October, and thus in the vague timeframe of the High Holidays, and I was in Prairie Village, Kansas, where most folks were hazy on the details of Judaism in general. My teacher apologized profusely and said she would bump the test to the following Monday.
I pulled a similar stunt when working as a file clerk in Louisiana, when I took off some extra time around Yom Kippur, as my boss didn’t know how many days it lasted. This tactic of bending the length of or making up brand-new holidays works well for both children and adults, although the creativity and liberty you are able to take depends on your exact location.
2. There is a vast swath of the American population whose familiarity with Judaism is limited to “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The first friend I made in college had never before met a Jew but had played the rabbi in his coastal Mississippi Catholic high school’s production of the musical. My college boyfriend, another Southern Catholic, begged for me to take him to dinner at the campus Chabad House. After I introduced him to the rabbi, he whispered to me that he “looked exactly like Tevye.”
“If you mean he has a beard and tefillin, then sure,” I said before realizing I had to explain what tefillin were.
You will be referred to as “my first Jew” many times.
3. Think of alternative phrasing for commonly used “Jewish” terms.
No one in Mustang, Oklahoma (or Blue Springs, Kansas, or Christiansburg, Virginia, or Bell Buckle, Tennessee) knows what shvitzing means — it is called sweating. Yes, we know that there’s a subtle difference, but they don’t. Or teach your new neighbors and they will love it and use the term all the time, even when they are soaking through their clothes (and thus just sweating).
When visiting my parents in Kansas City from New York a couple of years ago, I was wandering around the local grocery store in search of lox to go with the everything bagels I had brought home. After searching each aisle twice with no luck, I asked an employee.
“Excuse me, sir. Where might I find the lox?”
“Hardware and paper goods aisle,” he said with a smile.
Hence lox being referred to as smoked salmon (yes, yes, I know, it’s cured, not smoked).
4. On a related note, every food you make is now “Jewish.”
On a Christmastime visit to the aforementioned Catholic boyfriend’s family in Oklahoma, I brought a tin of homemade macaroons. My boyfriend’s mother opened the tin and plucked one from the cellophane.
“These are so good, Sophie!” she exclaimed. “Macaroons, you call them? Which of your holidays are they for?”
Similar results have occurred after bringing baked goods or appetizers not adhering to strictly white bread origins to dinner parties. Fellow guests will ask if the food is kosher, and then they will ask what the kosher laws are. I am a bit rusty on some of the particulars, myself, so feel free to do as I do and make up things.
A fun variation: Anything vaguely Mediterranean magically becomes “Israeli.”
5. You will have to explain (to children, not adults, I hope) that there is no language called “Jewish.”
Yes, this actually happens.
6. Your sense of humor will seem to always remind people of Larry David (or Sarah Silverman).
It should be noted that sarcasm, in general, baffles many a Southerner and even more Midwesterners. When I was dating a non-Jewish Southerner in college, he once blew up at me. “Why do you always say the opposite of what you mean!” he cried.
7. Wearing all black all the time is seen as somber, not as normal.
This is a tip that goes for all New Yorkers, not just the Jewish ones. When I worked at the law firm in New Orleans, one of the attorneys stopped every day at the receptionist desk where I sat reading Philip Roth novels.
“Whose funeral you going to today?” he asked, as he did each morning.
I laughed good-naturedly and watched him waddle down to his office, in his baby blue and white seersucker suit, pocket square, a smear of peach on his chest.
8. There are no good bagels west of the Hudson. Many have tried, but no one, anywhere, has had real success. I was raised on “bagels” from chain bakeries, and when I took my first trip to New York, I realized that what I had been smearing with cream cheese for over a decade were not bagels, but bagel-shaped pieces of dough sprinkled over with sesame seeds and poppy seeds, the occasional smattering of onion.
When I was a freshman in college, a friend who lived in my dorm surprised me with a bagel from the student center for breakfast. He was from Louisiana’s bayou country and had never had a bagel before Move-in Day.
“Thanks!” I said as I took from its paper sleeve an everything bagel spread with gluey pumpkin cream cheese. “I’ll eat this in a minute!”
My non-Jewish family in Oklahoma eats pumpkin bagels, bagels crusted over with Asiago cheese and other varieties that I can’t bring myself to eat. Stock up in New York before you go, and fit as many in your freezer as you can.
Remember that you are now the expert on all things Jewish (as well as often the expert on all things Israeli). This can feel like a source of pressure, but it can also be very fun, especially if you have a sense of humor and a good imagination. If you don’t know the answer to a particular question (on Hasidic practices, the kosher laws, the history of an obscure holiday), no one will know if you make it up.
Historically, many Jews have chosen to assimilate, to blend into American non-Jewish spaces. This tactic was oftentimes necessary for acceptance, and even for survival. I was lucky to be able to take the opposite route — to express my Jewishness to its full extent (to a rather obnoxious degree at times, I must admit). You will survive in the non-Jewish wilderness, even if at first it seems as if all hope is lost. Good luck in your new life as a Jew in exile!
Sophia-Marie Unterman is a frequent contributor to the Forward.