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Hanukkah in Bentonville

From “Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town Into an International Community” (Chicago Review Press, 2009)

On a balmy Tuesday evening in December 2006, Sheldon Hirsch and his wife, Nicole, brought a menorah to the Christmas concert of their three-year-old son, Justin, at his preschool, the Helen R. Walton Children’s Enrichment Center. And a few days later, they conducted a preschool “outreach” by visiting his class. Nicole, a tall woman with reddish curls spilling about her strong face, arrived armed with latkes (potato pancakes), applesauce, picture books about Hanukkah, and a dark, bearded doll called Hanukkah Harry. The mission? To let Justin’s twelve Christian classmates celebrate Hanukkah—and Judaism. Unfortunately, Harry, with his scowling face, frightened one boy to tears.

It is perhaps no surprise, given the larger history of the Jews, that here in Northwest Arkansas the Jewish community is struggling to define itself, unclear when to cross that delicate line between blending in and asserting itself as a community with particular needs of its own. This is especially true at holiday time. The Hirsches, who are committed to this outreach, are among those who feel confident enough to share—and explain—their Jewishness, even to the seesaw set.

Sheldon Hirsch, burly and balding, with glasses, mustache, and a wisp of a goatee, has been living in Northwest Arkansas for more than fifteen years, and he continues to be happily surprised by the inclusive way that Bible Belt southerners welcome him. They are amused rather than put off by his decidedly honking New York accent. “Especially when I was first down here,” he says, “they were just so intrigued by it. And they loved to listen to me talk.”

Hirsch, who in 2007 joined Wal-Mart’s operations group after a lengthy job search, originally migrated to Bentonville from New York fifteen years ago for two reasons. First, he was recovering from a cocaine habit that had hit him hard in his twenties, and he figured that Arkansas would offer up healthier living. Second, he was working with his father and brothers as vendors of business gifts and small items for the home, and shortly after his father’s death he moved down to the Bentonville area to represent their company. But soon the brothers, without their father as anchor, began to fight among themselves, and in 2004 their business collapsed.

In the meantime, Hirsch was determined to establish his own Arkansas roots. But down in the Bible Belt, Jewish girls were as difficult to find as blintzes (a special kind of Jewish pancake) at the Rogers IHOP. “That was the toughest thing,” he says, “being single and Jewish.

And when Hirsch drove the thirty minutes down Interstate 540 to Fayetteville for Shabbat services at the University of Arkansas Hillel on Friday nights, he inevitably felt awkward. (Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday.) The Fayetteville Jews, mostly academic types connected to the university, seemed oddly aloof, and Hirsch, with a combination of hubris and naivete, couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t snap him up for a Shabbat dinner or try to make a shidduck, or match, for him with a nice Jewish girl. After all, he was that rarity—a single Jewish guy in Wal-Mart-land. “But the hand of friendship was not there,” he says.

So he joined JDate. An exchange of e-mails, by turns funny and romantic, with Nicole Green, a vivacious woman from Buffalo, New York, deepened into a relationship and, eventually, marriage. Nicole moved down to Arkansas, and six years ago they plunked down $279,000 for a three- thousand-square-foot ranch set on a wooded acre in a small community of pristine brick-and-shingle houses, each one prettily different from the next. In her early forties by the time they wed, Nicole made no effort to hide her agenda. More than anything, she wanted to be a mom and was elated when Justin was born. Eight days later the couple flew in a mohel, or rabbi who performs circumcisions, from Houston and a pastrami from Kansas City, Missouri, for what was, they say, the area’s first bris, or ritual circumcision.

With the birth of their child, the Hirsches became concerned about establishing a Jewish community. They wanted Justin to have Jewish friends and a Jewish education, but they knew few families with small children. So, as a way of networking, they tried Temple Shalom again. But Nicole, like her husband, could not quite connect with the Fayetteville Jews. “In Bentonville we’re more, you know, Wal-Mart,” she says. “We’re about business. That is why most people have moved here.”

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