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The Joys of Cedar Rapids

An old Jewish folk tale tells of two travelers who meet on the road while fleeing Tsarist Russia.

The first traveler asks, “Where are you going?”

The second traveler responds, “To America. And where are you going?”

“I am going to Madagascar,” replies the first traveler.

“But Madagascar is so far away,” exclaims the second traveler.

“Far away?” says the first traveler, as he resumes his journey. “Far away from where?”

I never tire of telling this tale, because for more than four decades, Madagascar has been my home.

Actually, home is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Before that it was Little Rock, Ark., and before that it was Doss, Texas. But as far as most of my brethren are concerned, I may as well be from Madagascar. You see, I come from a place all but beyond the comprehension of most American Jews.

Imagine what it is like to live in places where Jews are so few that they are considered rare, almost exotic. And now imagine what it was like in the old days, before “Seinfeld” became a household word and bagels became so Americanized that the bacon-and-egg variety showed up on fast-food menus.

When I went to enroll my son in the Montessori school in Kerrville, Texas — Jewish population: zero — the teacher had a hard time controlling her excitement. She had studied in New York. She had met Jews there. Having Michael in her school would be “a cultural experience” for the other students.

“Surely,” she asked in that questioning yet demanding tone so common to school teachers, “you will come and show the youngsters how you celebrate each of your holidays. It will be so good for them to hear Hebrew songs.”

Out here in small-town America, non-Jews assume that we know everything there is to know about Judaism and that whatever we say is “The Jewish Answer.” They cling to this notion, no matter how many times we tell them that if you ask two Jews the same question you will get at least three answers.

At home, it’s not much simpler. Observing the dietary laws, even in a limited fashion, is a challenge. Yet it is almost more imperative here than elsewhere, because it is a way of maintaining identity.

If you run out of something, you can’t just run to the local store and pick it up. This is not Chicago, where the Jewel grocery stores sell fresh kosher meat, or Washington, where the Giant stocks items aimed at thousands of Jewish customers. This is Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

To be fair, while we still need to plan ahead, things are not as challenging as they used to be. Thanks to mass marketing, even in places with only a few hundred Jewish families you would be surprised at how many kosher products are available. And say what you will about Wal-Mart, but most of the cookies and crackers bearing their “house brand” are kosher. They even sell kosher bread at the discounter’s famed low prices.

Meat and cold cuts are a bit more of a challenge, but I consider it a mitzvah to take my wife Deb to Chicago so she can make sure that we have an ample supply of kosher meat, or the requisite items for Passover. Now if that means there is a little time for visiting Nordstroms or Marshall Fields, well, a little recreational shopping never hurt anything except the pocket book.

We might have to schlep to the big city for proper pastrami, but we don’t have to go far for communal support. When I came back to Cedar Rapids from my sister’s funeral, everybody in town — everybody Jewish, that is — knew that I would need a minyan for six out of the next seven days. This was no small challenge in a town with maybe 150 Jewish families and only one temple. On top of that, it was January, a time of ice and snow in Iowa.

Yet without fail, each and every night our little living room filled with people — men, women, traditional, Reform, it didn’t matter. One night the rabbi brought the confirmation class. And on more than one evening Jews drove up from Iowa City — a 60-mile round trip — just to make sure we hit the magic number.

Sure, it would have been so much easier in a big city. But there is a certain warmth and comfort that comes from community, that sense that out here in Madagascar we set aside what in a large city would be insurmountable differences in order to meet the human needs of our brethren.

When people ask, “How can you be Jewish in a small town?,” I remind them that Rashi lived in Troyes, a French town with a minuscule Jewish population. We may not be Rashis, but he certainly is an inspiration and a role model for what small-town Jewry can accomplish.

Yes, it can be difficult, especially for children and teenagers. And on those days when the craving hits for a meat knish or a pickled tongue on pumpernickel, you wish you lived someplace else. And when the catalogue comes in from Spertus and you see all of the Jewish culture you’re missing, it hurts.

But then you remember moments like the Thursday before my son’s bar mitzvah. Because I was the only one in town who knew trope, I was his teacher. Add pre-adolescent rebellion into the normal challenges of teaching, and you have some idea of the volatility of the situation.

The Thursday before his bar mitzvah was Thanksgiving Thursday. There we were, just the two of us, all alone in the temple as he practiced for the big event — Michael on the bima, chanting away, and me prowling around the sanctuary, listening to him recite the ancient blessings and text.

After he finished, we dressed the Torah and together placed it back in the ark. Then I hugged him as hard as any father ever hugged a son. We sat there, on two overstuffed chairs, basking in the glow of the journey we had made together from aleph bet to bar mitzvah bocher.

In a big city, Michael would have had a professional teacher who could have trained him far better than I did in pronunciation and cantillation. But we would have missed the joy that comes from keeping traditions alive by breathing new life into them all by ourselves.

There are a million other tales I could tell about living out here in Madagascar, some of them sad, some of them quite warm, like the one about the Lubavitcher shaliach coming to Little Rock. But those will have to wait for another day.

In the meantime, if you ever happen to be in eastern Iowa and need a kosher meal, or want to say Kiddush on a Friday, just call the temple and they’ll tell you how to get in touch with us. Trust me, my wife’s matzo balls are so light they almost float off of your spoon.

Mitchell Levin, a vice president of human resources at a life insurance company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is editor of the blogs “This Day… In Jewish History” and “Downhome Davar Torah.” He is the proud grandfather of Jacob Levin.

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