Visiting home in upstate New York on break from school, I hear my mother bellow from downstairs: “Lauren! Why is the puppy dragging around a menorah?”
“Uh, no idea, Mom!” I reply. My heart drops. Sabre has stolen the menorah from my backpack and, in typical golden retriever fashion, begun parading it around. I take the menorah from him and tuck it back into my bag, explaining no further.
I have not yet told my parents that I am converting to Judaism, or that I don’t believe in any of the Roman Catholic doctrine I was raised with. I am deeply unsure of how they will react.
I now live in Los Angeles — an “elitist bubble” as some write it off, and far from where I grew up in Rushville, New York. In the past few years I’ve moved from Upstate New York to Columbus and finally to California. Visiting home is a process in acknowledging how alienating it is to not be one of the predominantly major-isms of “real” America anymore — white, straight and Christian.
Let me explain.
My family and neighbors love guns and Jesus Christ. They’re the type of people to spot a person 10 bucks if he needs it, no questions asked. They’ll just have to get the cash back in person, because, “What the heck is a Venmo?”
My neighbors will break their backs defending others, while in the same breath say that gay men and lesbians are living an immoral lifestyle. They don’t have a problem saying that maybe black people deserve over-policing because of black-on-black crime, but they will happily lend a hand to the Amish family whose horse is overtired. These are the same neighbors who will shovel all the sidewalks in downtown Rushville for the elderly, but gleefully question if some of our elected leaders are actually American — refusing to acknowledge that upstate New York is a hotbed for racists and other prejudiced people.
I want to believe these people mean well for my friends and for me, even though I find them infuriating and often downright bigoted.
There are 677 people who call Rushville home. Yates County, which includes half of Rushville, is known for being one of four counties in the state that has more cows than people. There once was a blinking stoplight, but rumor has it the light was expensive and Rushville doesn’t have enough traffic, so the state removed it.
Three miles as the crow flies is Canandaigua Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. Ancient glaciers carved out these lakes, and when I speed by, I can see the rolling shapes of the hills shimmering in the lake’s reflection. I also see broken barns and rusted trucks, like Dad’s current hodgepodge of repairs on wheels. Vineyards line some of the valleys in neat rows. It is wine country, after all.
Strings of tacky lights twinkle down County Road 1, as local radio hosts rant about the “War on Christmas.” I just want to light my Hanukkah candles without feeling like a total stranger in a strange land.
Fourteen percent of Yates County lives under the state poverty line. Well-paying jobs, the kinds that’ll get a person a house and a car to get around, are hard to find. They’ve been hard to find for some time now. Many of us work second and third jobs, often under the table, to get by.
Countless politicians promised change for upstate New York’s economy, and didn’t bring it. Or couldn’t. The problems plaguing upstate New York run deeper than broken promises from anyone in person in Albany. Wine and lake tourism can’t save my hometown, but it’s better than nothing.
Friends and I play Cards Against Humanity at one of their houses in Rushville. One makes a crass Holocaust joke. I object, we bicker, and the bickering devolves into a shouting match. Later I wonder if shouting is always the best way to win battles when defending Jews.
Rushville is 95% white. Much of upstate, outside of Albany, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, is as well.
I thought bringing my boyfriend to Thanksgiving for the first time would be an ordeal. As an Iranian-Jewish-American, fluent in two languages, and third-culture kid, he shares very little with my Christian, middle-class, white American family and town.
We drink some local wine and teach my grandfather Cards Against Humanity, all of us apparently sharing a dark sense of humor. We get only a few stares from the people in town, and he seems to get on well enough with my parents.
We still don’t breathe deeply until we drive into Columbus.
In Ohio, the Columbus area is in some ways a larger version of Rushville — with fewer cows, more jobs and slightly more diversity. But it feels too difficult for some to think about religious diversity or gender pronouns when insurance is so damn expensive, the kids need dinner in an hour, and there’s not enough propane to make it through January. I don’t know if they recognize that their neighbors in the city, who do think about religious diversity and gender pronouns, also think about insurance, their kids and making it through winter.
Nearly a year and a half ago I spoke with my beit din, or rabbinical court, and took a dip in the mikveh. They asked, several times, if I was ready to accept the anti-Semitism that inevitably comes with being Jewish. I said yes, of course.
In June, someone spray-painted a swastika on my Columbus porch. For several hours the Columbus Jewish community and I wondered in fear if my house had been targeted specifically, or if hateful teenagers found somewhere to place their rage. It was one of the first of many times since converting that I’ve questioned if I truly am a part of “real” America.
After moving from my hometown to the first “real” city where I learned to be an adult, and later to a new city with unexplored possibilities, I would argue I’ve seen much of real America. The grandma slinging tacos at the El Chato taco truck in Los Angeles is as much a part of real America as the salty old men slinging fish at American Legion fish fries in Penn Yan. Real America is the townies who sang karaoke with me in Columbus, the Ethiopians who explained injera to me over Passover, and one of my best friends applying for citizenship this year. It’s Columbus’s Tifereth Israel hosting Buddhists after an arsonist burned down their temple, and the very diverse group of people who rescued my dog after she’d been attacked, because “that’s what neighbors do.”
Middle America has put out calls for unity — but we can’t have unity unless we choose to reconcile the American legion with brand-new Americans, immigrants and other marginalized communities. We must choose to be unified, by reaching out and listening, and by building better communities. And I hope, one day, all of America is brave enough to do the work.