Mark Rubin

Mark RubinCommunity Contributor

Mark Rubin lives in New Orleans. His latest striped down folk effort “Songs for the Hangman’s Daughter” is an eclectic and personal collection of original songs featuring much of Rubin’s diverse musical lexicon, but most of all expresses ongoing efforts to reconcile his multiple musical identities as a culturally Jewish musician operating in the American South.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

What It’s Like To Be A Token Jew

Editor’s note: this piece, originally titled “Jews in Exotic Lands,” ran as a feature in the now defunct JPSP Magazine in 1970. The article profiles Bob Rubin, one of the few Jews of Stillwater, Oklahoma; his son, Mark Rubin (who still resides in the South), has transcribed the piece for digital publication and added a few lines of commentary.

STILLWATER, OKLAHOMA — Some people think Bob Rubin is the Devil. He is only too happy to let them think so. I think Bob Rubin is a jolly man. He has a large heart and large sense of humor, all barely enclosed by a large frame and a goatee. Among his passions are bubbly jukeboxes, marching bands and Judaism, in approximately the reverse order. As Robert H. Rubin, Rotarian, he is Executive Secretary of the national marching band honor society (Kappa Kappa Psi). As Bob Rubin, mentsch, he is Godfather to a Jewish community.


Stillwater is not an uncommon place. As in many a small town, the only outward claim to a Jewish presence here is the department store (Katz’). Stillwater is the home of the U.S. Wrestling Foundation Hall of Fame, Oklahoma State University and Bob and Susan Rubin.

The Stillwater Jewish community has grown with the town and the town with its University. Until 1957, OSU was known as Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical. The name was changed with good reason; they tell Aggie jokes around these parts. (Sample: An Aggies is taking a true-false test in American History. He determines the answers by flipping a coin, head it’s true, tails it’s false. He stands at the professor’s desk for some time thereafter, still flipping the coin. “What is heaven’s name are you doing?” ask the professor. “Checking my answers.”)

Traces of Aggiedom linger (flyers above the hallway carry this admonition: Freddie the Fireman says don’t let fire cool your winter!”) But it’s not the aura of rusticity that troubles the Jews who come from New York and Ohio and California to begin their studies at OSU. It is rather the specter of a vast jungle of oil derricks, it’s natives armed with spike noses, and beefy chins and Jew-hate. And, derricks aside, one’s first visit to the campus may serve only to reinforce your apprehension. You hear stories about fundamentalist this and Campus Crusade that, and about the dormitory cafeteria serving line, above which hangs an agonizingly life-size figure of Jesus, his chest flogged open to reveal the heart bleeding in colorful (if somewhat unappetizing) profusion. And the stories turn out to be true.

Why would a Jew want to come to a place like Stillwater?

Bob Rubin’s answer is quick and knowing. “To get away from other Jews.” He cites the case of a professor who came to OSA to teach management. The prof had been active in Jewish communal affairs in Long Island, until “one of those apocryphal board meetings convinced him henceforth he didn’t want any part of the Jewish People.”

He went straight to Stillwater, but found to his chagrin that his last name was the same as a Jew prominent in business circles here. They may be cousins.

“We’re a constant source of embarrassment” says Bob Rubin of the Jews of Stillwater, “but only to the Jews. Especially the Jewish faculty. As for the kids, if we don’t find them, they’re likely to suffer from Pentecostal Culture Shock for a good three years.”

Before every semester, Bob and Susan invite into their home any and all of the current crop of greenhorn yahoodim [sic] (Jews). Bob delivers a short sermon over coffee and knishes: “Tomorrow, when you meet your roommate in the dorm, chances are that he may say to you ‘You’re the first Jew I’ve ever seen.’ You’ll hear it again and again. When you hear it, just remember you are not and object of hatred. You are an object of interest.

“Sure you were Jewish in New Jersey, but you won’t find out what that means until you get out here. There, you’re Jewish and don’t give it a second thought. Here, a Jew is politely requested to explain his Jewishness — a very difficult task.”

In travelling the Southwest, one learns that the Bible Belt is more of a panty girdle, and Oklahoma is surely one leg.

Bob speaks regularly to church groups, “even the flat out fundamentalists — no singing, no dancing, no smoking. They have been known to drain a few, however.” I asked him if the speaking invitations indicated a loosening trend in the lockjaw Christianity.

“If anything, it’s more virulent. With the exception of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has opened up 100% (Rubin: alas this was short lived), the denominations are scared they’re losing their flocks to the blandishments of a materialistic society. So today there’s more black and less white and grey.

“When I walk into the church, I know the folds have their nitty-gritty about horns and a tail. They take a great deal for granted. Which side of the Devil’s branch to we belong to? Why did we go and crucify Jesus? Why do we bury our dead standing up?

“I don’t pull any punches. I tell them that if Jesus were to come through the door right this minute, he’d come straight to me, speaking Hebrew. He’d spend his days with the Jewish community, studying the Law.”

Aren’t the questions and misconceptions frustrating after a while? “That’s what our new Jewish arrivals all find so hard to understand and accept. The more you closet yourself in, the less good you do. The (non-Jewish) community is so open, so really anxious to learn. It doesn’t bother anyone one whit if Jews want to identify and do things together. But it does disturb them if a Jew wants to hide. Once in awhile, a pillar of some church or another will take me off into a corner and tell me how disappointed he is that Professor X-berg doesn’t participate with us. The main thing here is not what you are, but the fact you’re something.

The issue of “Jesus Freakery” poses a far greater threat to its Christian ministries than to its Jews. The Campus Crusade for Christ continually denounces the established churches (even Pentecostal and Baptist) as atheist and non-Christian. But the Jews do not go unscathed.

“Ever so often, I’ll get a call from one of our gang: ‘Bob, that goddamned Campus Crusade’s after me again.’”

Bob drops his voice to a sly whisper for the reply. “Fuck ‘em.”

“We have an advantage,” he explains, “that our Christian brethren do not. It’s the Devil factor.” Bob dons his best Rosemary’s Baby’s daddy’s grin. If their witnessing to one of our fellows, all he has to do is start walking away.” “where are you going?’ they will ask. “To make a phone call… to Bob Rubin.” “oh.”

They call the Rubin’s for other reasons, also. To invite themselves over for dinner (‘I met this really nice girl in my astronomy class, and I want you to meet her’); to ask long distance from Ponca City of Enid if they’ll be a minyan (prayer quorum) for the Sabbath (there will); or to enroll themselves in the fortnightly Bagel Run to Oklahoma City (Aside from Rubin: this is an article unto itself) which numbers among its clients two non-Jews from White Plains and Garden City, Long Island, both of whom felt home sick for lox and kosher salami.

There’s no mistaking it — this is Christendom. But, as Bob will tell you, “There is no stigma attached to being Jewish here. Jacob saw to that.” Jacob was Mr. Jacob Katz, a great man in a very quiet way (Rubin: His relationship with the local KKK was mind boggling).

Jacob was a Boomer, in Oklahoma parlance, arriving in 1887 to set up a trading post in what was to become Stillwater. He had come to America alone at the age of fourteen, to escape conscription in the Kaiser’s infantry. Now he was a merchant, backpacking his supplies to sell to Indian agents. His business world grew to include eighteen locations spanning the length of the Cherokee Strip with names like The Okie Rose Department Store and, of course Katz’.

But Jacobs greatness lay not in his business acumen. His greatness was in his goodness and though he dies in 1966, his goodness is still apparent. He founded the Stillwater Mission for the poor; he brought the Salvation Army to town and was its first sole supporter; he would buy the first 500 to 1000 dollars worth of bonds for any church or hospital built in Stillwater; he headed the town council and the YMCA. Through it all, he was a very pious head of a kosher household, that was responsible for bringinging cousins, nephews of cousins, and sweethearts of nephews of cousins out of Germany, even in the Hitler years. Many of those relatives are still here, managing the stores where Jacob found them jobs.

“I met Jacob,” Bob says proudly. “A courteous, charming fellow. He was in his nineties , still waiting on customers, sharp as a tack. I came into the store one day when we were new in town. I introduced myself to him, then a few months later, I came back. He hadn’t seen me in all that time, but he says “Mr. Rubin, how are you?”

Mr. Rubin is fine. This afternoon he is serving as Technical Advisor to the Stillwater Senior High production of Fiddler on the Roof, tying tzitzit (ritual garment with fringes), pronouncing chet (a letter of the Hebrew alphabet). He knows they’ll be a minyan for Shabbos because he just called the music teacher down the hall to ask if he’d be there and he said yes. “His Jewish education amounts to about a lick and a promise, but he never turns down a minyan call. First time I asked, he didn’t know what a minyan was.”

Mrs. Rubin is also fine. She is lecturing today at the School of Hotel Management on the laws of kashruth (kosher). She is telling them why rabbis are wont to scowl when served shellfish in their salad.

And I am fine, and glad to be here, in a small town with a big horizon and kosher meat in the Humpty-Dumpty Supermarket. Stillwater has grown some, but the phone book is only slightly larger than the Reader’s Digest, and the banner headlines are still written in Sooner dialect (“BUSINESS IN TOWN ISN’T EITHER DOWN, accent on the “either”).

And I am glad to be on this bucolic, be-cupoulated campus, furnished as it is in columned, leaded, gingerbread buildings that would seem out dreadfully nouveau-quaint if they were anywhere else. But this America. A dash of Walt Disney stirred into the Walt Whitman? No matter. We sometimes forget that Mr. Disney’s Landworks are a case or art imitating artlessness, or, if you prefer, of liveliness imitating life.

I know why Jews come to a place like Stillwater.

They come to lose their Jewishness, and often leave having found it. And they come to learn that America is supposed to be a place where it doesn’t matter what you are as long as you are something.

And I am glad to be here, on this page, that I may blow in one breath the mushiest of thanks to all those who leave their closeting to their clothes, and who have done me so much kindness as I stumbled my way into their lives: to Bob and Susan, and to half a Bible full of others of you, form this their warmed and slap-happied fellow creature (Rubin: sheesh!).

Oklahoma-born, Texas-reared, and now living in New Orleans, multi-instrumentalist Mark Rubin is an unabashed Southern Jew, known equally for his muscular musicianship and larger-than-life persona. Over an accomplished 30+ year career, he has accompanied or produced a virtual who’s-who of American traditional music, while straddling numerous musical genres, including Country, Western Swing, Bluegrass, Cajun, Tex-Mex, Polka, Klezmer, Roma, and more. He is perhaps best known for co-founding the notorious proto-Americana band Bad Livers, though his more recent work as a first call tuba and bass player in the klezmer music scene has now earned him equivalent notoriety. His credits in the Jewish music world include stints with Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars, The Other Europeans, and Andy Statman, as well as two decades on faculty at KlezKamp. Remarkably, Rubin’s first “solo” project, “Southern Discomfort,” was released in 2015. His latest striped down folk effort “Songs for the Hangman’s Daughter” is an eclectic and personal collection of original songs featuring much of Rubin’s diverse musical lexicon, but most of all expresses ongoing efforts to reconcile his multiple musical identities as a culturally Jewish musician operating in the American South.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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What It’s Like To Be A Token Jew

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