One of the first songs my kids learned at JCC summer camp was “Wherever You Go, There’s Always Someone Jewish.” The tune is definitely catchy, and since Abby was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, our favorite verse has always been:
Some Jews live in tents and some live in pagodas
And some Jews pay rent cause the city’s not free
Some Jews live on farms in the hills of Minnesota
And some Jews wear no shoes and sleep by the sea.
I grew up as “nice Jewish girl from New Jersey.” I attended temple services and religious school but never really felt I had to do anything to be Jewish because I was already surrounded by Jews. My high school was about 15% Jewish and was almost always closed for the High Holidays. It wasn’t perfect—we often had tests or projects due the day after the first seder—but it was good enough for the ‘70s and ‘80s.
I went to college in Philadelphia, another hub of Jewish life, and the campus was about 40% Jewish. A freshman (Jewish) hallmate said, “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting another Jew.”
When my husband and I moved to Minneapolis, I had serious culture shock. Not only was the weather crazy cold, but where were the Jews? I worked in a satellite building of a Fortune 500 company where I was the only Jewish person in the whole building. Not the minority, not the 1%, the only one. I was the first Jewish person most of my co-workers had ever met.
Not to mention there were no good delis around, and the local Hallmark didn’t even have the token “Jewish” section selling two or three bar and bat mitzvah cards. It opened my eyes. If I was going to “do Jewish,” I was actually going to have to do something.
So we joined a small Reform congregation within walking distance of our home. It was very welcoming with gay and lesbian families, families with adopted children, and intermarried families. It was a really good fit with a wonderful rabbi who taught an evening class on Midrash. She opened my eyes to looking at the “gaps” in the Torah narrative and showed us how to explore Judaism through creative writing. It was probably the first time I felt I “owned” my Judaism.
Since then, I’ve lived in small-ish cities outside of the major Jewish population centers—and I like it. To be Jewish in these places requires being a serious Jew, whether Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. Our child might be the only Jewish kid in their class or grade, so going to temple, or going to events at a JCC, gives them the chance to have a Jewish peer group. And it’s the same for adults. We have to seek out or create our own Jewish community because it doesn’t happen on its own.
In the end, I’m grateful that living in these smaller communities has forced me, and my kids, to truly explore what it means to be Jewish. I just wish there was a good deli around.