3.25.2013

The Only Jews In Town


It can be difficult being Jewish out here in the cornfield. As far as we know, there is only one other Jewish family in town, and they no longer have children at home, so we are in a bit of a cultural bubble.

As I’ve mentioned before, I consider myself a cultural Jew, not a religious one. That said, I’m a cultural Jew that has lived on a kibbutz in Israel and that gotten married under a chupa.

I learned how to be a Jew by osmosis. I learned by listening to grandparents and great aunts arguing in Yiddish. I learned by attending the weddings and bar mitzvahs of more observant friends and relatives. I learned by growing up in a city with a huge Jewish population, and where varying degrees of the Jewish religion were displayed throughout the landscape: in Hebrew writing and black felt hats; in synagogues and cemeteries, and in kosher butchers catering to people speaking in the accents of countries we had escaped from.

We. As a Jew, I have always felt a part of a ‘we.’ Because there is a thread of understanding that runs through the Jewish people; and understanding that certain things – regardless of how observant one may be – are because they just are. Because we just are. I am comforted by this we and I identify with this we, and I am thankful for this we.

And I worry, as I have worried here before, that my children have no idea what it means to be part of this we.

In most moments throughout the day and in most days throughout the year I give little time to this thought, choosing to focus on the less existential elements of our life, such as health, and love, and safety, and getting to school on time with hair brushed and lunches packed.

Most of the time, we means us – the four of us, our happy little mixed-ethnicity family unit. The one that is committed to each other and our values and our dreams and our goals.

The us that is so important to me, and that is also diluting the we.

I married perhaps the most supportive Not Jewish person in the land of Not Jewish people, and he appreciates, understands (and oftentimes knows more about) the big parts of being Jewish, like the holidays and feasts, and the subtle parts as well, like my bagel snobbery and my affinity for throwing throaty, food-stuck-in-your-gullet sounds at him in frustration.

My righteous Gentile is an amazing man, and he encourages me to forget about the fact that nobody in the cornfield cares whether my matzo balls are hard or soft, while not minimizing my sadness over the erosion of our connection to my extended family (events which long preceded our move).

So we compromise. We improvise. We teach our girls what it means to be part of this family, and that this family is part Jewish. We will have a seder tonight to celebrate the beginning of Passover, and it will be the smallest seder we’ve ever had. The table will be set for four, but it will be set extravagantly, using the good dishes.

I imported matzo meal from Toronto so there will be chicken soup with knaidelach, and we will read from the children’s Haggadah and most importantly, the bag o’plagues will make it’s annual appearance. We will enjoy a great meal together, and we will tell stories about the seders we had when my grandparents were still alive, and we will laugh at the antics of two small girls, and these antics will become stories we will tell at seders in the coming years.

There is a song that we sing at Passover, a rousing song that you clap your hands to and it’s easy to sing along because the chorus is only one word, repeated over and over – Dayenu. It means, enough. It is a song about being thankful for all the things that God did for the Jews as they escaped Egypt and throughout history: if He had given us nothing more after He led us out of Egypt, it would have been enough. If He had given us only this food to eat, it would have been enough. If He had done nothing but create for us a safe land, it would have been enough.

And I will remember that tonight, even if we are the only family in this entire town lighting candles and blessing wine and asking the official four questions but no doubt answering many more. I will look at my family and our feast and trust that we are writing a chapter in our family’s history that I will be proud to reflect on and grow from. Dayenu.

It is enough.

*** 





12 comments:

  1. You're right. It IS enough. You are giving your children memories that they will cherish forever. They may be memories that are different from the memories they have but that doesn't make them any less special.

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    1. I need to keep that in mind. thank you.

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  2. It's so great that you're keeping your culture alive. It can be difficult when you marry someone who doesn't share the same experiences/upbringing.

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  3. beautiful — especially the last three paragraphs. Here in the North, we have a slightly larger Jewish population than you have, and tonight we are attending a community Seder, with probably 25 people. But it's the first time in a long time I have them gone to Toronto to be with my family, and I really need to remind myself that this option — the one we chose — is just as good an option. Dayenu.

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    1. I would love to attend a community seder. maybe next year I'll just invite everybody we know and call it that.

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    2. I say, why not? I'm really realizing that my kids have no clue what I grew up with – they think their own traditions are fantastic, and I keep remembering that. Last night, when I would've done something differently or the Cedar didn't go the way my sitters from home used to go, I kept repeating to myself "Dayenu."

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  4. As long as you keep asking in your heart why this night is not like any other night, and keep bringing your culture, heritage, and faith to your girls, it is enough. You don't have to do it perfectly, you just have to try.

    As the daughter of a long line of lost Jews, I can tell you that even growing up with Grandparents who adamantly and hatefully denied the rich heritage bequeathed to them through many generations, I still survived with a longing to know my heritage. I used to pore over library books even in preschool (before the truth of our Hebrew bloodline was finally shared) about Judaism, Israel, and the Hebrews with a hunger that came from somewhere deep in the collective memory of that "We" you mentioned. You know that feeling sure a million times more than I do. My sense of the "we" is a hoarse whisper, yours is the shout of a lifetime of experience and culture, proudly lived and clutched to by those who survived the latest attempt to erase that "We".

    Your girls, who have parents who recognize the importance of that same heritage, are lucky, and will surely grow into women who are proud to be members of the Chosen People. They may not be devout Jews like some of your Toronto neighbours, but they'll have the joy and sadness to share the long history of their people. The Hebrews survived 40 years in the desert with only manna to sustain them. Surely in the lush cornfield, they won't wilt but remain a part of that nation.

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    1. *dust in my eye* thank you for this. xo

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  5. Did you see what I posted on Facebook from the NYT? You should feel good about this post after reading it. Very pretty writing here KG.

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  6. I loved this Karen. What a beautiful post! You're children are very lucky to have such an amazing mother.

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  7. We need more people to be proud that they are Jewish. Being Jewish is special. There are not many people that are Jewish after all.

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