Since I’ve been touring with Stations West, there are invariably one or two people who approach me after each reading, telling me that their ancestors are from equally
as improbable places: North Dakota, New Mexico, etc. What does this mean? That these are not such improbable places after all. Like other religions and ethnicities, we Jews settled everywhere, bringing our culture, tradition (and usually our peddling wagons or dry good stores) with us.
I’ve been a Jew in an unlikely place, too. I spent a year in high school living in Barcelona, Spain, which has not had a meaningful Jewish community since 1492 (though a small Sephardic community thrives still). I spent a weekend in a tiny town by the name of Olot in the Pyrenees. This was during the first Gulf War, and the U.S. Consulate recommended we not divulge our status as Americans, and warned us against telling strangers if we were Jewish. After a few days of avoiding the topic with my teenage hostess (“My family doesn’t really go to church that often,” “I guess Americans write down the family tree in the Bible,” “No, I didn’t get confirmed”.) I revealed that I was Jewish. My hostess, who, after half-jokingly (I think) asking if I had horns, thought it was the coolest thing about me, and proceeded to show me off to all her friends as a Jew. Her friends were equally as delighted by the revelation; they had always wondered what Jew would be like. Her little sister kept petting my hair and calling me “Pretty girl” in Catalan. It was an odd weekend.
More recently, I was a Jew in Lyons, France, where I taught high school. Coincidentally, I taught at the only school in the city that had no Saturday classes, and was therefore the Jewish school by default. One of my students, upon finding out I was Jewish, invited me over for Hanukkah dinner, where his Sephardic family was so different from my Ashkenazi one that I might as well have been dining on the moon. I remember thinking their tunes were all wrong.
They told me a story, which I fictionalized in my short story collection Things that Pass for Love, about their experiences during the Second World War (Lyons was in occupied France). The grandfather hid in the cabinet for the duration of the war. In 1996, the little girl’s Jewish day school was bombed, avoiding killing children only by accident. I realized, then, how lucky I was to be free of the fear of persecution that plagued them constantly.
I found out five years later that one of my best friends in France was the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, who lost his first family in the camps. She had never thought to mention it.