Jews in Odd Places

This entry was posted in Life on by .

Allison Amend is the author of the novel Stations West. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.

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.

Allison Amend’s first novel, Stations West, is now available. Come back all week to read her posts for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.

Posted on June 14, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

One thought on “Jews in Odd Places

  1. Richard ben Serai

    Allison, we are living north of Cairns, in tropical Far North Queensland, Australia. We live among rainforest, with the Great Barrier reef and hundreds of islands, big and small, most uninhabited, just offshore. Our rivers and creeks contain human eating crocodiles and even some of the jungle trees can kill. People came from all over the world to see the wonders of our region and its a favourate place for Israeli backpackers. If fortunate, visiting Jews discover that there is a small (about 20 families) but thriving Jewish community here. Our nearest Shul (synagogue) is some 2,000 kms away to the south though on the High Holy days, trainee rabbis come up here from Melbourne and we create a temporary synagogue and each year have a public Pasach. There is some anti-semitism here but we deal with it in the blunt Aussie manner of ‘Bring it on or get over it!’. Jews have been up here since the beginning of white settlement (1850s)and, unlike non-Jewish Europeans (mostly British and Irish) and Chinese, actually got (and get) on well with the indigenous tribes (Aborigines). Does this make us ‘Jews in odd places’?

Comments are closed.