Three Jewish women walked into a nail salon….
This is not a joke, just what I did with two of my friends last weekend. These tired working moms needed a pedicure, stat! I have been to this salon countless times and am always my usual talkative friendly self to the unlucky soldier charged with trying to make my runner’s feet look presentable.
The nail technician that I am paired up with the most is Daniel, a young African American man who is married to one of the other workers, who happens to be Vietnamese. Daniel and I have chatted for hours over the time I have known him, about nothing and everything. I usually come in with a friend or two, and you can tell that he finds our banter amusing. We might even be on the list of his favorite customers.
On our last visit, my girlfriends and I relaxed and started chatting about something, and we must have mentioned something Jewish. At this, Daniel’s eyes grew big and he said, “Are you Jewish? I had no idea. You don’t look Jewish.”
There it was, the comment that no matter how many times you hear it is just puzzling. You don’t look Jewish.
This notion of “looking Jewish” perpetuates so many Jewish stereotypes and yet also seems harmless enough when asked by sincerely uninformed and curious people. My friends waited for my answer, and I playfully responded that I actually do look pretty darn Jewish (as long as we are talking about stereotypes).
Daniel continued, “No, seriously. Tell me… how I would know if someone was Jewish? What do Jews look like?”
It was such an innocent question and yet so powerful, as it reminded me that there are still many people who know nothing about Judaism and have never met a Jew (even though San Antonio has over 9,000 Jews). Those of us living in southern small towns know this scenario well, and are often the token Jew of our classroom, or school, and almost every group of which we are a part. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s like being signed up to be a group’s representative without being asked if you wanted the job. Some of us readily accept the charge of being the face of the Jewish community, while others are extremely uncomfortable.
While Daniel’s question was innocent, many of the questions that face us lonely Jews can be quite unpleasant. We are repeatedly asked questions such as: Why did the Jews kill Jesus? Are you OK knowing that you are going to hell? and even, Don’t Jews have horns on their heads? Sometimes these questions are like Daniel’s, from a combination of ignorance and interest, and other times they have a hurtful agenda attached.
To complicate matters, Judaism is something that is not always visible to others. I can conceal my Jewish identity if I want to, which perpetuates the situation of people not knowing many Jews. The more this happens, the more people are uninformed about Jews and the more uncomfortable I may feel exposing my Judaism to others in the future. It’s a cycle that can only change with non Jews educating themselves and with Jews being proud of being Jewish even when its not easy. These are both tall orders, and yet we have to start somewhere.
So I took a deep breath, and asked Daniel what else he wanted to know about Jews.
Have you been in a situation like this? What would you say?
This week, as I perused the internet, I stumbled upon a quiz entitled “Where You Belong: Your State Personality.”
It involved a series of ten questions and, at the end, it tells you in which state you should live. I’m a little bit of a sucker for these kinds of quizzes, so I took a stab at it. Based on my answers to the ten questions, I belong in… Georgia!
I was pretty unfazed by this, considering I was raised about twenty-five minutes from the Florida-Georgia Line (the boundary, not the band) and feel comfortable in the area. But this whole concept of a person “belonging” in a state really got me thinking. Is it true? Are there states in which I “belong,” and states in which I do not?
I have never felt this way. In Florida, I belonged. In Massachusetts, I hated the cold, but I belonged. In Mississippi, I belong. However, when I talk to some of my friends, I don’t get the same reaction. Sometimes, my friends are too nervous to even try a new place, a location different from where they grew up.
“The South?” My Northern friends will say. “Oh, no. No thanks, I’m fine up here. I don’t think I could ever move down there.”
“The North?” My Southern friends will say, “Oh, no. I’m fine down here. I don’t think I could ever move up there.”
Why do I feel comfortable everywhere I go, when others just… don’t?
I think I’ve figured it out, though. It’s not that I’m a perfect blend of Northern and Southern, or that I’m more adaptable than most. It’s that I’m Jewish.
After much thought, I realized that this defining characteristic – being Jewish – is what has consistently allowed to me to find a home and to feel comfortable in all the states, and all the countries, in which I have lived. I don’t have to worry about where I will make my first friends, where I will find meaning, or how I will be spiritually fulfilled. All that is a given: I just find the other Jews!
I now realize how incredibly lucky I am, but I also am hopeful that others will understand that they too can belong anywhere once they find their niche, be it a faith community, activity, cause, or passion. Besides, as dynamic personalities, we change and find new ways to fit in, too.
Case in point? I took the quiz three days later to see if it was the same, and this time it said I’m made for Tennessee…maybe that’ll be my next stop!
Want some insights into a historian’s dilemma? It involves cultural identity. Geography. And NASCAR. (Well – sort of.)
The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities now contains 250 community histories from 11 different southern states. As we get toward the end of our researching and writing, we are beginning to reach the edges of our territory, where the borders can get a little fuzzy. Covington and Newport, Kentucky, for example, are considered part of the south, but just across the river, Cincinnati, Ohio, is not.
Virginia, which will be completed and online this fall, presents an interesting case. Richmond, with Confederate statues lining Monument Avenue, remains culturally southern, while Alexandria feels little different from the suburb of any northern metropolis. Our encyclopedia history of Alexandria will tell the story of how the southern river port with a small Jewish congregation became enveloped by the expansion of Washington, D.C. after World War II. If one defines the south culturally and historically, rather than simply geographically, then Alexandria was once southern, but is no longer.
The shifting southern-ness of northern Virginia foreshadows the next big dilemma for the encyclopedia: Florida.
Originally, Florida wasn’t even included in the ISJL’s territory. But a few years ago, we took in the Sunshine State as our “12-state region” became the “13-state region.” We don’t serve the entire state, just the panhandle, which is sometimes affectionately called “Lower Alabama.” But after Virginia goes live in the near future, Florida is the last frontier for the encyclopedia. How much of Florida is southern, and which communities should we include in our encyclopedia?
When I give lectures about southern Jewish history, I usually cite recent population statistics, but I always exclude Florida. The main reason for this is that the explosion of the Jewish population of south Florida, fueled by retirees and northern transplants over the last several decades, has little to do with the history of Jews in the South. South Florida’s Jewish community has far more connections and cultural similarities with the Jewish community of New York than with Pensacola, Florida, let alone Greenville, Mississippi. The columnist Leonard Pitts, writing from Miami, once declared that south Florida was the only part of America where you have to go north to get to the South.
Also, far more Jews reside in south Florida than live in the entire South. When the last national Jewish population study included Florida as the South in its regional breakdown, we learned nothing about southern Jewish life, only south Florida Jewish life.
Once, when I was speaking to a group in Sarasota, I was nervous about so easily excluding Florida from the South. So I decided to ask my audience whether they consider themselves to be southerners. Only two people amongst a hundred or so raised their hands: one woman originally from Waco, Texas and a man from Georgia. The rest of the audience, all residents of Florida, had no identity as southerners. While this impromptu poll made me feel a little better about excluding Florida from my population figures, the problem of Florida and how we define the South has always gnawed at me.
Now it’s time to face this issue head on. Will I have to visit Key West and Miami Beach on my next research trip? Was Seinfeld’s portrayal of the Florida retirement community “Del Boca Vista” a humorous portrait of southern Jewish life? Were Morty and Helen Seinfeld southern Jews? I haven’t figured out the answers to these questions just yet, and would love to read your opinions on the subject. In the meantime, I am working on a theory about drawing the South’s border somewhere between Daytona Beach, home of the Daytona 500, and Orlando, home of Disney world. After all, the Walt Disney Company, run from a nice Jewish boy from New York seems Yankee – and what’s more southern than NASCAR?
Do you think of Florida when you think of “the South”? Why or why not?