With residents mostly emigrating from colder climates, my hometown really is a Southern (geographically) and Northern (cultural) fusion. Nicknamed “Paradise,” Sarasota, Florida’s motto boasts “Big City Amenities Meets Small Town Living.”
The town has plenty of personality with its big-meets-small mentality, beaches, and population. If you land in the airport, you’ll find a shark tank to greet you just outside of TSA Security. The “small town living” note on the sign should really say “small beach town living,” since Sarasota boasts one of the USA’s consistently best-rated beaches. Its affluent nature no doubt relates to the culture that John Ringling helped infuse into the society.
While travelling recently to a community on a rabbinic visit, I encountered another city with a very clear, yet completely different identity: Kilgore, Texas.
I had the pleasure of driving over from Longview after my visit had concluded to play a round of golf with some fellow golf-obsessed Nice Jewish Boys. Titled the “city of stars,” it’s not for astronomical or astrological reasons. Instead, it’s due to the discovery of oil in 1930. The “stars” to which it refers are the tops of oil derricks.
Never had I entered a city whose identity is so clearly played out virtually everywhere you go. As you drive in, instead of a shark tank, you are greeted by a giant oil derricks holding up the road sign. Immediately following is another oil derrick with the welcome sign… on which stands yet another oil derrick. I stopped in Circle K to grab a Gatorade to stay hydrated— lo and behold, an oil derrick was a column holding up the front overhang.
When I pumped my gas on the way out of town, I noticed that even the liquor store’s sign was modeled after the oil derrick. There’s something important about a town’s history, identity, and culture from what they make sure you notice while you’re there.
Whether it’s beaches or bohemian flair, olive trees or oil derricks, all towns are built around something. I will certainly pay more attention to the cities I enter from now on, looking for these markers that help explain who they are. It’s all part of hitting the road and really getting to know the communities we visit.
For what is your city best known?
Does it have a slogan?
How does its identity on display as you wander the streets?
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!