The stereotype that “Jews run Hollywood” didn’t come up much when I was a little kid; I doubt it comes up for most kids. This is not only because, hopefully, we’re spared from some stereotyping when we’re really small—but also because as a little kid, if Jews were running Hollywood, well, you sure wouldn’t know it from children’s entertainment.
As the only Jewish family in our little town, I didn’t see a lot of other Jewish families around. I also never saw my family reflected in the television or movies we watched. I mean, like, other than our annual Passover screening of The Ten Commandments, or our way-too-early introduction to Fiddler on the Roof. But both of those movies had been made a long time ago, and were obviously For Grown Ups. I fully expected that, like all of my friends and neighbors, the characters in the movies and TV shows I watched would celebrate Christmas, not Chanukah.
Until the Jewish mice.
When I saw Don Bluth’s now-classic animated feature, An American Tail, I was thunderstruck. The movie begins with the Mousekewitzes, gathered together to celebrate Chanukah. They even pronounced the “ch” right. The father played a violin, just like in Fiddler on the Roof, but for kids! And then, of course, the Cossacks raided their little Mouskewitz home in The Old World, and then the little mouse family was off to America, going through Ellis Island… just like my family.
Those mice are Jewish, I thought. Fievel and Tanya, they’re Jewish. They’re like me.
But here’s what I really loved about those Jewish mice: Their Jewishness was just part of who they were, and the story was about big ideas that everyone could relate to—starting somewhere new, family, growing up. The same way that in most of the other movies and TV shows I watched, the show wasn’t about them being Christian—they just were Christian, and therefore celebrated Christmas and Easter and everything, but their stories were about big ideas. My friends who weren’t Jewish still loved Feivel and related to his little Jewish-mouse family.
Even later, when I started going to Hebrew School and watched Torah-toons and holiday specials that reflected Judaism in the characters onscreen, there was something special to me about those Jewish mice. When Fievel is searching for his family, he didn’t stop along the way to explain what “kosher” is, or to teach the viewers how to play dreidel. He wasn’t a token Jewish character in a holiday special, designated as “The Jewish One.” He was Fievel, a lost immigrant kid who happened to be Jewish (and happened to be a mouse). I loved that in his little mouse family, they just were Jewish, and that fact was treated as casually as other movies treated the Christianity of their characters.
That felt like my own American tale. Being Jewish is part of my story, and influences my experience. Even when I’m not “doing something Jewish,” it’s still part of who I am. Those are the characters that still resonate with me most: not the ones overtly teaching us something about Something Jewish (or, sadly, playing into one of those old Jewish stereotypes), but the ones who just are Jewish. Like Fievel.
Seeing that reflected onscreen as a little kid had a lasting impact on me. Maybe that’s why I still tear up when I hear Somewhere Out There.
Mickey and Minnie are great. But Fievel and Tanya? Those mice helped me feel a little more included. They helped me believe that somewhere, out there – all of us can be represented.
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“Look… a Jewish home!”
As a small child, I found mezuzah spotting to be a very exciting game. We were the only Jewish family where I grew up, and anytime I spotted a mezuzah on a door frame (on the door frame of another resident’s apartment at my Bubbe’s retirement building over in Toledo, Ohio, for example) I was thrilled. It was like a little clue, a code for those in the know.
Spot a mezuzah, find a family like yours.
Especially when families “like yours” are few and far between, there’s something special about finding each other. From a very young age, I understood that Jewish families could look very different, but that there were still certain things we shared—and for me, the mezuzah was one of the most tangible of ritual items, alerting us to one another.
I haven’t lived in a truly rural area since I was 17 years old. But as an adult, I’ve still mostly lived in smaller cities where houses with mezzuzot were still few and far between. When I traveled as an Education Fellow, or went to a friend’s home in Mississippi for a Shabbat dinner, I always paused to smile and sometimes even kiss that little marker on the door that signified I was at another Jewish home. In a small town, it matters even more.
There’s something powerful and welcoming for me about the mezuzah, something that serves as a physical reminder of some of the most important elements of our culture. The tilting-inward, inviting guests into your space; the words within, “the watchwords of the faith,” from the beginning of the Shema. While many aspects of my personal Jewish life and observance have shifted, I have always had this symbol upon my door.
Recently, my husband and I moved to a new place. As we began unpacking and getting set up, my husband—who was not raised in a Jewish home, incidentally—said: “Hey, where’s the mezuzah?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “One of these boxes. We’ll find it eventually.”
“We have to find it now!” He insisted. “Otherwise people won’t know it’s a Jewish home!”
In the sea of boxes surrounding us, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. But we found the mezuzah, and mounted it. He was right—the other boxes could wait; we needed to get that little guy in place. Because now, anyone else who might be mezuzah spotting could see our door frame, and perhaps feel that same flutter of excitement and connection.
Spot a mezuzah, find a family like yours.
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My last year has been full of change: I got married. My husband got a new job, out of state. These two changes led to a third change, as I became… well, whatever the landlocked version of “bi-coastal” might be: we moved, but I kept my job, and now I’m dividing my time between the Midwest and the South.
We’ve had several posts on this blog about what it’s like to come to the South, and be Jewish (like this great guest post about Jewish life in Jonesboro, Arkansas). But now, I have a fresh perspective on the other side of the coin: what it’s like to move to a much bigger, Northern Jewish community… and watch the reactions when you say you came from the South.
Recently, my husband and I began “Shabbat-Shopping” – i.e. checking out synagogues, chavurah groups, and other alternatives in the big city, to see where we might find the right-fit Jewish community. There’s certainly no shortage of options! On our first outing, we went to a progressive service in the heart of the city. At the end of the service, all newcomers were asked to stand up and say their names and where they were from, if visiting or new in town.
When we stood, we said our names, and shared that we were from Mississippi.
There was audible reaction to this statement from the congregants. Two, in particular, stood out.
An older woman, seated in front of us, turned around and said: “Mississippi? Really? Ugh. I’m sorry. I mean, I’m glad for you that you’re not there anymore. I’m sorry you had to live there. I can’t even imagine.”
Meanwhile, a younger woman from the back of the room called out: “I’m from Louisiana! Find me later!”
Both of these folks did indeed find us after the service.
The first woman had her husband in tow. He, too, felt it must be miserable to live in Mississippi: “How’d you wind up there in the first place?” He asked, making a face. “Are you, y’know, real Jews?”
My husband stared at me, clearly wondering—as anyone should—what the heck “real Jews” even meant in that context. (Or, um— ever.)
“Actually,” I said, completely ignoring the ‘real Jews’ part of the question, “I work for a Jewish nonprofit in Jackson. And we love Mississippi.”
“We left because I got a job here,” my husband explained. “But we still have a lot of friends and family there.”
“Oh,” said the woman. “I’m sorry if what we said was rude. We didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No harm done,” I said, smiling. “Have you ever been to Mississippi?”
“No,” she admitted.
“It has its issues. We don’t love it for the politics,” I joked. (Hey, know your audience.) “But there’s a lot to love about it. And the Jewish communities there are great. I’m glad I still get to spend a lot of time there—I miss it when I’m not in Mississippi. It’s home. And it definitely has better winters!”
“That’s true,” the woman’s husband chuckled. We made small talk with them for a few more minutes. Then the young woman from Louisiana found us.
“You’re from Mississippi?” She asked, grinning. “I left Louisiana after high school. Like, more than a decade ago. But I still miss it. I dream about Louisiana a lot of nights. Don’t you just love it?”
My husband (a Louisiana native) and I nodded, and began talking with her about what she loved about life here, and life there. I love the instant kinship you often feel with those who have also lived in the South.
As we left the service, it hit me: how funny it is that when you’re Jewish in the small-town South, you’re explaining Judaism—and when you come from the South to the big-city Jewish world, you’re explaining the South.
William Faulkner said that to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi. Knowing, loving, and wrestling with Mississippi continues to help me understand the world, and also to understand myself. I’m still sometimes taken aback by the visceral reactions people have to the South, and particularly Mississippi, even if they’ve never been – but I’m happy to respond to those reactions. It’s part of the tax we pay, we who call Mississippi home; I’m always happy to share the good stories, acknowledge the difficulties, and maybe even change a few minds… and inspire a few visits.