Jewish (And Safe) In “Redneck Country”

On finding a welcoming home in the small-town South

“Well, good luck,” my friend intoned solemnly. “You better be careful down there.” The look on his face was one of deep concern.

Was I going on a dangerous assignment? Being sent to Iraq or Afghanistan on a military mission? Taking on an undercover job with the CIA?

No, none of those: My wife and I were moving from the Bay Area of Californiato rural America. By “down there” my friend meant the Deep South. Specifically, Monticello, Florida, a small town in the Florida Panhandle northeast of Tallahassee, about twenty-five miles south of the Georgia state line.

My friend is well-traveled, literate and highly intelligent, a retired professor at the University of California–Berkeley and not prone to alarmist speculation. Nonetheless, his face almost blanched when I told him where we were going.

Why, he wondered, would a Jewish couple move from the safety and security of the diverse San Francisco Bay Area to a small town in the Deep South? From the accepting-of-anything, tolerant Bay Area to…“redneck country”? He could not comprehend our decision, even when I told him that my wife grew up in Tallahassee and has family there.

He was convinced that once there, we would be subject to taunts, shunned, ignored, or possibly even be in physical danger. He imagined our home and cars vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti, young punks in pickup trucks wearing Confederate flag T-shirts and sporting shaved heads glaring at us, shouting anti-Semitic threats.

Well. Four years later, let me tell you just how far off-base my kind friend was with his concerns.

My wife and I love our community in Monticello. We feel totally safe and welcome here in rural Jefferson County. It’s not as if we’re constantly broadcasting that we are Jewish, but then again, we feel no need to hide the fact, either.

The irony in my Berkeley friend’s statement is that in some ways, depending on your political stance, the Bay Area may present more at-odds moments than the Deep South. For instance, one morning my wife and I went to the local diner for breakfast. It was in the winter, and chilly. I wore my sweatshirt emblazoned with the Hebrew letters צ.ה.ל. – Tzade, Hey, Lamed – Hebrew for the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces (which was also written in English on the sweatshirt with the IDF logo). There was no mistaking what it stood for, and the support I was expressing. As we paid the bill and prepared to leave, a man sitting at a nearby table nodded to me and said, “I like your sweatshirt.” I thanked him and he then said, “Best army in the world.” I agreed; we shook hands and my wife and I left. Never once did I ever hear that in the San Francisco Bay Area!

Monticello is a city of about 3,000 people, a heavily Christian community with 19 churches and not a single synagogue or Jewish organization of any kind. Yet it is here, in this small town in rural North Florida, where as Jews we have found kindness, and acceptance. The pastor of the huge First Baptist Church lives on our street, one house away. He greets me warmly during our morning walks, and never fails to tell me how much he admires and respects Israel, the Jewish people, and our involvement in Temple Israel, our synagogue in Tallahassee.

Small and large towns have their advantages and disadvantages—but moving “down here” is where this Jewish boy feels most at home.

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