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Isn't it pretty?

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Growing up Jewish in the South

Ok, so at the suggestion of a friend, I have decided that I am going to start writing a bit about what it was like to grow up Jewish in the South. In thinking about the places I've lived and the Jewish communities I have been exposed to, I don't know that my experience is even representative of what most other Jewish Southerners find, but I feel like I do have some interesting stories to tell, and I guess it is time to start sharing. First a bit of background. Growing up, my family moved around a lot, not always in the South. I was born in El Paso, Texas, and before the age of 13, my family moved to Portland, Oregon; Vancouver, British Columbia; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and then we finally settled in Birmingham, Alabama. While these cities are very diverse in location, they all have one thing in common - they are home to small Jewish communities. The only places I really have strong memories of living in are Oklahoma City and Birmingham, both of which can be considered to be part of the Bible Belt. The reason we moved around so much is not because we are a military family, as most people assume. My father works in the Jewish communal services field - he is currently the Executive Director of the Levite Jewish Community Center in Birmingham. We moved around as my father changed positions within the Jewish communal services field. Moving from community to community, I knew few others Jews well, and had even fewer Jewish friends. The schools that I attended could claim anywhere from a few Jews to only one, me. The truth was, I always felt I had more in common with my non-Jewish classmates than I did with the other Jews I encountered. The Jews I knew growing up were largely materialistic, snobby and focused on appearance much more than substance. Though it is a great possibility that I didn't give a lot of them enough of a chance because I simply wasn't around them enough. Forced Sunday School classes doesn't really give you a great forum for getting to know people. My family always affiliated with a Reform congregation, I went to Sunday school for years (against my weekly protests) and we attended services on High Holidays or for simchas. My Jewish education was pretty weak, though I did learn to read Hebrew and had a Bat Mitzvah where I read from the Torah. Often being the only Jew in my class or even in my school gave me a unique perspective on being Jewish. I guess I always had the choice of whether to be embarrassed or proud of being Jewish. But I think the fact that my family was so involved in the Jewish community, with my father being a spokesperson for whichever community we lived in, led me to feel that my Jewishness was a unique aspect of me that many others couldn't boast. I always saw it as something that made me who I was, even if I didn't have a clear understanding of the history of the tradition of Judaism. It was something that I was taught to stand up for and represent proudly and I strove to do that. I think that my choice to be proud of my difference is what gave me the foundation to eventually learn more about what that difference meant. And I will always be grateful for having that foundation.


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