Being Jewish in Alabama
When people find out that I spent a large portion of my formative years in Alabama, I usually get pretty typical responses. "There are Jews in Alabama?" "Wow, did you experience anti-semitism growing up in the South?" And, "What was it like being Jewish in Alabama?"
Well, first of all, contrary to popular opinion, Alabama is NOT the middle of nowhere. It happens to be a fairly large state in the USA. Birmingham, where my family lives, is actually a decent-sized place, certainly comparable to places like Cleveland and definitely bigger than Lakewood. So, despite the idea that Jews live in NY, and if they can't live in NY, then they tend to congregate somewhere close by, approximately 5,000 Jews actually made their way, mostly willingly, down to the Deep South town of Birmingham, Alabama. And I am so glad that they did.
Despite this decent-sized Jewish population, I was the only Jewish student in my high school. This was mainly due to the fact that my parents didn't really want my brother and I growing up with the wealthy, spoiled kids who attended the high school a neighborhood away, where the vast majority of Birmingham's Jewish teenagers attended school. So, in being Jewish at my school, I was alone.
I honestly think that this strengthened my Jewish identity. Like those things you work for hardest in life, you also hold them the most dear. I was lucky, because I was never really the type who needed to fit in and be like everyone else - I was ok with being different and sticking up for what I believed in. I was very open to learning about my classmates and friends religions (and they were quite diverse) and sharing mine with them - fair and square. I was involved in organizations that promoted tolerance for differences and diversity. I surrounded myself with people who accepted me for who I am, and in that way, discovered more about what that meant to me, on a personal level.
It wasn't always easy. There were the Christmas concerts and Easter celebrations and Christian youth groups that my friends were involved in, but that I didn't feel comfortable taking part. Though I did go to church with my friends on occasion and they came to services with me. Just out of curiosity - it was interesting to see the differences. But there were definitely times I felt left out.
But in contrast to New York, where it is so easy to be Jewish, where Jews can be found in mass quantities, where half of my classmates at my Catholic university are Jewish, I think it actually makes you feel being Jewish more strongly. Because I had to work for it. Because it was different. I think my Jewish identity is stronger because I had to take stock and figure out what it really meant to me, why it was important. I give my parents a lot of credit for supporting us in that - being Jewish was always important to them, a huge part of their identity even though we didn't practice much. But it was a undeniable part of the fabric of my life, that I never even thought to conceal.
So, while it seems like it would be hard growing up Jewish in Alabama, and while it was at times, it also gave me the strength to proudly be Jewish anywhere. And everywhere.