Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies




My happiest memories as a very young child were walking to shul with my father, holding his hand tightly, trying to match my short steps with his long strides. There was a safe, comfortable Jewishness in our home--we lit candles Friday night, kept the kitchen and bathroom lights on, went to bed singing Zmiros. Shabbos morning my mother would stay home with my younger sister, and we would walk to shul. Up until I was six or so, I would sit next to my father in shul entwining my fingers in the tzitzis of his talis, listen to the davening, and trying my hardest to remember when to stand, bow, sit, respond. Eventually I moved to the back pews with a girl friend where we would chat, giggle, and daven. I would meet Janice at her block every Shabbos morning and we'd walk together to shul. Around this time my family moved from one neighborhood to another. My best friends, besides Janice, were Italian and Irish--as was 98.9 percent of Milford. One friend even went to parochial school. I was the only Jewish kid they knew. I don't recall my parents discussing with me what I was allowed to eat at friends' houses. I knew that I could only buy my lunch on Fish Day (Friday) and that my friends would bring Twinkies to school and cold cuts on soft white bread.

I always felt very different. There were only ninety Jewish families in Milford and one Orthodox shul. Perhaps five families, including ours, were kosher; three of these perhaps, like ours, were Shomer Shabbos. The beginnings of the school year were the toughest. One holiday after another after another with teachers resenting all the absences, especially since the other Jewish kids were there on Succos, on Simchat Torah, on Pesach, etc. Maybe that's why the Jewish students were among the top learners in school--so that they couldn't be penalized for missed days, they always made up the work. The older I grew, the more differences became apparent--my friends would hang out downtown on Saturdays, buy hamburgers and fries, get driven by their parents back and forth. I would walk and meet them, never ate anything, always feeling left out.

By age seven I was attending Hebrew school three days a week. My friends all went to catechism, and I often tested them on their text. One day a friend noticed my Siddur on my school desk. "What is that, an upside-down Chinese book?" she laughed. I told my teacher, the only Jewish teacher in the school, who had always treated me special. She called Andrea and me to the side, and so began our first lesson in tolerating differences. Of course, years later, Andrea and I became best friends. When I would go on vacation for a few days to the beach with her family, her father would walk on the beach to find me fish sandwiches. They would wait until after Shabbos to drive me home when I would visit. When I was no longer an observant college student visiting them on Shabbat, her father refused to drive me home until sundown. My older sister had a less pleasant experience with Hebrew school. She was pushed and called a "dirty Jew" by a couple of older boys in front of the Hebrew school when she was seven. After that, she was not allowed to walk to Hebrew school alone.

I was creatively observant in high school. All my friends knew of my peculiar habits; only eating certain things; no riding or no money on Shabbat. Everyone seemed to accommodate me. Friends' parents brought peanut butter on cookouts; they arranged their schedules to coincide with Shabbat. My task was to schedule all these school events so that they would not all be on Jewish holidays. And so I was very active in school: editor of the newspaper, accompanist of the chorus, secretary of the Student Council. My Italian boyfriend was co-captain of the football team and Honor Society, and was always angry at my parents. We would meet at the corner of my street. All the Jewish boys (maybe four) I considered "nerds," except for Ralph, who became one of my best friends--but I never would have dreamed of dating him. I had joined BBYO/AZA; my father had insisted but the boys in the five towns who joined all confirmed my belief--all "nerds." My older sister was allowed to go to her prom with an Italian boy only after intervention by a teacher. "It's only one night--she won't marry one" (she did). I played it differently--I didn't ask if I could go--I told them I was going and arranged everything myself--except my father found a friend's wife to fix my hair. He did not come home early to see me off--no pictures, no best wishes. One prom fell during Chol Homoed Pesach; equipped with Passover soda and matzoh; off I went.  

Internally I felt pulled between my boyfriend and my parents--and it seemed a no-win situation--if I married someone Jewish, they would be happy, but I wouldn't. At sixteen, I wrote about such things, wondering if there was a solution.

Obviously the problem was not so simple. Life had changed dramatically from my parents' days. My father was the oldest male child of nine; stay!ng close by the family (most of the brothers worked together) was all important. He grew up in a non-Jewish town where the Jews really stuck together; his grandfather built the shul, and all the Jews congregated at my grandparents' after shul every Shabbat. He and all his siblings had no question about whether to marry Jewish--it was unheard of to do otherwise. Only two siblings went to college--a sister and a much younger brother freer to make choices. My paternal grandfather (alive at ninety-three and as rigid as ever) was brought up in the tradition of a Hasidic home in Russia; many superstitions, many rituals, no explanations. After every loss through illness, my grandfather became more religious, even more so than his father, who lived until ninety-nine years of age.

My paternal grandmother came from a religious, educated family in Poland; her father was a scholar, an enlightened man. Women, of course, were not educated, but rather worked and took care of the house to enable the husbands to learn. My father's family to this day is a well-known, well-respected religious Jewish family in Boston.

My mother came from an educated Conservative family. Court translators and rabbis make up her background. Her family, to this day, (including herself) are Jewish educators. Her great-grandfather was a Talmudic scholar. My mother grew up in Roxbury, the Jewish heart of Boston, many years ago. All of her friends and boyfriends were Jewish.

Both of my parents continue to be pillars of their small shul in my home town. They have devoted their lives to their Judaism and have inspired many in the community by their teaching and example. My father supplies the town with kosher meat that he gets from out of town. He is called on Halachic matters, he tutors for Bar Mitzvahs and will kosher someone's home. My mother has been the Hebrew school teacher for over thirty years--just retired. My parents attend shul regularly; my father is the unofficial rabbi/Gabbai, and he calls his fellow Jews to form a minyan every week. My mother recently decided it was time for her learning of Haftarah. My father taught her, and she has now read the Sedra of the week many times in shul; that is the only part of the service women are allowed to do--without the blessings before and after. Although there is now mixed seating, my parents sit separately. The Jewish population has dwindled in Milford; those who wanted a more Jewish community have left for other areas, those remaining are older, those moving in have little Jewish background. And so the shul is changing; as you can imagine, this is very painful for my parents.

I was once proficient in Hebrew. In college, where I fluttered from one major to another, the only classes I really enjoyed were my Hebrew classes, but I knew I could not be a Judaic major--too much baggage. Instead, I did a year-long exchange program in Israel during the Yom Kippur War and returned home committed to becoming a social worker and psychotherapist. After graduate school, I began a career which I continue to pursue. Most of my clients are not Jewish. I married a Reform Jew committed to his Judaism but disdainful of ritual. His grandparents were very poor and very observant--the family concluded that one followed the other--observant and poor--and gave it up. We try to come up with a flexible definition of our Jewishness that is somewhat comfortable--no small task. For instance, we only use kosher meat, but mix utensils, and have separate dishes--follow me? We sent our eldest son to Hebrew day school for three years. It was a wonderful, vicarious experience for me, but not for the family. We actively communicate and struggle and live with the conflict. (Rob is a psychologist--we love the process.) I go to shul often and actually lead a small part of the davening at the conservative, egalitarian minyan we belong to. It's too religious on some levels; just right on others. My husband and the kids come occasionally. Occasionally, I feel lonely in my Jewishness.

Most of our friends are Jewish couples or half-Jewish couples. We both were happiest working together at a primarily Jewish-staffed clinic. My husband went to Brandeis University for his undergraduate degree. His younger brother, like my older sister, is intermarried.

Currently, we live in a town with two temples. However, the town is not very Jewish; we both would like to live in a more Jewish area, but these areas seem to correlate with the more costly areas. We belong to a Jewish Community Center. At the recent Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, my husband was concerned that anti-Semitic remarks would be aired. I guess we both live with this worry.

I have tried to figure out the formula for a non-conflictual Jewish life--some c0nsonance among home, community, school needs to exist--but does this become too narrow-minded an experience? Ideally, one wants--believes--that a Jewish life is the best choice in marriage, in practice, etc. Transmitting this to our children is the challenge for all of us.




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