Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies



I was born in 1967 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and lived there until I went to college at the University of Chicago. Shortly after graduating (1989), I moved to Sandhill Farm, a small communal organic farm outside of Rutledge, Missouri.

Living in this small town (population 100) for the last two-and-a-half years has really changed my perspective on being Jewish. Growing up in Ann Arbor (population then at 100,000), I definitely felt in the minority as an observant Conservative Jew. My family kept kosher, didn't ride or write, etc., on the Sabbath, and observed all the major holidays. Although there were several other Jews my age in school, there were only two of us in my elementary school who missed classes on Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuoth as well as on Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur.

I felt my differentness quite strongly. While many of my close girl friends became Girl Scouts or played after school sports, I went to Hebrew school. I wasn't supposed to care about having the "right" clothes or hairstyle-we were different. Our dad, a professor, gave lots of our money away to charity instead of buying fancy things. This was right because we were, after all, the Chosen People.

Of course, I was different from most of the kids at Hebrew school too; their parents were doctors and lawyers, and they lived in a neighborhood with huge, far-apart houses and intricately winding streets. They did have the "right" clothes, monograms and all. One girl, Julie Annette Pratt (not quite her real name), wore her embroidered initials more proudly than most. And, they didn't seem to understand the weightiness of being Chosen.

While I was growing up, I knew that there were places with much larger Jewish populations where there were Jewish Community Centers with swimming pools, and even some cities where the public schools closed on Jewish holidays. When I was fourteen (1981), I spent six weeks with relatives in Israel, and experienced the incomprehensible--that everyone there was Jewish, that I could assume they were Jewish unless I found out otherwise! (As a fourteen-year-old, I had very little sense of our Palestinian sisters and brothers; they were not the "Israelis" I was there to visit.) Later, when I was in college, Jews comprised a rumored 30 percent of the university community.

Compared to those kinds of Jewish communities, Ann Arbor felt like a "small town." I don't think I had any concept that there were places where no Jews lived, or where one Jewish family in an entire county was a lot until I moved here.

I'd been told that Elke, a member of Sandhill Farm, was actively engaged in an exploration and reclaiming of her Jewish heritage, as she sought to pass some of the native-Reconstructionist, feminist, and "neopagan" --ways of reinterpreting traditional Jewish rituals. I know that the traditional celebrations were originally oriented toward natural events like the harvest, and that the calendar followed the cycles of the moon. I'd fantasized that Elke and I might explore these things together here at Sandhill, where Sukkot really does happen during the busy harvest season, and the full moon of Pesach lights up the fresh warmth of a spring night.

Elke left with her daughter two days after I moved to the farm, and I became the only "identified" Jew in this county of 5,000 people. My family-sized commune of six to ten people has been a supportive place to explore my own vision of eco-feminist Judaism--probably as supportive as any group of non-Jews could be. Yet, I feel more isolated as a Jew, more like an "Other," than I have ever felt before.

In Ann Arbor, I experienced very little overt anti-Semitism. I remember one comment from a teacher, when I told her I was going to be gone for yet another Jewish holiday, that we "should all just move to Israel anyway." At the time, her comment did not really distress me, any more than missing school usually did. And, when the N eo-Nazis came to march, there was a huge counter-demonstration that dwarfed the five teenaged boys and made them look ridiculous to me. A Swastika painted on the new synagogue made us angry, but I was not afraid. It was a silly prank.

Here in Scotland County, I am often afraid to tell people I am a Jew. It's not like in Southern Missouri, where the Ku Klux Klan is resurgent and a Hungarian man recently walked into a health food store and stated that all Jews should be killed, but it's also not that far from Dubuque, Iowa, where there has been a recent spate of cross burnings in response to a possible rise in the black population.

This past fall, I was selling our agricultural products at a harvest festival in a nearby town. We get most of our income from sorghum, honey, and garlic that we grow and process here on the farm, and a large chunk of our sales occurs at the autumn fairs. It was Saturday. I usually refrain from work on the Sabbath and take time to appreciate the natural world as it is rather than acting in it to create or destroy--but I am not too strict about it and had chosen to take a turn at the fair that weekend.

I was dressed in "traditional" rural garb: long dress with a petticoat and an old-fashioned bonnet. We were demonstrating spinning and candledipping, doing public relations, and selling our products. A woman asked me how much I wanted for the garlic braids that were on display. I told her, but her expression indicated that it was too much. Since it was a new product we were experimenting with, I asked, "How much do you think they're worth?" "Oh, I don't want to Jew you down, I was just looking for something under $5.00," came her reply.

I'd heard of the phrase once or twice, in discussions of anti-Semitism, but had never heard it used. I was stunned, could not react. The woman left, and I looked around, the full sense of my isolation descending like a scratched and clouded pane of glass between me and my surroundings. What could I have said to her?

"That's anti-Semitic." "That's inappropriate. I'm a Jew." "We aren't really like that--it's a stereotype." From my own internalized oppression, I felt shame. I could not then have said, "I am a Jew, and there's nothing wrong with bargaining!"

What was I, a nice Jewish girl, doing here in a place like this, in this costume, on the Sabbath?! I felt I was masquerading before these people, some of whom had probably never met a Jew in their lives. What would they have thought, said, done, if they had known? Did Jewish women ever wear clothes like these? Did they spin or dip beeswax candles for the Sabbath lights?

Nowadays Jews congregate in urban fortresses or move to the suburbs to make way for the Black ghettos. In prayer, the Amidah, which is added seasonally and prays that the wind may blow and the rain may fall, is an abstract concept, perhaps even distasteful, to these urban Jews--"who would want such weather!?" Who, indeed, when Jews do not till the earth?

Yet another layer of isolation, alienation, which I experience here: in the academic, progressive Judaism of my roots, I have learned to look beyond the "traditional," parochial concerns of the Jewish community. The closest synagogue is a one-and-one-half hour drive from here, in Quincy, Illinois--an old, now Reform, congregation where the extent of political concerns is freedom of religion and loan guarantees to the State of Israel.

While my current isolation helps me appreciate the importance of strengthening and supporting our own culture and community, I cannot feel at home in this congregation. In part, this is because it is Reform, and when I seek the familiarity of my childhood traditions, I want a Conservative service. But, more importantly, too much of what I value is non-existent there, and I cannot be myself. While I am "in the closet" in rural northeast Missouri as a Jew, at the temple in Quincy I would need to hide almost everything else. I am a radical feminist bisexual pagan, as well as a Jew.

I plan to leave here in the early part of 1992, most likely to move back to a city for a while. My reasons are many and complex, but one of the biggest factors is the cultural isolation I feel here. Outside of our small group there are very few people in this area living alternative lifestyles or values. There are many things I want to explore in life, and I need more like-minded people to explore them with. Isolation from other alternatively-minded Jews is one small, but significant part, of this picture.

I hope to maintain my connections with the natural world, the seasons and cycles of life; with practices of growing food and living lightly on the earth. I feel that congregating in the cities is not the truest expression of Jewish spirituality or ethics. In the long run, I seek a path that will allow me to integrate the different parts of myself: my attraction to a rural lifestyle, with my need for a supportive community; my passion for social change, with my rootedness in tradition. I expect that degrees of difference--between myself and other Jews and between myself and non-Jews--will continue to be an important theme as I see and travel on this path.





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