THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents

 

Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

West Virginia




ROSE M. KENT--ATHENS, WEST VIRGINIA
 

"Excuse me, Mr. Finkelman, but I don't know much about the Jews. Exactly which branch of the Catholic faith are they?" This typifies the mind-set my parents encountered when they moved from the Bronx to Athens, West Virginia in 1948. People there were friendly, open, curious, and distinctly uninformed about the beliefs and culture my parents brought with them.

As newlyweds, my parents came to Athens so that my father could get some college teaching experience; they planned on two years at Concord College and then back to the Big Apple. But here it is forty-three years later, and my parents remain comfortably ensconced in the Christian community in which I was raised. No longer the only Jews in Athens (a few other families, some practicing, some not, followed during my childhood), they were the pioneers--and, as their firstborn, so was I.

In fact, my parents did not affiliate with the "local" temple (twenty miles away) until I was born in 1956. Both children of immigrants and raised in the Orthodox tradition, they disdained the Reform movement as something less than Jewish. Upon my arrival, however, Violet, one of their best friends, told them, "That little girl needs some religion. Either you join that temple in Bluefield, or I'll have her baptized in the Baptist church!" Violet meant what she said, and my folks knew it. They joined Ahavath Sholom and have had a happy relationship there ever since.

Athens was a wonderful place in which to grow up. Everyone knew everyone else, literally, and no one locked his or her front door even while out of town. It was not uncommon for us to return from a visit to New York to find fresh vegetables from our neighbor's garden on the kitchen counter or a casserole in the fridge. Our neighbors were like extra sets of parents in many ways, and I knew many of them as "aunt" and "uncle," though any blood relationship would have to be traced to the origin of mankind. I felt safe, secure, and loved; mine was a happy childhood.

I don't remember exactly when it was that I realized I was "different" from my friends. After all, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny visited me just as they visited my friends, even though we had no Christmas tree or Easter eggs decorating our home. My parents, sensitive to the need of children to fit in with their peers, played Santa and Bunny for my sister and me until we were old enough to understand at least something of differing religious beliefs. They did not want us to be taunted by our friends because Santa didn't stop at our house. After all, in our friends' world good little children were rewarded at Christmas and Easter. What would they have thought of us had we been left out? I do remember being vaguely confused by something attended in the summer even before we reach public school age; wasn't church stuff just on Sunday? But it wasn't until I went to school that my ethnicity became an issue.

I was the first, the very first, Jew to ever attend school in Athens. Evidently, I created quite a stir among the staff; they were unsure exact what to do with me. My first grade teacher, Miss Keaton (who I'm sure has no peer anywhere in the world), confessed her fears to my parent especially as it concerned the PTA Christmas program. "The children sing Christmas carols every year," she told them. "Do you want Rose to sit out?"

My father was emphatic. "Let her sing," he said, smiling. "She'll sing louder than the rest of 'em." To this day, I love the rich melody and lyrical joy of Christmas music. I learned early to appreciate things that were not of my family or culture. Then it was a matter of social survival. Now it has been synthesized into simply a broader understanding of the larger culture which many of my Jewish friends raised in large, suburban Jewis~ communities do not have. I wonder at their lack of knowledge of the greater human community. They, in turn, wonder at my lack of knowledge of Judaism. More on that later.

These were the days of Christmas trees in elementary school classrooms, invocations and benedictions at assemblies. The school calendar, then as now, revolved around Christian holidays, not mine. I had to make up work missed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, had to miss evening activities on Seder night, and had no friends my age with whom to share Jewish experiences. School friends teased me (kindly) about getting extra days off school and eight gifts at Chanukah time. While they included me in many of their significant religious rites (church on Sunday if I spent the night on Saturday, invitations to first Communions and confirmations, and the like), I do not remember including them in many of mine until much later into my teens. The Hebrew embarrassed me; it sounded so foreign, so strange to my own ears I was sure it would be even more alien to theirs. I am not sure this was a conscious thought when I was young, but I have always had a great need for acceptance, so I played down my differences whenever I could. They all knew I was different, but I didn't want to let them see exactly how different. In many ways, I guess, I wasn't sure I wanted to see the differences myself.

My parents were anything but social outcasts in Athens, and soon my father, by reason of his wit and public speaking skills, was a popular after-dinner speaker at a variety of civic events in Athens and neighboring towns: Lion's Club and Women's Club meetings, PTA programs, church circles. He, ever the teacher and eager to spread understanding and appreciation for Judaism, accepted almost every invitation to speak about the Hebrew calendar, Jewish history, major religious observations, and the like. He and Mom had (and still have) a Chanukah party for their bridge clubs every year, telling the Chanukah story, lighting the candles, eating latkes and kibbitzing (it has helped that one of their best friends grew up in upstate New York and as a child was the Shabbos goy for the local synagogue; he appreciates Yiddishisms and Jewish humor in a way only a "member of the tribe" can). They encouraged my friends to participate in similar events; my Girl Scout troop annually went Christmas caroling through the street's to end at my house with a rousing chorus of "We Wish You a Happy Chanukah," followed by candles and latkes. And they insisted that I attend religious school so I could have a better understanding of my heritage. The weekly two-hour sessions were among the worst experiences of my life.

Our temple, as small as it was, lacked two very important criteria for a successful Sunday School program: interested students and gifted teachers. The teachers were all very well-meaning Temple members who gave unselfishly of their time (with little or no training and few materials), trying desperately to instill the tenets of our faith to kids in whose lives Judaism played only an intermittent role. In my case, the year I began religious school there were eight students in my class; the next year, there were only two beginning students, so they were put in our class, and we repeated the curriculum of the first year. Bored? You bet! And that boredom was the only thing that united our class. We were ten students from four different communities over a radius of almost fifty miles. We went to five different elementary schools. We came together once a week to experience Judaism, but its relevance to our everyday "real" life seemed only slight. (In fact, a couple of girls in my class admitted that they were ashamed of being Jewish.) In my ten years of religious school, we had three different "full-time" rabbis and three visiting rabbis, rabbinical students from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati who served our congregation two weekends a month. There was little in the way of continuity, little in the way of relevance to our larger world, little in the way of intellectual stimulation. The most "religious" aspect of Sunday School for me was the stomachache that appeared at eight o'clock every Sunday morning. I did not want to go. Ever.

When I was sixteen, things changed somewhat. Our newest rabbi, Rabbi Goldwasser, was a real teacher and saw that the structure of what was called our confirmation class wasn't working. He changed it to tutorials in which we could do an independent study of a Judaic topic that interested us; some of us met with him singly once a month, others in small groups. My friend, Carol, and I studied the Holocaust using fiction and non-fiction written by survivors; it was through these sessions with her and the rabbi that I began to get a sense of being part of something worthwhile. I also got a sense of my own ignorance and conflicting emotions about my Jewishness. I refused to be confirmed while I knew so little and felt so confused. My decision hurt the rabbi (who was the first and only true teacher of Judaism that I had) and my parents, but I held fast. I was Jewish, but not a hypocrite. I could not profess a confirmed commitment when I did not feel it. This bothered them more than any refusal to be a Bat Mitzvah (my shyness was the determining factor in that decision; I could not abide the thought of leading a service, and-horrors!-having to read Hebrew). Since there was no Bat Mitzvah in the Orthodox tradition, my parents thought it unnecessary. My refusal to be confirmed, I think, was an indication to them that they had somehow failed me and that the entire congregation would know. Luckily for them, I was not alone in my refusal; others in my class also declined the honor.

I was bright enough to know that I needed a Jewish peer group in order to explore my Jewishness more fully, so I looked for colleges with a significant (but not overwhelmingly large) Jewish student population. As I told my parents, it would be a relief to be somewhere where I did not have to explain to everyone what a Bat Mitzvah was. And I wanted a chance for a happier social life. Though I had many friends and was respected and well-liked by most of my school's small population, I did not date very often. A male friend told me gently that even had he wanted to date me he would not because I was Jewish. In Athens, high school romances often led to marriage and family even before graduation. Jews were not considered marrying material. My years at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with a roommate whose last name was Cohen ("Oh, you got one!" my father chuckled when the assignment of roommates came in the mail) and a few other Jewish friends, helped ease some of my social discomfort and gave me some common ground with Jews my own age, but again, many of the people with whom I felt (and feel) most comfortable were not Jewish. There were only a couple of Jewish men who interested me romantically, and I eventually married a non-Jew. My husband, while a strong Catholic, delighted in my Jewishness because while I am certainly different from my Christian friends and acquaintances, I am also different from most Jews, largely, I think, due to my early isolation from them. When I go to church with my husband, I know I am not like the people there. And when I go to temple, I know I am not like the people there either.

Let me explain. I can share the excitement and goodwill engendered by many Christian holidays since they permeate almost every facet of society (Christmas, Easter, St. Patrick's Day, St. Valentine's Day), but I do not share Jesus. I have heard New Testament and Gospel scriptures hundreds of times, know of the miracles upon which much of Christianity is based, but intellectually and emotionally cannot buy into it. Yet I grew up among Christians, shared their homes, participated in their weddings, sang their music, ordered my life by their calendar (basketball games instead of services on Friday nights, shopping instead of shul on Saturday mornings, nothing to do on Sundays after the intrusion of Sunday School because nothing was open then on the Lord's day.) Their world was a larger part of me than the Jewish world. But my world was really never a part of theirs. They did not need to understand or participate in it, for they had each other. They did not need my acceptance. I, however, needed theirs.

Likewise, most of my Jewish friends grew up in what I feel was a closed community of Jewish people. Their social life revolved around BBYO, the Jewish Community Center, the country club, the synagogue. Their neighbors were all Jewish; their parents' friends were all Jewish. They knew non-Jews, of course, but not well. Many have never been in a church, never been to a baptism, never dated a non-Jew. The father of one of my friends told me, "No one loves a Jew but a Jew." Having been loved by many, I cannot accept that attitude as truth. Though I share a belief in one God, know some of the basic Hebrew prayers by heart, enjoy Pesach and Chanukah, and have finally come to appreciate the meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I have a broader perspective than most of the people who surround me at Temple. I am, in many ways, not of their world either. Like Ulysses, "I am a part of all I have met." I feel, most days, not one thing or another, but rather an amalgam of experiences and cultures. I have chosen to stay a Jew because I feel that it is a difficult gift entrusted to me to protect and nurture as best I can, but I am not altogether comfortable with it. I feel a connection to Israel and to other Jews because I too am a Jew, because there are certain experiences we share (holidays, humor, history, the Holocaust), but beyond that I am uncertain. My personal Jewish identity is tenuous, at best-an organic, changing thing, but I am a Jew, for better or for worse, as they say, and a Jew I shall remain. I doubt, however, that I shall ever be completely comfortable as a Jew.

How do I feel about living as a Jew in a small town? Had I not been the only one my age, had the town been not quite so small (1,000 people) and isolated from other large Jewish communities (the nearest one of any size was 100 miles away), I might have come away less confused and uncomfortable. I think my discomfort is a result, not of the size of the town but its isolation from anything Jewish. My parents did not do badly in choosing Athens, for it taught us trust, enlarged our view of people beyond the urban and suburban and the Jewish, and nurtured us as good and loving people. But it was not, and still is not, a good place to establish in the young a strong Jewish identity. To live as Jews in an isolated, Bible Belt community when your own identity is already established is one thing, but to develop a Jewish identity there is another. However well-respected, however well-loved, one always has the vague sense of not quite belonging. At least, that has been my experience.

I am proud to report that the Athens' townspeople now know that the Jewish people and the Catholic church are separate entities, largely because my parents were courageous enough to reach out to the Protestant community and unite with them in friendship and trust. The Reform congregation, while small, is an active force in the religious community of Mercer County. My younger sister, who had three or four other Jews in school with her, seems to have less trouble with her Jewishness than I do. Athens was not the problem. Being the first and only was. But, it could have been worse. And somebody had to do it, right?

 


 

 

 

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