Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Jewish In Oklahoma

I lived in Oklahoma from age three to thirteen, give or take a few months. My major Jewish memory from this time is a general theme of conflict and isolation; in a Junior High of 1,600, I was the only Jewish kid, just to give a sense of scope. There were two shuls in town, one Reform and one Conservative, and both fairly active, but all my friends there lived far enough away that I usually only saw them on Friday nights and Sunday mornings. I had the teachers that yelled at me - in front of the class - for not wanting to write a letter to Santa, and no one was surprised when major tests were scheduled for Yom Kippur.

There were good memories too, don't get me wrong! There was celebration, and learning, and family, and camp, and life that I look back on fondly, and when viewed through those lenses it's small surprise I want to be a Rabbi. But I knew my non-Jewish friends had those things too. What I had that they missed was conflict. Ironically, the community was homogeneous enough that racism and homophobia were entirely off my radar, so it was a long time before I learned I was not alone in my isolation.

I thought the lessons gained from this were strength and confidence in my beliefs, the ability to teach and explain my religion to my friends, the skill to debate religion on multiple fronts, and the desire to merge "being American" with "being Jewish". And I did get those things, but tonight I realized something new.

I am reading Jew vs. Jew, Freedman's exploration of the conflict between secular and religious Judaism in America, and, unsurprisingly, find myself firmly in the middle. As I dug deeper, I realized that I grew up without a real sense of Orthodox Judaism; it was as foreign to me as it was to my Christian friends. Like I said, there was the Reform temple and the Conservative synagogue and that was it, in my limited world view. I knew what Reform was; that's where we went, where I was Confirmed, where the Rabbi gave my sister her Hebrew name. I knew what Conservative was; that's where the other Rabbi was, where they used a different book and spent two days on Rosh Hashanah.

Reform was home.

Conservative was my friend's house.

I went to a Reform summer camp - Young Judea in Texas. A couple times per summer the kids from Camp Ramah came over; they were The Enemy, to be defeated whenever met on basketball court or kickball field. But after that they were our friends, we were all Jewish after all. They were just a little more...intense about it, and I couldn't follow their prayers. But my mom was a music teacher; I understood that some people use different melodies for the same songs, so that wasn't a problem.

A couple years before we moved away the congregations merged their Sunday Schools, so I got to learn more about what Conservative meant; the girls were bat mitzvahed at 12 instead of 13. Sometimes we'd go to services at one place, sometimes the other. I had friends at each, and friends at both. One Sunday I was recruited before class started to help round out a minyan; this was before my bar mitzvah, so I was handed a chumash with the explanation that it added two years to my age. It was an awesome experience; I was so proud to help out.

The point is, we were all Jewish. I knew there were differences, but I figured they just weren't important. Oh, sure, some were Important, but even those didn't really matter. You just remembered who would or wouldn't eat cheeseburgers and everything was ok.

Again, it's an irony of living in a low-diversity area. There just weren't enough of us to get really fractious. Then I moved to Chicago, and first encountered the idea that there were so many Jews we could sit around arguing about who is or is not Jewish. That's a myth, though. Jews make up about 0.2% of the world population; that's less than the margin of error on the last global census. Put differently, that means it's possible the existence of Jews is just a statistical error.

This isn't the place where I'll argue the case for Jewish unity versus plurality; I'm still working out a way to incorporate both into a single philosophy, I'll let you know what I come up with. I was struck by this realization because I always thought growing up Jewish in Oklahoma was an unpleasant "character building" experience that, all things equal, I'd just as soon do without. Now I see there was a true benefit to learning Judaism in that environment. The small space we lived in stripped away even the possibility of the idea of Jewish factionalism; we were pressed together to form a single community. It was the kind of pressure that breeds diamonds.

Lilah tov

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