It was funny, almost. I was working at a Jewish sleepaway camp in the Pennsylvania Poconos (because where else would a Jewish summer camp be?). Another counselor hopped up alongside me on the picnic table where I was waiting for my campers to change out of wet swimsuits. “I forgot,” she asked, “are you from New York, or from Jersey?”
“I’m from Tennessee.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Oh. That sucks.”
Then, after a moment of apologetic contemplation: “But you’re really cool! I would’ve totally thought you were from New York.”
Then off she bounced, radiant in the mitzvah of bestowing such high praise upon a disadvantaged country bumpkin like me. I had to smile: Was she serious? I knew she was a sweet, sheltered kid, and her words were free of malice. What a world.
Born to northern parents in South Carolina and raised in the mountains of southern Appalachia, you might assume that I grew up disconnected from a Jewish community. In some ways, you’d be dead wrong: like many, my Jewish identity is made of braiding challah, pressing down on the bridge of my growing nose until my fingers go numb, and kippot (electric purple) from an uncle’s bar mitzvah in a drawer.
But in many other ways, you’d be right.
My Jewish identity is also the weird celebrity status bestowed on my mom when she appeared, armed with picture books and plastic dreidels, to give the Hanukkah talk at every elementary school holiday party. My mother, who rebelliously dropped out of Hebrew school at 11, had to brush up on the book herself each winter.
My Jewish identity is being dragged along to friends’ churches on the mornings after Saturday night sleepovers. How could I forget the schoolyard friends who told me, parroting their parents, that I was going to hell for not being Baptist or Methodist or whatever other Christian flavor of the week before getting back to playing tag?
My Jewish identity is finally meeting another kid like me — a rarity in Tennessee.
My Jewish identity is starting college and finding a community I relate to, but then feeling the imposter syndrome set in. I’m not Jewish enough. I’m behind. I’m jealous that there’s a synagogue in your hometown. And a JCC? You’ve got to be kidding me. How do you all know these prayers? I wish I could trade my nose for your hair, and that my skin were as dark as my mother’s. Above all, I wish I could stop even thinking these things.
Still, I wouldn’t change the quirks of my southern Jewish upbringing — the okra-matzah soup and Yiddish-Appalachian drawl — for the world.
Southern Judaism has taught me resilience and helped me forge a deeper relationship with my Jewish identity. Because I came into much of my Judaism alone, I feel I have a unique perspective in how I choose to embrace my culture. Sure, there were bumps along the road. Being a Jewish kid in southern Appalachia wasn’t all sunshine and chocolate babka, but it also wasn’t all storm clouds and gefilte fish.
I wonder, sometimes, how my southern Jewish journey would have turned out somewhere different; there are bustling Jewish communities in southern hubs like Atlanta, Memphis and Charleston, just to name a few. What if I’d ended up more religiously inclined than I am? What if I were more visibly Jewish, or less? If I had Jewish family and friends in my hometown? If I hadn’t taken off my Magen David before visiting my grandmother’s house?
Hypotheticals aside, I can tell you with certainty what brings me Jewish joy. My Jewish joy is my tattoo of a pomegranate and the way I revel in Barbra Streisand’s profile flickering on my parent’s television. My Jewish joy is using my Hebrew name as a computer password, but forget I told you that!
Ultimately, I can sum up the quirks of my Jewish upbringing in just two words: shalom, y’all.