The Challenges of Growing Up Jewish in Rural America

I was caught somewhere between guilt, shame, and confusion when it came to my identity.

“You’re, like, everyone’s token Jew.”

Spoken by a high school friend, this comment stuck with me throughout my adolescence. It was generally true — most of my friends in my small town did not know other Jews (or at least didn’t know they did). However, it was also deeply damaging to my sense of self, reducing me to the one thing that made me different from my peer group.

If you grew up in a predominantly non-Jewish community, you may be familiar with similar experiences: regular instances of anti-Semitic microaggressions, cultural alienation, and reluctant oversimplification of your own identity. If you grew up in a rural area, you might have navigated these issues without the comfort of a strong Jewish community to support you through them. Being from a small mountain town, I am part of the 3% of American Jews who live outside a metropolitan area. If you want to do the math, there are about 200,000 of us across the U.S.

In my experience, this upbringing meant a small temple with an intermittent rabbi and one other student in my b’nei mitzvah class, complemented by a high school experience full of demeaning gestures from my peers. A couple of class favorites were throwing quarters at me (guess who never paid for parking? #noshame) and the telling of Holocaust jokes whenever I was present.

For obvious reasons, I downplayed my Judaism as a child, even going so far as to pretend I celebrated Christmas (word to the wise: Do your research before you go undercover as a Christian). I spent more time trying to mitigate my alienation by pretending I wasn’t Jewish than I did considering what it actually meant to be Jewish. This gradually changed as I got older, but by the time I left home, I still had so many unanswered questions and conflicting feelings about who I was.

When I entered college, a few things changed.

First, I learned about something called a microaggression, which really put a new spin on the quarters and Hitler jokes. I simultaneously felt foolish for not being able to see this perspective before and insulted that my teachers who witnessed these incidents never so much as said a word.

Second, I joined my university’s Jewish Student Union (JSU) and experienced a comparatively robust Jewish peer group for the first time. I was so excited, but I also felt uneducated about my own culture. Unlike me, my peers were well versed in Yiddish, Hebrew, holiday traditions, and even food (which I thought was the one thing I had going for me). I had gone from being too Jewish to not Jewish enough, seemingly overnight.

Despite being surrounded by my cultural community, I found myself in a catch 22: Around my Jewish peers, I felt like an impostor. Simultaneously, my increased awareness of anti-Semitic patterns in the world around me left me hyper-aware of my Jewishness. I was caught somewhere between guilt, shame, and confusion when it came to my identity.

After nearly two years in this awkward space, a professor mentioned an episode of NPR’s podcast Code Switch called “Members of Whose Tribe? and the floodgates opened. If you haven’t listened to this episode, I highly recommend it. It covers the race/religion/ethnicity question and that ambiguous DNA test result of “Jewish.” But the most compelling part for me was listening to other Jewish people grapple with their identities. I realized that I was not the only one with questions about who I was — I had simply assumed, incorrectly, that everyone around me already knew or didn’t care to find out.

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist who specializes in issues of racism and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, dubbed this phenomenon Racial-Ethnic-Cultural (REC) Identity Development. In this process, adolescents and young adults of marginalized or minority groups develop an awareness of their identity and how it affects the ways they are allowed to engage with the world. Part of this process often entails developing a peer group of those with shared identities as a means of cultural immersion and belonging.

In other words, this awkward, isolating, and at times painful reckoning is actually typical for those of us trying to understand our identity when it is not positively or frequently reflected in society at large. While racism and anti-Semitism in America remain related but distinct beasts, the main takeaway for me is the importance of finding or creating a space to explore your identity with the support of those who share your identity. For me, this came in the form of JSU and Chabad.

Through my exploration within these organizations, I engaged in discussions about Israel, generational trauma, and so much more. I ultimately found a way to proudly and authentically own my Jewish identity. Perhaps more importantly, I learned to forgive. I forgave myself for hiding and later wearing my identity as a joke — this was a survival mechanism. I forgave my friends who have learned to see me for all of who I am — they have shown the capacity for growth and compassion. I let go of the people who could only see me as a one-dimensional archetype of a culture that seemed strange to them. And lastly, I learned to embrace my rural Jewish identity — it is part of who I am, and an atypical Jewish upbringing does not make me any less Jewish. Furthermore, being the only Jewish person in a room or a peer group does not mean I should hide my Jewishness.

Today, the same designation as a “token Jew” is not something I welcome, but, having taken the time and energy to develop my own identity, it is not something I would take so personally anymore. Having a deeper understanding of what being Jewish means to me has allowed me to both embrace my identity and grow beyond the confines of tokenism.

If any of this narrative resonated with you, especially the guilt, shame, and impostor syndrome, I want you to know that you are not alone. Your Jewish identity is valid no matter how or where you grew up. Be kind to yourself.

Header image by Charles Harker/Getty Images.

Niki Kates

Niki Kates (she/her) is a recent college graduate and former NCAA swimmer with a passion for all things policy and criminal justice reform. In her free time, she’s an amateur movie critic who loves surfing and rock climbing, and her crowning achievement in life is successfully convincing her aunt to give her the secret challah recipe.

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