Commentary: Growing up Jewish in the South

The convergence of Easter and Passover reminds me why I’m different

Tomorrow, the majority of Georgians will celebrate Good Friday—the holiest of Christian holidays and the start of Easter weekend. In 2015, that night will also mark the start of Passover, one of the holiest holidays in Judaism, but one that most people tend to ignore. For me, this time of year always serves as one of the starkest reminders of why I’m different—a Jew in the South.

Growing up, while other kids talked about the Easter Bunny and a Sunday spent gorging on chocolate eggs, I prepared for Passover Seder and dreaded eating matzo, a bland cracker with all the flavor of cardboard—for seven days. For my peers, Easter meant fancy clothes and celebration; for me it meant making haroset, an apple and nut mixture, to remember the bricks that the Jewish people constructed as slaves, eating bitter herbs with salt water to symbolize the tears the Jewish people shed, and hearing the story of wandering in the wilderness during the Exodus. And of course, Easter ham is best not spoken of—we keep Kosher, which means no shellfish, pork, or mixing meat and dairy. Most people are astounded that I’ve never had a cheeseburger. However, keeping Kosher isn’t a hardship–it’s my way of life.

As a Jewish Southerner, I am used to being misunderstood; we have different customs from the society that surrounds us. And Jews represent only 1 percent of the South’s population. I’m not ashamed of my religion—quite the opposite in fact. I am proud that I was raised in a Jewish household and that I had a Bat Mitzvah (a coming of age celebration). But in the South, sometimes pride isn’t enough.

This first hit home for me in my freshman year of high school, which was full of awkward situations to say the least. Joanne [her name, like all others in this essay, has been changed], a supposed friend of mine, told me that I was going to Hell. We were sitting around the lunch table, in the freshmen section of the cafeteria, when she loudly proclaimed this. When I turned to her puzzled and asked why, she simply said it was because I was Jewish, as if that made all the sense in the world. I felt tears welling up, so I fled the cafeteria and cried in the bathroom. That was my first experience being uncomfortable and confused about my faith. At 14, I thought I was on top of the world, but at that point I felt like I wasn’t even worthy to be dirt. I didn’t know how to react to what Joanne said to me, and even worse was the fact that nobody at the table disagreed with her. I couldn’t believe my luck in friends.

When I went home and told my parents about what happened, they answered in very different ways. My dad told me there wasn’t a Hell in the Jewish religion and advised me not to listen to Joanne. My mom told me not to worry about it and gave me some advice on what to say the next day, something along the lines of, “Joanne, you really hurt my feelings when you said I was going to Hell because I’m Jewish.” With that advice in my arsenal, I was ready to face the next day. But when I used the line on Joanne, she cried—in public, not in the bathroom like I had done. Everyone looked at me as if I was the devil incarnate because I made a girl cry. Joanne never spoke to me again, nor did most of the girls at the lunch table that day.

Over the next few years, I realized that it wasn’t only other people questioning the value of my faith—I did so, too. For college, I moved to Milledgeville, the quintessential small Southern town, to attend Georgia College and State University. I only looked into colleges that had my major, so it didn’t occur to me to also look for a school with a Jewish presence, both on campus and off. According to Hillel International, 4 percent of students on the GCSU campus are Jewish. This may seem like a big number for such a small school in a region with such a small Jewish population, but Oglethorpe University, smaller still, has a Jewish population of 30 percent, and Emory University has a population of 27 percent.

Nonetheless, I became great friends with a group of Christians who were very vigilant in their efforts to teach me about their faith. I am naturally curious and found it interesting—until many of them tried to convert me.

One night I was reading a textbook in bed, when Sarah and Margaret knocked on my dorm door. Sarah asked me if I wanted to go to the women’s Bible study. I said no for two reasons. One, and most importantly, I had homework (I was very studious). The second reason is that this situation would make me extremely uncomfortable. A saying that sums up my feelings and makes me giggle like a hormonal teenage boy is an anonymous posting from the website “Religion is like a penis. It’s fine to have one and it’s fine to be proud of it, but please don’t whip it out in public and start waving it around. And please don’t try to shove it down my child’s throat.” But I didn’t giggle back then. When I declined, Margaret snidely said, “You should really come. You need all the help you can get.” Implying that the reason behind this was my religion. I politely said no again. While the need to “save” me seemed logical to Margaret, it just baffled me. I didn’t quite understand how Margaret could stand there and be both ignorant and rude.

Although I felt like an outcast in my own group of friends, I stuck with them because making friends in college is difficult, especially when you are socially awkward to begin with. I was with my group of vigilant Christian friends and surprisingly, another Jewish girl, Julie. We went to dinner at Zaxby’s, which in our tiny town qualified as quite the hot spot. We had just sat down with our meals and Julie and I began digging into our food. As I was taking a second bite into my Nibblerz, Margaret piped up, saying, “Let’s pray.” The group bowed their heads; I chewed my food. The prayer was something along the lines of, “Thank you Jesus, Lord, for the food that you have provided. Jesus you are the most amazing influence in my life. Amen.” At this point I continued to eat. I felt inclined to ask if I could say the HaMotzi, the prayer said before eating; I somehow swallowed down the words, along with some chicken. Not even as a Jew, but as a considerate human, I would never deliberately put anyone in an unpleasant situation. Praying to Jesus, your savior, with others who believe this is one thing. Doing so with others who don’t believe this makes for an awkward dinner. Jews believe that Jesus was real; however we do not believe that he was the Messiah. I don’t think Margaret did this on purpose, but always thinking before you do something that would potentially make others uncomfortable is a good policy.

College is a time for experimentation, and some of mine included questioning my religion. I am an extremely logical person, therefore, I like to see and touch things in order to understand them. It was difficult not being able to see and touch G-d (I was taught not to write out the word G-d, instead writing it with a dash instead of an “o.” The explanation behind this is that you don’t want to throw G-d’s name away). It was as if He wasn’t really real to me.

I found my way back to my beliefs while working on my senior capstone project. My last semester, I decided to delve into the religious diversity in my teensy college town. My capstone was a semester long project during which I visited and reported on four different religious groups, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the First Presbyterian Church, the First Baptist Church, and the Jewish community (which in Milledgeville was comprised of a mere 30 members). This project not only affected my thinking on Judaism and G-d, but also my view on the world. Now, I feel closer to G-d and my belief in Him has solidified. Through learning about these different faiths, I realized that the people who had criticized me or made hateful remarks were in the minority. Each religious group I visited displayed the same curiosity about Judaism that I had about their religion. Not only was I learning about different religions, but also that no two people are alike, and to not judge a group of people based on encounters with one or two representatives of the group.

What I have concluded is that—no matter where you live—being Jewish is a feat in and of itself. With all of the rules, holidays, and food, we’re reminded of our differences every day, not just during this season when religious holidays converge. I was raised to not only respect others’ cultures, but also to respect my own. I will respectfully decline your chocolate bunnies—and I won’t make you eat any matzo.