Two and 2/3 Jews
Vivian S. Montgomery
We were moving to a Norwegian-American mecca: Ludefisk, Nisse dwarves in every window, Hardanger fiddles, Rhinelanders, people who said “Oof-dah” without thinking. My husband was offered a job in the music department of a Lutheran college in Iowa’s upper righthand corner. The department chair had called the town “the center of the universe.” Funny. Well, their annual Nordic Fest did draw thousands of ruddy types from across the nation, and hosted either the king or queen of Norway on a regular basis.
I had been poring over a demographic chart at the back of the college’s catalogue. I shuddered. “John,” I said, “I’m ‘other’ under ‘other’ and there’s nobody else like me!” The religious background columns were mostly various Lutheran synods: ELCA, Missouri, Wisconsin, Orthodox, Mysterium. Other denominations were substantially smaller: Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, UCC, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, General Catholic. Following was a list, accompanied by single-digit numbers, of “other religions”: Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and…Other. The number next to “other” under “other religions” was 0.
Upon arriving in Decorah, I found it took almost no time for the conversation at pre-season faculty cocktail parties to turn toward kind efforts to place me with “my” people, even though there was very little evidence of such people within reach. In those first weeks, I had the same very short list delivered to me many times by various well-meaning souls: the husband of the town’s most popular pediatrician was Jewish, but he seemed busier with homeschooling their four children and driving the baby three times a day to his wife’s office for her to breastfeed; one person on the dance faculty was half Jewish, but he distinguished himself more by being gay and caught up in a messy divorce; and, while not “officially” Jewish, one professor emeritus had become a nearly obsessive Judaiophile, evidently disturbing the not-completely-spelled-out order of things in the college’s Religion and Philosophy department. According to all those who were helpfully filling me in on my options for tribal connection, this professor was my safest bet. There had been one other visiting faculty member of Jewish persuasion a few years back, but nobody could remember his name.
Postville, Iowa was a town 18 miles from Decorah, down one of the county highways. Many followers of current events in the Upper Midwest had heard of the anomalous infiltration, in 1987, by hundreds of Hasidic Jews into the town’s previously small, predominantly German and Polish, population. The shift, resulting from the conversion of a large meat-packing plant into a kosher facility, had started only a few years before our arrival in Winneshiek County. A few of the Decorah residents who were racking their brains on my behalf came up with the connection to Postville, but for most, it just was too alien a connection to entertain. Even I, upon learning of the new inhabitants of that town, found it surreal and was hard-pressed to imagine the link between my background and the Ultra-orthodox as a comfort. I was the product of a mixed marriage and my mother had been too undone by her own orthodox upbringing, and her subsequent escape to the land of Quaker anti-establishment atheism, to raise me with more than a sporadic observance of holidays, and certainly no substantial Jewish learning.
Still, I discovered a nearly involuntary reflex residing in me when one day, during our first couple of weeks in Iowa, we took a begrudging trip to Walmart. While wandering the hardware section, I looked up to see the backs of three men in black suits and fedoras, the spiraling contour of their payot, and the tzitzit of their prayer shawls, making them easily distinguishable from the occasional Amish group one encountered in those parts. Perhaps my memory has exaggerated the volume of my voice as I reached out my hands and said “Jews!” but I know John had to restrain me from rushing to touch them, like a parched trekker rushes to a water pump.
After we had settled in, I started receiving calls from the women of the Postville Hasidim, quizzing me, inviting me (but not my goyische husband) to Shabbat dinner. The calls (sometimes from Leah Rubashkin, the wife of the all-powerful owner of the meat processing facility) continued throughout our five years, escalating after the birth of our son, Ezra, but dwindling to the bare minimum near the time we left. I was curious, a little sad, but never particularly tormented by being unable to bridge the divide between myself and that community.
Even early on, when the isolation and strangeness of my environs weighed on me most severely, I had started to find some equilibrium, carving out my own way of being a Jew through an odd array of enterprises. While I was in no way drawing closer to satisfying the devout Jew’s standards of observance, I was wholeheartedly staging a type of real-life theater, unfolding, to those who wished to take it in, a series of episodes that revealed the angles of my difference.
Were it not for this determination to publicly paint a multi-dimensional picture of what made me who I was, I might have simply gone down in the murmured history of Decorah as the type of alien woman who would show her cultural deafness by taking a reserved Upper Midwesterner at his word when he answered three times that he wasn’t waiting to use the library copy machine, despite the fact that he had been standing next to me holding a piece of paper for a full 15 minutes (my mother’s voice: “Why didn’t he just speak up? What makes that kind of politeness different from lying?”).
Or I would have been remembered as the woman who freely dismisses an acquaintance’s favorite movie as nothing but hackneyed feel-good formula, not knowing that, three years later, the hurt would still show in his eyes (my mother’s voice again: “How was I to know he was such a sap? People that sensitive shouldn’t ask for opinions”)
Or perhaps I’d be remembered as someone who, in a fit of pique among a group of young Decorah mothers, declared it barbaric to raise a child in a place that doesn’t have an art museum (my mother’s voice: “Well, isn’t it?”).
My great initiation into public advocacy for Jewish awareness came when, twice, in rapid succession, I had the phrase “Jew you down” uttered to me by Decorah locals with no apparent consciousness of its fairly obvious meaning. I think both incidents occurred on the same day, although that would be a little too priceless. Anyhow, I was in an antique store on Water Street and I was looking at a bracelet or pin and the woman behind the counter said someone else had just been in looking at the same item and had tried to Jew her down on the price. I was stopped dead in my tracks. Interestingly, I had never heard the expression, and I suppose my synapses were firing so explosively at the shock, that I wasn’t immediately able to piece together its meaning. I thanked her and left in a muddled state. Later, I was sitting with my husband in the diner, reviewing the incident and its implications, turning over what he was telling me about his familiarity, as a southerner, with the same phrase, trying to sort through the layers upon layers of sociological critique descending on my poor little gut reaction. The waitress brought us our bill, I absent-mindedly put down some money, and when she picked it up she saw that it was too little to cover the total. “You trying to Jew me down?,” she quipped cheerfully.
The Decorah Journal was published twice a week. My dealings with the paper thus far had been awkward as it resembled so fully the type of paper John and I had been in the habit of picking up when we were traveling through little towns, and with which we found hours of endless entertainment as we drove on through the heartland. On trips, as we passed through, such “news” had seemed like colorful and kitsch objects bouncing off of our post-modern windshield, but now it reported the current events and concerns of a place becoming more and more real, a place where we apparently lived.
My earliest trauma in relation to the Journal had occurred when my sister (who couldn’t restrain her near-constant references to pigs through the entire time we were preparing to move to Iowa) came to visit, and on our first walk down Water Street, on the first day of her stay, she spotted the newest issue on the newsstand. The entire front page was occupied with news about pigs: the winners of the Pork Queen and Little Miss Pigtails competitions at the Winneshiek County Fair; the ongoing dispute over hog-farm run-off seeping into the ground water; the dangerous escalation of pig manure stench during the recent heat wave; and the local supermarket sponsoring a rib-roast.
But now the paper was becoming my forum. I wrote a letter to the editor about the use of “Jew you down,” what its affect was on someone of my background, as well as on the mindset of a population whose contact with real Jews was so limited. I wrote of the fact that most people, when questioned about it, whether they used the expression or not, said they had never really thought about its meaning.
Not thought about it??? It has the word JEW at the beginning of the THREE WORDS! Some responses to my letter (both in print and on the street – yes, people spotted me and drew me aside to comment) brought up a tired comparison to the term “gyp,” which was evidently offensive to the huge number of gypsies living among us. Some responses were apologetic, but some called me hypersensitive. Thus my introduction to a burning question – can a person or population be antisemitic when they’ve never given any real thought to, or had any real intersection with, Jewish culture?
And so began that first year’s series of one-acts where I found myself cast in a role I had assiduously avoided in the previous three decades of Jewish life. The next was a happier occasion, a cooked-up Hanukkah Celebration that I had expected to host quietly at my house but that had expanded to absurd proportions with the help of some zealous oddball activists – not themselves Jews, but driven as though they were. Pine (yes, that was her name) had heard me playing the accordion in the co-op coffee house one day and was determined to make its singing swell the new soundtrack for the Upper Iowa landscape; Kathy, a brilliantly dry University of Michigan compatriot who was almost as baffled as myself to wake up each morning in this place, wanted her children to be more than the offspring of a Unitarian and an anarchist, goddammit, she wanted them to have lit a fucking menorah. It was a large and very public affair, with handouts, rehearsal, latkes, and dreydels for everyone. Signs were posted, reservations were made by phone, and a photo appeared in the following Tuesday’s Journal. The dawn of a new keyword for Decorah archive searches.
Passover approached and, not that I had EVER hosted a seder, it was a given. The guest list was carefully composed, the haroset recipe was selected with some torment (my mother’s version, with mushy apples and Manischewitz, resembling in taste the mortar of old? Or something delightful, blended with almonds and Moroccan spices?), and we made a trip to the organic farm to buy a new leg of lamb. The day before the seder, after returning from a trip to Minneapolis where I had bought extra copies of my favorite art deco Haggadah, it crossed my mind that I should call the grocery to make sure they had Matzah. “I’m sorry, do we have what?” I started to describe it – unleavened, for Passover, comes in a box, but I found my voice getting smaller as the hope drained out of me. Of course. I lived in a town without matzah.
I was reluctant to call the Postville ladies because I had thus far rebuffed their advances and I didn’t want them to know about my half-assed attempts at ceremonies that were open to all and everyone, regardless of their circumcision status. I was going to make my own stinking matzah.
So I called the judaiophile emeritus to get a recipe. “Well, now, seems like it would just be flour, water, and salt” he offered, before launching into his seder-length explanation of why no leavening. I guess it was a rare thing for him to talk Jewish to someone who actually knew what Passover meant. I allowed him a little extra time for spinning it out and then, as quickly as possible, got off the phone to begin the baking.
Not much detail needs to be given about the process or the result. It’s well summed up by our friend David, who, upon being asked to ritually break a piece the next evening and having to exercise certain arm muscles one wouldn’t usually employ for such purposes, said cheerily, “This is truly the bread of affliction.”
From the Hanukkah celebration, which involved a number of the lively instrumentalists who came out of Decorah’s spoon-carved woodwork when they saw an opportunity, it became obvious that there was one thing sorely needed to make the musical community whole – a Klezmer band. Joining me were a virtuosic blue-grass mandolinist, a classical clarinetist with a great talent for chirping and bending, an all-purpose dancing bass player with the best nature anyone could want in a colleague, and a Lutheran pastor-in-training vocalist who was given to fits of laughter but had an almost freakish aptitude for Yiddish – and Norski Klezmorski was born. We played for Nordic Fest, for the Back-of-the-Barn Summer Music Festival (with the cows, sheep, and YES! pigs chiming in), for the Cake Party, the Apple Barn Party, the Danish Midsummer celebration, for the Iowa Public Radio live local music show, for the Des Moines waterfront festival, and we were even invited by the non-Jewish street fair organizers in Postville to come play there, in hopes of bridging the gaping divide between the “locals” and the Hasidim.
The one song I would allow myself to sing on any of these occasions was Yingele, nit veyn, about a boy seeing his mother for the last time before she’s removed to a concentration camp, and his father is telling him not to cry, that he’ll now be the boy’s father and his mother. Everything would grow quiet as I gave my translation. As I sang and pulled on the bellows, I’d look out and know that, even with my croaky voice and stumbling Yiddish, I was party to a type of listening that’s rare and magical. It was the kind that occurs when perhaps the listener is realizing that something dreadful has happened, and is feeling its depths for the first time.