Nothing in my early life could have prepared me for what it is like to be a Jew living in the Midwest, in an endless expanse of Christianity.
Remember the scene in “Annie Hall” where Alvie Singer (Woody Allen) is eating dinner with Annie’s family in Chippewa Falls (not far from St. Paul, Minnesota (where I lived for 16 years)? Annie’s grandmother looks over at Alvie, and he immediately envisions himself as she sees him: a bearded black Hasid, a real Jew.
When I lived in St. Paul, many, many times I could see myself as I thought I was being seen: a real Jew—too loud, too liberal, dark and foreign.
I live in Iowa City now. No one here has asked me what parish we belong to. No one asks my husband, Rody, what his Christian name is. Iowa City is a small, sophisticated university town, the Athens of the Midwest. In this friendly, neighborly place, there is a sizable Jewish community. Why even the Lubavitcher are here.
But Iowa’s small towns are so Christian that living there would mean sinking into the cornfields and leaving behind all traces of a Jewish identity.
Living in the country is like the ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwich, always being offered, always on the menu, always a subject of inquiry when refused. It is comfort food for the natives, forbidden fruit for the strangers.
Michelle Edwards (www.michelledwards.com) is the author/illustrator of Chicken Man and the Jackson Friends series. Her newest books are Papa’s Latkes (Candlewick, 2004) and Stinky Stern Forever (Harcourt, 2005). Knitters will find her articles at www.knitty.com