- Topics & Settings
- Browse Sites
I had come to Minnesota from northern New Jersey, just outside of New York City; and I had, until very recently, been totally immersed in a world in which being Jewish, being a New Yorker, and being an American had bled together until it formed a singular, inseparable identity. Especially growing up in a mixed Catholic and Jewish family, I had always been curious to know where the boundary of those identities lay. Before coming to Minnesota I met with a barrage of jokes, warnings, and stereotypes about Minnesota, all of which revolved around the same idea: “People like us don’t live there.” “People like us” didn’t necessarily mean Jewish people, but it revolved around the idea that Jewish culture was intimately tied up in New York. Especially for my grandfather and his siblings, I understood these concerns and beliefs to be tied to a fear of anti-Semitism, a belief that in their little pocket of America they had found their home, the land that stretched from the Borsht Belt of the Catskills to Far Rockaway, Queens; to the post anti-Semitic suburban paradise of Long Island’s Levittowns was a safe zone--everyplace else was suspect.
I had grown up understanding the way that the legacy of anti-Semitism had shaped my grandfather’s worldview, I knew where he felt unsafe and I understood why. I also understood that no one really expected to be faced with such anti-Semitism in the Midwest in the modern day, but the discomfort with being an outsider was still powerful. What did it mean to be Jewish in a place where people won’t understand your Yiddishisms? Where public schools are open during the High Holidays and it’s impossible to find a loaf of Challah in the supermarket? What did it mean to be a Jew in Minnesota? How would understandings of being Jewish in New York and in Minnesota differ?
At the same time that Jewish culture seemed less potent in Minnesota, there were many religious elements of Jewish life in St. Louis Park that were far more intense than any that I was used to. I didn’t even know what an eruv was, though both Maya and I discovered that we had both lived in eruvs without even knowing it. At home I was used to being surrounded by Orthodox Jewish communities, in nearby suburbs and Brooklyn neighborhoods. I remember seeing Orthodox men walking down the street on Saturdays as we drove past, the streams of Orthodox men leaving midtown for Brooklyn on the L train on Friday afternoons, seeing Orthodox women in wigs with their daughters all in matching skirts in central Park or in Target. But the religious and non-religious communities were always starkly divided, not only by neighborhoods and synagogues, but by deep discomfort and mistrust. No matter where people stood on the spectrum of Judaism, there were always “those Jews” and “our kind of Jews.” This discomfort was another thing I sought to understand in St. Louis Park, through witnessing Orthodox life in a modern context. I wanted to hear the other side of this story, about why Orthodox people felt so drawn to such a religious life, and how they viewed their own Jewish identity.
How did this community remain so definitively Jewish for so long? How did assimilation work differently in Minnesota? What did it mean to live in such a small eruv? What did it mean for such a tight concentration of religious Jews, living alongside far less religious Jews? And where did the idea of “Those Jews” even come from? All of these questions live in the daily lives of Jewish St. Louis Park residents, in the Jewish schools and shops that line the eruv, and the three Orthodox synagogues that all stand in opposition around the same block.
Through the stories I’ve heard, the services I’ve attended, the many Saturday afternoons I’ve walked through the eruv I’ve come closer to answering a lot of those questions, though they all continue to evade a definitive answer.
Looking at St. Louis Park has been a study in harmony and discord. At a Beth El seder I laugh with a table full of adults I’ve never met before, we eat the same foods, make the same kinds of jokes. I find myself bonding with a group of men in their sixties and seventies, all of us once lived in the same New York City neighborhood, and shopped in the same Jewish grocery store. Despite the fact that I am not from Minnesota, there is a feeling of belonging, as one woman at Darchei Noam would later describe it to us as "being part of the club” and part of a community. Even interviewing a member of the Orthodox community, I feel like we have a lot in common. We laugh over the same Yiddish expressions, and I have friends that go to the Jewish Day School her son once attended. As people greet each other on the streets during Shabbat, or in Starbucks, everyone seems to know each other. People from different Synagogues embrace, talk about their childhoods, their adolescence at St. Louis Park High, and their teenage children who go there now. At the same time, divisions among different Jewish groups are stark and impossible to ignore. Before crossing the street from Modern Orthodox synagogue Darchei Noam, to go to ultra-Orthodox Bais Yisroel, we are met with sarcastic voices saying “Good luck.” We are not permitted inside the synagogue. The mechitza inside the Orthodox synagogues feels so foreign and strange to me, I sometimes feel like an outsider or an imposter in these spaces. I understand almost none of the Hebrew phrases and Jewish laws that people will throw out in interviews. “Orthodox Judaism” is the fastest growing Jewish movement in the United States some will tell us with pride, others with worry. “They breed like rabbits” a non-religious woman will say of the Orthodox community. “What kind of Judaism is that?” an Orthodox woman asks of the Conservative and Reform movements.
Everyone seems to have their own starkly different definition of Judaism, and to everyone it is held as a deeply important identity, from our most religious to our least religious interviewees. Understanding this helped me to understand some of the discomfort that existed among different Jewish communities, wondering if perhaps people felt that their Jewish identities were threatened or made less legitimate by those who understood their own Judaism very differently. This question of identity ended up driving the stories we’ve shared, and the lens through which we ultimately viewed this dynamic community. A lot of our original questions remained unanswered, or were complicated further through investigation. We could never paint a complete portrait of the “Minnesota Jewish Experience,” but I think that through the stories we shared and the people we met, we came a little closer to understanding a few pieces of that larger narrative.