Monday, March 14, 2005

Being a Jew in the Lou

I received this in my in box this morning:

Greetings. New York Jew here, contemplating (pretty seriously) a move to St. Louis this year. I linked to your blog from the Brick City blog, which I linked to from Ecology of Absence.

Like a lot of Jews of my generation (I'm a lot older than you), I've learned to sniff out signs of Jewish life in the least likely places, so when I saw the title, Meshuggenah (sp?), I pounced. I am writing to ask for your take on Jewish life, to the extent there is any, in StL--provided, of course, you'd be willing to share it.

In fact, I know there's organized Jewish life in StL--I'll be attending Shabbat services at Central Reform on [a date very near to right now]. But the synagogue to me is a cultural touchstone; I'm not the sort of person whose primary community is a religious one--even one as politically liberal as Central Reform appears to be.

I guess what I'm asking is this: How does it feel to be a Jew in St. Louis? Is it sort of like being a Zoroastrian--interesting, exotic even, but not terribly relevant to your or anyone else's daily life? Even here in New York, most of my friends are not Jewish (hell--even my wife isn't Jewish), so it's not like I'm looking for a total-immersion experience. I'm just wondering how it feels to you--a St. Lou Jew, born and bred.

Care to share your thoughts?

Here is my extremely long winded response:

I am certainly willing to share my take on Jewish life in St. Louis although I feel there are probably a lot of people better qualified to do so than myself. First, I think it’s important that you understand St. Louis itself. St. Louis is the world’s largest small town and everyone wants to know where you went to high school. Certainly in my lifetime I don’t think anyone would disagree that the population of the actual city keeps decreasing while the population of St. Louis County and outlying areas west of the county and in IL east of the city keeps increasing. The County is basically what you would imagine any other suburban area in America to be and the City is a collection of neighborhoods that were originally distinct mostly due to whatever ethnicity predominately resided there. The population in the County is determined mostly by religion and affluence. Catholic people like to be in certain parishes, Jews like to be near certain synagogues, others want certain school districts, etc. I think I have a unique perspective in that I grew up in West County but was exposed to a lot of different parts of the city and the world that a lot of people who grew up there wouldn’t normally be. My parents made it a point to take us all around the city, I’ve traveled all over the world, I went to college on the East coast, I spent a great deal of time in E. St. Louis, IL when I was growing up, and my family also has a farm in central Missouri in a town where we are the only Jews some people have ever seen. I attended an elementary school that was probably 30%-40% Jewish and a high school that was at least 30% Jewish though.

I think it’s very easy for a Jew from New York to assume that there wouldn’t be very much of a Jewish population in the middle of Missouri but believe it or not there actually is. The vast majority of the Jewish population in the area would reside in St. Louis County starting in University City and moving as far West as Wildwood. Most synagogues are in West County. Central Reform, the one you mentioned in your letter, is in the city. I can’t actually think of any others in the city but there may very well be. I had the opportunity to attend the Yom Kippur service at Central Reform this past fall and was actually very impressed with the rabbi, the congregation, and the sincerity of it all. It’s definitely a refreshing departure from the other reformed synagogues in the area. I can think of at least 8 synagogues in town that I have attended a service at some point in my life for some reason or another plus there’s a Jewish Community Center, a local branch of the Jewish Federation, Aish Hatorah, local Chasidic and Frum communities, Kosher meat markets and groceries, Kosher sections at regular groceries, and Jewish delicatessens. It’s certainly not like being in New York but these things do exist if you seek them out.

If I had to specify where I received the limited Jewish education I possess and Jewish identity that I have I would say it was at the Jewish Summer camp I attended for 8 years. Being Jewish was never stressed at home for me and we never attended religious services as a complete family. My mother would take my brother and I on the High Holidays and that was it. We did go to Sunday school but didn’t last long enough to get confirmed. I find the older I get the more I have a desire for knowledge about being Jewish whether I choose to apply it to my life or not. It’s something that I feel is inside of me no matter what and something that I’ve never felt a need to hide or shy away from. The majority of people who I have been close to over the course of my life have been Jewish. That being said I also avoid the majority of the Jewish population in St. Louis like the plague. I don’t live in the County and don’t care to associate with the kind people I grew up with or be part of the incessant rumor mill maintained by many of the people my parents associate with. At the same time I’m fascinated by new things I see going on amongst Jews of my own age such as Heeb Magazine, Jewlicious, Jewschool, and an overall pride and acceptance of our ethnicity and heritage. It’s amazing to read a blog by someone in New York or LA or whatever and find that commonality that you feel when you read about their experience at Jewish summer camp, love of kosher hot dogs, and that time when they hit the Manischewitz a little too hard. I don’t find any evidence of these new things in St. Louis though. There are no Heeb Magazine or JDate functions. Perhaps they do exist and I just don’t know where to look. I guess I’m just a mass of contradictions and I’m going to turn 30 in less than a year and that kind of freaks me out. I’m going through some kind of existential Generation X identity crisis and I hope I was able to give you some sort of answer that you were looking for about Jewish life in St. Louis in spite of it all.