When I tell people I’m from New Jersey, I can see them immediately picture the traffic on Route 80 heading towards New York City, the Jersey shore in August, and a lot of confusing right-hand exits that allow you to make a left-hand turn. I’m not from that part. Don’t get me wrong – Jersey isn’t so big that you’re ever that far from that part, but to this day I have no idea “what my exit” is off of the Turnpike. I don’t think I’ve ever purposely driven on the Turnpike, in fact.
The part of Jersey that I’m from is known for – get this – farmland. I know, no one pictures Jersey farmland but I swear it’s there. The town I grew up in, by the time I was growing up in it, didn’t really have much in the way of farms left but you didn’t have to go far for a true North Jersey experience. The Sussex County Farm and Horse Show, for example, is an annual summer event that people actually travel from other states to go to. I know this is mindblowing information. You probably think I’m referring to a New Jersey that existed in the early part of the Twentieth Century. I’m not. I was born in 1983. That means that my early childhood memories really started sticking around 1987. I’m not describing a Jersey-of-Old, but even as I write this, I am staring at a live, working Jersey farm. And for the record, I’m not capable of time travel so I’m not writing this with a feather-turned-pen and an inkwell. I’m typing on a computer because it is 2014 and there are farms in New Jersey. I swear.
The more confusing thing for strangers, aside that I did not grow up in the New Jersey that they’re picturing, is that I’m Jewish. I am Jewish and was raised in a small town so Catholic, we had two Catholic churches. I am Jewish and I am not from the parts of Jersey known for being Jewish, namely, the parts close to New York City or, at the very least, Morris County. I am from Sussex County with its corn fields, bees’ nests, horses, poison ivy, and lakes – more lakes than there should be, it seems. And, in case there weren’t enough natural lakes, we even went and built man-made lakes to make sure that no one would ever be too far from a decent place to swim.
My hometown itself was a mix of many things, often trying to be something it wasn’t. Sparta is an odd intersection of the traditional and the new. Generations of families have called Sparta home (ours wasn’t one of these). Companies owned homes in new developments that they could rent out to their employees as a transfer perk (ours wasn’t one of these either). People from New York City’s five boroughs moved to Sparta to try to give their children a slower-paced lifestyle in the suburbs. This was half of our story.
My family came to live in Sparta the way I imagine many pioneers ended up in Colorado – they weren’t quite sure where they wanted to be for sure but the price was right, there was a way to make a living, and you were far enough from your relatives that they weren’t going to drop in on you unannounced. My father was raised in Queens and, very long story short, became an optometrist. My mother is from so far Upstate New York that my father swears she sounded Canadian when they met. They moved to Sparta because my father bought an optometric practice there. That’s pretty much it.
So, I grew up in an idyllic small town that is the dream of 30-somethings raising a family. It’s even ranked number two on some “safest towns in New Jersey” survey done by a local paper. Growing up was pretty much exactly like watching family sitcom. Our biggest problems were the mean kids at school, how badly you were going to be grounded for accidentally breaking a window with a baseball, and figuring out if the recluse in the neighborhood was a vampire or just really old. I don’t mean to suggest that we didn’t have struggles or obstacles or that we never dealt with real emotions individually, but as a community, we were pretty darn boring.
Unless you were different. In any way.
I once saved a copy of the Sparta Independent (yes, our real newspaper) that touted “Sparta Schools Celebrate Diversity!” The accompanying pictures showed five blonde boys, all wearing Abercrombie and Fitch shirts, smiling widely for the camera. I hung this on the door of my dorm room because I found it so funny.
In high school, if you weren’t blonde, at some point you experimented with blonde highlights. I was in high school in the 90’s so this is true for boys as well as girls. I did it once and will never do it again because as someone whose coloring was once described by my grandmother as being “Italian olive oil” it wasn’t my best look.
There were a handful of Jewish families in Sparta. Some were fairly liberal and had Hanukkah bushes, didn’t make a big deal about whether or not we had school on the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and generally didn’t stick out too much. Mine was not one of these. My father felt very strongly that we not “Christianize” our traditions to fit in. We never had anything that resembled Christmas decorations, we missed school for our holidays, and my parents often came in to my elementary school classroom to give demonstrations on how we celebrate our traditions. We were weird. We were even weird to parts of our family who lived in more Jewish populated areas and wondered why we would choose a place that had such a low Jewish population. To this day, I have no idea what the answer is.
Being Jewish was hard in the sense that everyone wanted to know if I knew their friend Ira or Rebecca or David or Miriam because he/she is also Jewish so I must know them! I usually didn’t. In seventh grade I got into an argument with a friend who insisted that the Katzens (our close family friends and another very traditional Jewish family) must be my cousins because we’re both Jewish and our last name starts with K. We are not related. I have two first cousins and they grew up in a suburb outside Chicago.
I found that people who don’t know many Jews, or were only close enough to me to ask me curious questions, were really very sheltered on what was appropriate. Here is a sampling of real questions real people I grew up with have asked me:
“What if you just went to church a few times to see if you like it?”
I have been to Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Baptist services. The services are fine and I like them well enough. I prefer mine because while I see the beauty in the others, they still include Jesus which my faith just…doesn’t. I do like that they’re not three hours long, like our Saturday morning services are.
“Have you considered that Jesus wants you to know Him?”
Yes, I’ve considered it. In fact, I think most Jewish Americans consider, for at least half a second, that perhaps Ancient Jews missed the boat and we are the descendants of the most cynical group of people ever. But then I realize that it’s that cynicism that makes us so popular. Besides, I was raised in a faith that believes that the Savior has not yet come. While I respect your faith and your relationship with Jesus, I simply don’t believe Jesus is the Savior. We’re going to have to agree to disagree.
“Maybe no one has told you the glory and wonder and light that is Jesus.”
Everyone has told me. EVERYONE. I am aware of Jesus and all that has been attributed to Jesus. You don’t have to hand me a pamphlet, flyer, or invite me to your church’s brunch.
“You must be rich – you’re Jewish and your father is a doctor.”
Um…wow. My father worked really, really, REALLY hard to put himself through college and optometry school. Thank you for undermining all of his work by assuming that somehow his faith has anything to do with his finances. Besides, if being Jewish made you rich, why aren’t more people converting, especially in this economy?
“You killed Jesus. You are being punished for killing the Son of G-d.”
I personally have not killed anyone. If my life is a punishment, I’d love to go to hell – this is a pretty awesome punishment. Oh, hey, didn’t you say your family is from England? I guess you’re responsible for the crusades then, huh?
“Why don’t you put the O in G-d’s name?”
Jewish people don’t write out G-d’s full name in any language. It’s a sign of respect.
“Why is calling you a Jew offensive but calling you Jewish not offensive?”
It’s about context. I am Jewish and a member of the Jewish faith. A group of people like me would be called Jews. You could refer to the Jews living in New Jersey, Poland, Israel, or Ancient Jews. To call one individual a Jew, however, is biting and has negative connotations, probably because of the hundreds of years of antisemitism that relied heavily on labeling Jews as such, whether it be with armbands, Jewish stars, or the word itself. If you were to say, “Hey, Sharon’s a Jew!” I would probably respond with, “Hey! Say the whole word!”
“Do you want to order Chinese food – oh, sorry! I forgot you don’t eat pork.”
Yes, I do. Not all Jewish people keep kosher. It’s a very conservative tradition that many do still keep but my family kept kosher-light. We tried not to mix milk with meat and ate kosher meat when possible, but we ate shellfish and pork as well. Except for my brother – he was allergic to shellfish as a kid so he did not eat shellfish. He loves bacon though.
“Do you really have horns? How do you hide them?”
No, I don’t. But if I did, I would hide them with a complicated series of levers, pulleys, and theatrical makeup. Or I would just parade them around, wear only black, and insist that everyone refer to me as Sharon, Goddess of the Nightmares.
It wasn’t that I grew up in a small town filled with racists and bigots. I think it was actually that some of the kids I went to school with honestly didn’t know any other Jewish people and I was their first education with a faith that wasn’t somehow connected to Christianity. In a way, it’s kind of cool that I could answer questions and start to open up people’s minds to having respect for other’s beliefs. On the other hand, it was hard not to feel like a zoo animal at times, especially when a new kid started school and I was actually introduced by a mutual friend as, “Sharon, our resident Jew.” The new kid, by the way, was not impressed.
But basically, growing up in Sparta left me with the same childhood everyone else had. I went to summer camp. I joined the clubs and activities I found fun. I made friends. I cried because I wasn’t popular. I laughed hysterically at Pauly Shore movies (and am still embarrassed by this fact). I obsessed over boys who didn’t know I was alive and had sleepovers with friends. I reveled in thinking about how I would never live in a town like Sparta when I grew up because it was just. so. boring. and there was never anything to do.
I just didn’t have a Christmas tree.