As one of only two Jewish kids growing up in a small northern town where the John Birch Society was still active, assimilating is something I did without thinking about it. I always knew we were “different,” and while I personally didn’t mind it (I was always grateful that I didn’t have to sit on a creepy old guy’s lap to get presents), I didn’t want anyone else to see me as such. I wore the chai my nana gave me tucked into my shirt, I said “Christmas” instead of “Chanukah” when talking to my friends, and I even played the Star of Bethlehem in my Montessori’s Christmas play (I’m pretty sure I thought I was playing the Statue of Liberty… if you saw the pictures, you’d understand).
When we moved to Central Florida, I finally met other kids who were “like me.” (I almost did a backflip when the first boy to introduce himself to me said that his last name was Schwartz.) It was great to have friends I could play dreidel with and go to the movies with on Christmas day, but not much changed: I was outwardly Jewish when we were together, but I quickly decorated a Chanukah bush before one of my Christian friends came to my house to exchange presents.
In high school, my circle of Jewish friends grew. Finally, there were enough of us to have a club: The Skinny Jewish Honor Society. Obviously, it wasn’t a real club, but it was a natural camaraderie that I had yet to feel until then. It was also the first time I remember hearing “Jewish humor” and Yiddish idioms from people other than my family not on TV. I no longer had to remember to say “butt” instead of “tush” for fear of people looking at me weirdly, a thing much more significant than it sounds.
Surprisingly (to me, at least), my first “real” boyfriend was Jewish. I remember going to his sister’s bat mitzvah after we had gone our separate ways. It was the first time I had been to a synagogue since going with my Grandma Lil when I was little, so little that the only thing I remember about the experience was the Stella Dora cookies at the Oneg. I felt lost and out of place among my own people.
When I started college at UNC Charlotte, I was the shiny, new Jew once again. If I had received a quarter for every time someone had told me, “You’re the first Jewish person I’ve ever met,” I wouldn’t have needed all those student loans. My extended family lived two hours away in Greensboro, a very Jewish area of North Carolina, and it was during my visits with them that I became more comfortable in synagogue. Still, when I went back to campus, I left my Judaism at the door.
Moving to the University of Florida two years later, I felt like I had hit the mother load of Jews. Where did they all come from? I thought. (The answer was Boca.) I never knew so many Jewish people existed in one place outside of New York. Over time, I became active in Hillel, went to Israel, and began living Jewishly – openly. I finally rediscovered a part of myself that I hadn’t realized I lost through assimilation.
When I returned home, waiting to start my graduate program, I attended Shabbat services on a regular basis at a temple I never knew existed, though it had been standing a short distance from my home for twice as long as I had been alive at the time. My friends knew that if they wanted to hang out on Friday night, it would be after services; there was no pretending of where I was or what I was doing.
There is still sometimes pressure to assimilate. Teaching at a rural school in Northern Florida, I was basically told to “just go with it” when I objected to them playing Christmas movies over closed-circuit TV after final exams. Go with it I did not. I brought in my DVD player and showed one of the movies from our English department’s approved list instead.
These days, I’m no longer interested in assimilating. I’m confident in how I practice my faith. Though I participate in Christmas celebrations more often than not, I do it out of love for my Christian friends and in-laws, not out of desire or pressure to fit in with the majority. Our Jewish traditions are beautiful. They should be celebrated proudly, not in secret.