In my small western Colorado town there are more churches per capita than anywhere else in the country, or so locals boast. They say Paonia even made it into Ripleys Believe it or Not.
Twenty-six churches for 1,600 people means that competition for members is fierce. Walk down the main street and youll see church notices that read: If you dont find Jesus, he will find you, Ham and Jell-O buffet follows Sunday services, or Camp Id Ra Ha Je (Id RAther Have JEsus) starts next week.
Im a wallflower at this Christian dance: Im a Jew. Options for my brand of religious community are limited since the closest synagogue is over 100 miles away in any direction. Yet while this town may break records for church membership, the lack of fellow Jews here is anything but odd. Most Jews live in cities or suburbs where lox, bagels, and corned beef are readily available.Far from the tribeThe Jewish friends I grew up with in the Northwest have no idea what it is like to live in a town where some people have only heard the word Jew used in the expression: I Jewed him down. I think it makes them nervous to see me living so far away from the tribe. So every once in a while my mothers friends try to reel me back into the fold.
Their tactics are sweet and anything but subtle. They give my e-mail address to eligible young Jewish men, invite me home to eat dinner with — surprise! — an eligible young Jewish medical student, or send me fliers about fun Jewish singles activities at the nearest Jewish Community Center. Too bad — that center happens to be 5 hours away in Salt Lake City, Utah, or Denver, Colo., neither a bastion of Jews.
But why arent there Jews here, where I live? How is it that a people known for wandering have not managed to stumble upon the rural West? Jews like nature; theres even a holiday that celebrates trees called Tu bShvat. And like many other rural folk, Jews are stubborn, hard workers.
My dad explains it this way: Before moving to this country, Jews for centuries were discriminated against and segregated. They were often banned from owning land. Thats why they became scrap-sellers, merchants, scholars and rabbis. They never knew much about plows or fertilizer. Like most immigrants, when they came to this country they looked for situations that were similar to what they had left. Case in point: if not for the Norwegians, Minnesota would never have been populated.Colorado PassoverWith that history in mind, it makes sense that the few Jews who have chosen to live in the rural West came here not by accident. Theyre here because theyve abandoned tradition or urban life or at least dont consider either much of a priority.
Recently in my small town, I attended a Passover seder, a Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom and liberation of the Hebrew slaves from ancient Egypt. We were a hodge-podge of Jews and non-Jews, gathered around three tables, reading prayers translated into English from white photocopied paper. It was warm and fun and the food was great, but it was different.
The Seders I attended growing up would last until midnight; this one was over by 8 oclock. Towards the end of the evening the big topic of conversation was not the Arab-Israeli conflict, but an upcoming Bhuddist retreat many of the Jews were planning. While my parents were happy to hear I had attended a seder, they were less than thrilled when I filled them in on the finer points of the evening.
I know they worry that I wont marry some nice Jewish guy and belong to a synagogue. But while Jews in small towns may be more endangered than those who live New York City, lets face it — this isnt a land of Russian ghettos. We are free from slavery and oppression. We are also vulnerable to inter-marriage, eating bacon and practicing Buddhism, no matter where we live.
Thats why I wish my parents would trust in the Jewish tradition that has lasted thousands of years: We are a people that has endured for centuries — despite pharaohs, the diaspora, Nazis and even the rural West.Rebecca Clarren of Paonia, Colo., is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News.