The Conspiracy

Jews in Small Places

A dog in Montana speaks Hebrew.

That could have been the first sentence of a recent NYTimes article that used a vignette about an ex-IDF German shepherd living in Helena as the lead-in to a story about the small but surviving Jewish population in the Treasure State.

The article spent perhaps an inordinate amount of time recounting the story with the dog, but its point–as exhibited by the headline, “Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana”–was that the Chosen People do indeed exist outside of Israel, the east coast and large cities.

Apparently the Times does this a lot. According to a Slate piece by Jack Shafer critiquing the article, New York’s finest news source has had over a dozen articles on shrinking Jewish populations in remote areas (read: outside New York) during the past couple of decades. Shafer criticized this focus on the Disappearing MOT, writing that our brothers and sisters are moving out of these places not because they’re Jews, but because they’re people:

Mostly, they’re doing what other people do when they see a better opportunity over the horizon: They pack their bags and move… I’d be more sympathetic to Times Jewspotting if the pieces acknowledged the whole range of demographic reasons that places are running low on Jews. To begin with, there’s the worldwide shift of populations to cities…

Shafer also noted that Jews like to live near each other for cultural and religious reasons and because many of us want to marry in. The real story, he said, is that so many Jews have remained in friendly countries. The Times should report that.

Aside from the absurdity of the idea that the New York Times report on Jews staying in New York, Shafer fails to realize that this trend of the dwindling small Jewish community is a big deal. Unlike most every other people, the Jews have lived for almost all of modern history, and for most of modern American history, without a homeland. This diasporic life meant, in practice, that there was no center and no central authority. We had no governing body to set our laws nor a country or city whose customs and culture we could imitate. All Judaism was local.

And so Jewish food could be kugel or kubeh, our language Hebrew, Yiddish or Ladino, our customs varying depending on where we lived. Dozens of Hassidic sects sprung up miles away from each other in Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, all becuase each town had its own rebbe. Because of this, Judaism encompassed a wide range of cultures, customs, rituals, traditions and philosophies.

Today, that diversity is dying. The rise of our national homeland over the past seven decades has meant that we do have that cultural center that every community imitates with falafel, Hadag Nachash CDs and Hebrew classes that teach more or less uniform pronunciation. We are also standardizing our laws: OU dominates the kosher market, the mishna brurah now gets the final word on halakhic decisions and the Israeli Rabbinate–with its American affiliate in the RCA–decides who is Jewish and who isn’t.

It wasn’t always this way. In Florence, Italy, the community has a siddur made only for them because their prayer service is like no other in the world. Some of their customs, which have been in place for centuries, predate and contradict what the rabbinate in Israel considers to be standard Jewish religious law. I saw customs there that I’ve never seen in the US or anywhere else.

But here we’re cookie-cutter Jews that have submitted to a monopoly on Jewish ritual, practice and tradition and we all live in different versions of the same place. It would be hard to tell the difference, as a non-native, between Beachwood, OH, Skokie, IL and Teaneck, NJ, all suburbs of large cities with high Jewish populations. More remote cities with smaller numbers of Jews–be they in Florence, Italy or Butte, MT–allow our people to persist in some kind of cultural diversity despite this overpowering standardization. And if some Times reporters want to write about that, I applaud them.

At the very least, we just found out that a German shepherd worked for the Israeli army. Now that’s something.

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One Older Response to “Jews in Small Places”

  1. brendan ryan
    January 29, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    i would have to say jews in montana lived a great life but i have one question why would a dog speak hebrew

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