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  • Hannah Grabenstein

Tradescantia pallida

Updated: Apr 26, 2019

After the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last fall, I felt untethered. I wasn’t afraid for myself as a Jew, not like I occasionally am as a journalist, because the dominant emotion wasn’t fear. It was more like I was stranded at sea. I was alone, anxious to comfort and be comforted by people who knew me.


I realized I didn’t need them to know who I was personally, but just viscerally, which meant I needed other Jews. The Shabbat after that slaughter, I attended Saturday morning services for the first time in maybe years. I drove out west to the more conservative of the two shuls in Little Rock and sat in the mixed gender session as old men read the Torah, and I said the Mourner’s Kaddish and heard about an upcoming synagogue picnic.


It’s one of a handful of times that I’ve felt really at home here in the south. I can’t tell if I’m inching further back into Judaism because I’m so removed from it, or if it’s maybe because I’m getting older. I will say this: in D.C., my Judaism was largely expressed through a yearly Passover Seder I held for friends or maybe by just acknowledging it with other Jews. In Little Rock, I go, every so often, to Saturday morning services for no particular reason other than to feel community.


I’m back in Little Rock after having gone to Israel on a Birthright trip. I do not intend to hash that out; my feelings about the trip itself, Israel’s foreign and domestic policies, the United States’ position on Israel - all of that is honestly neither here nor there.


What is here and there is that in Israel, for the first time in my entire life I experienced what it felt like to be in the ethnic majority. Look: there’s no denying that I’m white, or that I pass for white, or that I reap the benefits and privileges of a white person (you may ask David Duke whether or not he considers me white, of course).


But there’s also no denying that this nation leans heavily toward Christianity. The beginning Passover and Easter fell on the same weekend this year. Did you see more mazto ball mixes or chocolate eggs in your local CVS? Did the upscale restaurant near you have an Easter brunch or a Passover dinner? Were you visited by the Easter bunny or did the Angel of Death pass by your door because you marked it with lamb’s blood? (perhaps we have a marketing problem)


Normally my default emotion toward this is passive acceptance, with just a touch of Ebenezer Scrooge bitterness come Christmastime. But largely I am unbothered by it because that’s the way it’s always been for me. The Arkansas legislature prays, mostly to Jesus, every time they come to session. I do not see many unbowed heads when I look around.


But Israel was a whole new ballgame. Friday night in Jerusalem, people rushed to buy what they needed before the shops closed at sundown. I argued with friends on the bus the merits of including or excluding various Friday night prayers. Everywhere, so many people had such similar cultural frames of reference; it was intoxicating and unsettling and enchanting. It was weird.


All of this brings me back to Little Rock, Arkansas, which I rag on for various reasons (lack of public transportation, sidewalks that I cannot imagine are ADA-compliant, no Ethiopian restaurant) but where I’ve actually really enjoyed my life these past nine months or so. I have truly excellent friends, a truly excellent job, truly excellent colleagues. I have things to do all the time, a wonderful food co-op where I get local produce and meat, and beautiful views of the Arkansas river.


Here is what I don’t have: almost anyone whose lived experience is similar to mine. It’s why after I went home for Rosh Hashanah last year I was desperate for a place to break fast on Yom Kippur in a way I’ve never been before, and why I ended up at the temple even further west eating mushy bagels with a room full of people I’d never met but somehow have also known all my life. And why I went to the Jewish Food and Cultural Festival and spent $50 on challah and babka and chicken liver and knishes - and kugel that was very nearly as good as my grandmother’s.


It’s why I went to an acquaintance’s house for Passover last week, armed with vegetable sides from Whole Foods and a bottle of white wine and left drunk on sweet kosher wine and camaraderie - love - from someone who too could pronounce Hebrew in the bastardized but still perfect way we American Jews do it.


To be painfully clear, I have never, not once, felt unwelcome or uncomfortable here. No one has ever said anything that I’ve interpreted as even bordering on anti-Semitic; the worst was a disgusting email I got about my ancestors and gas chambers after I wrote a piece on administration officials considering a migrant camp near a former Japanese internment camp. Everyone I showed it to was properly horrified and I was again reminded how much I value the relationships I have here.


But it’s different from living in a city with a lot of Jews. In D.C., it seemed like every fifth person I met was Jewish, and while somehow we always felt kinship, I knew they had separate lives and experiences from mine. Here, I can count on one hand the number of Jews I’ve met outside of a synagogue (I think it’s three, four if I’m being extra-generous and counting a woman whose mother was Jewish but wasn’t raised in the religion). Every time I meet another Jew here I feel an incredibly intimate connection. It’s so primitive, like a yearning to have someone say, “I know who you are. We get each other.” All my life, I’ve felt a little like an outsider; on occasion, I’ve felt a lot like one. Here, that experience is heightened, intensified so dramatically that I’m always sort of kind of a little bit aware in the back of my mind that my religion, my culture, my life is highly atypical in this city.


None of this is more than a passing thought, not quite the level of criticism or anxiety but certainly something I’ve been considering for a while now. It’s deeply important to me, especially as my identity as a Jew is being, let’s say, examined on national stages. Being Jewish, like having curly hair or being loud or loving writing, has always been the deepest, most true aspect of who I am. Maybe this is me figuring out what that means. It’s isolating. But here, Zayde, Savta, Grandma - this one’s for you: the moment I’m back in synagogue, I feel at home.