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Finding Jews in Rural America

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It is a little known fact that there is an incredibly high concentration of Jews in Hampstead and Cote-Saint-Luc, Quebec. Just East of the Montreal airport, the area is over 70% Jewish. So basically it’s Canada’s answer to Brooklyn.

Okay, so Brooklyn is actually a pretty diverse place. But the New York metro area has 2 million Jews, more than everywhere but Tel Aviv. It’s a big drop after that. Los Angeles has 650,000. Philly, D.C., Chicago, Boston and San Francisco each have about a quarter million. A few more American cities have 50,000-100,000. But when you get down to the top 40 American cities, we’re talking less than 10,000 in a metro area.

We have always gravitated towards large metro areas. Perhaps it’s because we’re a communal people. Perhaps it’s for the availability of good Chinese food. Whatever the reason, we’re city dwellers, which means there’s an awful lot of America without any Jews.

I can just imagine someone on JDate in Pierre, South Dakota, messaging the same two people over and over again. There are only 295 Jews in the whole state – I’m guessing their answer to JDate’s “Will you relocate?” question is a resounding yes.

As a standup comic, I am constantly touring, so I get a chance to see parts of the country most people only dream about (assuming their dreams are incredibly boring). I recently played a comedy club in Mason City, Illinois. I don’t know how they have a comedy club – they don’t even have a McDonald’s. I also don’t know how they get to be called a city. Mason Rest Stop, maybe. Incidentally, Mason City’s Jewish population is me, whenever I perform there.

Something that’s always been tough for me is being Jewish on the road. I had to learn very quickly that everything I order, I have to ask if they make it with bacon. Salad, steak, even pizza has come with bacon without the menu saying so. In certain parts of the country, they use bacon like Jews use salt. I’m actually shocked that powdered bacon isn’t available in a jar at the table. Most days I have to pretend I’m allergic to pork for any waitress to take me seriously. You try explaining kosher in Wichita.

I try to use the stage to spread love for the Jews, both with positive Jewish humor, and by simply being a Jewish guy the crowd likes. I am often the first Jew a lot of people meet, which is a ridiculous responsibility. To counteract prevalent stereotypes, I have to make sure to tip well, avoid klezmer music, and never eat the blood of Christian babies. Or bacon.

There was one time when I purposefully didn’t talk about being Jewish on stage. Before a show at a small bar in Muskogee, Oklahoma, my friends and I were confronted by what we thought were just local yokels. As they talked our annoyed ears off more and more, yokel turned into racist, and racist turned into two card-carrying members of the Ku Klux Klan. That’s right – they had ID cards. I believe they kept them right next to their Bed Bath and Beyond rewards cards. All those sheets can get expensive.

An aside – while doing research for this column, I checked out the KKK’s website – it looks like it was made by an 8th grader in 1997. Apparently, they hate Black people, Jews and HTML.

No one in the bar knew who I was, so my friends and I swapped positions on the show. I went on first and did ten ad-libbed minutes about growing up a patriotic, Christian American. I am proud to be Jewish, sure – but I am also proud of the Jewish people’s inherent ability to survive. That night, it was my turn.

I happily returned to Manhattan in one piece. I’m not saying we’re immune to anti-Semitism in New York; at some point Mel Gibson will star in an Oliver Stone movie here. But I do recognize that I am spoiled by just how easy it is for New Yorkers to find everything from a synagogue to a kosher deli to a Jewish wife.

I am continually impressed by the resolve of Jews in smaller cities, where it’s not as easy to be Jewish. So for those who don’t have the luxury of an apartment complex littered with mezuzahs, stay strong. And make sure to check if they put bacon on your ice cream.

Steve Hofstetter is an internationally touring comedian who has been seen on VH1, ESPN, and Comedy Central®, but you’re more likely to have seen him on the last Barbara Walters Special.

*Comedy Central is a registered trademark of Comedy Partners, a wholly-owned division of Viacom Inc.’s MTV Networks.

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4 Comments »

  • Mike says:

    Ralph Hurwitz, a successful realtor in Springfield,Il is originally from Mason City, Illinois.

    Lincoln, Illinois (a city 25 minutes east of Mason City), had a synagogue from 1910-1929. The building is still there (230 McLean Street)…you can do a google search and click images…you can see the star at the top. http://www.lincoln.gfwcillinois.org Scroll down on this link and it will show you the building

    I attended Lincoln College in the early 80′s…almost 1/3 of the students were Jews from the Chicago area…

    South of Mason City is Springfield, Illinois with both a Reform and a Conservative synagogue. North of Mason City is a Reform synagogue in Bloomington, Illinois

  • Ruth says:

    Re: “I recently played a comedy club in Mason City, Illinois. I don’t know how they have a comedy club – they don’t even have a McDonald’s. I also don’t know how they get to be called a city. Mason Rest Stop, maybe. Incidentally, Mason City’s Jewish population is me, whenever I perform there.”

    Recently a friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook. He’s in a band that tours the country, and he happened to stop on the side of the road, snapped a photo of the fenced-in pasture and posted it, saying “Here we are in the middle of nowhere.”

    My response to that photo, as a Jew living and thriving in the “middle of nowhere”, is to say “careful–that is somebody’s somewhere.” I wasn’t raised in the country, and came to it with all the urban dismissive condescension that you express in your article, and that was expressed in that photo posted on Facebook.

    That is the general sad state of city folks visiting the country–they never stay long enough to really figure it out. They visit long enough to wash their hands clean of it (i.e. how do you really know for a fact that you are the only Jew in Mason City?)

  • Gershom says:

    I’m one of a handful of Jews in a small town in Oregon that was *founded* by Jews 150 years ago. I think one of them was Gene Wilder.

    Thanks for the great and very entertaining reminder that, wherever we wind up (and for however long), there’s always the larger community to keep in mind!

    -A Stranger in a Strange Land

  • Barry says:

    Very, very funny! Well written.

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