I grew up in a family of first generation Americans. My grandparents on both sides immigrated to the US in the early 1900’s to escape the pogroms in Lithuania, then Russia. Yiddish was spoken at home and we were taught, mostly, but not always, to distrust anyone who wasn’t Jewish. My parents were liberal and for the most part where accepting of people. In spite of that, the underlying message was, you were antisemitic until proven otherwise. When I would bring a new friend home, the first thing my mother would ask is “Jewish?” I came to understand that the question was simply a frame of reference. She just needed to know. As I grew to adulthood I learned that anti-Semitism was everywhere. Sometimes overt and sometimes covert, but it was there. As Jews we know everyone with any fame who’s Jewish. From Sandy Koufax, who wouldn’t pitch in the world series on Yom Kippur, to movie stars, politicians, Supreme Court justices and just about every famous Jewish person. We have a sense about who’s Jewish in our everyday life. We know that Jews are everywhere, even though we only comprise about 2% of the world population and slightly less than 2% of the US population. Most of us live on one of the coasts which means that the remainder are scattered throughout the rest of the country.
So here we are traveling through the middle of the country, wondering who the hell lives in some of these remote places. It would be easy to avoid this part of the country and stay in big cities and rush through the center. We decided that we would let go of our assumptions, not an easy thing, about these people with these heavy southern drawls and see what we could learn. Don’t get me wrong, we are not traveling back roads at night or staying in places that would make us really uncomfortable. I grew up in a city and I have lots of street smarts, which I use all the time.
So here we are in Fayetteville, Arkansas at a small, kind of funky bar. Truth be told, Fayetteville is the most liberal city in all of Arkansas. Even though Bill Clinton was Governor several times, things have changed since then and the state is pretty red. In recent history, the state voted red in presidential elections except for the two terms of hometown boy, Bill Clinton. All of my assumptions are in full swing as patrons come and go from the bar. I stay quiet and just allow my assumptions to grow. Two men come into the bar about an hour after we arrive and they are about our age and have very thick southern drawls. Oh yeah, I can sum this up in a minute. Then they engage with us. I’m friendly and before I know it we are in a great conversation not only about Arkansas, where they were both born and raised, but about everything from good food to ,yes, politics. We don’t agree on everything but they are not far enough to the right for me to be concerned. They start making suggestions of things we need to see. Our plan had been to get the hell out of Arkansas, through Oklahoma and a little bit of Texas to get to New Mexico. “No!!” one of them says, “You can’t leave Arkansas until you go to Bentonville and visit the Crystal Bridges Museum.” We had never heard of it. It was built and financed by Alice Walton, heiress to the Walmart fortune. Our conversation continued for several hours until they left and we went to our campsite. The next day we changed our plans and headed right for the museum. It was wonderful and we spent about 3 hours there and then headed out on a different route then we had originally planned.
I began to wonder what else we might have missed by not engaging with people we encounter. Or how often my assumptions about people prevent me from expanding my adventures.
We still look to see how many Jews there are in each city or town where we are staying but I am more open to the possibilities that lie ahead.