Jewish Life In Small Towns Created Lasting Impact
By Richard Friedman,
BJF Executive Director
I had a piece in Update about the kinship Jews feel toward one another being a key to what Mark Twain called our “immortality.” That thought — and the power of this connection — came back to me as I Googled this morning. As I typically do, I Googled “Jewish” and clicked on to “news.” An array of stories came up.
One was about Jewish life in the small Virginia town of Martinsville. I clicked on to the story because one of our longtime Birmingham Jewish community volunteer leaders, Steve Greene, is from Martinsville. I wondered if the story would mention his family. Not only did it mention his family, the picture with the story was of the store his family owned. Steve has told me about his family’s business and what it was like growing up with only a handful of Jewish families.
He like others who grew up in small Southern towns where there were just a few Jewish families, grew up as a proud young Jew. His family, like other small-town families across the South, understood the obligation they had to raise their kids with a strong Jewish background so that Judaism and a love for the Jewish people would endure in their families as they certainly have in Steve’s case.
Many of the Jews I’ve gotten to know in Birmingham, who grew up in small Southern towns, say their families were accepted by the community at large and experienced little anti-Semitism. This, they suggest, was because they “knew their neighbors” and their families typically played leading roles in the civic life of these communities.
The number of Jews in these smaller towns has dwindled as those in Steve’s Boomer generation have moved away to bigger cities to build their careers and lives. But the small-town upbringings and the Norman Rockwell-lives they knew live in their hearts. Many of these “emigres” have become major volunteer leaders in the communities where they made their new homes.
Mark Twain was a small town guy (Hannibal, Missouri) and though not Jewish, he probably would have loved this news story. The story, another reflection of the pride Jews have in being Jewish and the connection we feel with one another, would have helped him answer his famous question: What is the secret to the immortality of the Jews?