Being Texan and Jewish: Part Two
Last week we heard from Miriam Cantor-Stone about her life as a Texan. Today we go to the root of her Texas life- her mother.
I was born in Houston in the mid-1950's and lived there until I went to Yale College. In case you’re one of those who think all of Texas is somehow primitive, or at least provincial, understand how cosmopolitan Houston is! We have some of the best universities, museums, dance, music, and theater in the country. Further, it doesn’t seem most Houstonians are natives anyway. Plus I traveled to many parts of the United States, so never felt like a hick of any variety.
I did feel out of place as a Jew in some way, undefinable to a kid. I remember feeling wrong singing compulsory Christmas carols in public elementary school; as some kind of cosmic compromise, I would silently mouth “Jesus” every time the name was sung. (It’s only as an adult I made my peace with Jesus as another persecuted Jew.) I was grateful my parents gave us “Christmas lights” on our house and a tree to decorate, because I already felt strange enough as the only Jew in my grade. Or at least the only Jew I was aware of. Who knows if others stayed silent like I did? I felt a bit threatened in 3rd grade when I made a crèche in a shoebox, with thread-spool figures, just like my classmates, and one girl said I shouldn’t do that because I was Jewish. I think I wondered how she knew, but just didn’t say anything at all, hoping “it” would just go away. I guess it did, because no one else said anything I remember.
I do remember feeling harassed by my 4th grade teacher, who persisted in calling me “Liza” even after I corrected her at least a few times. I was a good, very cooperative student, so couldn’t understand why she didn’t like me. It was only many years later that my mother told me she thought the woman had been anti-Semitic. But that could have happened anywhere.
Once I was old enough to join our temple youth group, I found an endless source of potential pride in being a Jew. I came to love being at temple because I felt—without defining it—safer and more whole. I don’t remember ever discussing religion at public school, but I got to discuss just about anything in youth group settings.
As for being Texan: only once do I remember feeling shamed because of it, and it’s a strange thing! I was about 12, on my family’s annual summer camping trip to national and state parks all over the country. At breakfast in a Montana restaurant, the waitress singled me out for having a Texas accent. Seems to me that must have been a bit funny, since she had her own clear accent, not to mention those of my family, but that’s how it is: one person’s normal language is another’s remarkable accent. Funny though it must have been, that remark got to me; somehow I decided I didn’t want to be labeled that way. And apparently, the thought was equal to the deed, because I’ve never been so labeled again.
In fact when I got to Yale, people didn’t believe I was from Texas, although they still asked if I had cows. Serious though I was, I couldn’t believe they were, so I sardonically said, “Only about 300.” To which they replied, “Is that a lot?” At that point I was truly incredulous, asking if they actually thought I was serious. However, the real craziness hit when it would come up that I was Jewish. The seriously puzzled response was,
“But I thought you said were from Texas…there aren’t any Jews in Texas.” As if they could possibly know that. As if it could be true.
The truth is Texas has generally been welcoming to Jews because Texas has traditionally wanted people to grow the economy. Texas Jewish history (that’s not an oxymoron!) is full of examples of Jews finding good lives here. Not surprisingly, often enough they ended up losing their Jewish identity in being the only Jews in a small town, or even among landsmen in a larger community. But they weren’t typically persecuted as Texans.
There was a Jewish mayor of Galveston over 100 years before the 1st Jewish mayor of NYC. For better and worse, Jews are just like other Texans. And in case you’re wondering, there are plenty of New Yorkers, and other foreigners, who make excellent Texans! My New Yorker husband, on his 1st visit here, found he really appreciated Mexican food and rodeos; once you also accept the intense summers and lovely winters, you can call yourself a Texan. Once you appreciate Jews with cowboy hats and boots, you can be comfortable as a Texas Jew.