My early childhood was spent in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington D.C., which at that time in the early 1970s was a uniquely progressive place. Our lower-middle-class neighborhood, large looping cul-de-sacs of red-brick row houses, contained a more diverse population than anywhere I’ve lived since.
Black, white and brown people, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Jehovah’s Witnesses lived right up against each other; their children played together; they celebrated holidays and broke bread together; and through proximity and intimate day-to-day interaction, they learned both how alike and how different they were. From my childish perspective, multicultural integration was the norm against which all other environments would be judged.
This utopian ideal was tested when my father gave up his job in the government and entered the private sector, moving my family to rural Wisconsin. We technically lived in a town called Lamartine, but really we lived in the middle of nowhere. Lamartine’s population was so small that no one ever bothered to count it.
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Every crossroads in Wisconsin is its own little unincorporated town. All that means is that there’s a church, a bar and a baseball diamond. Our flat little ranch house sat at the top of a hill on County Road T, across the street from a dairy farm. Rosendale, the closest real town, was 10 miles away. Fond du Lac, the big city where my father worked, had a population of 30,000.
To get to school, I rode the bus for 45 minutes to the small elementary school in Rosendale where I joined a class of 35 students, all of whom had known each other their entire lives. They were the children of German and Dutch immigrants. Farm kids. Kids whose parents worked at the Green Giant canning factory. Catholics and Lutherans and more Catholics. A very few of them lived in town, but for the most part, they were country folk.
I first realized that my frame of reference was different from theirs when my teacher set aside a large chunk of Friday show-and-tell for me to introduce myself. She must have hoped that I’d bring news of the world, stories of the far-away city from whence I hailed, of the Smithsonian and the Lincoln Memorial, maybe even some anecdotes about what it was like to live in the world with Jewish blood coursing through my veins.
I talked about the five feet of snow that had dumped from the sky the week before. I described my amazement at seeing real live cows lined up in a barn with steel suction pumps linked to their udders.
I presented them with things that were so common to their lives that they could hardly comprehend my fascination.
What they noticed was that I was not like them.
I’d been of the mind to extend myself and search for a commonality with others. They forced me to notice my differences from them. It wasn’t just my status as a transplant from the East Coast. My classmates noticed my curly dark hair, so unlike the coarse wheat that hung lax across their foreheads. They noticed my bookish nature, my habit of collecting and studying artifacts of my world, of asking annoying questions, the answers to which were, to them, either self-evident or so disconnected from the practical realities of life that the very act of asking implied I was some bizarre, suspect, alien life-form.
What I understood at that time was that I was all alone in a cold, unfriendly place. I had no community of people to call my own.
I became that weird kid who thought he was smart but was actually too dense to comprehend why the cafeteria always served fish sticks on Fridays. Then later, I became that kid who made a spectacle of himself, organizing and running an “underground newspaper” out of the boys’ bathroom, dressing up like Prince every day for a whole school year, singing and dancing in the Lions Club talent shows, grasping for the acceptance that was denied me in daily life by parading myself like a cut-rate vaudevillian in front of the footlights — defense mechanisms that I now associate with a certain kind of scrappy, shouty cultural Judaism.
I presented them with an outsider’s perspective on themselves, which they not only didn’t need, but also didn’t want. What’s the point of seeing your culture as one among many when it’s the only game going for miles around? And so they laughed and then they kept their distance from me. They rejected what they didn’t understand, targeting me in a myriad of petty hurtful ways, leaving me to wonder why.
I’m not saying that they’d marked me for a Jew. Maybe they did, but if so, they kept this private. They mocked my hair. They mocked my nose. They mocked the shape of my head. But they did so in a rapacious, childish way, seizing on whatever they could with no larger agenda than to hurt me. I don’t remember them ever throwing overt racial epithets at me — those were reserved for the one black girl in school.
What I’m saying is in the antagonistic environment of rural Wisconsin, I learned to mark myself as an outsider.
A few years later, my parents sent me to St. Mary’s Springs, the Catholic high school in Fond du Lac. They did so out of necessity. Springs, as we called it, was the best school in the area — it was where everyone with means sent their children. My social circle shifted from the country to the town. Fond du Lac. This was the big city, where instead of falling asleep in class because they’d been up since 4 a.m. doing farm chores, my classmates fell asleep in class because they’d gotten stoned in the parking lot before school. I learned how to cheer on the school’s hockey team — state champs going on a decade at that time. I learned how to dress myself properly in collared polo shirts and overpriced sunglasses. I learned how to waterski at a classmate’s lake house and how to cliff dive in the flooded rock quarry a half hour’s drive out across the ledge that had been carved by glaciers across the Fox River Valley during the Ice Age.
And I learned to refine how I presented myself as an outsider. I learned to mark myself as a Jew. I still didn’t fit in, but now I knew why.
Understand, at this point in my life, that I’d never really considered my Jewish heritage. The closest my family came to practicing the faith was lighting the menorah every Hanukkah. I just knew that I wasn’t like the people around me and that they didn’t like me. I learned about my Judaism through its absence.
Fond du Lac was moderately more sophisticated than Rosendale or Lamartine. There was industry and commerce. It had a mall. It was connected in a variety of ways to the larger workings of the state and, by extension, to the nation. But it was still an exceedingly homogenous place. The same powerful families had run the town since it was first founded and they’d built it into a thriving community that found its strength in its history of continuous, ordered conformity. Like their rural counterparts, they saw those who weren’t like them as threats to their stability. Unlike those country folk, they were educated enough to be at least abstractly familiar with cultural difference. They knew what Jews were and they didn’t trust them.
To my knowledge, there were five and a half Jewish kids in town and everyone knew exactly who they were (I’ve changed all their names here to protect both the innocent and the guilty). I can’t count how many times I heard classmates joking about how one of the Stone boys had “Jewed” them. Or how Sara’s mom Judith, who was divorced and audaciously drove a red Jaguar around town, would give you a hummer for $5 because, you know… Or the looks and laughs and general approval Peter Langkamp received when, as we watched a film reel from Auschwitz in history class, he leaned forward to ask if I recognized any relatives.
What living in Wisconsin felt like, more than anything else, was exile. Like Jews the world over since the beginning of time, I longed for a place where I could be myself and have those around me recognize that as legitimate. I longed for the fellowship of people like me. I’d sit in my room and imagine how my life might be better if I were back where I belonged. I longed for a homeland, you could say, but not one in Israel. What I longed for was New York, that most Jewish of Jewish cities, from whence my people came.
Joshua Furst is a contributing editor of the Forward. He lives in New York.