I was born and raised on the East Coast. Aside from living briefly in Boston and Chicago for my schooling, the DC area was my mission control and I had no intention of ever leaving. I was a child of the suburbs, went to public school, and didn’t think much about my Jewish identity because I was always surrounded by lots of Jews. They were not religious Jews, but were Jews nonetheless. Then I met a guy, got married, and moved to Boston—Brookline, specifically. The environment in Brookline upped the Jewish ante, as there were lots of observant Jews living there, and kosher restaurants and supermarkets in walking distance from us. There was also a large contingent of young religious couples living in our apartment building. I remember observing them with their children, feeling like such an outsider, wondering to myself, “what kind of name is Gedalya?”
My husband and I were invited to a goodbye party for a colleague of his who was moving to Indianapolis for a new job. As we left the party, we joked to ourselves, “well, we’ll never see him again,” as he was basically leaving the earth as we knew it, or at least the part we thought was important. As my husband’s training was nearing its end, he started to look for jobs around the country. Gainesville, Chicago, Denver, Western Mass, Ann Arbor…none were a good fit. Then a great opportunity presented itself in, you guessed it, Indianapolis. Also called, we later learned, “Nap Town,” and “Indianoplace.” Oh dear.
We visited. It was pretty, extremely affordable, and had a Jewish day school. It also had a Trader Joe’s and a Nordstrom’s. We could do this for a few years. We left a two-bedroom apartment that we shared with 2 babies and lots of pesky mice and moved into what to us was a McMansion with a 3-car garage. We’ll stay for two years max we said, no way we’re referring to the city as “Indy” we said, “what the heck is a Hoosier anyway?” we said. Well, 18 years later, Indy is our home and it’s the place where our 3 boys have grown up. And living here has changed us as people and Jews in so many ways. But we still don’t know what a Hoosier is.
Before we moved, I spoke with the director of the Jewish preschool our son was going to attend. She was a native New Yorker so I felt like we spoke the same language. I said to her, “when I walk down the street in Brookline, I see tons of people who look like me,” to which she responded, “yeah, that won’t happen here.” And boy, was she right. After arriving here, on the rare occasions when I spotted an obvious member of the tribe, I felt the urge to run up to them and say, “Hey! Don’t you recognize me?”
So many churches, really big churches, bible quotes in the newspaper, Billy Graham dispensing advice right next to Dear Abby, it was a lot to take in. Coming from a city where there were synagogues aplenty, central Indiana only had a total of 5 that spanned the denomination spectrum. There’s nothing like being a fish out of water—it led us to think deeply about what type of fish we wanted to be. In many ways, we were ambassadors of our faith as so many of our neighbors had not met many Jews, much less Jews with funny names (my husband and sons have Hebrew names). I remember paying way too much for books at a neighbor’s garage sale because I didn’t want to haggle and fuel any preconceptions they may have had about Jews.
Life without the comfort of having lots of our tribesman around became our new normal. Since we had no family in town, the community Jewish day school that our kids attended became our home base. The school was made up of families from all branches of Judaism. We became close friends with a couple who were moving toward increased observance. They invited us to the Orthodox synagogue that they attended. The congregants were warm and welcoming and so knowledgeable about Judaism. Being around practicing Jews was eye-opening for us. We learned about Shabbat, the dos and don’ts; we learned about kashrut and hechshers; I learned there were holidays beyond the well-known ones—-Shemini Atzeret, who knew? We learned that Shabbat and the holidays involve eating an astounding amount of food—cholent, who knew?
But most importantly, we spent time with torah-observant Jews who impacted us profoundly. They were thoughtful and charitable. They were focused on learning and growing spiritually with less concern for material things. Through them we learned that gossip is to be avoided at all costs and that modesty of speech, dress, and behavior is paramount. They reinforced for us that the most important things we should wish for our kids are a solid marriage, a loving Jewish home, and a life full of meaning. We learned that the Torah is the ultimate how-to guide with answers to all of life’s major questions. When my husband and I lost parents, they were a tremendous source of comfort, as for example, when our rabbi flew to Houston to pay my husband a shiva call.
We have tried to integrate all of these lessons into our everyday life and have been rewarded tremendously for it. Although we are not fully observant, we have a much greater understanding of what Judaism is all about. If you would have told me 18 years ago that I would have several rabbis in my phone contacts, that I would know every man in town that wore a kippah, that many of my closest friends would wear sheitels, and that I would know how to make challah from scratch, I would not have believed you. I guess you could say I found God in Indiana.