Growing up Jewish in Montgomery, Alabama
by Laurie Shinbaum
On the first day of school every year, particularly as an ice breaker activity, the favored way to introduce yourself is by stating your name, age and something unique or different about yourself. Up until age 19, my unique fact has always been being Jewish. That is because I grew up in Alabama.
As five-year-olds, the difference between me and the other kids in my grade was Christmas. While Santa would bring gifts on one night out of the year, I relished in countless gifts for eight nights in a row. At the time this seemed like a fair trade—everyone around me got to fit in while I got extra presents.
It wasn't until third grade that my "difference" started hacking into my social life, making me feel as if I stood out like a sore thumb. For everyone's ninth birthday it seemed like the party was held at Looney's Skating Rink. Along with being held at the rink, they were always held on Mondays and Wednesdays right after school.
Unfortunately, I along with the seven other Jewish kids my age in Montgomery, Alabama, never went to these parties. Instead, we "partied" it up in Hebrew school with our Rabbi, who at the time seemed ancient. According to our parents, a Jewish education was much more important than the social life of a nine-year-old.
Hebrew school continued to encroach on my social life for the next five years, each year taking a little bit more than the last. It started with random Friday nights being required to attend services, which was okay until middle school, when football games collided with services.
While this continued throughout most of my junior high years, I did not resent being different until high school. My peers started becoming more active in their youth groups; however, my youth group was small, not very active, and consisted of me, my cousins and a few other Jewish students.
It was far from the size of the youth groups that every church—on every corner—had. As my friends attended their Christian youth group events, I, for the first time, felt left out of what seemed to be the world of "teenagedom."
I even joined a Christian youth organization to be able to have a social life with my friends from high school, and it actually provided me with a better understanding of all of my Christian friends and neighbors in the South that surrounded me. Had I not been a part of this organization I would have continued to have misconceptions and stereotypes about their religion.
While joining this group helped me feel like I "fit in" in Montgomery, a part of me still stood out and died to be around other Jews just like me. My senior year rolled around, and at the top of my list of deciding factors for schools was the number of Jewish students enrolled.
I decided on the University of Illinois with a 10 percent Jewish population. Within my first week I met several Jewish students who were excited to be my friend because, again, I was "different."
This time I was not different because I was Jewish, but because my upbringing within a small southern Jewish population, tremendously differed from their upbringing in Chicago.
For them, being Jewish was never a problem since the people surrounding them were Jewish too. And for me, it was now a source of community.
My differences in both communities, here in Montgomery and in Illinois, reaffirmed what I remember saying on that first day of school in elementary school back in Montgomery, that being Jewish was what made me unique. Not many people grow up Jewish in the South and then have the opportunity to spend college with a group of Jewish peers who are just as different from me as my peers from Alabama. And I have loved every minute of exploring who I am and want to be as a Jewish student and young adult.