By Josh Walfish
It all began with a simple feast for one.
I had been in North Carolina all of three weeks when the Jewish high holidays rolled around. Stuck without any vacation days to spend the holidays with my family, I decided to make the most of it and made myself some chicken and couscous and bought a nice red wine.
That elegant dinner for one was the first time I really understood the fact that I was in the real world now. No organic Jewish community to join, no parents to cook all this delicious food. Just me, my subpar cooking skills and a dimly lit apartment in eastern North Carolina.
The festivities continued a few months later when I rushed home from work every day during my dinner break to light my menorah in celebration of Hanukkah. The lights glistened as I placed the tray with the menorah in the sink to prevent a fire while I drove to the high school basketball game I was covering that night.
My first job out of college was in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, a town of about 57,000 people according to the latest numbers from the Census Bureau. Although no data is officially available, there are probably fewer than 10 Jews living in Nash and Edgecombe counties — and I am one of them.
“I realized just how lonely I really was in the world. Sure, I had a great family and a fantastic group of friends in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C., but if I needed someone to come to my aid at 4 a.m., who could I call?”
I didn’t think it would be a big deal for me. I’m not one to force my religious views on anyone, and I am very tolerant of the beliefs of others. I didn’t see a reason for any issues to arise, and for the most part, they didn’t.
That changed on January 6, 2015.
I was covering the local Christian private school’s basketball team, and they said a prayer before the game. I stood silently with my head looking straight ahead, thinking about all the wishes they were asking from God. When the prayer was completed, an older woman nearby said I was being very rude by not bowing my head during prayer and asked me why I didn’t pray with them.
I tried to explain that it wasn’t my custom, but I might as well have told her that Jesus was a myth and she was crazy. She berated me for a few minutes before realizing I didn’t care. She turned her attention back to the game.
After the game, I went back to the office and recounted the story. My colleagues were very sympathetic to me and told me not to worry, but in my mind, the seeds had been planted that I just did not belong in this town.
Ironically enough, my birthday was the next day, and as I tend to do, I took a state of my life after 23 years. With that incident fresh in my mind, I realized just how lonely I really was in the world. Sure, I had a great family and a fantastic group of friends in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C., but if I needed someone to come to my aid at 4 a.m., who could I call?
That realization sent me into a major funk, one of a few prolonged low moments I have had in the 18 months since my graduation. The only way out of that spiral was to work. So I dove into my job, but didn’t do very well taking care of me and my needs in the process.
“Community — especially religious community — is about nothing more than loving one another and helping each other in times of need.”
Even though on the outside I seemed fine, and most people could not witness the turmoil within, I was slowly being engulfed by these feelings of isolation.
The funny part of this story is that it took going to church for me to come to grips with being Jewish in an almost exclusively Christian town.
My editor lost his newborn child to a heart defect, and I attended the funeral with many of my colleagues from work in early May. I sat in the service as an act of moral support, and when there were the prayers to Jesus, I took the opportunity to say the Jewish equivalent to each prayer.
When the final prayer was going to be said, the pastor asked everyone to hold hands and bow their heads. The girl to my right attempted to grab my hand, but I kindly declined the request, and she looked bewildered.
As the family’s processional back up the aisle commenced, my editor came over and whispered that he was grateful I had shown up. He later texted me that he wasn’t sure if I would come, but he was glad to see me there in support.
All religions at the core are about respecting your fellow human. We pray to different deities, but we pray for the same things, and we believe in the same fundamental principle.
Community — especially religious community — is about nothing more than loving one another and helping each other in times of need.
No matter what I say or do, just about everyone I meet in Rocky Mount will assume I’m Christian. I will still get asked which church I attend — my answer of Beth Shalom really throws them off — and I will still get the same concerned faces when I tell them that I offered to work Christmas Day.
So when a curious high school athlete recently asked me after an interview whether I would be going home from Christmas, I calmly told her, “My family puts more of an emphasis on Thanksgiving.”
I went home later that night, put on my charcoal gray yarmulke and lit the Hanukkah menorah for the second consecutive year in an apartment that was now shining with the flickering flames of Jewish pride.
Josh Walfish is a sports reporter for the Rocky Mount Telegram in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.