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Small-Town Jew Blues

February 2009

As my older son prepared for junior kindergarten, my partner and I consulted our lesbian parenting books and dutifully made an appointment with his teacher to discuss the fact that Rowan Has Two Mommies.

We weren't sure what to expect. We live in Thunder Bay, Ontario, a city of approximately 115,000 people on the north shore of Lake Superior. It's the biggest thing going in northern Ontario, but it feels like a small place to us.

Thunder Bay, Ontario
The city of Thunder Bay, Ontario, is very pretty. Photo: Flickr/MaryLynn.

Since we moved here from Toronto, Canada's largest city, four years ago, we haven't personally encountered anything in the way of homophobia, but we didn't want to leave to chance that it could crop up in our children's classrooms. So, on a late August day we visited the school and sat down on preschool-sized stools with Rowan's teacher and had The Talk.

It went swimmingly. She asked all the right questions, didn't ask any of the wrong ones, and seemed open and welcoming. "Oh yeah," she said, "I had a little girl last year who had two daddies."

As we started to wrap up the conversation, I mentioned in passing that Rowan was Jewish, and that it would be important to ensure that his culture and religious traditions were reflected in the curriculum.

His teacher paused. "Oh," she said. "Well, I'm definitely going to need some help with that."

In Thunder Bay, it appears, being queer, even being a queer parent, is no big deal. But being Jewish? People aren't so prepared for that.

Like many northern Canadian towns and small cities, Thunder Bay--its economy based on logging and mining--is shrinking. And its Jewish population has declined, too. Today, the city's population of Jews consists of fewer than 30 families (there are way more lesbian households, by my unofficial count), most of them elderly or, like Rachel and me, interfaith couples. Once, I got a voicemail message from someone who had spotted my last name in the phone book: "I hope I'm not intruding," said an older woman, "but I saw your name and I thought I knew all the Goldbergs in town. Please call me."

Thunder Bay used to boast two synagogues, one on each side of town. Now there's just one, with beautiful stained glass windows but no rabbi, run by a small but dedicated membership (many of them non-Jewish) whose mission--and it's a challenging one--is, essentially, its survival.

It's a far cry from my youth. I grew up in the Conservative movement, attended Jewish day school until Grade 8, and was cheerfully packed off to Young Zionist summer camps each year, returning in my teens as a counselor. I was fluent in Hebrew by the end of first grade. I remember being confused by a newspaper headline that referred to Jews in Toronto as a minority population: "What do they mean?" I asked my bemused father. "Everyone I know is Jewish."

It won't be the same for my sons. And that is sometimes hard. I'm jealous of my friends in big cities who have choices not only about whether to send their children to Jewish schools, but which ones. They can, if they choose, attend progressive, feminist or even LGBTQ synagogue services, with rabbis, in Hebrew. They can gather together as Jews to protest (or, more rarely in my circles, to support) Israel's actions in Gaza. They can be Jewish, or queer, by osmosis, and be sure of seeing people exactly like them on the streets, in the schools. Hell, they can be Jewish and queer and interfaith and parents all at the same time and still be assured that they will find community: off the top of my head, I can count at least five sets of lesbian parents in interfaith relationships among my Toronto circle of friends. (I'm sure most of us were married by the same secular humanist rabbi, but that's a different story.)

While I have many issues with the Conservative and Zionist traditions I was raised in, at least I have a background and a context from which to question those traditions. My sons may have those, but they will be much more difficult to acquire in Thunder Bay.

In the meantime, Rachel and I are left to raise our sons as Jews according to the resources available to us. We travel to Toronto for the festivals of Hanukkah and Passover, teach our sons the Four Questions traditionally asked by the youngest child at the Passover Seder. Each Friday night, we say the blessings over Sabbath candles and hallah (I make it weekly because you can't find it in local grocery stores). We post a mezuzah on our door that identifies us, at least to those in the know, as Jews, and are one of the few houses on the street not festooned in Christmas decorations each so-called "holiday season." This past December, I went into Rowan's classroom to talk to the kids about Hanukkah (my presentation was sandwiched between the carol service and the Santa Claus play), and I will do the same at Passover.

We're doing what we can. Even so, I sometimes resent the fact that this job has been thrust upon me. I always imagined that my children would grow up somewhere where they could just be Jewish, without having to work hard to maintain that identity. I never wanted to be a Jewish educator, and here I am: de facto Hebrew-school teacher. Perhaps ironically, I'd be much more comfortable going into a classroom to talk about what it means to have two moms or two dads.

But no one here seems to need to talk about the "two moms" thing, least of all my kids. For them, having two mothers is natural, omnipresent, what they've always known--kind of like how I grew up Jewish in Toronto. Being Jewish here, on the other hand, requires a little more work, especially when everyone around us isn't, and when the pull of Christmas and easy assimilation is so strong. What my kids need, and what I need for them, is a sense that it's OK to be Jewish, that it's possible to be Jewish, even in, perhaps especially in, Thunder Bay.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. A supporter of the ideal that Israel be defined as a Jewish nation state. A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Susan Goldberg

Susan Goldberg is a writer, editor and blogger and is coeditor of the anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents and Our Unexpected Families. She blogs at mamanongrata.com.

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