Columbia to Columbia, a tale of two worlds Essay: For a local Jewish woman relocated to Missouri, differences were to be expected. A clash of cultures at the office, however, was a first.

October 16, 1998|By Dawn Fallik | Dawn Fallik,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Columbia, Md., may share the same name with Columbia, Mo., but when I moved from one to the other to start graduate school this summer, I knew some adjustment would be necessary.

There is no Starbucks coffee here, no Old Bay seasoning, no joking about the weather because it's a thing to be respected and feared in this city smack in the middle of tornado alley. But I had gone to undergraduate school in Wisconsin and lived in Nebraska for two years, so I figured I could handle two more years without a decent pastrami on rye.

I had been in Missouri a few months, unpacked my bags and calmed the cats when the similarity between the two cities ended abruptly.

"Really, you're Jewish?" asked Heather, the secretary in the department where I work. "I've never met a Jew before."

I stood there, stymied, blankly searching my mind to try and find some "First Jew" anecdote that would tell me how to handle the situation. No one warned me about this in Hebrew School. For a few moments, a moat of silence appeared between Heather's desk and my gaping mouth.

I had started working in the computer lab only weeks before and noted through comments that I was the only Jewish person in the group. A bit odd for a journalism office, I thought, but it wasn't anything that I dwelled upon.

During my few weeks in Missouri, Heather and I had developed a kind of morning rap ritual -- the kind of chat people use to put off starting actual work as long as possible. But ours was a relationship still in the getting-to-know-you status.

I knew she had grown up in a small town south of Columbia, Mo., but I also knew she had worked at the school for several years. Heather's question caught me off-guard -- it simply never occurred to me that someone had never met a Jewish person before, in the same way I would be surprised if someone had not met a black person.

As the unwelcome weight of religious responsibility descended upon my shoulders. I tried to make a joke of it.

"Really? Never? Maybe I should wear a little name tag that says, 'Hi, I'm Dawn, the token journalism Jew,' " I said, shifting in my shoes, standing before her desk. We both laughed that little uncomfortable heh-heh laugh.

"So, do you believe in God?" she asked, shuffling the papers on her desk.

Now, I consider myself a fairly religious Jewish woman. I go to services, keep the holidays and put my mezuzah on my apartment door. But I was afraid of giving a wrong answer, of saying too much, of saying too little, of getting into this conversation at all. This is the kind of thing best left to rabbis and Barbra Streisand movies starring Mandy Patinkin.

"Yes, Jews believe in God, but we don't have that trinity thing," I said, eloquently. "You know how you all believe Jesus was the messiah? Well, we believe the messiah hasn't come yet. So we just believe in one God."

"So what do you think of Jesus?" she asked.

This was clearly out of my league. But I felt that I shouldn't stop the conversation. Jews don't believe in conversion, but learning and teaching are revered, and to stop a student from asking questions felt like an insult to my entire upbringing.

"Jesus was kind of a nice guy, but we don't think he was the son of God," I said. "Maybe if he had been a nice doctor instead of a carpenter. "

Heather was a bit taken aback.

"So you don't have Christmas?" she asked.

I explained a bit about how Christmas focuses on the birth of Christ, which she realized. And then she remembered something Jewish she had seen once -- a menorah. I offered to bring mine in if the office had a holiday party.

We chatted a bit more about the coolness of getting eight gifts for Hanukkah vs. Christmas, and eventually we both went back to work. But the conversation rattled around in my head for days. I went to cyberspace for answers and affirmation, to the Jewish ** Community on America Online. I wanted to know that I had done the right thing, given the right information, been a good "First Jew." Everyone I talked to said it was hard to believe that Heather hadn't met a Jewish person before, didn't know anything about the religion.

Remember when

"Doesn't she watch 'Seinfeld'?" asked one woman. Another pointed to the doctor on the now-defunct show "Northern Exposure" and told me to suggest that Heather watch the reruns. No one had had a similar experience.

So I did what any good Jewish girl would do, I called my mother.

She was unfazed.

"Don't you remember when we lived in Michigan and the family next door wouldn't let you play with them because we were Jewish?" she asked.

Having been about 4, I barely remembered Michigan at all.

"Then when we moved here to Columbia, the next-door neighbor had never met Jews before," she said. "She thought our souls were in jeopardy."

My mother and this woman, Nita, became friends because they both had kids around the same age. Although Nita knew my family was Jewish, religion was not an issue until the day the two went to the neighborhood yard sale together.

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