Finding Jews in Rural America
By Steve Hofstetter
NEW YORK–The New York metro area has 2 million Jews, more than everywhere but Tel Aviv. But it’s a big drop after that. LA has 650,000. Philly, DC, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco each have about a quarter million. A few more American cities have 50,000-100,000. But when you get down to the top 40 American cities, we’re talking less than 10,000 in a metro area.
We have always gravitated towards large metro areas. Perhaps it’s because we’re a communal people. Perhaps it’s for the availability of good Chinese food. Whatever the reason, we’re city dwellers. Which means there’s an awful lot of America without any Jews.
I can just imagine someone on JDate in Pierre, South Dakota, messaging the same two people over and over again. There are only 295 Jews in the whole state – I’m guessing their answer to JDate’s “Will you relocate?” question is a resounding yes.
As a standup comic, I am constantly touring – so I get a chance to see parts of the country most people only dream about. Assuming their dreams are incredibly boring. I recently played a comedy club in Mason City, Illinois. I don’t know how they have a comedy club – they don’t even have a McDonald’s. I also don’t know how they get to be called a city. Mason Rest Stop, maybe. Incidentally, Mason City’s Jewish population is me, whenever I perform there.
Something that’s always been tough for me is being Jewish on the road. I learned very quickly to ask if everything I order is made it with bacon. Salad, steak, even pizza has come with bacon without the menu saying so. In certain parts of the country, they use bacon like Jews use salt. I’m actually shocked that powdered bacon isn’t available in a jar at the table. Most days I have to pretend I’m allergic to pork for any waitress to take me seriously. You try explaining kosher in Wichita.
I try to use the stage to spread love for the Jews, both with positive Jewish humor, and by simply being a Jewish guy the crowd likes. I am often the first Jew a lot of people meet, which is a ridiculous responsibility. To counteract prevalent stereotypes, I have to make sure to tip well, avoid klezmer music, and never eat the blood of Christian babies. Or bacon.
There was one time when I purposefully didn’t talk about being Jewish on stage. Before a show at a small bar in Muskogee, Oklahoma, my friends and I were confronted by what we thought were just local yokels. As they talked our annoyed ears off more and more, yokel turned into racist, and racist turned into two card-carrying members of the Ku Klux Klan. That’s right – they had ID cards. I believe they kept them right next to their Bed Bath and Beyond rewards cards. All those sheets can get expensive.
An aside – while doing research for this column, I checked out the KKK’s website – it looks like it was made by an 8th grader in 1997. Apparently, they hate black people, Jews, and HTML.
No one in the bar knew who I was, so my friends and I swapped positions on the show. I went on first and did ten ad-libbed minutes about growing up a patriotic, Christian American. I am proud to be Jewish, sure – but I am also proud of the Jewish people’s inherent ability to survive. That night, it was my turn.
I happily returned to Manhattan in one piece. I’m not saying we’re immune to anti-Semitism in New York; At some point Mel Gibson will star in an Oliver Stone movie here. But I do recognize that I am spoiled by just how easy it is for New Yorkers to find everything from a synagogue to a Kosher Deli to a Jewish wife.
I am continually impressed by the resolve of Jews in smaller cities, where it’s not as easy to be Jewish. So for those of you who don’t have the luxury of an apartment complex littered with mezuzahs, stay strong. And make sure to check if they put bacon on your ice cream.
Steve Hofstetter is an internationally touring comedian who has been VH1, ESPN, and Comedy Central. To find out how to book him at your next event, visit SteveHofstetter.com. This column was originally published on jdate.com.