Finding new cultures in our own backyard
The New York Times reminds us that we don’t have to travel to exotic Asia to enjoy the thrill of discovering new cultures.
Then the Wal-Mart Jews arrived [in Bentonville, AR]
Recruited from around the country as workers for Wal-Mart or one of its suppliers, hundreds of which have opened offices near the retailer’s headquarters here, a growing number of Jewish families have become increasingly vocal proponents of religious neutrality in the county. They have asked school principals to rename Christmas vacation as winter break (many have) and lobbied the mayor’s office to put a menorah on the town square (it did).
Wal-Mart has transformed small towns across America, but perhaps its greatest impact has been on Bentonville, where the migration of executives from cities like New York, Boston and Atlanta has turned this sedate rural community into a teeming mini-metropolis populated by Hindus, Muslims and Jews.
It is the Jews of Benton County, however, who have asserted themselves most. Two years ago, they opened the county’s first synagogue and, ever since, its roughly 100 members have become eager spokesmen and women for a religion that remains a mystery to most people here.
When the synagogue celebrated its first bar mitzvah, the boy’s father – Scott Winchester, whose company sells propane tanks to Wal-Mart – invited two local radio D.J.’s, who broadcast the event across the county, even though, by their own admission, they had only a vague idea of what a bar mitzvah was.
“Jesus was Jewish,” one D.J. noted in a dispatch from the reception at a local hotel. The other remarked, “I love Seinfeld.”
Shortly after he moved to the area, Tom Douglass, a member of the synagogue who works in Wal-Mart’s logistics department, made a presentation about Hanukkah to his son’s kindergarten class. The lesson, complete with an explanation of how to play with a spinning dreidel and compete for chocolate coins, imported from New York, proved so popular that the school’s librarian taped it for future classes.
Then there is Ron Haberman, a doctor and synagogue member, who has introduced Jewish cuisine to the county. His new restaurant, Eat This, next door to a new 140,000-square-foot glass-enclosed Baptist church, serves knishes, matzo ball soup and latkes. To guide the uninitiated, the menu explains that it is pronounced “LOT-kuz.”
Not everyone is ordering the knishes, but Christians throughout Benton County are slowly learning the complexities of Jewish life. Gary Compton, the superintendent of schools in Bentonville and a member of a Methodist church in town, has learned not to schedule PTA meetings the night before Jewish holidays, which begin at sundown, and has encouraged the high school choir to incorporate Jewish songs into a largely Christian lineup.
“We need to get better at some things,” he said. “You just don’t go from being noninclusive to being inclusive overnight.”
Surrounded by Christian neighbors, Bible study groups, 100-foot-tall crucifixes and free copies of the book “The Truth About Mary Magdalene” left in the seating area of the Bentonville IHOP, the Jews of Benton County say they have become more observant in – and protective of – their faith than ever before.
Marcy Winchester, the mother of the synagogue’s first bar mitzvah, said, “You have to try harder to be Jewish down here.”
In some ways, this is no different than other periods of Jewish migration and immigration. It’s a little off-putting to read about cultural illiteracy in the US but of course it shouldn’t be too surprising. Still, there’s something about the New York tone of the article (where, of course, everyone is Jewish?) that I find irksome. I’m not sure how I feel about “Wal-Mart Jews” and “The Jews of Bentonville” – perhaps those are terms used by those folks, themselves, but in the context of the article, it’s just slightly mocking in a way that seems out of step with the rest of the article. Their tone is all over the place.
And this is a front page story! Cultural criss-cross! Wal-Mart! A chance to say “knishes” in the body of a piece! It’s gold, gold I tell ya!