Virginia Jewish Life asked Paula Gravitt, a Jewish woman living in Richmond, what it was like to grow up Jewish in a rural Christian town in Southwest Virginia.
What was it like to be a Jewish family in a mostly Christian area?
Most of the time, I felt special for being different. It was definitely in the forefront of your mind almost every day. When we were little, we didn’t really know any difference, but as we got older, we started having discussions with our friends and understood that we believed in different things. We had no clue who Jesus was or what he stood for. We were not taught anything about this man in Sunday school. Sunday school was in a temple in Bluefield, WV, which was a 45 minute drive away. My mother was diligent in taking us every Sunday. Once we were old enough to start studying to become Bat Mitzvah, we had to drive to Bluefield one or two times a week to the Rabbi’s house for our Hebrew studies. I always fell asleep in the car. My sister and I both became Bat Mitzvah and were later confirmed.
What about holidays?
The holidays were probably the hardest time for us. The schools put up trees in the foyers and had the students decorate them. I can remember asking for a menorah to be placed there as well. In our town, Christmas was literally everywhere. The schools performed Christmas shows and I gladly participated and sang Christmas carols with the best of them. My sister would get mad at me for singing some of them around the house. Mom used to come to our classes every winter and teach us about Hanukkah. The teachers were always very good about making us feel included. There were no Jewish youth groups, so my sister and I attended a group called I.C.Y. (inner church youth) with a very good friend of ours, a lot of fun but also with some religious activities. They showed a video one time when I was not there but my sister was, and it talked about how anyone who did not believe in Jesus was going to hell. My sister never went back.
Was your family proud or self-conscious of being Jewish?
We were very proud.
There probably were people around who did not like us because of our religion, but my parents did a great job of keeping us away from negative influences.
What made you want to stay with it and not abandon Judaism?
I won’t lie; I had my moments of questioning my faith. I have stayed with it because of love and comfort and a feeling of what is right. G-d never abandoned me and I am not about to abandon Him. He has put me here and made me a Jew and that is what I will always be. I love my heritage and really enjoy learning more and more about Judaism. It is a part of me and who I am. It is part of what defines me. When we were about 14 and 15, Dori, my sister, and I joined MAFTY (Mid-Atlantic Federation of Temple Youth) and mom would have to drive us to Baltimore or Chevy Chase to take us to the conclaves. We really loved being with other young Jews, but we also felt a bit inexperienced at times because they knew so much more than we did about being Jewish.
Do you like learning about Judaism through the Jewish programs in a
bigger city like Richmond?
One of the smartest choices I have ever made was to send my children to Aleph Bet Preschool. Through them, I am learning so much and really embracing Judaism. My oldest son goes to Rudlin Torah Academy. He and I are learning so much together.
When you were a child, what did you really want to know about Judaism?
I wanted to know what we were supposed to think about Jesus. As I was growing up, I always thought he was a scary person. I couldn’t understand how anyone could seek comfort from him, having seen the pictures of him on the cross or with the thorn crown on his head. He really scared me. I even thought he was a fictitious person and I didn’t understand why others believed in him. I wanted to know more about kosher rules. Our temple was very Reform and I had no idea what kosher even meant except that you could not eat pork. I longed for an understanding about the different levels or denominations of Judaism. Oh, there were so many questions! My grandparents on my dad’s side were Conservative and I wondered what that really meant. What were Chasidic Jews and why did they have curls? Why did we pronounce Hebrew differently than the rest of our family who was Conservative?
What are some of your fondest childhood memories about being Jewish?
Having friends over for Passover Seder and watching them light up and enjoy learning about my religion. Being the only ones who received eight nights of presents. The way it felt when we left Tazewell and visited Richmond or Virginia Beach and were surrounded by other Jews.
What is different about living in Richmond compared to living in Southwest Virginia?
After living in Richmond, I would never want to move back to Tazewell. It is hard to practice Judaism in a town without Jews. I feel so much more enriched here. I feel more Jewish and I feel like I really fit in. People in Tazewell are not as educated about Judaism and it gets hard having to explain yourself to people again and again. My children are able to keep in touch with their religion here so much more than in Tazewell. There is so much offered here as far as Jewish camps, schools, clubs and synagogues. They never have to feel alone.
Any final thoughts?
There were only about 100 people in my graduating class and about 500 students in the entire school. There was one high school, one middle school and two elementary schools. Our closest relatives were in Roanoke about two to three hours away. It is predominantly a coal mining and farming community. On Sundays, the town shuts down. The streets are empty except for the people going to church and there are well over 100 churches if I had to guess. Sunday nights are very quiet.
- Wendy Lusk