Old stor­age shed, West Vir­ginia, 2007

The Nativ­i­ty video was the turn­ing point for my moth­er. My kinder­garten teacher had called her at home that Decem­ber to ask whether she should let me — the only Jew­ish kid in the class — watch a video about the birth of Jesus, or have me sit in the hall. 

Where am I? my moth­er thought, not for the first time. 

My par­ents’ sojourn in North Car­oli­na was meant to be brief. She was from Man­hat­tan; he was from a heav­i­ly Jew­ish Bal­ti­more sub­urb. He was offered a two-year fel­low­ship posi­tion, after which they’d move back north. But two years came and went, and the fel­low­ship turned into a per­ma­nent job. Now they were home­own­ers rais­ing kids in 1980s Durham, a place where the butch­er looked at you quizzi­cal­ly when you request­ed a shank bone for Passover; where the syn­a­gogue was referred to as Jew­ish church”; and where show­ing a Nativ­i­ty video in pub­lic school was appar­ent­ly nor­mal. They had choic­es to make — how to react in sit­u­a­tions like these? 

My moth­er chose to edu­cate. She let me watch the video (“I wasn’t going to let you sit in the hall!”). But she also insist­ed on com­ing to my class with a meno­rah and a drei­del to talk about Hanukkah. 

I remem­ber being proud when she came, and feel­ing spe­cial. Which was basi­cal­ly the way I felt about being Jew­ish for the rest of my North Car­olin­ian child­hood — proud and spe­cial, dif­fer­ent in a good way. 

My father would some­times talk about wish­ing we could live — at least for a while — in New York or Pikesville or Israel, so we could feel what it was like to be sur­round­ed by oth­er Jews. I nev­er saw the point. I liked being dif­fer­ent, slight­ly on the out­side. I liked the deli­cious secret of know­ing San­ta wasn’t real. I liked the eerie empti­ness of Ninth Street on Christ­mas Day, of being out when every­one else was home. I liked how, on the High Hol­i­days, our syn­a­gogue would rent out the audi­to­ri­um of my high school, and my hand­ful of Jew­ish class­mates and I would get to parade across the stu­dent park­ing lot in high heels and suits, while every­one else was walk­ing to first peri­od Eng­lish in their reg­u­lar old jeans and Aber­crom­bie hoodies.

I think this pleas­ant sense of out­sider­ness has helped shape me as a writer. I always liked to observe, always liked to think about how peo­ple got to where they are, lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly. I’m inter­est­ed in peo­ple who, like my moth­er, find them­selves in unex­pect­ed sit­u­a­tions. When you think about it, the plot of almost any sto­ry boils down to this same set up: per­son in an unex­pect­ed sit­u­a­tion.” A girl falls down a rab­bit hole. A home-lov­ing hob­bit is asked to go on a jour­ney. The chil­dren of feud­ing fam­i­lies fall in love. A young Jew­ish woman moves to an unknown place and must start a new life. 

I think this pleas­ant sense of out­sider­ness has helped shape me as a writer. I always liked to observe, always liked to think about how peo­ple got to where they are, lit­er­al­ly and figuratively. 

My new nov­el, In the Shad­ow of the Green­bri­ar, explores this sense of out­sider­ness, of lives tak­ing unex­pect­ed turns. My char­ac­ters make up mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions of a Jew­ish fam­i­ly in rur­al West Vir­ginia, all ask­ing, to greater and less­er extents, Where am I? How do I fit here? How can I make my life here?” There’s Sol, a teenage Lithuan­ian ped­dler at the turn of the cen­tu­ry, who makes a home for him­self in a strange new world. There’s Sylvia, a Pol­ish refugee who flees the Nazis and ends up the dis­con­tent­ed wife of an Appalachi­an shop­keep­er. There’s Doree, Sylvia’s daugh­ter, who grows up in the only Jew­ish fam­i­ly in town dur­ing the con­formist 1950s, des­per­ate to fit in while also being true to herself.

The char­ac­ters, like my moth­er, find a mid­dle way of being Jew­ish in the South that’s authen­tic to them. They keep two sets of dish­es at home, but eat ham bis­cuits at the fair. They light the Sab­bath can­dles, then go back to work. They attend the town Christ­mas par­ty but don’t take a pic­ture with San­ta. They date non-Jews, but ago­nize about mixed marriage. 

For them, hav­ing a sense of apart­ness allows them to become espe­cial­ly keen observers of the world around them. Some, like Sol, observe with a sense of curios­i­ty and plea­sure. Oth­ers, like Sylvia, grow brit­tle, cer­tain the world is star­ing back at them with hostility. 

Four decades after my par­ents moved to Durham, being Jew­ish there is no longer such a rar­i­ty. The Har­ris-Teeter has a kosher aisle; the butch­ers are used to sav­ing shank bones for Passover; the JCC pool has the best water­slide in town; and my old high school has the day off on Yom Kippur. 

But I don’t live there any­more. I’m now rais­ing my own two chil­dren in a small town in the Mid­west — a place with a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty so small you can’t find Hanukkah can­dles for love or mon­ey. My younger son came home from preschool one day last Decem­ber and hap­pi­ly informed me he’d vol­un­teered me to come show his class meno­rahs and drei­dels. I’m the only one in my class who cel­e­brates Hanukkah!” he said, delighted.

I don’t know what Judaism will mean to my chil­dren as they grow up, but I hope, at least, it gives them a safe perch on which to observe the world, and spread their wings. 

Emi­ly Matchar has writ­ten for an array of pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing the New York Times, the Wash­ing­ton Post, Out­side, Smith­son­ian, and the Atlantic. Orig­i­nal­ly from North Car­oli­na, she lives with her hus­band and two sons. In the Shad­ow of the Green­bri­er is her first novel.