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Jewish in New Hope: On difference and invisibility in Minnesota culture

It’s not rude to notice difference. Seeing and honoring each other’s differences should become a new and enduring part of Minnesota Nice.

I grew up in New Hope. When I was 8, I remember walking out of a Red Owl grocery store past two smiling Salvation Army bell ringers wearing Santa Claus hats. They wished me a “Merry Christmas,” and I returned the sentiment by wishing them a “Happy Hanukkah.” They stopped ringing their bells and stared at me suspiciously, as though I were trying to pick a fight or trick them somehow.

This was back in the 1960s when redlining, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and a raft of state and federal economic policies prevented nonwhites from living in the suburbs. There were no black people, Latinos, or Asians in my suburban schools or neighborhood. No Korean adoptees. No Hmong people, Somalis or American Indians.

Just white Christians. And my family. The only Jews in New Hope.

You wouldn’t immediately think our family would stick out that much. We had a brand new four-bedroom split level like everyone else with a two-car garage, Schwinn Sting-Rays in the driveway and Better Boy tomatoes in the garden. We were white like everyone else, too. We didn’t walk around in kippahs or have side curls. But given the dense wall of Christianity around us, our differences were easy to spot, especially at Christmas time.

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Our neighbors noticed we didn’t put up Christmas lights or have a Christmas tree. They noticed we didn’t go to one of the many churches for Christmas mass. There were so many churches in New Hope my mom called them “the 31 flavors of Christian-Robbins ice cream.” (She didn’t know the Baskin-Robbins ice cream chain was founded by two Jewish brothers-in-law in 1945.)

We ate latkes and our neighbors ate lutefisk. “Herring swimming with the sharks,” my father quipped.

Those small differences were enough to set us apart.

Acknowledging difference is challenging for us Minnesotans. Those early Nordic settlers brought along bootstrapping traditions of hard work and civility, but also an enduring expectation of quiet conformity.

A central tenet of “Minnesota Nice” is not to stand out from the norm. For the past 175 years, the norm has been white and Christian.

The word “different” itself is a common Minnesota pejorative — a not-so-secret code that politely expresses your discomfort with something outside of your personal experience.

“Oh,” someone will say about a new colleague who is another color, religion, orientation, ethnicity … (fill in the blank). “She’s a little … different.”

From an early age I knew different was a problem. When people said something was different it meant they didn’t like it. I could tell by the little pause they threw in.

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“Well, that’s … different,” said our neighbor, Mrs. Lindstrom, when I told her we didn’t eat Christmas ham.

“Oh, that’s … different,” said Mrs. Nelson, my Brownie troop leader, when I told her we didn’t have a Christmas tree to hang my glitter and Popsicle stick Christmas ornament.

Elisa Bernick
Elisa Bernick
At our school’s Christmas bake sale, my mom’s blue and white frosted dreidel and menorah cookies provoked a nervous, “Huh, that’s … different,” before the commenter moved on to the safety of Mrs. Johnson’s Christmas tree cutouts and Mrs. Olson’s Candy Cane Crumbles.

Calling something or someone “different,” or its common variant, “interesting,” is a Minnesota Nice way of dismissing and diminishing something’s value without being “rude.”

Nobody wants to be rude.

So, difference is best left unacknowledged, overlooked and ignored. Not seeing difference renders it invisible, which makes it disappear and leaves the comfortable inner circle of Christians intact.

Given the Jews’ long history of being singled out and victimized, you might wonder why the invisibility I experienced growing up was problematic. Isn’t it better, my non-Jewish husband wondered after the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, to have your difference overlooked rather than be persecuted or killed? My husband is a thoughtful, white Midwesterner who doesn’t see malicious intent in a phrase I heard frequently growing up in Minnesota.

“Really? You don’t look Jewish.”

No matter how you pick this phrase apart, it wasn’t either positive or neutral. Although it was usually meant as a compliment, it implied I should be thankful I don’t “look Jewish,” because that’s obviously different and undesirable.

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You might be tempted to think: “People weren’t being negative, they just didn’t know anything about Jewish people.” Maybe. But Minnesota has a particularly virulent history of antisemitism. In the 1940s, Minneapolis was considered the most antisemitic city in the country. In the 1950s, Jewish doctors still couldn’t practice in Twin Cities hospitals. A lot of people are surprised by this.

The confusing thing was that thanks to Minnesota Nice, unless I brought up my Jewish difference, neither my religion nor my difference existed. I was the same as all the other white Minnesotans around me. Insider-outsider status confers both difference and invisibility, belonging and not belonging — in the same moment.

Back then I didn’t understand the consequences of never having my Jewish identity acknowledged positively (or at all) by the dominant culture. I didn’t recognize that a core part of me was constantly being erased and diminished, or that I was actively taking part in my own erasure and diminishment.

I was presented with a handful of choices: I could thank people for telling me that I didn’t look like what I was; I could “out” my difference and have Minnesota Nice erase me; or I could “blend in” and erase myself.

Which type of invisibility would you choose?

Throughout my childhood, into college and even into adulthood, I have frequently been the first Jewish person a Minnesotan has ever met. During my working life, I am often the only Jew in an all-white office.

Each year I go to an office Christmas party that makes no effort, or a barely perceptible effort, to acknowledge “other traditions.” Usually, this amounts to calling it a “Winter Celebration” or a “Holiday Party” and every other aspect is related to Christmas — the tree, music, cookies, Secret Santa gifts, decorations — all of it is a big ho, ho, ho. Employees are given Christmas, Good Friday and Easter off, but celebrating Jewish holidays requires taking vacation.

Rarely does someone acknowledge my “difference.” Even now, if I speak up and mention that I’m Jewish, people still think I’m picking a fight. They are visibly uncomfortable and seem worried they’ll say or do something wrong by asking me about it. They politely say, “that’s interesting” and hope I won’t bring it up again.

It’s strange to have lived in Minnesota for 59 years and still feel “different.”

Yes, I am a privileged white person accepted into the dominant culture. But this acceptance is contingent on continuing to deny a foundational part of my identity.

For me and many other Jews, the consequence is continued invisibility.

Obviously, being overlooked is better than being targeted by hate or a semiautomatic weapon, but invisibility takes a toll. It creeps up in odd ways — like when I’m walking on the treadmill at the St Paul Jewish Community Center and a particular commercial comes on. I don’t remember which online university is being advertised, but the commercial takes place at a college graduation inside a large arena. There are rows and rows of seated graduates in red and white caps and gowns.

Over the sound of applause, a dean or college president stands at the podium and addresses the graduates.

“Stand up if you’re a single mother,” he says, and the camera cuts to a young woman who stands and smiles, overcome with emotion.

“Stand up if you or someone in your family is currently serving or has ever served in the United States military.”

The camera cuts to a young black man who stands proudly.

“Stand up, if …”

I’m not sure what he says next because I’m weeping on the treadmill.

I start crying every time I see this commercial.

Why does it cause such a Pavlovian rush of emotion in me?

It’s about being seen.

It’s about the joy of being told out loud — you belong. It’s about having someone publicly acknowledge you — your hardship, your history, your difference. It’s about having someone confer legitimacy and say, “You are not invisible. I see you and I honor you.”

So, this holiday season, I have a suggestion for all the non-Jews in Minnesota — don’t be afraid to acknowledge difference. It’s not rude to ask someone if they celebrate Christmas. You may think wishing everyone a blanket “Merry Christmas” doesn’t matter, but it actually diminishes our consequential differences.

I hope someone at this year’s “Holiday Party” wishes me a “Happy Hanukkah.” Maybe they’ll even ask me a question about being Jewish as we stand around the office Christmas tree eating the dreidel cookies I’ve brought to share.

It’s not rude to notice difference. Seeing and honoring each other’s differences should become a new and enduring part of Minnesota Nice.

Elisa Bernick is a St. Paul writer. She is finishing a book called “Departure Stories” about growing up Jewish in Minnesota.

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