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The Jews of South Dakota

Two recent articles pointed out that the Jews of South Dakota are hanging by a thread. One was on the fact that SoDak is the only state without a Chabad, and the other that there are only 390 Jews in the state, fewer than any other state, in fact statistically zero. Fifty years ago there were only 100 more: it’s never been a state with a lot of yiddishkeit.

As one of those rare creatures, a Jew from South Dakota, I think it’s pretty amazing that we didn’t all leave. My siblings & I did, but these days there’s more reasons to stay, even without a rabbi or Chabad—the state has more culture & opportunities than it seemed to when I was getting out of high school.

I once had an argument with a woman who grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and who claimed to be from a “small Jewish community.” It was impossible to convince her that South Dakota was less Jewish than Manhattan. A large number of the Jews I know think they’re from isolated Jewish communities, but half of the 8 kids in my Hebrew School class—the largest class ever—drove 50 to 100 miles to be there once a week. I think there’s a pretty big difference between a town in New Jersey that has fewer Jews than the next town over, and the world I grew up in, where many, many people had never met a Jew at all.

Of course, I didn’t realize any of this back when: When I first came to New York City, I met someone who was Jewish & I was flabbergasted: You are??? Me too! I think she thought I was pulling her leg but I truly had no idea there were lots of us.

My husband once called me a JAP. I started to explain, very sweetly, that “Jewish American Princess” was an insult, and he stopped me. Jewish American Protestant, he said: if you’re from South Dakota, you’re more Lutheran than Jewish.

And yet there’s a small but vibrant literature about Jewish pioneers, what someone referred to as “Little Shtetl on the Prairie,” among them Dakota Diaspora: Memoirs of a Jewish Homesteader, Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains, and a wonderful book (that I lent to whom????) called “And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher”: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest Since 1855. My contribution to this genre is a section called “Almost Chosen” in my book So Late into the Night.

There are more people in Manhattan, where I live now, than in South & North Dakota put together. There are more Jews on almost any block in New York City than there are in the whole state I grew up in. It's possible that you are statistically more likely to meet Bigfoot than a Jew from South Dakota.
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