Salt Lake conference: “Are You Jews?”

Salt Lake Tribune – Jewish conference faces tough questions

PARK CITY – The overarching questions and concerns they’d be grappling with were not new, but when about 40 leading Jewish thinkers, writers, academics, rabbis and professionals arrived in Utah last weekend, they were definitely in for something different.

For one, gawkers in the Salt Lake City International Airport reportedly approached a group of them and asked, wide-eyed, “Are you Jews?”

And then there was that time on Monday when an outdoor-adventure company, under the guise of a “team-building” exercise, asked them to build teepees. Yes, teepees.

News media weren’t allowed to observe this experiment, but a leading Jewish academic, who had escaped unnoticed, later quipped, “God didn’t put me on Earth to build teepees.” An Orthodox participant from Jerusalem added, “Apart from schlepping these logs, I didn’t have much to do.” And when facilitators voiced disappointment in how long it took participants to complete the task, a third promised to take up his failure to excel in therapy.

Fortunately, they’d traveled from as far away as Israel not to use their hands but rather their minds. They came to attend the “Why Be Jewish?” conference, sponsored by The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, a New York-based philanthropic giant dedicated to inspiring Jewish life. The three-day affair, which wrapped up Tuesday, marked Adam Bronfman’s first step onto the broader Jewish community stage.

I can’t believe it. My head just exploded AGAIN, when I though that nothing Utah could throw at me could possibly faze me anymore. But I was wrong, because apparently in 2007, someone wearing  traditional Orthodox Jewish attire can still be approached at the airport and asked this incredibly stupid, inclusive question.

There have been Jews in Utah since before the turn of the century – not that one, the previous one. A small but vibrant community, attending several synogogues or participating in the local community center, has been there almost from the beginning. When I was a kid in Salt Lake, my pastors were all really friendly with the local rabbi (I think there was just one then) and our church was located near the Jewish Community Center, which even then was a large, generously endowed place that was obviously important to a lot of families, whether they were observant or never set foot in temple during the High Holidays. So the fact that some idiot would approach a group of people in conservative dress and ask them flat-out “are you Jews?” just astounds me. Well, duh.

It’s just so…ignurnt.  So backwater. So provincial. So Utah. The only place, as my husband David is fond of pointing out, where Jews are Gentiles. I’ve lived away so long, in places where men in yarmulkes and beards, or in high-crowned wide brimmed hats, are a commonplace – that I forget how maddeningly homogenous Utahns can be in their thinking. Even with the cultural and religious diversity that exists in Salt Lake, and there’s a lot more than you’d think, there are still plenty of people there who have rarely or never traveled outside of the state’s borders, and pay little or no attention to people “not like them” via television or news outlets. Because they don’t really watch or read anything outside of their approved, narrow view.

Still, I have to admit it would be amusing to see sekrit surveillance videos of the teepee building, and the schlepping of the logs.

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2 thoughts on “Salt Lake conference: “Are You Jews?”

  1. I would like to offer an apology to all Jewish people on behalf of salt lake. I am originally from SLC. I have lived here most of my life and I am embarrassed for my community after reading this article. Please understand that not all Utahans are this closed minded. We see this behaviour in a certain group of closed off individuals that have been sheltered all there lives. Utah is getting more diverse and has gotten better since I was a child. I see that we still have aways to go.

  2. Sorry I missed your comment, Shannah, but thanks for the sentiment. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Utah welcomed the world for the Winter Olympics, and someone can still walk up to someone wearing distinctive dress and ask them if they’re members of a religious minority. Because they’re curiousities and not people, maybe?


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