Jewish in Austin

A Texas Jewboy Misses Home

One of the main reasons I moved to Austin was to feel Jewish again. I had a really good Jewish thing going when I left San Antonio at the age of 16. I could have made a run at president of the San Antonio Federation of Temple Youth (SAFTY); that's how popular I felt. And this was a big thing, because when my family moved to San Antonio, Texas from Long Island, New York, I didn't know what a boutonniere was, or a pep rally -- and there was no way, once I found out, that I could credibly pretend to care. So I felt not just on the sidelines, but not even at the game for all of sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. Then in ninth grade all the people in SAFTY who I thought were dorky and goofy turned out to be... well, interested in me.

I remember a SAFTY brunch the morning after the Saturday Night Massacre. I was the only one in the group who could name all the people who Nixon fired. That was my personal turning point; I had finally found a group of people who cared that I might be smart. Through SAFTY, I got to write Saturday Night Live-style skits and play my favorite Jackson Browne and Randy Newman songs at Teen Services. I met Jewish people from Muskogee and Beaumont. I felt like I was not just learning about Jewish stuff, but also fitting in in Texas.

One girl gave me very deep eye contact at the last SAFTY meeting I attended. I think back on that look sometimes and wonder what I gave up by not continuing to be Jewish in Texas. I did go back for a visit the next spring vacation and discovered that although my Texas friends were glad enough to see me, they had continued to live their lives, which I had somewhat been neglecting to do. I moved to New Jersey and pretty much moved on to worshipping Springsteen, because it didn't really matter if you were Jewish in New Jersey.

It mattered a lot if you were Jewish in Texas. Our family banded together because we weren't with our aunts and uncles and friends on Long Island any more, and we had to fend for ourselves. I have this memory of my whole family getting up on the bima at Temple Beth-El, the first Chanukah we lived in San Antonio -- we were being honored for being the perfect family.

Getting soulful looks and being in the perfect family: I wondered if those things ever really happened, and if so, on what planet -- during all the time I didn't live in Texas, from 1977 when we moved away, through 1988 when I moved back with my then-girlfriend, from San Francisco, where I never felt like I belonged at all, being neither a student nor an ex-radical. I didn't feel very Jewish there, either. I went to High Holy Day services at the Berkeley Hillel a couple of times and it just made me feel lonely.

Meanwhile, I had this nagging Texas thing going -- pulsing deep down inside, in the form of a song I had heard just once on the AM radio on the way to school -- something about wanting to "go home with the armadillo." All I had was this fragment of a lyric and poignant chord change, but it tugged at me. It wasn't that I felt any bogus quasi-cowboy thing... I keenly remember driving on Sundays with my family through a parking lot full of mating high school kids tailgating with their pickups and thinking, "That is so not me." There was some other thing, a sense of wonderment within myself that I had at some point lived in Texas and it was a totally different experience from anything else in my life. I wanted to go back and find out what it was all about.

So when my then-girlfriend got her Ph.D. and searched for a good place to do post-doctoral work, a position opened up at UT. We jumped on it.

I was consciously Jewish while living in Austin. I worked at it. I went to services at Hillel again, and this time, I liked the rabbi there a lot. I liked his conversational tone, his philosophical bent. I really extra-liked it that when he asked a Talmudic-style question, I would often know the answer, even though I usually kept it to myself. I felt an ancestral rabbinic stirring -- like I had something alive from my shtetl forebears, some of whom, at some point, probably had to have been rabbis.

Yeah, so, I remember going to services at Hillel, and then sometimes at Agudas Achim, but going to services was not really what being Jewish in Austin was really all about for me. I mean, finding an authentic Jewish experience anywhere, for me, as an adult, has been tremendously difficult because I haven't had a family to share it with. I know my parents back East really like it when I say I'm going to shul. And I'm pretty sure my wife and her parents get some satisfaction from my sporadic appearances at shul -- like, someone at least is looking out after that end of things. But, it really blows to sit there in a congregation and not know anyone, and be wishing you were back home with your family, except that my family doesn't really practice Judaism beyond enjoying a lovely smoked fish platter on brunch on Sundays (which is a truly exquisitely fine thing). But at services I still feel like I'm hearkening back to my perfect childhood family in San Antonio, the kiddush-reciting Gozonskys united against the cruel world of high school football. And since that sort of hearkening feels like the nowhere-est kind of conservative nostalgia, I don't really know where to go with my Judaism. I just sense that I can't get anywhere without it.

So now that I live in Los Angeles, my Jewish experience involves gradually doing something, though I'm not sure what. (I might start taking each of my daughters to alternating Shabbats -- I think they'd like the singing.) It still feels like my milestone Jewish experiences as an adult happened while I lived in Austin, roughly five years ago, when I'd think, at the end of a run, looking up at the UT Tower, "Remember this! Remember this forever! This is the time in your life when you are completely happy!"

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