Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to grow up in a small town. I don’t mean the relative smallness of my hometown as compared to the city in which I currently live. No, I’m talking a truly small town, like the one where my mother grew up — a rural Kentucky hollow whose population currently hovers around 1800: less than half the number of people that work for Zelda’s employer, probably about the same number of people that worked with me at my last job, and roughly the amount of students, professors, and staff at my tiny liberal arts college. I find myself daydreaming about what that would have been like, being able to walk from my house to the store and recognize every face along the way, greeting each one with a smile and a “How ya doin’?” as I make my way.
I’ve probably been on a subway train with 1800 people before and not known a single one of them. New York is a city of nearly 10 million now, and many of us come here seeking a degree of anonymity. There’s something appealing about the degree of invisibility you can maintain here. We want to be able to walk down the streets with our heads down and not have to converse about someone’s family or job or the mayor or the local football team. But part of me is curious about what that would have been like, the kind of unity growing up somewhere that size might bring to a community. It makes me wonder: Does geographic location foster a stronger community than one might find in a city of millions?
I would, in my gut, say yes. My mother tells stories about people from her childhood as if every single one of them is a long lost member of our family (I swear if any of you makes a hillbilly incest joke as you read this, I will hunt you down). She talks about neighbors and friends and people I’ve never heard of like they were just in our house yesterday. From my secondhand point of view, it seems like it would have been pretty nice, idyllic even — although surely not every hamlet can be Stars Hollow. Some of them have to be that town from “The Lottery” (these are obviously two extreme ends of a spectrum, but you understand what I’m saying). I don’t know if I could have grown up like that. I definitely couldn’t live in that town now, though that has more to do with the fact that it lies in a dry county than its size.
This struck me particularly hard this week when I was sitting in Purim services in Park Slope with some friends. Purim is an interesting Jewish holiday — not the most important, but definitely one of the most fun. The main event is the reading of the megilah, which basically involves getting dressed up, telling a story (sometimes simply a reading, in our case performed by willing volunteers), raising hell at appropriate plot points, and drinking…a lot. The congregation we celebrated with shared its space with a church, in a very Stars Hollow-esque arrangement where the crucifix and Star of David were interchanged depending on the day of the week. It struck me that the synagogue I sat in was maybe a quarter of the size of my congregation back in Kentucky. See in Louisville, a city with a population somewhere between 700,000 and 1.2 Million (depending on which lines you choose to acknowledge as borders), including (last they counted) 8500 Jews, there are maybe seven synagogues to choose from. In Brooklyn, the ratio is definitely nowhere close to that, with both way more Jews and way more synagogues at their disposal.
So growing up, I knew much of my Jewish community, from Hebrew School or cotillion or the Kommors’ Annual Hamantaschen Party, but to say I knew all of them is a bit of a stretch. But these people, here in the heart of Brooklyn, all knew each other’s names and faces, their children’s names, etc. It was like they had their own little town, right there in the midst of the metropolis. And it made me think that despite our need for anonymity, our desire for crowds and noise and the teeming masses, even here in this giant melting pot most of us flung ourselves into by choice, we still tend to gravitate toward the small. We seek out these insular pockets of comfort in this crazy place. We look for the spots we can go where we recognize the faces and the names, where we feel safe and comfortable. We look for a place that feels like home.
It’s not quite the same, I know. My son or daughter isn’t going to walk into my neighborhood bar in thirty years and have the bartender go, “Hey, you’re so-and-so’s daughter, aren’t you?” (Note: This actually happened to me in a restaurant in my mom’s hometown).By that point, he bartender probably won’t be there any more: Hell, the bar may not even be there. But for now, I’ve found ways to create my own slice of small town idyll. I find it in a warm greeting when I walk into my homes away from home, spots like The Sampler or The Way Station. I find it in a hug from my coworker in greeting at the beginning of every week. I find it in dancing the hora with a bunch of Park Slope Jews, in a church, on Purim. New York is, in many ways, the smallest big city ever. Maybe you come here for anonymity, but no one I know has ever really achieved it. We run in the tiniest of interlocking circles, a spiderweb of cracks in the facade of our anonymous lives. In this city, every gathering is spent playing six degrees of separation as we find the spots where our personal bubbles bump up against each other.
And eventually, if we’re lucky, we cocoon ourselves in a blanket of familiarity, creating our own little hamlets — at least psychologically, if not physically. So maybe the friends and neighbors we love and trust are down the block and not next door. Maybe they’re a bus or a train ride away. But the point is we find them, we hold fast when we do, and we carve out our niche among millions of others…and even when there’s a subway to escort us over the county lines between New York, Kings and Queens Counties, we still complain about having to drag ourselves over the line to get a drink,