Seder in Farmer City

by Kristin on June 21, 2007

in Navigating a life in between,Small town in the midwest

Perhaps no one in my life sums up the Halfway to Normal concept better than Dorie and Elie (“Eliezer,” if you happen to be his former Yeshiva teacher or his mother on a bad day). Even before Dorie and Elie moved to that literal halfway geographical location, Farmer City, they were halfway normal in a number of other healthy ways.

One of my favorite things about them is how they conducted their relationship in an almost scientifically “backwards” fashion: they met one summer during college, got pregnant, had a baby (Eva), moved in together, got to know each other, bought a house together and moved from New Jersey to Farmer City, and then got married, five years after the baby.

Elie is post-punk, Dorie’s crafty, he’s Jewish, she’s Protestant, he’s serious and earnest, she’s bubbly and fun. And it all really works. It’s Halfway to Normal at its best.

For the past couple of years, Elie and Dorie have hosted Hanukah and Seder dinners at their brick Victorian farmhouse, which they’re painstakingly restoring. Jason and I were both raised in Christian families who have a lot of respect for Jewish traditions, and make a point to be more aware of how Christians and Jews are alike in our beliefs, not different. We think being able to take our kids to a “real” Jewish holiday meal is a great thing.

It’s a bit surreal, though. Farmer City is a town of 2,000 people (at four, Saskia asked if there was only one farmer there). There seem to be many farmers, as you might expect, but only 1.5 Jewish residents. When you’re driving into town, toward the grain elevator, humming your Jewish tunes, you get the feeling you’re going to some illicit gathering of a secret society. Like maybe we should hide the car in the brush and pull the curtains before Elie dons his yamaka and lights the candles, and we drink our four large goblets of sweet red wine.

We gulp most of it down before we eat much of anything besides some horseradish and matzoh, so as the night wears on, the singing of the Seder order (Kaddesh, Urechatz, Karpas, etc.) grows increasingly robust. Our kids are delighted. They can only begin to understand how normal and yet not this whole scene is.

Being Jewish, specifically, and just different, in general, isn’t easy in a place like Farmer City. For those who like to perpetuate stereotypes about the Midwest, this lack of openness to anyone who is different from you is, unfortunately, a real issue in many smaller towns. (I imagine it’s more of a small town issue than a geographical one, although I’ve never lived in a small town on either coast, so I can’t be sure.)

When Elie and Dorie first moved to Illinois, they suspected they were being judged by their neighbors—in part because they came from the East Coast, in part because Elie is Jewish, and in part just because they had big plans to fix up their house and yard. (You see, if your plans are too big in a town that small, it only proves you think you’re better than everyone around you.)

Their suspicions about their neighbors’ feelings were confirmed when one day Elie got into it with the neighbor, who claimed they hadn’t mowed the lawn recently enough. Elie, who is studying plant biology at the university, tried to explain the broader vision for their yard—that they were growing wildflowers in one part of their yard, were going to plant hostas over here, etc.

The neighbor wasn’t buying it. Before retiring, he had worked for some lawn chemical company, and his yard consists of plain, very green, short grass, right up to his fence. He started accusing them off being moneyed people from the East with unconventional, fancy ideas. When things escalated, and the neighbor said he was going to report Elie, he went as far as to add that he was sure “you people have plenty of lawyers in the family.” Take that, Jewish boy.

Dorie and Elie did the only thing one can do in response to such a situation. They threw a party. To be exact, it was a “Get Off My Lawn Soiree,” complete with silver script-inscribed napkins, croquet, fancy-schmancy cocktails, and a whole bunch of friends wearing formal wear. We were all as fancy as possible and had a wonderful time celebrating who Elie and Dorie are, and where they are. Whether the neighbors like it or not.

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