My first reaction to finding out that I was going to be spending my third year of university at the College of Charleston in South Carolina was, it’s fair to say, not entirely positive.
I entered higher education carrying many damaging stereotypes about the South – the image of a gun-toting, racist, homophobic, extreme religious, far-right hillbilly waving a giant Stars and Bars flag alongside his obese, inbred family, immediately came to mind.
Two years of american studies had only succeeded in adding a firm association between the region and slavery to this list of negative attributes.
This all combined to leave my north London Jewish psyche a little apprehensive at the prospect of getting lynched by the KKK, or perhaps being deep-fried and eaten in one sitting.
However, when I arrived in Charleston I was pleasantly surprised to find a liberal, tolerant city, with a friendly atmosphere and a relaxed approach to life.
None of this compared though to the surprise I received when I found out there was a Jewish Students Union (JSU) at the college. Not just that, but it was well-organised, friendly, and devoid of the Rabbinic presence that unfortunately has made the British JSocs I’ve been to feel overly religion-centric.
Events were put together and hosted by students, meaning that there was no overt pressure to turn our time together into something which constantly engaged every participant with Judaism.
The fact that we were meeting up was enough, with the rest left up to the individual. In Charleston I went to more Jewish events than I’d been to in two years at Nottingham, because the provision of a relaxed space in which you could meet and talk with other Jews in a natural way made my Friday night dinners enjoyable.
Of course, with only about 20 people attending JSU events every week, that left around 10,000 other students whose reactions to my Judaism wouldn’t be quite so predictable.
I shied away from mentioning my religion at first, as it’s not something that you normally introduce yourself to people with (“Hi, I’m Josh. What’s your name? By the way, my religious beliefs are as follows...), and because I was scared that responses would be ignorant at best and hateful at worst.
Again, I need not have worried. The first time I mentioned it to some of my friends, the overriding atmosphere was one of fascinated curiosity. Yes, there some stereotypes were chucked around, but this was down to a lack of knowledge, rather than any in-built prejudice, and it was fun to debunk the myths and half-truths they’d heard about Judaism.
In the same way that we receive only snapshots and titbits of cultures which we aren’t often exposed to (how much, for instance, do you really know about Bolivia?), so many Americans, particularly Southerners, rely on very little information with which to form their view of Jews.
Josh, 22, is from London, and studies English and American at the University of Nottingham
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