Coastal Voices: ‘Fish out of water’ departs

By Barry Wendall July 09, 2012 10:21 am

In Hollywood, where we lived before we moved to Del Norte County in January 2010, this would be called a “fish out of water” story. Two Jewish gay men, married in the wedding frenzy that overtook West Hollywood for a few months in 2008, move to a rural county where there are not more than 20 Jews and where there is no organized gay community.

Maybe it was an act of faith. After all, the younger of the two was a rabbi, newly minted from rabbi school at 52 from the Reform movement, the most liberal of the mainstream Jewish groups. I am the older of the two. I had stopped working and was living off a small teacher’s pension and a bit of inherited money. I had been here a few years earlier. I remembered seeing a movie theater, a Safeway and a synagogue, so when Joe asked “Can we live there?,” I said “Why not?”

Joe had done an internship while at school at Los Angeles County Jail. He was not freaked out by the prisoners or the surroundings in the jail, and so, when the school suggested to him and his classmates to apply to the state to work in prisons, he did. The first full-time position for which he was interviewed was at Pelican Bay. They correctly didn’t ask his marital status, and he became Pelican Bay’s first rabbi.

Now we’re leaving. Joe wanted a congregation, and I wanted to live somewhere else. Or did I?

I was glad to come here. In addition to the usual complaints about traffic and smog, I worried that L.A had no big trees, no free-flowing rivers, not enough rainy days to cuddle with a book. Problems solved!

I missed my friends. I lived in Los Angeles for 25 years. We couldn’t find the crowd of older gay and lesbian couples, we didn’t have a choice of 200 synagogues to attend. I don’t look exactly white. In Los Angeles, I could easily be mistaken for Mexican, Filipino or Armenian. Our older neighbors in West Hollywood correctly picked me out as Jewish of Russian origin. They spoke to me in Russian, not understanding that it was my great-grandparents, not I, who fled Russia. In Del Norte County, I stood out more.

In the big city people segregate themselves. West of downtown in L.A., people were not shocked to find I was Jewish or gay. In Crescent City, it was a shock, and more shocking that a gay man could be a rabbi.

I tired of hearing from people that I should check out Jews For Jesus, or that gays are sinners. I couldn’t understand the open hatred of President Obama, or how an organization here could call for suspending all environmental rules in California, or how some could still sport a “Yes on 8” bumper sticker without shame or embarrassment. I never before argued evolution with people I know. Here, many people claim they know evolution is a lie because they are Christians.

Those people exist in Los Angeles, sure, but not in the parts of town where I hung out. And that is the difference between a big city and a small town. Here, you have to hang out with everyone.

We found our crowd in disparate places. There is one table at lunch at The Senior Center where the lefties and atheists sit. I met three gay men at the center. The people at Beth Shalom had Judaism in common with us. I joined the Democratic Party Central Committee and met the teachers, social workers and political activists who are my natural peer group. Working as a substitute teacher, I connected with some of the students, keeping the appropriate distance. I was less friendly with the teachers. I met religious Christians who were open-minded and accepting of science.

We found things to do here .I dragged Joe to Tuesday’s international folk dance group, and he dragged me to the music and gospel sing-along Sundays at the Methodist Church. I taught the dancers some Israeli dances, and the singers some songs in Hebrew.

Ultimately, we might have made a go of it if Joe hadn’t been working at Pelican Bay, and if Beth Shalom, where I was president for two years, had been more successful. Many of the prison staffers were hostile to Joe, and no one on staff ever considered socializing with us. There are very few members of the temple, and we could not get the local Jews to participate more. When the notices of possible layoff went out to the prison employees in October, we decided it was time for Joe to look for a job in a congregation.

The temple that hired Joe to be its rabbi is in Morgantown, W.V. It’s a university town, and many of the congregants are past and present researchers and teachers connected to the university. There is no ocean in Morgantown, and the weather is much colder in winter and much hotter in summer than here. It’s a lot more expensive, and it’s not California, which Joe and I both consider our home.

We’ve said our goodbyes. The folk dancers made a party, the Democrats took us to lunch, the temple to dinner. The hardened criminals that Joe worked with cried at the news of his leaving. Maybe we had more friends than we thought.

It was comforting to run into acquaintances at the stores, to know the clerks, to say “Hi” to politicians and have them remember your name. I came to recognize people, their cars and their dogs. At Seawood Village, we are the people with the orange cat in the window.

It was an adventure being here, and at 62, I don’t know how many more adventures I have in life. Joe and I made an impression here, hopefully for good, and Crescent City has certainly made a lasting impression on us. Every time I open a store-bought can of fish, I’ll think, “How can you eat that?”

I wish the best for the folk of Crescent City. Maybe we’ll be back, at least to visit.

Barry Wendell has been a Crescent City resident.