Just starting her career in journalism, Rona Kobell founded herself working in St. Joseph, a small city in western Missouri best known for being one of the end points for the Pony Express.
For the first time in her life, the Pittsburgh native was an outsider, even something exotic.
"It wasn't that there were no Jews," Kobell said. "There just weren't very many."
Kobell, a former reporter and sometime freelancer for The Baltimore Sun and now a reporter for the Bay Journal, said that she got used to being approached in the supermarkets of St. Joseph by shoppers struck by her non-Midwestern looks.
"They'd ask, 'Where are you from.' And I'd tell them I was from Pittsburgh," Kobell said. "And they'd ask, 'Where are you from originally? Your skin is such an odd color.'"
Kobell will be talking about her days in St. Joseph, including the time she was compelled to eat a piece of pork "as big as my head" to spare the feelings of her host, at a Saturday night storytelling event at Bolton Hill Synagogue.
Besides Kobell, the evening's other speakers include Jewish Museum director Marvin Pinkert, City Paper editor Evan Serpick, Baltimore Style columnist Jennifer Mendelsohn, Johns Hopkins executive Nancy Riess, and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' Marc Hartstein.
The seventh storyteller, and the only non-Jewish one, is the Baltimore-born comedian and cabaret performer Meshelle Foreman Shields, who uses the professional name Meshelle — "The Indie-Mom of Comedy."
Meshelle will be telling a version of a story she told at a previous Stoop Storytelling event.
"It's the story of dual-existence living in Baltimore," she said. When she was still in elementary school, her single mother married and the family moved from her first home on Garrison Avenue to the northwest suburbs, near Woodlawn, where, Meshelle said, there was an "extremely dense Jewish population."
"There were a lot of families that didn't look like us," she said.
Meshelle said she got her Jewish education "by osmosis," and through food. Part of her story involves her first encounter with bagels and lox. "At first I thought [bagels] were unsweetened doughnuts. I'd never had anything that tasted that way." she said. "I'm a vegetarian now, but I still have a bagel once or twice a week."
"That was my introduction to Jewish culture," said Meshelle, who founded an Open Society Institute-funded program called GoalDIGGERS: The Sankofa Project, which encourages African-American girls to study their ancestry and heritage.
"I will always be connected to Jewish culture," Meshelle said. "I find a lot of kindred spirit between the Jewish and African-American cultures. There is a kindred, unspoken, quiet connection."
Meshelle said Saturday will be her first time appearing at synagogue but not her first performance for a largely Jewish audience.
"I did the [Gordon Center for Performing Arts at the Jewish Community Center] in Owings Mills. That was a bucket of awesome. When you get a Jewish bubbie coming up to you after the show saying, 'You I could listen to all night,' you know you've reached a certain point in your career."
"It's Still Complicated: Stories about the Joys and Oys of Contemporary Jewish Life" will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday at Bolton Hill Synagogue, 212 W. Cold Spring Lane. Tickets are $65. For information go to boltonstreet.org.