When I was very young, my father told me bedtime stories that, looking back, may have helped me overcome my feeling that I couldn’t be both Jewish and a Westerner. Growing up in Utah, where Mormons tend to treat Jews as living Bible characters instead of real friends and neighbors, I often doubted the authenticity of my family’s ties to our community and, more broadly, to the West.
But the fears seemed to go away on the nights that my two sisters and I — tucked into bed after bath time — listened to my father’s stories about Cowboy Bob, a Jewish rancher in Wyoming (my parents, originally from Queens, lived there for a time before they settled in Utah).
Cowboy Bob had a wife, Boola Boola, and three children: LuAnne, Jeremy and Betty Sue (which he pronounced B-b-b-b-b-b-betty Sue). Unlike the Jews who settled the American West, Bob was not a merchant or a shopkeeper but a tried-and-true cowboy who wrangled cattle, shot rifles and rode a horse; Boola Boola and the kids had their own horses, too.
Cowboy Bob was such a successful rancher that he hired a foreman named Wafflefinger Jones to help him out. Wafflefinger had flat, corrugated hands, the result of a childhood accident in which he smashed them in a hot waffle iron. He appeared in my father’s bedtime stories soon after we got our first waffle maker.
The only Cowboy Bob story that I can recall with any clarity was the one my father told us one year at Passover. In Utah, Passover was a particularly fraught time. Each year’s observance began with a harried search for matzo. If our local grocery stores carried it, it was often, bewilderingly, the not-kosher-for-Passover kind.
When my parents did find the right matzo — many times at the now-defunct holiday market hosted by the Salt Lake City synagogue, 60 miles north — they would buy enough to last for a week of morning matzo brei, school lunches and matzo pizza dinners. My Mormon peers often asked me about the comically large “crackers” I brought for lunch. My mother’s colleagues wanted to know why her crackers had “tire tracks.”
Cowboy Bob’s family never seemed to have trouble acquiring Passover goods. In the episode that I remember, Boola Boola was in the kitchen on a snowy Wyoming day, cooking up a giant vat of steaming matzo ball soup. LuAnne, Jeremy and Betty Sue were setting the table for the first Passover Seder. Suddenly, a monstrous, growling grizzly bear — not a terribly uncommon sight in Wyoming — appeared at the window, threatening to break in.
Cowboy Bob had to act fast to protect his family. With his rifle at the far end of the house, he looked frantically around the kitchen for a weapon. Finally he laid eyes on Boola Boola’s soup. He plunged his hand into the boiling broth, pulled out a matzo ball and stepped onto the porch. Cowboy Bob took aim at the bear’s face and let the matzo ball fly, hitting the bear squarely in the snout.
The grizzly reared back and whimpered into the wilderness, and Cowboy Bob and his family went on to have a peaceful Seder.
The other day, when I asked my father to tell me the story, he included a detail I hadn’t remembered: After the grizzly bear was hit in the snout, he said, it gobbled down the matzo ball. It would have been cruel to tell children a story in which an animal was injured without having anything good happen to it, he said.
But that detail seemed out of place to me, something tailored to appeal his daughters’ — all three of us vegetarians who now live outside Utah — adult sensibilities about animal rights, ethics and fairness. I doubt that the bear ate the dumpling in the story he told us all those years ago. Back when we were kids, the idea that a Jewish cowboy kicked a grizzly’s butt with a single matzo ball was enough.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Forward’s deputy culture editor.