Feeling at Home on the Range in Jewish Wyoming

Image: Kurt Hoffman

The fences bordering ranches in Laramie, Wyoming are always dotted with tumbleweed, that pesky, thorny, seemingly dead bush that blows around the prairie, getting caught on anything in its way. It is an iconic symbol of the American West, but it is actually an imported species from Eurasia, named Russian thistle. Like the tumbleweed, I, too, blew into Laramie in 1978 by way of Russia (or at least my Russian heritage), New York and North Carolina, crisscrossing the country as my husband pursued his higher education.

My Jewish identity was rooted in my childhood, growing up in the 1950s in Queens. My neighborhood was bookended by two Conservative synagogues, and in between there were Jewish-owned delis, bakeries and candy stores. All my parents’ friends were Jewish, and all my friends were Jewish, too, at least until I met Catholics in junior high school.

Schools were closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. My father, who sold vitamins for a living, liked us to walk to synagogue in our finest attire, my mother donning knockoff designer jewelry that she had specially made by her Manhattan jeweler, Mr. Eckstein. On Hanukkah we placed an electric menorah — the kind with the little yellow light bulbs — in the window so that anyone passing by would know what night it was. Only in my neighborhood there were no nighttime passersby; everyone else was also indoors celebrating Hanukkah.

When my parents learned that my husband and I were moving to Wyoming for his doctoral studies — we were in North Carolina at the time — it was as if we were going to Mongolia. One of their first questions was, “Are there any Jews there?” I honestly didn’t know. This was before the Internet, and I couldn’t Google “synagogues Laramie Wyoming.” But did it really matter? This was an adventure, and we were going there for the length of my husband’s doctoral program, not for life. We thought that after Laramie we might end up back on the East Coast. (Little did we know that our path would lead us to Utah, where we have lived for more than 30 years.) In the U-Haul we had our menorah and mezuza and my recipes for latkes, hamantaschen and my mother’s chicken soup. We’d be fine even if we were the only Jews in the whole state.

Then my mother had a terrible accident that shook my confidence in our move. My parents had been vacationing in the Catskills, having dinner, when two waiters collided, spilling carafes of hot tea and coffee all over her body. She fell off her chair and broke her leg. She was in intensive care with burns on most of her body and a severely fractured femur. Given her age of 66 and the severity of her injuries, it was not at all a given that she would survive.

My husband and I were a few miles away at his yearly family reunion. We hurried down to New York, where I visited her every day, willing her to get better before my move. But illness takes its own time, and all I could do was to hold her hand and tell her that she would get better. She was in constant pain, needing to be on her back for her leg, but not being able to lie back because of the burns.

And then the day came that I had to leave for Wyoming. What just a few weeks ago had seemed like a grand adventure was now, in my mind, that trip to Mongolia. I was leaving my family and moving to a place I had never seen and knew nothing about. I kissed my mother goodbye and said my silent prayers for her recovery.

My husband was already driving the U-Haul out west, and I was to fly to Laramie on my own to find a place to live. Flying into Laramie was an adventure in itself. The small connecting flight there from Denver had seats for about 30 people and loaded up a staircase on the tarmac. I later learned that this flight was called “the vomit comet,” since the turbulence over the mountains was legendary for its stomach-churning force. I sat in my window seat, convinced that the mountains below would be my last sight before we crashed. And yet I was too tired and anxious to care. When we landed, safely, the sky was a vivid sunset with stripes of purple and gold, putting the darkening mountains into relief. I got off the plane and looked around me at the vast high prairie, which stretched for endless miles. Tumbleweed was catching on the fence around the airport. The term “God’s country” came to mind and I felt awed and renewed, a minute’s respite from my worries about my mother and the task that lie ahead of me, settling in Wyoming.

In the days to come I found myself stopping to take in Wyoming. The sky, a lapis lazuli blue, like the garments in medieval paintings, seemed to stretch forever, matching the prairie mile for mile. The dry mountain air had a clarity that I had never experienced, and the sun shone late into the day, often setting into a spectacular sunset. Just waking up to that light made everything seem possible. My mood lightened as I learned through my weekly phone calls home that my mother was doing better. Still in the hospital, but improving. And every time I called, my father asked, “Are there any Jews there?” I still didn’t know.

We rented a house, unpacked and nailed the mezuza to the front doorpost. No one seemed to notice it. Laramie, as I was finding out, was a place of rugged individualism. Every man for himself, and don’t impose your views on anyone else. Disagreements were settled by pistol, as witnessed by the shattered mirror hanging inside the Buckhorn Bar downtown.

At the same time, there was a shtetl feel to the place. With the prairie extending in every direction, why were the houses in town built so close together? I came to understand the reason one night, when we were sitting outside in our backyard and heard the distant howl of coyotes. If I closed my eyes, I could picture myself in a small Russian village, with the coyotes transformed into wolves. The houses in town needed to huddle together for protection. The wilderness was full of danger: wild animals, outlaws and Cossacks.

Weeks went by and school began. Laramie, which during the summer was a quiet town of carefully tended gardens and afternoon thunderstorms, came alive with college students in cowboy boots. We settled into our routines. I still couldn’t answer my father’s question about Jews in Wyoming.

That September I learned that my mother was finally going home from the hospital. She would have a long recuperation, but she was going to be okay. I felt an enormous weight slide off my shoulders. Now I could really begin to breathe again, and I wanted to give thanks by observing the Jewish new year and worshipping among other Jews. It seemed right to go to services, just as my father would be doing in New York, and as Jews all over the world were doing.

Rosh Hashanah was on a Monday. Somehow we found out that services were being held in the nearby Episcopal Church, a building I had passed many times on my walks through town. We climbed the steps of the church and entered its sanctuary. A stained-glass Jesus with outstretched hands looked down upon our small group. The smile on his face reminded me of the Mona Lisa; it was hard to tell what he was thinking. Was he welcoming us or judging us? I thought about what my father would say, and I felt a visceral repulsion to celebrating Rosh Hashanah in a church. But then, as the mimeographed pages of the service were passed around and we all introduced ourselves, yarmulkes appearing out of pockets, I began to relax. The leader of our service was a new dean at the university; his family members kept kosher and flew in their meat from Denver on the vomit comet. If someone who kept kosher could worship under the gaze of Jesus, I decided, then it must be okay.

Soon enough I was carried away by the familiar words and songs. At the end of the service, “ Adon Olam ” was sung to the same melody as in my Queens synagogue. How strange to be so far away from my parents, yet so connected. A feeling of peace and renewal came over me as we all wished each other shana tovah. I knew that, yes, my mother was going to be all right, and my Wyoming life would begin. Walking out of the church into the Laramie sunshine, I finally felt at home. And I could at last tell my father that, yes, there are Jews in Wyoming.

Linda Zeveloff is an elementary school teacher who lives in Ogden, Utah.

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Linda Zeveloff

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Feeling at Home on the Range in Jewish Wyoming

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