‘Alone in the Desert’ : With Words and Pictures, Penny Wolin Details the Settlement and Dispersal of the Jewish Community in Cheyenne, Wyo.
In a black-and-white photograph, a solitary Jew in a skull cap and prayer shawl stands on a prairie, isolated against the vastness of a Western skyscape.
When the man speaks into the photographer’s tape recorder, however, the grandeur of the pioneer settling an untrod continent dissipates. “It just doesn’t offer me what I’m looking for in terms of my career,” says the man called Joe, explaining why he left his hometown.
In the exhibit, “The Fringe of the Diaspora,” at the Hebrew Union College Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, Penny Wolin uses photographs and interviews to document the settlement and dispersal of the Jewish community in Cheyenne, Wyo., from the mid-19th Century to the present.
An unlikely people in an unlikely place, the Jews of Cheyenne did not become “the cowboy mensches " entertainer Mickey Katz sang about in his Yiddish rendition of “I’m an Old Cowhand.” Their co-existence alongside such an incongruous culture, however, did make them an unusual microcosm of the Jewish experience in the United States.
Although Wolin offers no conclusions about their settlement, she probes their emotional state: What part of these people’s heritage remains Jewish? What part is cowboy? What part American? How should they maintain their traditions? To what extent should they assimilate?
These are the questions Wolin asked Cheyenne residents, both past and present, during six years of research. They are also the questions that, as a Cheyenne native who moved to Los Angeles when she was 20 years old, the photographer asks herself.
“We had to blend, yet remain unique from the existing culture,” says Wolin, 35, who now lives in Santa Monica. “We had to remember who we were; we had to maintain our roots.”
Drawn to the timeless immigrant’s dilemma of “blending yet remaining,” Wolin traveled to Cheyenne on various occasions, interviewing her subjects, taking their pictures, sifting through mementos to find old business cards and vintage family photos. Now, looking out at the viewer from their pictures, the Jews of Cheyenne talk through the captions about their feelings.
* An old man surrounded by family portraits holds his mother’s photograph. He has never married and has spent his life in the same modest house. “When my grandfather brought my folks here from Minsk to Cheyenne, he bought this piece of ground here, with just two rooms. . . . I was born in this house. . . . Maybe it’s sentiment, but this is home, and that’s why I hang around here.”
* Sisters, a cheerleader and a junior class president, moved to Denver, married non-Jews and divorced. “Having different holidays and the religions being so far apart . . .was harder than we thought.”
* A young ranching couple, pictured with their cow pony, says of Jews in the West: “You feel a separateness from the community. But I think that’s what any Jewish person feels anywhere. If you read Genesis about Abraham and Isaac and all those stories, you get a sense of people who are just out there alone in the desert with nobody else. And that’s what it’s really like out here.”
Just how Cheyenne’s Jews got “out here” was the question that led Wolin to undertake the project. “Everyone thought this culture of Jews in the West was a joke, when in fact it was a very deep and rich culture,” she says.
While most Jews settled in eastern urban centers where jobs were plentiful, others migrated West, drawn by offers of land through the Homestead Acts and frontier opportunities opened by the transcontinental railroad.
But Wolin points out: “They didn’t work on the range. Their expertise was in doing business, selling things to the cowboys.”
In their homes in Germany and Russia, where they were often confined to settlements, or ghettos, outside the towns, they had exercised small, easily transportable trades. These small businesses, says Steve Gold, a sociologist at Whittier College who specializes in Russian immigration, allowed them to adapt to pioneer life more easily than other immigrant groups.
“You can put them down anywhere and soon they start doing the same kind of occupation. It’s a cultural survival technique that comes from being out of their own country.”
In Cheyenne, many of the small businessmen prospered. Max Myer, the town’s national success story, designed the 10-gallon hat and had the Stetson Company manufacture it for him. Says a woman named Julia: “We all did well. How could you help it? It was a wide-open town.”
In the community’s heyday, from the 1930s through the ‘50s, the synagogue in Cheyenne boasted 700 members. The elementary school in the farming town of Huntley had so many Jewish students that it was nicknamed “Der Yiddisher School” and a Yiddish-speaking teacher was hired.
Ethic cohesiveness was strong, because, unlike the Italians or Scandinavians who developed cultural solidarity once they had left their country, “Jews already had a consciousness of themselves as being a different people,” says Gold.
They came with a distinct culture, community activities and forms of cooperation, and they practiced their religious rituals even in the most isolated conditions. One child tells how before there was a rabbi in Cheyenne, his father dressed meat in the kosher tradition in the back of his furniture store.
In a whistle stop of a Wyoming town, a fellow named Larry says: “On High Holy Days the few Jews here get together and we do the best we can. We get together or phone and say, ‘What do we do in this case?’ And someone will say, ‘I don’t know, let me check my book.’ ”
The Wyoming Jews don’t talk much about discrimination. Says Eric: “The threat to Jewish survival . . . isn’t oppression. The threat is that they’re going to love us to death.”
Intermarriage and success have both made inroads into traditions.
“I grieve the fact that assimilation is almost universal,” says a man standing before a large delineation of his family tree.
Says a man named Sol: “I never had a bar mitzvah. I was busy selling newspapers.”
“Competition. That’s the ethic that made our parents work as hard, or our grandparents work as hard as they did,” says Paul. “It was almost based on the caste system, who wore the nicest dresses, whose kids graduated from medical school.”
Like most of Cheyenne’s young, Wolin and her four siblings also moved away, pulled by the money and culture a big city could offer.
“They came, they worked, they succeeded and then they left,” she says, explaining the typical migration pattern. “We wanted something else. It wasn’t enough for us that we be a merchant or own a clothing store.”
Today, only about 70 Jews remain in Cheyenne. The rabbi of Mt. Sinai Synagogue laments in a caption to a photograph of bare synagogue benches: “It’s a sad thing to stand at the pulpit and look at that sea of empty seats.”
Chances are small that the seats will ever be filled again. About 85% of all immigrants are concentrated in about 15 American cities, says Ivan Light, director of UCLA’s Center for Immigrant Studies. “The number who wind up going to rural places is exceedingly small.”
Those still in Cheyenne are either old or very young, Wolin adds. Her father is one of them. Brought to Cheyenne by his father as a boy, he has made his living as the owner of a gas station and car dealership. In her exhibit, Wolin quotes herself as she worries: “My father’s a very religious man, but he doesn’t feel like a part of the community, and now he doesn’t go to shul. Now this man’s been here since he was 6 years old, and he still feels like an outsider.”
But even among city Jews, sociologist Gold says, there is a recent movement toward a greater Jewish cohesiveness and increased opposition to assimilation. “They’re seeking out Jewish neighborhoods; they favor marriage with other Jews; they’re becoming kosher and sending their kids to Jewish religious schools.”
Gold credits the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and current Palestinian conflicts for causing many Jews to re-evaluate their position. “Through assimilation and success, Jews can be eliminated as a group, ultimately making Hitler’s goal accomplished,” he says. “Many religious Jews and even non-religious Jews would feel that way.”
However, both Gold and Light think a dual ethnic existence is possible. “Ethnicity is a decision people make on the basis of whether they perceive it to be advantageous or not,” says Light. “The same people can be ethnic in one context and not in another.”
But that hasn’t made leaving home any easier for the Jewish children of Cheyenne, who, like any small-town youths, have set out on professional migratory routes in search of success.
Joe, home for the High Holy Days, wears his prayer shawl out on the prairie as he struggles to justify his actions. “Most of our parents came to this country determined to succeed. Success was bred into us. On one hand, you’re trying to survive, and on the other, you’re trying to be the best because you’re a Jew.”