The first time my mother saw Great Falls, Montana she cried. She had an image in her head: babbling brooks, mountain vistas, general stores, crisp air, cowboys. For the last few hours on the train, she worried that she had been duped by my dad. He had let her prattle on about pictures of Glacier Park in the World Book, claiming it was at “our back door”.
My father took Mom from the platform by the shoulders and aimed her toward the Highwoods, claiming they were just a few minutes away, then he turned to her and asked her to squint hard. “Them there are the Rockies.” My dad didn’t mention you had to drive through Browning to get to “our backyard”. Through her tears, my mother pretended to see the spine of the continent. She did her best to smile.
I suppose my mother thought she would pass a few seasons in the Great American Desert…like the wandering Jews, she did not expect spend the rest of her life there; My dad, her Moses. I wonder how many of our Jewish neighbors expected to pass through, and for whatever reason, decided to stay.
Despite my mother’s first flat, dry impression, Great Falls became the Promised Land for our family and other Jews willing to put up with harsh winters and just a few harsh comments. Mid twentieth century Montana was the perfect place to be a Jew. Local Jews were an intrepid crew: Irving Fineman, who sold furniture, then insurance; Zollie Kelman, who bought ‘useless land’ on Tenth Avenue South; the Samuelsons, the local jewelers, and the women—oy, the women: Sylvia and Pearl, the Twin Quin of Great Falls Jewish Matriarchy, Sylvia could fuel her big old jeep from the fumes that passed between her and her sister Pearl: from my view as a kid in the back seat, they had the kind of love that appeared to be fueled by friction.
Everyone welcomed my mother, and her mother with open arms. My father just shrugged: perhaps he felt this was the price to keep Jews happy in Big Sky Country. To me, all the local Jewish families seemed pretty nice. Not exactly normal, but nice. After my father died, the Kelmans gave us their old three-foot-deep hard-walled swimming pool. All we had to do was to drive to their house in the Country Club and pick it up in our 1958 station wagon. It was pretty strange to climb through a concrete drainpipe and drag our new pool from their bomb shelter. I was ten years old and I wondered if Zollie & Evelyn decided to cancel pool dates after the Commies dropped the big one, figuring the ashes might clog the filter.
With so few Jews, we didn’t have a synagogue. The nearby Air Force base, however, had a smattering of Jewish recruits. To serve their needs, occasionally rabbis were flown in, and the five or six local Jewish families would endure the ignominy of Air Force security procedures to join them. I remember a velvet covered torah in a big closet on wheels that they rolled in and put off to the side of the big blonde wood cross—never in front of it—and Union prayer books slid beside New Testaments in slots behind each pew.
I don’t remember the services, but I remember the room off to the right, where food was served and kids, after a cookie or two, awkwardly waited for the whole thing to end. Once a year, the Jewish community would hold a rummage sale. We always had great rummage sales: it was the High Holy Day of my Jewish calendar: I’d come home with enough Reinstein girl dresses and Weissman toys to be the envy of my lower southside neighborhood for weeks. It seemed Jews always outgrew or tossed a better quality of junk, which made me proud to be Jewish.
I haven’t been back to the Chapel in decades. I walk past synagogues, I don’t go inside. And here I am, the wandering Jew, back in New York. I feel a strange comfort climbing the ancient wood escalators in Macy’s, not unlike the feeling New Yorkers must get when they visit the mountains of Glacier National Park, which, by the way, is “right in my back yard”.