SHARING MEMORIES OF THE BUTTE JEWISH COMMUNITY
EDITOR’S NOTE: This might encourage some of you to write down your memories and send them in to firstname.lastname@example.org for publication in the Ram’s Horn.
My memories of the Butte Jewish Community and how it came to be
This story must begin in Russia from where my ancestors came. We were serfs in that hate filled land. The Ehrlichs, like other Jews, were permitted to build a small hovel in a shtetl. The home had to be of wood… so it could be burned from time to time at the whim of the landowner, the Cossacks, or the Czar; most had a dirt floor. Serfdom was like slavery; you could grow or produce whatever you want, but everything that you produce belonged to the landowner who permitted your existence so long as he felt like it. One common rule was the requirement that a Jewish girl could be married only after she spent the night in the landowner’s house. Jews countered by sending the girl as unattractive as possible, head shaven, dirty and wearing old clothes; hoping that she would be sent back home unviolated. The bride would then appear at her wedding wearing a wig; and henceforth all her married life. This custom is still followed in many orthodox communities to this day; although many do not know the origin of the tradition. Protective embarrassment or ignorance?
Meyer Ehrlich wanted to marry Rachel Feldman and asked his father (whose name I don’t know) to talk to Rachel’s father to help arrange it. Rachel, however, had an older sister, Leah. David Feldman, the girl’s father, made it clear that the older daughter must marry first, and Meyer agreed to marry Leah. Yes, this sounds like the biblical story of our ancestors. Deviousness seems to be an Ehrlich trait.
Meyer and Leah saved enough money so that they were able to hop the train immediately after the wedding and head for America. They left from a German port, steerage class, and arrived in New York in 1895. They lived in Patterson, N.J. and produced the first two of eight children: Rose and Dave (my father). Meyer had heard land in America could still be had for free (the Homestead Act) and he wanted to be a landowner. He clearly thought the glories and status of the Russian landowner would also apply in America. He and Leah moved to Denver and applied. Meyer was a skillful tailor and supported his growing family while awaiting response from the government. Meyer soon learned that the best homestead plots had been taken, but he had the choice of three and he traveled to inspect them, and accepted a grant in northern Idaho near Plummer junction (a few miles down the lake from Coeur d’ Alene).
Life was difficult on the homestead, the land was only suitable as a tree farm, and within a year or two Leah took the younger kids and went to Butte where she had a relative. Meyer and the older kids stayed on to fulfill the requirements to gain ownership of the land. They all moved to Butte by 1915.
During the time on the homestead the Ehrlichs had very good relations with the Kootnai Indians; and they were “visited” by a representative of the Catholic Mission at Cataldo, whom they sent away such that he did not return. The Catholics of course were on mission to convert mainly the Indians, but Jews souls as well were targeted. The Indians still remember and resent loss of their culture and language in the Catholic schools. To this day the Indian tribes and members specifically go to Jewish lawyers when they need representation.
Meyer and Leah had eight children between 1896 and 1914: Rose, Dave, Herman, Lou, Marion, Mitch, Freda, and Joe. Dave worked for the Milwaukee RR and, along with Meyer’s meager earnings, financed the education of the younger brothers and sisters, who also worked odd jobs as they could. Usually Dave was working two jobs at a time, sometimes three. Dave completed seventh grade but did not go to any higher education, unlike all the other kids, other than Joe who was not capable. Rose and Marion became teachers and moved out to the Seattle area.
Jobs were hard to find during the depression. Dave got Herman a fireman’s job on the Milwaukee running from Harlowtown MT to Aberdeen, S.D. He would overnight in Aberdeen and work the train back west the next day. He got to know the town and learned of a jewelry store available. Herman had attended Bradley Horological School (watch and clock making and repairing) and was able to buy the jewelry and watch store in Aberdeen, S.D. Lou became a pharmacist and owned Henry’s Pharmacy on West Granite St. in Butte, and Mitch became a dentist and had a practice in the Medical Arts Building at Park and Main in Butte.
In the 1930’s there was tremendous antisemitism worldwide. Butte was no exception. One day antisemetic posters appeared all over town blaming the Jews for killing Jesus and making matzos with blood from Christian children, and all sorts of problems. The Jewish community had a special meeting in the Temple to discuss it. Nobody knew what to do and all were scared. Dave noticed the printer’s mark on the bottom of many of the posters which identified the print shop in Three Forks. He said he knew the owner because he used to work with him on the railroad. He got Mitch, Herman, and Lou to drive over to Three Forks in Mitch’s car, where Dave went in and spoke to the owner while “the boys” waited in the car outside. The printer said the order and the money for the antisemetic posters came from Senator Rankin’s office! He became very apologetic and said he wouldn’t be doing any more similar orders.
Jeanette Rankin was the daughter of a pharmacist in Virginia City. In fact her father’s old drug store is still a tourist attraction there. She had been elected to the Senate in time to vote against US participation in WWI; and she was in the Senate at the time of Pearl Harbor and cast the only “no” vote to the declaration of war against Germany and Japan (WWII). She was a notable antisemite and had many supporters in Butte.
One of those supporters was Monsignor English; a big higher-up in the Catholic Church. English was famous for his Sunday sermons at mass blaming the Jews for killing Jesus and such. Parishoners of his Sacred Heart Church frequently came to Mitch’s office or Lou’s store and described the antisemitism, but said they could do nothing about it. So when you hear the claims of Butte’s open-mindedness and how everybody got along with good feelings, you should know nonsense is being put out before you.
Most of the Jewish men in town were members of B’Nai Brith. In 1936 they hosted the BB national convention at the Finlen Hotel in Butte. The leaders were Billy Meyer, (lawyer) and of course his son Sig Meyer (lawyer), Avron Canty (clothing) and his father, Sig Newman and Mel Rafish (shoes), Sammy Finberg (furniture), Kalman Rudolph (furniture), Henry Coddon (wholesale paper), Emil and Ed Marans (womens wear), and of course the Ehrlich boys, also Harry Gronfein and his son Stanley (mens clothing), and Dave Schultz, (clothing), and others. Phil Judd (sporting goods and hardware), also Dr. Sam Rafish, the other Jewish dentist in Montana. Everyone said it was the finest event ever. Jews were almost always shopkeepers.
Butte hit it bigtime after the 1905 World’s Fair in Chicago, which demonstrated the electric light for the first time. Suddenly copper was in high demand for electrification, even though this was somewhat held back by the demands of WWI and the depression years. Since the completion of electrification by means of copper wire in the 1950’s, copper demand plateaued, and with the development of fiberoptics and satellite communication it has plummeted. Butte’s mines closed in the 1960’s and the pit which replaced them has also ceased operations. Butte’s Jewish population has moved on to other locales.
During the Second World War (1939-1945), my father Dave worked the railroad terminal without a day off. He was on call 24 hours a day. He often would return to meet a train at two in the morning. He always walked the 7 or so blocks on his wooden prosthetic leg, He didn’t have a car until the mid 1950’s. My mother stayed home and had insomnia. Often she would want to walk uptown (she never drove) at odd hours of the night, and she’d take me with her, especially if the weather was nice. Many stores were open 24 hours because the mines were always running 24 hrs/day and people were always walking the streets. Usually I’d get an ice cream or some candy. There was never concern about being bothered on the street; everybody was extremely polite. “Yes ma’am”, “good evening sir”, and a tip of the hat greeting was almost universal. There was almost never any kind of theft or break-in, even among this population of tough miners. The reason was that nearly every home was well stocked with hunting rifles, shotguns and handguns. Every shopkeeper dealt heavily in cash, often silver dollars, and had a weapon. Everybody knew that many women had a weapon in their purse or elsewhere. Politeness was the norm.
I had a very good half-Jewish friend named Jack Rosenberg. They owned Rosenberg’s furniture and appliance. The Rosenberg’s like many people heated their home with wood and had a woodpile in their yard. One day I was over there and Jack’s father gave us a 12 gauge shotgun shell and a brace and bit and said somebody has been stealing from his firewood pile. He told us to drill a hole in a piece of firewood and drop the shell down inside and conceal the hole by mixing some glue and sawdust and filling the hole with it. We placed the fixed firewood piece in a prominent place. A few days later Jack’s dad said a neighbor from down the street was “in today and bought a new stove” for his parlor. We knew what that meant.
My first few years of grade school I walked from our house on Main St to the Monroe school in east Butte, near Utah St. I walked thru the gas works and past St. Joe’s (the catholic) school. Of course I knew many of the kids there and they knew I was a Jew. Almost every day they’d throw rocks or snowballs at me. Being outnumbered I usually had to just run the gauntlet. Occasionally there’d be only one or two of them and I could get a punch in before running; or if I was with another kid (non-catholic) or two from Monroe school I was golden. Then we’d have a mass snowball or rockfight-depending on the season. My public school friends then were Bobby Vawter, Joe Holly whose family owned the Supreme Market where we did all our grocery shopping, and Nicky and Jimmy Malkovich, and Chico Kovic. Some of these kids were catholic but went to the public school. Billy Edwards was catholic but he was my friend because his grandmother Mrs. Silver was a friend of my grandmother (Leah) and they always were trading baked goods.
Butte always had the image of rough and ready. Hard drinking and hard fighting. This started with the underground wars of the copper kings but extended to the streets and schoolyards. (It continues today with Bob Robinson… the navy seal who killed Osama Bin Laden.) Growing up in the 1950’s I remember schoolyard fistfights nearly every recess and dismissal, although I can’t remember the reason for any. It was common for a kid to go home bloodied and come to school the next day as though nothing had happened. Nobody ever carried a grudge. I do not remember of any kid bringing a weapon to school. Fair fighting fists only.
And we had easy and common access to guns of all kinds. I myself went with my friend Bobby Vawter on our bikes to shoot rabbits at Big Butte, (the mountain south of the city). Each of us with a 22 rifle strapped over the shoulder. Bobby was not Jewish, would take the rabbits home and his mother would skin and cook them. My mother, of course, would not touch them.
The community was pretty observant in the old days. On Pesach there would be a community seder at the Finlen. The ladies would make all the foods and bring them for everybody to share and afterward talk about. “The kneidlach Mrs. so-and-so made were so hard you’d need a nutcracker”; “that soup was so greasy it could go into the crankcase”; and similar comments.
Nobody made outdoor sukkot but each year an arch was erected over the bima inside the Temple and decorated with greenery and fruits. Talesim and kippot were never worn. Services were Friday nite only with emphasis to be finished in time to get to the high school stadium for kickoff. I don’t remember any Saturday religious events; everybody worked in their stores.
Butte’s Jewish community was pretty observant in the ’40’s and even into the ’50’s, but as the population dwindled the Judaism observance did as well. The orthodox synagogue closed up and became members of the Reform Temple. The quality of the employed rabbis deteriorated too: One was known to the police for unusual sexual interests and let go. He was replaced by “Rabbi Benjamin Kelson” who tutored me for my Bar Mitzvah. It was discovered later that he did hnot actually have “smicha” (ordination).
Soon the community gave up employing a rabbi and relied on bringing in rabinical students for major functions. I believe that now the Temple stands empty nearly all the time and is rarely opened any more. About a year ago I was in Butte with my son Daniel, who is an orthodox rabbi, (with smicha!) and he offered to conduct a proper Shabbat observance for the community, at no charge. We were bluntly discouraged and told “people have other plans”.
I think that describes the rise and fall of Butte’s Jewish community.
Fred Ehrlich; May 2019