BLESSINGS UNDER THE BIG SKY: GROWING UP JEWISH IN GREAT FALLS, MONTANA, BY CLAIRE BAIZ
from the May 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine http://www.jewishmag.com
All names have been changed to protect privacy, though it’s fairly pointless to locals, who will recognize everyone.
Back in 1966, I refused to sing Christmas Carols. I was in the fourth grade.
Wanda Button pulled me away from a spirited game of Chinese Jump Rope at recess. Wanda and I were not friends. She had bad news.
“You killed God.”
I was nine years old and I denied it. “Did not.”
“My mom said the Jews killed God.”
I knew a little about Judaism, but I didn’t remember this part. Matzoh, I knew. Dressing up at Purim, I knew. Passover Seders, those I knew.
I was only nine, but hearing that I killed God explained a lot.
It explained why I was the only Jew in class. Who else would fess up? It explained why the Germans had been so mad at us. It also explained why my dad was home dying of cancer. He was a German, and he married a Jew. I was Jewish enough to understand we were being punished. I barely knew what it meant to be a Jew, and I was already riddled with guilt.
Even then, though, I wondered, if we killed God, God is dead. Why are these Christians still going to churches? If we killed God, I mean like, what’s the point?
I started to cry.
I went home and confronted my mother, who had problems of her own, with five kids and my very sick father. Alone after dinner, her red hands dripping over the sink, I asked her if what Wanda said was true.
Mom was tired. She may have been having her own crisis of faith. “It was a long time ago. Some people think Jewish leaders killed Jesus,” she said. “But it’s not your fault. It’s not my fault, and it might not even be true.”
It was a weak defense.
Three months later my father died. I took a week off school, and everyone in my class signed a sympathy card. Even Wanda.
By spring, I was convinced that my father was really dead, that he hadn’t just done a good job of faking cancer to become an International Secret Agent Against Communists, who were worse than us Jews even, which made me feel a rung up.
I was beginning to enjoy the wide berth that a few of my classmates cut me around the lunch table. Occasionally I gave them a look that might lead them to believe I was planning to crucify them.
I told my mother I wanted to understand more about being Jewish. She kvelled. She hired the converted daughter of a local artist to teach me a little more about the faith.
Mostly I remember Hallie Johnson for being…how did my mother put it—sent away—for mental problems after I had only three or four Hebrew lessons. Obviously this Jewish stuff drove people nuts, which was fine with me. All the normal Christian folk out there seemed to need a few crazy Jews. Sign me up.
Other than Hallie, the local Jews, all five or six families, seemed pretty nice. Not exactly normal, but nice. The summer after my father died, the Bernsteins 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.
Izzie Bernstein stored the pool in his bomb shelter. I remember going into the Bernstein’s basement, crawling through a concrete tunnel and into a little room lined with shelves of kosher food to fetch the pool. I remember Mrs. Bernstein talking real nice to my mom, and I remember Izzie at the kitchen table, as big around as he was tall, stacking piles of silver dollars, barely nodding when I lugged the huge box through the kitchen on my way to the car.
When Izzie died, the governor of Montana attended his funeral. Izzie was a big man, worth his weight in precious campaign contributions.
Then there were the Goldmans. I was older than David, younger than Helen. I never knew the two older Goldman kids. The oldest daughter married a rabbi when I was little. We always nodded dutifully when the bride’s mother Ida, her voice somewhere between Marlene Deitrich and a Yiddish foghorn, mentioned “my son-in-law the rabbi” at the top and bottom of every hour for the entire eight years of her daughter’s marriage.
Ida’s foghorn went silent last year, but to every Montana Jew who ever heard it, Ida Goldman’s voice echoes like a Yiddish Yodel in the Rockies.
The Goldmans were related to the Abrahams. This was eternally confusing. My mom used first names— Bertha, Toots, Sylvia, Ben. “Montana Jews didn’t need last names,” she claimed. There were so few Montana Jews; I guess I was the only one who was confused.
The Abraham family had two Jewish brothers who used to be business partners. Mom admonished me never to mention one brother in front of the other. I could never remember who was who. My rule? Never open my mouth in front of any male Abraham.
One Abraham brother who didn’t go into the family business may soon win a Nobel Prize, which is an award from the guy who felt guilty about inventing dynamite. Nobel, of course, must have been Jewish. Another Abraham daughter is a Hollywood producer whose ex-husband lives in her backyard, and the last of the Abrahams knows more about everything than anyone else in town (just ask him).
One import to our local Tribe was Annie, a fashionable woman married to a South African Jewish expat. She was bleached blonde and always vaguely miserable. My mother made sure no one else was in the room when she furtively told me Annie’s husband might have ‘connections’. I secretly wondered what a man with connections looked like naked.
I almost drowned in Annie’s pool when I was seven years old. Many years later, long after Annie’s family left Montana, after days of looking, the authorities found someone’s missing child, dead under a tarp that covered their pool.
The most beautiful women in our town were the Greenberg girls. Minnie Greenberg was an Italian war bride. I can only imagine how depressing it must have been for her, not speaking a word of English, which probably explains why Minnie was blue. Her three daughters were as lovely as any magazine picture, and she had an entire bedroom in her house devoted to a doll collection, which no one was allowed to touch.
The Levys? Their claim to fame was that their oldest son Saul was on a national television game show. This made him a local celebrity, until he died, very young, of the same rare cancer that also took the life of his younger sister. We recently re-discovered Beth, a Levy sister, who lives near on the San Andreas Fault. Figures.
The last Jew I remember is Mr. Jacoby, who scraped by in a two room flat facing Central Avenue. He was small with a hooked nose and a heavy French accent. He had no one. My mother doesn’t even remember him, but I do.
When I was growing up the entire Jewish community would gather at two places: the Malmstrom Air Force Base Chapel just outside town, and once a year, any vacant Jewish-owned storefront for the Aitz Chaim Hebrew Association Garage Sale.
We always had great rummage sales: it was the High Holy Day of my Jewish calendar: I’d come home with enough Greenberg girl dresses and Abraham toys to be the envy of my lower southside neighborhood for weeks.
Occasionally the Air Force flew in rabbis to serve the smattering of Jews who temporarily augmented our Tribe. We’d roll in a huge armoire, a velvet covered Torah-on-Wheels, into the Malmstrom Air Force Base Chapel, and placed it off to the side of the big blonde wood cross—never in front of it. Union prayer books slid next to 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 us kids, after a cookie or two, awkwardly waited for the whole thing to end.
I haven’t been to our Base Chapel in ages. When I visit big cities, I slow down at synagogues, I touch their stone walls, sometimes I even read the posters behind the glass.
The closest I’ve been to a service in decades is this year’s Seder. A former Great Falls Jew—the one divorced from the rabbi–invited twenty eight guests into her flat in Chelsea, gave six visitors three different Hagaddahs to share, and directed our attention to the iMac in the corner, where, from somewhere in the Middle East, Ida Goldman’s granddaughter, a Montana Jew Once Removed, supervised the proceedings, dressed in her battle fatigues, via Skype.
I could almost hear Ida Goldman proudly rasp at the bottom of the hour, “That’s my granddaughter, the rabbi.”
One of the few remaining Jewish matriarchs passed away a few days ago. Last spring, Ida Goldman died; her sister Yetti Abraham went the year before. It’s become a spring tradition. Remind me to send my mother out of town next April.
It was only after I bought the sympathy card that I realized I wasn’t sure where to send it. Yetti’s husband passed three years ago, her kids all moved away. I held the card in my hand until I had an idea. I’m sure our mailman will nod and see that it’s properly delivered. I’m going to address the envelope:
Great Falls MT 59401