Travel – Jewish Adventures In The Flyover States

Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

My recent college graduate daughter and I hoped to visit three hard-to-get-to Western states, hike two national parks and see bison, bears, wolves, elk and moose all before arriving in Jackson, Wyoming, for a restful Shabbat. We picked up our pickup truck at the Bozeman Yellowstone Airport, stopped in a local supermarket where we were pleasantly surprised to find more than enough kosher-certified products, and spent one night in Bozeman before setting off for Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. 

We naively thought we might be the only observant (though well-disguised with baseball caps) Jews in the area and wouldn’t see any easily identifiable Jewish people or hear any Hebrew for days. This lasted until the Canyon Village snack bar and gift shop, near the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, where a pack of 40 girls in bright yellow sweatshirts with the name of a Jewish camp plastered in Hebrew across the front seemed overjoyed to find Sabra humus in the middle of a national park in Wyoming.

On our way out of the park that evening, en route to a lodge in nearby Idaho, we followed the cars ahead of us as they pulled over to the side of the road – a sure sign of nearby wildlife. As we grabbed our binoculars and cameras, we couldn’t help but overhear a family in a nearby car listing all the animals they had seen: ze’ev, ayal, dov.

After three days of in Yellowstone, where we hiked, spotted a wolf, observed the geothermal pools, numerous hot springs and geysers and the world-famous Old Faithful, we continued just south of Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park. The snow-capped mountains look as beautiful and picturesque in person as they do in the postcards. 

We covered most of the park by car and on foot before discovering the ferry which shuttles passengers across Jenny Lake, allowing access to waterfalls, lakes, breathtaking views, and miles of trails deep into the canyon. I hadn’t paid attention to my hiking outfit of the day – which included one of my dozens of Camp Ramah T-shirts.  A fellow hiker ascending as we came down the trail – likely a veteran of an American Jewish summer camp – noticed my shirt, smiled and said, “Mah nishma?” So much for anonymity.

After days of eating sandwiches and fruit, we could almost smell Shabbat – and our first hot meal in ages. We had paid ahead for the tasty Shabbat dinner at the Chabad of Wyoming in Jackson just a few miles from the southern exit of the Grand Tetons. Thankfully, Shabbat in July starts late, and Chabad is kind enough to not bring in Shabbat early. We had time to explore the quaint town with art galleries, coffee shops, and the town square where each entrance gate is covered in elk antlers. No surprise given its proximity to National Elk Refuge. Each winter, as many as 7,000 elk come down from the high country to the valley floor. 

WE ENTERED the home of Chabad emissaries, Rabbi Zalman and Raizy Mendelsohn, through a large white tent which was erected on their driveway hours before. Following a spirited Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv service which didn’t quite have a minyan (a quorum for prayer), guests helped transport food from the kitchen, through the study, and to the driveway for a delicious, multi-course dinner, with a local touch of moose napkin rings.

In typically inclusive Chabad fashion, guests included a few locals; an elderly Chabad couple who rented a motor home and drove from Denver, Colorado; a Jewish woman from Vancouver, Canada, who traveled (with her horse!) to Jackson for a few months; and a handful of Israelis from New York City who spend the summer season working beauty shops in Jackson. They were making their first appearance at the Chabad and expressed appreciation that they had finally taken the plunge – after three summers in town – to set foot in Chabad.

 We returned to Chabad the next morning in time for prayers. Although there was no minyan, we still managed to have a Torah reading. The rabbi asked various men and women to read each aliyah in English, and led an extensive discussion. Who ever thought my daughter would be able to read Torah at a Chabad House?

We made it back to the Cowboy Resort Lodge and enjoyed Shabbat lunch outside on our picnic table. We walked a few blocks to an off the beaten track attraction. Vertical Harvest is an impressive state-of-the-art, three-story hydroponic farm that trains and employs many local residents with disabilities. They offer tours several times a week.

We settled in to a long Shabbat nap and were awakened by the sound of a loudspeaker in the distance. As we listened more closely, we realized it was the sound of the Jackson Hole Rodeo about to get underway. My daughter and I looked at each other and right away knew we had to at least walk over to the rodeo. Who knows? Perhaps we’d be able to talk our way in. Might we be able to explain the Jewish Sabbath at the rodeo? We had no ID, phones or money. 

We took our chances and explained Shabbat. It only took three attempts before we reached the manager, who kindly stamped our hands and waved us in to the stadium. As we entered, the announcer, who just half an hour earlier had woken us from our Shabbat slumber, was in the midst of an impassioned speech to the crowd. All 1,000 or so guests – most donning the characteristic cowboy hats and boots – were on their feet and silent, awaiting the singing of what he called “America’s number one song, the Star Spangled Banner.” 

HE DIRECTED everyone’s attention to a woman racing across the arena on a horse in a red, white and blue riding outfit and carrying a larger than life American flag. As the announcer narrated her ride, my daughter and I understood what it truly means to be American. “Whether you are a school teacher, a cowboy, or a broker on the New York Stock Exchange, that is the American spirit that is represented in this horse.”   

Well, this clearly was our first rodeo! It was underway and we had no idea what to expect, or where to look. The first event, to our immediate right, was bull-riding. One person carefully opened the gate where a rider was holding on for dear life as the bull tried to knock him off. Three wranglers were skilled in directing the bull pack into his pen without first harming the rider who was now on the ground. Another man observed from a barrel, near the bull-riding competition.

The next event, barrel-racing, featured women on horses. The rider and her horse started sprinting from one end of the arena and raced down the course in an attempt to complete a cloverleaf pattern around preset barrels. Unlike in swim meets that I have witnessed at countless JCCs, where the timers strive to be accurate to the hundredth of a second, the timing for both of these events seemed more approximate than exact.

As we observed the various events, we slowly began to understand how certain expressions worked their way in to the English language: taking the bull by the horns, for example. And why one of America’s top-selling blue jeans is known as Wrangler. 

We held off offering any comments about animal cruelty, though seeing calves lassoed and their legs tied up made us uncomfortable. Calf-roping, also known as tie-down roping, is another timed event where the rider throws a loop of rope from a lariat around the calf’s neck and tries to “rope” and restrain it by tying three legs together. 

There were even some family friendly audience participation events as well, and some simulation booths. In the sheep scramble, hundreds of kids lined up on the arena dirt. Three sheep are released, and the excited children had to fetch red bandanas tied to their horns. 
In another on-field event, a dozen over-eighteen year olds were blindfolded and competed in a dance competition.

We saw a five-year-old girl on the rodeo grounds trying her best to ride a mechanical bull while her mother tried getting her to hold the bull with her left hand and wave with her right. “That’s how the cowgirls do it!”  

The announcers told somewhat racy stories and jokes throughout the evening. On a more serious note, at one point, they asked all veterans to rise so the crowd could pay tribute. They thanked them for their service and for “making it possible for cowboys to travel the country.” I was now beginning to understand and appreciate the father-to-son transmission of a culture, and of the community aspect of the rodeo.

I didn’t expect to be religiously inspired at a rodeo, but as the stars came out indicating that Shabbat was over, we looked up and thanked God for a week of new experiences, beautiful scenery, and for this newfound appreciation for America.

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