Within two hours of telling my parents that I was moving to Pocatello, Idaho, my dad found the local synagogue on-line and contacted the religious leader on my behalf. There would be no escape.
Not that I wanted an escape from Judaism; no. I am of good immigrant Jewish stock; I had a Bat Mitzvah, I went to OSRUI in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin for summer camp—one of the many who attended on scholarship. Yet since my early 20s, I’ve been drawn, led to the eclectic caravans roaming the far perimeter of the Diaspora—where Jews mix primarily with non-Jews and talk about weird things like feminist spirituality, Buddhism, and pre-Judeo and pre-Christian paganism. Not to mention neo-psychedelia, neo-Jungism, and neo-feminism, terms I made up myself to catalog the thoughts that dance around in my head—sometimes to Death Metal.
So on a bright August morning in 1998, we removed the last of my residual belongings from mom and dad’s house in Skokie, Illinois, and headed west. It was comforting to have the contact information for Temple Emanuel in Pocatello, although the information I also had about the First National Bar in Pocatello proved to be more socially fruitful those first few years.
My original plan, moving to a town I had never heard of in a state everyone kept confusing with Iowa, was to live in Pocatello for a year, get some post-graduate professional experience, and then flee out to the real world. Because Southeastern Idaho is no place for a nice, single, Jewish girl who doesn’t want to die alone.
That was over 11 years ago, and I’m still here. In what seemed like a divine reward, I met my husband at age 35 after finally surrendering to my unshakeable feelings of sacred place, holy land in Pocatello and committing to stay, spinsterhood be damned. Five seconds after I got engaged I lost my job—again. Life has scuffed me up as much here as it would anywhere else, I suspect, and I’d rather have life run me though the thrasher in historic Old Town Pocatello than anywhere else on the planet.
I’m grateful for the opportunity from Lilith to sift through this past decade to see how, in this high desert, my experience of being Jewish has developed. Here in Pocatello, Idaho, where the dusty summer earth beneath my feet feels oddly familiar. It is hot. It doesn’t rain. Bushes catch on fire–often. And at night during a new moon, the triangle of sky behind my house explodes with stars.
Given my spiritual nature, living in a small town has perhaps created a stronger Jewish identity than if I lived with a kosher deli on every corner. So much to explain to non-Jewish friends and paramours, such a sense of protective cultural solidarity. And being Jewish in Pocatello is like being in a college class with only nine students—every voice counts, and it’s hard to hide in the back.
There are Jews in Pocatello—sometimes a lot, and sometimes not so many. There is a free-standing paid-for synagogue on a generous lot. Temple Emanuel is the only Jewish act in town, and lay rabbi and philosophy professor Dr. Carl Levenson skillfully navigates the come-as-you-are congregation in a sea of on-lookers, many who like to call us Gentiles.
The Jewish population in Southeastern Idaho is as colorful and surprising as the region itself. We work in the desert, we work in the mountains, we work on the farms. We have a matriarch we share with half the Pocatello community. There are those with children in Israel, and those with a dozen chickens in their backyard.
So now that you know a bit about me, let me also show you how wild west Judaism is done.