Herefords, Hebrew and Me
At the feminist ranch
As soon as I boarded the Dallas-bound plane in Newark I felt like the only Jew for miles around. A man wearing a ten-gallon hat sat in the row across from me, and for a split second I felt relieved that I was able to pass. By the time I made it to Wichita, two flights later, I felt like the only Jew in the universe. Toto, we’re not in New York anymore. What was a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs of New York doing on the Kansas prairie? Oddly enough, the story starts in a Rosh Chodesh group in Jerusalem….
Gathered with a group of women friends in a spacious old apartment in the Holy City, I spotted an old issue of the Atlantic Monthly. The cover painting depicted a huge expanse of prairie, a tiny house, and a mammoth bolt of lightening. Living in Israel, starved for all things American, I took the magazine back to my place. I inhaled the story, an excerpt from William Least Heat-Moon’s book PrairyErth—a huge tome on Chase County, Kansas (pop. 3000), home of the Flint Hills, the only remaining tall-grass prairie in the world. Obsessed with the story in the Atlantic, I took to reciting bits aloud to my roommate and to reading some parts three, four or five times.
The article told tales of Osage and Kiowa Indians, first-person remembrances of being sucked skyward by tornados (“we knew it was bad when we saw the stove fly by”), and tips on living in a flood plain (“we decorated keeping in mind things would get wet”). But what really grabbed me, curled on my second-hand futon overlooking HaPalmach street, was Heat-Moon’s report of the Homestead Ranch, an all-woman cattle operation. Reading the description of the yearly castration process (“‘welcome to steerdom,’ someone calls out in falsetto”), I laughed at the image of ranch owner Jane Koger riding in her Jeep with a jar full testicles (“cowfries”) clamped between her legs. I had to get to this ranch.
Why? my roomate wondered. Why, indeed?
One answer goes back to the first two years of my life, spent on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota while my father worked as a doctor with the Indian Health Service. “Hereford” and “Charolais” (cattle breeds) were among my first words, my parents tell me and as a toddler my favorite activity was going “south o’town” to watch the cattle graze. By the time we moved back east, they boast, I could identify every breed pictured in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.
Apparently, my bovophilia had lain just below the surface for some twenty years—one moment of Proustian connection via the Atlantic and the cows—well— came home. Besides, what feminist would not be fascinated by the idea of a working cattle ranch on the prairie, run by women, accepting only women as guests?
Several months later, back in the U.S. and working at LILITH, I was able to realize my fantasy. I joined in at one of Jane’s “Prairie Women Adventures and Retreat” weekends, when she opens the ranch to aspiring cowgirls like myself.
On the one-and-a-half-hour drive from the Wichita airport to Matfield Green (no post office, no school, just a church and a beer joint), I spotted a huge billboard which said “shleppers.” See, I thought, things aren’t so different out here— Kansans use the word “shlep” too. Well. . . not exactly. Blinking, I realized that the sign advertised “Shepler’s.” No Yiddish in sight.
The foreign landscape got me thinking, and as I watched the prairie and spindly cottonwoods roll by, I felt keenly aware that it was tzom Gedaliah, the fast of Gedaliah, the day after Rosh Hashanah. My twelve years of Orthodox schooling, brushed aside during four years at Harvard, hit me full force. I didn’t feel any more at ease when, in response to my observation, “I guess there aren’t many Jews around here,” Jane smiled and said “There aren’t any Jews around here. You’re it for miles and miles.”
So this was the reality. In Israel I had yearned for real Americana; now I had it and I wanted someone who spoke Hebrew, or at least a few words of Yiddish. I had wanted the country—yet here I was in a world where gravel roads felt like superhighways, where every star shone on moonless nights, and the beauty failed to compensate for my pervasive sense of being a stranger in a strange land.
By Friday afternoon, some fifteen sister pioneers had arrived, many leaving husbands and children, though I was the only one who had crossed the Mississippi to get there. Mary Agnes and Therese came together from Missouri (“Indipindince,” to be exact), and Kate and Diana just came down the road aways from Kansas State U. Rheta had flown in from Colorado to learn about ranching—she was thinking of raising horses back home—and Virginia, our sixtysomething senior member and a native Kansan, was by far the toughest of us all, though she refused to gather eggs, having encountered too many snakes in her grandma’s henhouse as a child. Kay came from Corpus Christi, Texas (“Corpus” to Lonestar State natives), leaving her husband with their infant and toddler for the first time. Unfortunately, my bunkmates had gleaned most of their knowledge of Judaism from Saturday Night Live and sitcoms, and it was infuriating to listen to a Wichita Junior Leaguer imitate SNL’s famous “Coffee Talk” hostess, for whom everything is “like budduh.”
Ethnic discomfort notwithstanding, I was thrilled to be at the ranch. I loved the animals (with the exception of the geese, whose beaks pinch), the space, the quiet. I eased into ranch life on Thursday, my first full day, with such activities as collecting eggs (they don’t always come out Jumbo white), picking tomatoes, and driving over the prairie in a pickup to inspect calves with a potential buyer. So far, things were easy enough, but, I wondered, what would “working” the cattle be like?
I soon found out. During Friday evening dinner in the bunkhouse we read leaflets on cow psychology (really!) to prepare for the next day’s work. As I listened to Jane explain how we would be separating cows from calves, “preg checking” the cows, and vaccinating, branding, and ear-tagging the calves, I looked at my plate. It was Friday night— what was I doing in the middle of nowhere, Kansas, eating cornflake-topped potato casserole when I should have been home with my family eating potato kugel and singing shabbos zmiros?
Saturday morning found me staring into a dish of biscuits and gravy, prepared porkless specially for me by Becky, the cook. I was surprised—I no longer keep kosher, and had said nothing—but Becky had heard somewhere that Jews don’t eat pork. Touched by her thoughtfulness, I marveled at my breakfast. I had read about biscuits and gravy in books—Ma Joad was always making some in The Grapes of Wrath—but I never knew that the gravy was white. Listening to my bunkmates exclaim over their food (“my mother used to make this!” and “oh—I haven’t had biscuits and gravy in ages!”), I remembered bagels-with-a-shmear.
I soon forgot about food and began thinking about cows. Riding in the back of a flatbed truck, road dust blowing into my hair, I watched the ranch house disappear as we drove toward the pasture where some thirty heifers and their calves waited. I don’t remember what happened next— all I know is that moments later my fellow adventurers and I were standing in a wide open field, our arms spread out at our sides, the ground shaking. Long before we could see a single cow running towards us, we felt the herd through the trembling earth. I was scared.
Now, Jane’s pamphlet on cow psychology says that cows will try to avoid humans, but standing and listening to what felt like a stampede, I didn’t really feel like testing the hypothesis. The closer the cows came, the faster I ran backwards in the tall grass, like a scene from “City Slickers.” Arlene, the head ranch hand, began to laugh.
Now we were ready to “work” the heifers. Some brave women got right into the chute—the narrow runway leading from the pen—with the cows, to get them to line up in front of the “squeeze,” a large metal contraption which holds the animal stationary for vaccinating, tagging, etc.. Because I preferred keeping a barrier between me and the bovines—remember, these are not sweet, docile dairy cows who are used to being milked—I volunteered to operate one of the levers in the squeeze. Here’s how it worked:
Therese and Mel prodded a few cows into the chute, where Debbie and Diana waited with large wooden poles, which they placed between the cows to make sure only one at a time entered the squeeze. From the chute, the cow at the front of the line would run into the squeeze, and as soon as its horns had passed through the first hold, Beclcy would pull on her lever to lock the hold around its neck. That was my cue to pull on my lever, which drew the metal sides of the squeeze together, holding the body of the cow in place. At that point, the vet slid his arm, encased in a long rubber sleeve and well lubricated, into the cow’s anus to feel if she was pregnant, and Arlene sometimes looked in the cow’s nostrils. Then I released the squeeze by pulling yet another lever, and we moved on to the next cow.
It was hard work. By the time we rode back to bunkhouse for lunch I was covered with manure and sweat, and my arms and back were aching. I didn’t care— maybe it was only endorphins, but I was thrilled with the work I had done. Washing my hands before lunch, I examined the unfamiliar face in the mirror— freckled, sunburned and perspiring, hair flecked with cow dung—and smiled. This was a new me, one I had always known was there but who had lain dormant for years under neatly combed hair, dutifully moisturized hands, and control-top pantyhose.
At lunch Jane asked what my family would think if they could see me now, splattered as I was with manure. “They wouldn’t believe it,” I laughed. “What if we told them it was kosher manure?” she grinned. My face fell, and I was barely able to choke out “I don’t think it would make
a difference.” Why had she said that? I certainly didn’t find it funny, but others at the table were laughing. I liked Jane, but felt suddenly wary. She had made a joke at my expense to entertain the others. And not just any joke—a joke about my Judaism—to the Christian majority. Would she have made a crack about watermelon or collard greens to a Black guest? I doubt it.
Jane’s comment, to be fair, was made with no malicious intent. It was the result, rather, of a strange combination of ignorance, curiosity, genuine good will, and a healthy shot of the outdated stereotyping which I encountered from quite a few women at the ranch (guests more than staff). One sister cowgirl said to me, “I never met a Jewish person before, and I assume you’re. . . . ” She couldn’t bring herself to say it. “Yes, I’m Jewish,” I told her. “Are all Jewish people supposed to live in Israel?” she asked. (Many non-Jews unfamiliar with Jews, I learned, consider it impolite to refer to someone as a Jew—the polite expression apparently is “Jewish person.”) I started to laugh as I told her no, Jews don’t have to live in Israel. It’s the Jewish state, I explained. I got a blank, puzzled look. Another bunkmate got wind of the conversation and asked me her own question about Israel. Before I knew what was happening, I was lecturing about the Balfour Declaration, the War of Independence, and—in response to the question “if there’s no Palestine, how can there be Palestinians?”—the Intifada.
When the discussion finally wound down, I went to ask Jane for some prairie grass to take back home to decorate my succah. She gave me several of her own beautiful bunches—dried, beribboned, and ready for the long trip home. And two days later, on the first night of succot, there they stood, as I looked at the all-male ushpizin poster (the list of biblical figures invited as imaginary guests to our succah). It was an interesting mix, to say the least.
Will I ever find a place where all my varied identities can be comfortable? In Israel I am an “anglo,” in the States I am a Jew, and no matter where I go I am marginalized as a woman and—except for some places I’ve worked—feared, ridiculed, or loathed as a feminist. It seems I will always have to choose one aspect of my being over another. I can live on a kibbutz in Israel, nourishing the Jew and the farmer/rancher in me, but neglecting the American feminist woman. Or I can work the land with other American feminists and sacrifice my need for a Jewish community. And although Israel’s religious laws often infuriated me when I lived there (particularly on shabbat, when the buses did not run), I miss the security of living in the Jewish homeland.
So now I live in the New York area, somewhere between Matfield Green and Jerusalem. I can easily find Jewish feminists here, and it’s definitely America. Still, there aren’t many days when I don’t think of the ranch, just as few days pass without my being subjected to sexist comments, ads, or jokes. As for anti-semitism, I don’t come across it quite as often, though when I do it frightens me in ways sexism—or even misogyny—never does.
The next step? I hope to get back to the ranch for this year’s weaning, though I can’t if the dates conflict with the High Holidays, and I’m planning a trip to Israel this winter. In the meantime, I look forward to putting up the prairie grass in the succah this year—and maybe even to hanging up a female ushpizin poster.