Thursday, November 15, 2012

Polish Jews in the Rockies

It’s been few months since my last post. What a shame. I have checked statistics on my blog and there is more and more people visiting this blog and nothing new posted for two months.
Well, I didn't stop to write but from time to time i got stock for lack of steady editor.
My dear friend Menachem who does it for I while, free of charge, besides editing my essays, has a family, business, and hot line with shiurim on Harav’s Arush seifer “Garden of Emuna”. He is busy, ke ein ayin hara, and side effect of this is – no essays on my blog.
Hopefully we will work and B-H I will try to post more regularly. 

I love conducting tours in the most incredible places on this planet. The Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Yellowstone, Rockies… It’s the best occupation ever for someone who loves the Torah and the outdoors - the blueprint of the universe and part of its realization – planet Earth. However it is hard to make living just from this lovely occupation alone no matter how hard I try. I work as a sales rep for a company and my territory is interestingly the parts of the country that I love so much. To fill the rest of my budget I chose another job which still requires me to travel around the country and meet a lot of people. From time to time I will share with you stories from my journeys,

Early this week I started my day from the heart of the Rocky Mountains. From my motel I still had a one hour drive to the small town where I had my first appointment at the gift shop there. The town while in the Rockies, the Rockies here are too dull and uninteresting to attract many tourists. The miners who established the town are mostly gone by now and I wondered why this town didn’t become a ghost town like many others in this mountain region.

I entered the store at the appointed hour to meet the middle age lady who owned the gift shop and a small motel above the store. I brought in my merchandise and we sat at the table so she could choose items that fit the profile of her store. The owner of the store quickly picked up on my accent and asked me from where I come from. Soon some neighbors came in to say good morning, a common occurrence in a town where everyone knows everyone else. I was introduced to every person entering the store as the Polish Jew which for some reason made me more noteworthy.
A half hour or so later, Tim, a man in his forties entered the store carrying a bucket with painting tools, dressed in his painted up painting clothes. Once more I was introduced as the Polish Jew. When Tim heard that he said in a low voice – Oh, my mother is Jewish and is from Poland. With surprise I lifted my head wanting to exchange some words with Tim but he was already gone and my opportunity to talk with him passed. After an hour or so I wrote my invoice packed my stuff and was back on the road.

I drove through some of the most beautiful parts of the Rockies that claim switchbacks to almost 10,000 ft above sea level. An hour later I stopped in a thriving town which was established by the gold miners but was still thriving thanks to tourism and the beautiful location. The main street of the town was packed with gift boutiques, jewelry stores, antique shops and restaurants. I had an appointment with Kenny from one of the antique stores in a prestigious location of town. Antiques for Kenny was a secondary occupation as he was one of those mountain men who still pan for gold in the rivers of the deep valleys. The appearance of Kenny ‘the mountain man’  fit the stereotype to a T. Scraggly hair and bushy beard surrounded deep set sparkling eyes and jutting cheek bones.. Dressed in the worn blue jeans and a checkered shirt and six feet tall, he is the guy who can play a trapper or gold miner without putting on any make up. We cracked some jokes about whether I or he would be a better match for the role of Tevye in the “Fiddler on the Roof” Then Kenny told me that there is new store on the street where the owners would surely like to see me and my merchandise. I said that I only had time to meet with customers that had an appointment as I couldn't go to every store. Kenny insisted that they would want to see me and when I was writing the invoice he went and made the appointment for me. I finished my sale with Kenny and walked to the store across the street. I entered the store and almost immediately I was greeted in Ivrit the language spoken by Israelis, but this greeting and whatever was said further was marked with a strong American accent. I suggested he switch to English and I learned that indeed the owner of the store is an American Jew but his wife is an Israeli. As usual he inquired about my accent which I said is Polish and that Polish is my mother tongue. He started to explain to me that his wife is a daughter of holocaust survivors from Poland and her mother still speaks Polish fluently. Lo and behold, while he was telling me this information his wife entered the store from the back door while speaking with someone over the phone. He immediately understood that his wife was speaking with his “Shviger” – his mother in law. He interrupted and told his wife that there is a man in the store who would be able to speak with her mother in Polish and her native Yiddish. She handed the phone to me and I greeted her with a courteous ‘dzien dobry pani’.
We conversed for a while in polish and than she asked me ‘du redst Yidish’ which isn't a language that I use on daily basis but we spoke in the language of her childhood for a while making her happy as well as her daughter and son in law. We spoke for couple of minutes and than she hung up and I spoke at length with the owners of the store. We spoke about all what Jews in the golus can speak about, but the main thread of our conversation was – how to maintain our Jewishnes while being challenged in places remote like this one and  while on the road.

While I was still at Kenny’s store I began to feel strong stomach pain which was increasing by the minute, and after I left the store of my new Jewish friends, the pain became unbearable. I called my wife & my daughter for advice on how to deal with the pain. I took their advice and bought some medicine in a few gas stations and pharmacies along the way. The medicine reduced my pain enough for me to make one more appointment but I had to do my utmost not to show that I was in severe pain. This was my last appointment of the day. The next day’s appointment was in a town on the western side of the Rockies some three hours from the place where I finished my day.

I called my wife and she advised me that instead of driving all the way to the town of next appointment as I have done usually, I should instead drive some more today and the rest in the morning.  Without a doubt it was great idea. I googled for a town with a few motels approximately half way to my next destination, touched the phone icon and soon spoke with a receptionist in the first motel. After a few calls I found a motel of a decent brand with the amazing price of $68.00 a night, considering the mountain region pricing. I touched the direction icon and got an approximate time to get there. Meanwhile the last prescription strength pain killer that I took wore off. Attacks of pain came again to such an extent that I was basically crying from pain in my car. I was afraid to take another pain killer which would limit my ability to drive. I took it nevertheless and significantly slowed down the speed of my car.
After exiting the highway I noticed sign of a motel offering me the best value in town! The best value? Maybe the price was the same as the other motel but perhaps amenities were on higher level, who could resist?

I drove less than minute to the motel and soon was standing in quiet good looking lobby.
Behind the counter was sitting man in his fifties or slightly more than that. A rather skinny individual with a short trimmed beard welcomed me with a big smile. I believe that at this moment he didn't recognize me as a Jew.
I asked for the price for the room and he answered still smiling, that it would be $79 per one person. I asked him how he can declare that he has the best value in the town while the other motel was offering me a night for much less?
He answered that his rooms are of superior quality to the other motels in the town, which
I put him off with a rather sarcastic statement that other motels don’t have cockroaches in their rooms either, but he didn't gave up:
- How much did they offer it to you? - He asked.
- Sixty something. - I answered making a move like I was turning to leave, which I really was going to do.
- Sixty nine?  - He asked - I can give you it to you for this price.
I looked at him wondering, because this kind of bargaining is rather characteristic for a vegetable market or some other business dealings in my own Brooklyn-Monsey neighborhood. In motels you usually take the price they quote you or you go to the next motel! I slept in hundreds of motels but I don’t recall anything like this kind of bargaining. Subconsciously I began to look at his face to find any familiar, and I mean familiar from facial features indicating his nationality. I know that some may not believe that such a thing like recognition of someone’s Jewishnes from facial feature exists but as Roger Waters put it: “I have amazing power of observation” and most of the times even a average person can notice certain commonalities existing for Jews from different parts of the world. Nevertheless I began to see that receptionist from this motel may have some of the facial features which I was accustomed to for a big part of my life. But I couldn't believe it! He would be the third Jew (fourth in fact) which I would meet in these mountains in the single day!

I agreed to stay in his motel and while taking my driver license for registration, he asked me from where I am from. As usual I answered that I’m from Monsey - New York but added quickly expecting his question about my accent that my accent is Polish.  
- So you are a Jew from Poland - He asked.
- Yes - I answered without going into the details how it happened.
- My parents are Holocaust survivors from Poland - he said - but I don’t know much their Holocaust experiences or about being Jewish all together.

My legs felt weak and it was not from the stomach pain which I had completely forgotten at the moment. The probability of meeting on one day some many Jews in this region of the country was close to impossible. Here, in single day, I have met members of the nation which is slightly more than one of the percent of the population of the country and besides is concentrated mostly in just few areas of this country. In addition all those whom I met were descendants of Jews coming from country of my birth. This fact, and the fact that I met them in such a sparsely populated area of the country, convinced me one more time that selling my beautiful merchandise is not the only task for me to do in these mountains.

We spoke as long as my stomach pain allowed me and I shared with my new friend the idea that as the members of the same family it is good for all of us to keep together. It doesn't mean that we have to be the same but keeping together will enrich each of us and connect us to what was lost somewhere along the way. He listened and reminded himself about the Chabad House close to his town that he heard about. Without hesitation I advised him to visit the Chabad House from time to time to reestablish his association with the Jewish people, hoping that through this connection he would also reestablish his connection with the One above - The Father who is constantly looking out for His children in every remote corner of the planet and Who, couldn't deny to myself, sent me to plant the seed or perhaps only to water something which was growing already.

Matys Weiser