In Montana, a festival of light

  • ISTOCK; PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SHAUN C. GIBSON
 

Turn off all the other lights!" my almost-3-year-old son, Andrew, hollered, once we had kindled the candles in our Hanukah menorahs. It was the last night of the eight-day holiday, so we had eight candles, plus the shamash, or helper candle, in three menorahs. This made for 27 candles glowing in our otherwise pitch-dark living room in Helena, Mont. The menorahs illuminated our faces and fragments of the room in pools of golden light. 

Hanukah commemorates the victory of light over darkness. After the Jewish Maccabees defeated the Hasmonean Greeks in a David and Goliath-style campaign, they needed to re-dedicate their desecrated Temple. They only had enough oil to light the Temple's eternal flame for one day. Famously, however, that flame burned for eight days, a miracle Jews continue to celebrate 21 centuries later. 

Although Montana seems a long way from Israel and the Maccabees, I felt our menorahs illuminated the holiday in their own way. The darkness of a winter Montana evening is unlike any other. Beyond the glow of the street lights, the blackness feels all-consuming and never-ending. The cold makes the air brittle, and the darkness feels as if it could break into shards. When we lit our menorahs, it felt like a true miracle, a way back into warmth and light, a small promise of winter's end. 

I am not Jewish by birth, but I am in the process of formally converting to Judaism. My husband of 10 years is Jewish and was raised in an observant home. Until recently, we tried to transmit both our faith traditions - Judaism and Catholicism - to our son. But in the past year, my interest in sharing heritages became a visceral need to practice and study Judaism. Much like my desire to walk in Montana's mountains, I experienced the draw to Judaism in my bones. 

I can't explain my turn in faith, but I can speak to what most people view as the irony of a nice Catholic girl moving to Montana - Montana? - and becoming a full-fledged Jew. "How can you be Jewish in Montana?" my husband's family asks us nearly every time we see them. "Aren't you lonely there?" they wonder. On their visits to our small mountain town, they see an endless procession of Christian churches, culminating in the towering presence of Helena's cathedral. There appear to be no synagogues, no organized Judaism of any kind, no history of Jewish people gathering under our grand sky. 

Fortunately, they are wrong. The history of Jews in the Treasure State runs as deep as the mineral deposits that first drew white settlers to Montana. And my conversion to Judaism is fed by this history. Although I study by phone on a weekly basis with a rabbi from California, the pull towards my new faith - that voice in my bones - is from Montana. 

The hundreds of Jews who came West with the gold rush had to build their communities from the ground up, just as I am seeking to forge a Jewish self from scratch. These early Jewish settlers didn't have the support - or the strictures - of East Coast or European ghettos. But these fledgling communities built two magnificent synagogues: Temple Emanu-El in Helena, completed in 1891, is now owned by the Catholic diocese of Helena, while B'Nai Israel in Butte, dedicated in 1903, still holds services. The settlers also hired rabbis, bought the prayer books known as siddurs, and established Hebrew Benevolent Societies in even the roughest mining camps to bury their dead and care for their poor and sick. Butte even had two Orthodox communities and a kosher butcher, or shochet.

At the same time, these early Jewish immigrants became respected - and essential - citizens and civic leaders of the territory they were helping create. They became leading businessmen in towns across Montana. The third mayor of Butte was Jewish, and Jewish luminaries filled the higher ranks of various Masonic lodges. 

These men and women honored their culture and their faith while forging identities as Montanans. I'd like to think I'm doing the same. Every week, my family lights candles on Friday evening to mark the beginning of the Sabbath. I make two loaves of challah, the braided Jewish egg bread, and my husband says kiddush over wine. We travel to different Montana cities when visiting rabbis hold services, and gather in the homes of our fellow Helena Jews for Passover, Hanukah and other services. We hold Hanukah parties with latke recipe competitions for the grown-ups and dreidl spinning for the kids. 

It's not easy to convert to Judaism in Montana, but then the important tasks we undertake in life rarely are. I struggle over whether to eat unkosher meat, including the buffalo burgers I have come to adore. There are no organized prayer services in Helena, and my husband is the only person within 150 miles who knows Hebrew well. Sometimes I think, "How can I do this here?" Then I remember the men and women laid to rest in the Montana earth in Helena's Jewish cemetery. I think of them gathering around menorahs on a cold, dark evening. I imagine the light flickering off their smiles. And I know that I, too, can celebrate the miracles of light shining in the darkness, of community persisting against the odds, of becoming who I am, where I am. 

 

Rebecca Stanfel, a freelance writer in Helena, Montana, has a literary blog, Chronic Town (www.rs.4030.com).

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