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Deep Red and Rodeos, Rye and Rugelach 

December 11, 2022

We do this little dance: I’ll suggest we take a spin up to Wyoming. She comes back with “there’s nothing there but cowboys, death-defying wind, and rodeos. It’s where culture goes to die.”

On a recent Sunday, though, she caved. Maybe she had grown sick and tired of me pushing to see what lies an hour north. After breakfast, we set our Google maps toward Cheyenne.

On the drive, she rattled off some figures about the Cowboy State. There’s only 581,348 people…smallest in population…average of 5.85 residents per square mile…only Alaska has fewer…one congressperson, Lynne Cheney…one Panera Bread…29 McDonald’s outlets compared to 1,165 Golden Arches in California…a 128 mile-per-hour wind clocked earlier this year…in-state tuition of $6,097 at University of Wyoming.

Not to be left out are the two synagogues that service a Jewish population of around 1,100. I surprised my bride by stopping the car in front of one of them, Mt. Sinai, where they were in the midst of their annual Yiddish Food Festival. If she wanted a taste of culture in a most unlikely setting, my smugness on full display, this was it. If this was to be our one and only northern journey from Longmont, it had to be a memorable one. Nor did you have to be Jewish to have your senses tickled.

The meeting hall featured a rousing band, and Jewish folk dancing. Food booths carried signs that drew the hungry masses to cabbage rolls, pastrami sandwich on rye, and signature lox and bagel with cream cheese sandwiches. Dessert called for goodies like hamantaschen, rugelach and honey cake.

Standing at the gift counter next to the lotion for sale from the Dead Sea was volunteer Erin Vavra. Clad in an apron with a festive floral print, the 37-year-old Nebraska native said she’s in the process of converting to Judaism, she explained, so she can “share a faith” with her husband. “I love the culture. I’m open to learning about the religion.” Recently, she added, she attended a ‘baby naming’ ceremony. Being a part of such a tight-knit community is special. “I can’t believe this exists here!”

In the sanctuary, Rabbi Moshe Halfon was warming up the crowd, many of whom had gathered to learn about the richness of Judaism. His disarming sense of humor, woven across the centuries rife with the struggles faced by the Jewish people, served as the perfect antidote for all that’s wrong with the world. If he ever decided to go more secular, I could see his name on the marquee of a big-city comedy club.

At one point, Halfon held up a book: “Judaism for Dummies.” Clearly, he was doing his job as the face of Mt. Sinai.

There was this: “The myth is all Jews are religious,” he noted. “They’re not. I am.” And this: “The Jews in America wanted to preserve our heritage.” Across his career, he said, “I’ve been cantors for rabbis and rabbis for cantors.” As for the Messianic Jewish movement, he sees that as “repackaged Christianity.”

Nor does Halfon feel ‘isolated’ in the state capital. “It’s not that different from Longmont. If you’re looking for yoga, bookstores, and sushi bars, he added, try Boulder.”

Halfon is pleased that he has connected with other spiritual leaders in town. The closest church, Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox, is practically in the synagogue’s backyard. The church has been supportive in sharing advice about festivals, he enthused.

Back in the busy hall, where visitors balanced a seemingly endless array of plates piled high with cabbage rolls, Dr. Jason Bloomberg took a break from his work as a lay leader. “It’s a great opportunity for outreach,” he declared, wearing a white shirt with the words ‘Yiddish Food Festival’ stitched on the outside. “I do synagogue tours. I answer questions and demystify things.”

As is common in other large events, the preparation for the festival began months ago, he emphasized: Buying supplies. Rounding up enough hands to bake. To freeze. To schedule shifts. To cook fresh goodies on the day of. To get the word out through a public relations campaign.

“It’s a big extended family. We are there for each other. We are dependent on people participating,” he said.

For Lee and Yvette Willms, the event resonated. Their son converted to Judaism for his wife. Offering an event like this one, sponsored by a small congregation with 50 families, was special, particularly after a two-year hiatus due to COVID. “It’s good,” she said, for the wider Cheyenne community. “People get into their own churches. And it’s kind of closed.”

Wearing all smiles, we left satiated, clutching doggy bags for the ride home. But happiness, as we were rudely reminded, is fragile and fleeting. Just before the official border sign, our moods went into a tailspin when we glanced the words on a billboard that took direct aim at the law in the Centennial State: “Color Me Aborted.”

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