The Dead Outnumber the Living

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“More Jews are buried in Helena [, Montana] than currently live here,” notes this new New York Times article about a bomb-sniffing dog named Miky who was imported from Israel. The article gives the impression that barely any Jews live in Montana, which my friend Heskal — who leads Jewish hiking and wilderness tours called Chai Adventure would definitely dispute — but he would still, probably, acknowledge sadly that there really isn’t a full minyan of Jews in most of the tiny towns and prairies of Montana.

snow dogThe article conveys a sad image, but with a kind of cool upswing. The article’s focus is a Chabad rabbi who’s stopped on the street by police officers — that distinctive cry of “Hey, you’re Jewish!” that people who look a certain way always seem to elicit. Unlike most times, however, there’s a totally reasonable explanation:

Miky, pronounced Mikey, is in a Diaspora of his own. He was born in an animal shelter in Holland and shipped as a puppy to Israel, where he was trained by the Israeli Defense Forces to sniff out explosives. Then one day, Miky got a plane ticket to America. Rather than spend the standard $20,000 on a bomb dog, the Helena Police Department had shopped around and discovered that it could import a surplus bomb dog from the Israeli forces for the price of the flight. So Miky came to his new home in Helena, to join the police force.

The problem, the officer explained, was that Miky had been trained entirely in Hebrew.

Soon enough (in the article, anyway), the police officer and rabbi meet and have lessons. The officer learns to pronounce the “ch” correctly. The rabbi gains a valuable lesson in Israeli exports. Happy, happy.

The extraordinary part of the story for me, however, had nothing to do with dogs (although I should take this opportunity to point out our excellent article on dogs and Judaism). Instead, it was tiny slices of small-town Judaism sewn into a place where being Jewish is less a communal identity than it is a mark of distinction from most of the people around you. Instead of squabbling over who will light the candle or having different ceremonies, like most rabbis in a bigger city would, Helena’s rabbis take turns. And, then:

* One woman could be heard reporting, excitedly, that a supermarket in Great Falls would be carrying matzo next Passover; a guy from Missoula was telling everyone that he had just gotten a shipment of pastrami from Katz’s Deli in New York.

* In 1993, vandals broke windows in [Montana] homes that were displaying menorahs. In a response organized by local church leaders, more than 10,000 of the city’s residents and shopkeepers put make-shift menorahs in their own windows, to protect the city’s three dozen or so Jewish families.

The story even concludes with a brush of friendliness in the cold clime:

[T]he big winner is the rabbi, a recent arrival from Brooklyn who is working hard (against tough odds) to bring his Lubavitch movement to Montana. He has been scouring the state for anyone who can speak Hebrew, and is elated to have found a German shepherd he can talk to.

Posted on December 8, 2009

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