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Encountering Jewish life deep in America’s southwest

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The red hills of Sedona (Erika Pfeifer photo)

From the air, Phoenix is a flat piece of land surrounded by mountains. And beyond the mountains on all sides is desert. It’s amazing what will-power it took for the early enterprising pioneers to create an abode that has blossomed into the fifth largest city in the U.S., with a population of 4.5 million.

Arizona, which in 1912 became the last territory of mainland U.S. to become a state, once belonged to Mexico. But after the 1848 Mexico-America War, Mexico ceded Arizona to the United States, and as such it still has a significant Latino population.

Jews were instrumental in developing the region from the mid-19th century. In fact, the grandfather of Barry Goldwater, a longtime senator from Arizona and the 1964 presidential candidate (losing to Lyndon Johnson), was a founder in 1862 of a local store that grew into a multi-city chain of department stores.

The only other person of national renown from Arizona was also a senator—the highly respected and admired maverick and independent politician, the late John McCain.

Jews were slowly attracted to Arizona, especially its mild, dry climate. By 1920 more than 100 Jews lived in and around Phoenix.  With its clean air, Phoenix also attracted Jews who came to retire there. Over the decades the community grew steadily. Now more than 100,000 Jews live in Phoenix.

During the winter months it is always warm during the day, but during the evening a light jacket or sweater is necessary. While you can readily go swimming in Miami Beach in January, you cannot do that in Phoenix. In fact, we didn’t wear shorts once during our mid-January stay. Nine months of the year the weather is fine; however, the three months of summer are considered an inferno: the temperature can easily rise to over 40C for many days.

READ: A WALK THROUGH 500 YEARS OF JEWISH MEXICO

Phoenix does not really have a downtown, despite the several high-rise buildings at the edge of the city. The closest thing to a cohesive neighbourhood is Old Scottsdale, part of greater Phoenix, with a main street lined with galleries and shops. It is here at an outdoor welcome table for visitors that we met a woman with a name tag reading “Shirley.” With such a New York-sounding name, we couldn’t resist a chat. It turned out that not only was she indeed from New York, but we soon began conversing in Yiddish. This was not the first time this happened in Phoenix, and we’ll continue with this theme a bit later.

One of the recurring jokes in Phoenix is that everything is around the corner. But the truth is if you want to get to any site of interest it is at least a 15-20 minute drive. It is pleasing to note, however, that such drives are always scenic ones, with different views of the mountains emerging as you ride along the highways.

Among the sites of interest is the Heard Museum, which specializes in American Indian culture and art.  Another must-see place is the Museum of Musical Instruments, the only one of its kind in the U.S. As you walk around, wearing headphones, you can sample, on videos, the musical language and performances of various countries, arranged alphabetically. In the Israel section it was nice to see and hear again a performance of famed singer, Chava Alberstein, and the great klezmer fiddler, Giora Feidman. Downstairs, in a large room, children, and grownups too, can make their own music on instruments provided.

For those who like the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, his winter home in Arizona, called Taliesin West, now an architectural school, is open to visitors (at a rather steep admission fee).

For a city deep in America’s southwest, it may come as a surprise to learn that in greater Phoenix (which includes Scottsdale) there are 22 synagogues, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, a couple of Chabad centres, and two large Jewish community centres. One of them is the East Valley Jewish Community Center, in Chandler, run by its energetic and innovative CEO, Rabbi Michael Beyo. Since his arrival at the centre he has expanded its offerings to include dozens of events, including courses, concerts and lectures.

A klezmer group at the JCC at Phoenix Jewish Community Center (Erika Pfeifer photo)

It is there, over a falafel lunch after a klezmer concert, that we had an opportunity to have another Yiddish conversation. Actually, we overheard three people talking and, unable to resist, expressed our surprise at finding Yiddish here. Turns out there are a number of people here who continue the tradition of mama loshen.

Jewish education is quite widespread in Phoenix.

An Orthodox day school, the first in the southwest, was opened in 1965, much to the opposition of non-Orthodox rabbis. However, it is now so well established that five other day schools, both primary and high school, have opened.

There are several kosher restaurants, some of them run by Jews from Bukhara, who also have two synagogues here. Kosher food is readily available. Although one cannot say there are Jewish sections in Phoenix, Jews tend to buy their homes near Orthodox  synagogues so as to be able to walk to shul.

A highlight in Jewish entertainment in Phoenix is the Arizona Jewish Theater Company, which presents shows of interest to adults and to school children too. Founded in 1988 by Janet Arnold, the company has grown from a small community theater to one of renown throughout Arizona.

The cactus, of course, is the perennial symbol of Arizona. Wherever one walks or drives in and around Phoenix, one can see cacti of varying heights. The saguaro cactus can grow to over 12 metres (40 feet) high and has a lifespan of more than 150 years. A good place to see different cacti and hundreds of other plants is the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. One also can see orange trees growing and blooming with fruit everywhere. One is free to pick the fruit, but in most cases, for some strange reason, it will be dry and tasteless.

Cactus is also the name of an esteemed musical group – the Cactus Chamber Players. Looking at their offerings, we were delighted to see that they would be performing the work of the great Argentinian-born, now American Jewish composer, Osvaldo Golijov, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Here is a first-rate wind instrument group that plays at the Tempe Center for the Performing Arts.

What was most memorable about our stay in Phoenix is the geniality and amicability of everyone we spoke to, whether salesmen, shopkeepers, people on the street. Everyone we turned to spoke with a welcoming smile and an engaging demeanour. No doubt it’s the constant sunshine.