Jewish Cowboys

            October 2013    
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Yiddle Joe
From Vest of Ft. Lauderdale, Oye!

By William Rabinowitz


I stood there gawking for a full minute at the sight. Dozens of men and women, all ages, were waiting their turn to walk up to the firing lines. Not firing lines but stages. The stages were Western sets complete, with buildings, jails, banks, steel targets of outlaws, buffalo, cactus and such, that continually clanged out metallically as the guns were being fired at them by the shooters.

I heard someone cry out, 'they robbed the bank". Suddenly there was a bang, bang, clang, clang. He had drawn his ivory handled pistols from his brown leather holsters, firing at the escaping bad guys (targets). He jumped to the next stage where his lever action rifle awaited and blasted another ten rounds - sometimes hitting the targets thirty feet away and sometimes not. Replacing the rifle on the table, he took large strides to another table where his shotgun lay. Swiftly picking up the gun he yanked two large green shotgun shells from his belt. He popped open the breech dropping in two shells in a single smooth motion. With a snap, the shotgun closed. Two blasts filled the air as the cactus target clanged back. He had fired 24 rounds off at the bad guys in the set - and he did it in 45 seconds. I found out later that 45 seconds was o.k. but the record was under 12 seconds and with accuracy.

My eyes widened. I accepted Ferocious Dan's offer of ear plugs and moved closer. They were using real guns and firing real bullets. After taking their turns and following stringent safety procedures, they retrieved their guns and put them back in their pull along golf carts. Everyone had a war wagon - a little two wheeled or four wheeled cart they used to drag their guns, ammunition and diet coke bottles along with them from stage to stage. Folks kept their cell phones in the war wagon as it was not period no matter how much you tried. Everyone was having a great time. It did not matter so much if your time was low or you hit the targets properly. It mattered if you enjoyed the friendship and camaraderie as part time cowboys or cowgirls.

"Ya interested?" Ferocious Dan said to me. He had to say it twice as I was plainly transfixed by the sight out there in the Wilds of Western Broward County, Florida. Ferocious Dan handed me a brochure about the group, "We are the Gold Coast Gunslingers. We are all part of the Single Action Shooting Society - Sass for short" he grinned at me with that tooth shy look of his. My dreams of being a kid again, being a cowboy, returned with instant salivation - I could taste it.

"Sure", I took the brochure and thanked Ferocious Dan.

Back in the car Sheila looked at me. "What a bunch of old kooks" she said. Sheila had refused to get out of the car. It was hot and she wanted to keep the air-conditioning running. We left Markham Park and drove to Ft. Lauderdale to Mel's Kosher Deli where we I ordered an extra-fatty, pastrami on rye, and then added salt to the pastrami to irritate Sheila. Sheila had an iceberg wedge of lettuce, Thousand Island dressing on the side. She gossiped about the Cohens getting a divorce. Mrs. Cohen became suspicious when she learned that Mrs. Solomon's dishwasher really did not break down weekly. She always called Mr. Cohen to fix the problem. Being the nice guy that he was, he was more than willing to help, regularly. Sheila went on and on about the Cohens. I dreamed of being a cowboy.

The American Jewish story began, frankly with Columbus. Luis de Torres was a former Jew, a translator taken by Columbus on his 1492 mission to the New World. He was a former Jew because he was given two choices just before the voyage began when Columbus needed a translator when he found the great Kingdoms of the Far East. Torres' choices were convert to Catholicism and join the voyage or consider the alternatives. Torres converted.

Torres was the first man Columbus sent ashore when he discovered land. After all Torres, he knew, spoke Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and a few other languages that might be useful. So you might say the first European in the West was a Jew - sort of. No one knows what happened to Torres. Some say he married a local Indian princes and lived happily ever after as a free Jew in America. Others say he was abandoned by Columbus, along with 39 of his closest friends, no doubt a number of them Marranos (secret Jews) to hold the fort until Columbus returned. Bottom line, Torres vanished from history.

For most folks, American Jewish Western history is the West of Cowboys and Indians, somewhere West of the Mississippi River. Not too many people know about Jews and the American West, maybe because the Jews of the East were far more numerous and wanted to be Top Dog in the story. But, yes there was a real history of Jews in the West, even if there were not a lot of us.

Jews were mountain men, the Jim Bridger type, who lived in the Rockies, hunted for fur and melded with the Indians and the Land. Jews were pioneers, explorers like Solomon Carvalho, wagon train masters, like Dr. Snow who settled in Placerville, California, high up in the Sierras looking for gold. Jews were Indian fighters, even Indian Chiefs. Go figure, a Jewish Indian Chief, Solomon Bibo, a nice yiddisher boychik from Poland was a Jewish Indian Chief in New Mexico. Jews were frontier soldiers, recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor - Simon Suhler, David Goodman, Jacob Trautman, for bravery in the Indian Wars. Jews were ranchers - one even had his own cattle brand - a Star of David.

In 1860 San Francisco estimates place the number of Jews at 5,000, another 500 in Sacramento and about a 100 in the dusty nothing of a town further South, Los Angeles.

Jews were shop keepers, bankers, farmers, good guys and bad guys. Jim Levy, until he met his end at the barrel of a gun one dark night in Tucson, was a gunfighter. We had Jews fighting for Texas Independence with Sam Houston. Adolphus Sterne ran guns to Houston's little army through Mexican lines.

There always was something about the West that resonated freedom to the Jewish American. Jews did experience anti-Semitism in the West but it was never anything like the institutionalized anti-Semitism of Europe.

The first Jewish governor came out of the American West, Moses Alexander from Idaho. The first Jewish female Rabbi, Rachel Franks came from the American West. Jews argue exactly who or what is a Rabbi, even in the West. Jews argue if someone's mother wasn't Jewish or was Jewish, it all depends on who wants the credit. For that matter, if we trace matrilineal descent as being the sole arbitrator of being Jewish over the generations, Elvis Presley was Jewish. His matrilineal line was clearly Jewish, though Christian in practice until him. Is someone a half Jew, a full Jew, a quarter Jew, a gastronomic Jew, a Jew by choice, all the meshugas you can imagine, we fought about it. Is a Jew white, black, red, yellow or just someone crazy enough to want to be Jewish?

It is true, that there were not a lot of Jewish girls on the frontier. Some guys like Sol Starr, the mayor the Wild West Gold town of Deadwood, South Dakota simply did not marry. Others married the local ladies, sometimes Christians, and sometimes even Indians. They waited for the first good rain storm to go out and find a flowing creek for their own self conversions. To the horror of some of the Orthodox, these self converted folks had the nerve to raise their kids as Jews. Today, who knows anymore? In the West there were all sorts of blends. In the East, we just pretend that everyone went to a Beit Din and a Mikveh and that true Jews are all white.

The Palestinians say that White European Jews are really the bastard converts of the Khazar Kingdom and have no legitimate right to be in Israel. That is another Oye!

So where does that put us. Once there was a time in America being a cowboy was stylish. Today it is politically incorrect. Someone called President George Bush a cowboy and it stuck. Bush's cowboyness was made to be a real hated negative metaphor for a loony with a gun. President's Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Regan were called cowboys. American cowboy presidents have been the friendliest to Israel since its creation.

Last weekend, after Ketubah Shabbat, I was feeling husbandly toward Sheila.

"Sheila," I called to her in my nicest voice. "How would you like to go to a rodeo?"

"A what?" came the bodiless answer from the other room.

I tried again, "How would you like to go to a rodeo down at the world famous, Bergeron rodeo grounds in Davie", I replied again.

"William, since you saw those alte cocker meshuganahs playing cowboy and shooting metal cactus bushes you must have a prickly pear in the head or two. Why would I want to go see a rodeo? If you said we are going to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills so I can go shopping, O.K.. but a rodeo?"

Trying once more, "Sheila, did you know that Bull Riding was a Jewish sport - sort of", I called to her.

"Jewish sport my tuchas, Jews don't do such dangerous and stupid things" the headless voice from the other room came back.

"Sheila, really, there was a famous champion Jewish rodeo Bull Rider."

"Like who?", she quickly answered.

"Johnny Hochman rode bucking bulls for a living. He is a nice Jewish boy who was bar mitzvahed in Philadelphia. He makes his home in Texas. I doubt if he rides anymore, too many broken this or that's to count" I told her.

"No wonder he doesn't ride those cows anymore. The only good reason to ride them is to meet a nurse" she said.

"They are not cows, Sheila. They are bulls".

The one word reply from Sheila meant I needed to ...


William Rabinowitz lives in Boynton Beach, Florida with his wife Sheila and their little dog Norman.

He can be reached at:


from the October 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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