But after meeting many Stetson wearing and gun toting Texans, you begin to notice something else. Texas is a place where adults still ride wild bulls to get applause from the audience and where people still applaud events of this nature and pay top dollar for a good seat.
Jews first arrived in the second largest state in the US hundreds of years ago. As the locals tell it, at every train station there was a store owned by a Jewish person. This is a report about a visit with the Jews of Texas, 130,000 Jews and millions of stories.
1st round up: Visiting Kinky's Ranch
You can't find Kinky Friedman's address using a GPS. Google Maps also stubbornly refuses to reveal where he lives. Kinky's home simply does not exist on a map. After an hour of trying to find his house among the ranches that span the area between Houston and San Antonio, we call Kinky on the phone.
"I'll wait for you by the red sign that's exactly 3 miles from the closest town," he tells us. We have to pass two rivers, wild horses, 3 herds of cattle, 1 donkey and a small forest in order to reach a cabin with a wooden sign, on which is written "The Friedmans."
Aside from Kinky, there are no Friedmans at home. He lives here with his 3 mutts whom he saved from being put down. There's also an 18 year old horse named Shalom and a 12 year old donkey that just celebrated its birthday at a Purim party.
Five years ago, Kinky lost a bid in a run for governor of Texas. He now lives alone on a vast ranch with no internet because a real cowboy doesn't Tweet and no cell phone because it's all just baloney. Whoever wants to reach him has to use a land line, "I answer the phone even at four in the morning, so don't be bashful."
In the mid 1970s, Kinky performed alongside Bob Dylan and was on the road to Hollywood. But Friedman, with his cowboy hat and boots, is not the Hollywood type. He was never interested in being a star or marketing himself to the masses. Only when running for governor of Texas did he attempt this with his own personal guerilla tactics.
With a tiny budget, homemade videos and slogans like, "My governor is a Jewish cowboy" he tried to take over Texas. The campaign was a success but Kinky was not elected. Kinky appeared on every talk show, he was supported by friends like Willie Nelson, but at the end of the day he only received about 12% of the votes. That's not bad for someone running as an independent, but nothing that will change history.
'Being a cowboy is not exactly a Jewish mother's dream." Alan Lusky (Photo: Rex C. Curry)
How's Kinky doing today? He seems focused on the comfort of his dogs and on the hope that good people will adopt the sixty something puppies that are waiting in the shelter he runs five minutes from his cabin. He's also looking for a reliable dog sitter so he can go for gambling weekends in Vegas. "I'm one of the biggest losers in Vegas history. I managed to lose $200,000 after winning $50,000 a few hours before."
He learned his lesson from American politics, "The good guys don't stand a chance." He's now on extended leave from politics.
"Mark Twain was right. All that politicians care about is getting re-elected. The governor had a chance to eliminate the death penalty in Texas and he didn't bother, that tells you all you need to know. That's how it is, I guess, in a country with a terrible president. Awful. Obama is an awful leader. He's no Bill Clinton, he's no Churchill or Golda Meir. I'd sooner vote for Charlie Sheen than Obama. The things he does are dangerous for Israel. The very fact that he questions the relationship between Israel and the US is terrible. What can you do? A good candidate does not always make a good president."
Kinky sits back puffing on his cigar. Sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night just to smoke a cigar. When I tell him that every Jew in Texas knows his name, he tells me that his full name is Richard Big Dick Kinky Friedman. "Nu? Of course all the Jews in Texas know me. I'm the king of the Jews in this state. But what does that mean? It means nothing. The Jews here are not united, they're filled with conflict. This is the problem with Jews in America. I say, 'What kind of problems do you have with Israel? Why should there be any conflict?' These people live far away from the Middle East and have no idea how life is in Israel and what kind of problems Israel has to deal with. We're lucky that we live in Texas. Here nobody cares about Jews, they just care about catching poor Mexicans."
Does he feel any anti-Semitism in Texas? "There's always anti-Semitism even if it's under the surface. I always feel it but it's not like I have an example to give you. The bottom line is Jesus and Moses are both good Jewish boys. As one of our local politicians said when he returned from a visit to Israel, 'Hey, the Jews don't hate Jesus, they're Texans!' But I know that I always have to be on my guard because I'm a Jew."
Kinky is now 65 years old, he has written 30 books, a few of them best sellers, he had a short career as a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine and owns a successful cigar company that sells cigars such as "The Governor", "Kinky Lady" and "Texas Jewboy" (only $158 for a box of twenty).
Kinky is not involved in any committed relationship. "Once in a while I'm with somebody and then everything's good. I know that all the best girls slipped away because I was an idiot. On the other hand, there were some situations where I was on the way to marrying some bitch so maybe I'm not such an idiot."
After many concert tours across the US and even Australia with his country western band, he continues spreading his anti-racist message with songs like "They're not making Jews like Jesus anymore." Watching him sitting in his work room with no computer, a notebook and an old dusty fax machine, it seems that Kinky is singing about himself.
2nd round up: Houston, we have a problem
Houston, we have a problem. The Pollack family has a decision to make: stay here another year in their comfortable villa or move to Israel this summer. It’s not a question of whether or not to make aliyah; the issue is only the timing.
Nefesh B'Nefesh has already taken care of all the details, the Pollacks just have to decide if they want to live in the center of Israel or in the north. When their eldest daughter, who is nine years old, asks, "Mommy, why are we moving to a place with no water and lots of wars?" Shlomit, a professional psychologist does not have a ready answer.
But it's clear that they're moving. Avi Pollack, a Hebrew teacher and Jewish educator in the local Jewish school, feels pangs of conscience for every extra moment that he spends in the US. Avi has a sister who lives in Beit Shemesh and the Pollacks have visited Israel many times. They are convinced that they will do fine in Israel despite any potential difficulties.
"I think that our main problem in Israel will be financial, nothing else scares me. We're still figuring out what exactly our work situation will be and we're preparing for everything including having to reinvent ourselves. The real issue with our aliyah is that when a Jewish educator leaves a community, he leaves behind a big void and the community is left with less educational opportunities."
'Mommy, why are we moving to a place with lots of wars?' (Photo courtesy of Pollack family)
These are the kinds of olim that Nefesh B'Nefesh deals with: they are familiar with Israel, ready to learn the language, and aware of all of the positives and negatives involved. After many years of poor Aliyah rates from the US, Nefesh B'Nefesh has brought close to 30,000 Jews from North America to Israel over the past 8 years. The retention rate is 97%.
Tony Gelbart, CEO and founder of Nefesh B'Nefesh, explains that they are planning to broaden their activities in Texas through individual contacts and parlor meetings. "All of our research shows that there's something about Texas Jews that is very Israeli, and I don't mean only the love of barbequing. Their love of nature and wide open spaces brings many of them to the periphery of Israel."
Hollis Weiner is not planning on making aliyah. Her children studied in Israel, but Texas is her home. She shuttles between the rodeo stadium in Fort Worth and the old horse stables in her cowboy boots decorated with a Star of David. They are handmade, a special order, the only boots like that in all of Texas. For years Weiner has been chronicling the history of Texas Jews and has written books on the subject. She says there's no place like it.
"For some reason Texas has an image of being anti-Israel or anti-Jewish but that's just not accurate. Since the Six-Day War people here have been very pro-Israel. You have to remember that this is a very religious state. For example, the Evangelicals believe that all the Jews have to come back to Israel so that Jesus can come. There are people here that haven't forgotten that there were Jews who fought at the Alamo."
Weiner knows very well that in New York or California she can easily find herself surrounded by Jews, and here in the second largest state in the US with almost 25,000,000 residents, she's pretty much alone.
"It seems to me that the difference is that in New York, people feel Jewish and here you have to work at it. If you don't put in the effort, you won't have a synagogue, you won't have a community, you won't have anything. There are some old synagogues around here that look like nice synagogues from the outside, but for years they have been functioning as just another conference center with no connection to Judaism. It has nothing to do with racism, there's just no need for their original function."
Alan Lusky is walking around his enormous store. Soon the business will celebrate 100 years of operation. Lusky sells cowboy equipment. There are many kinds of lassos, all sorts of cowboy boots for the expert and the beginner, hats and a variety of metal devices that cowboys need for their horses. The cheapest item in the store is a $25 lasso, the most expensive item is alligator boots for $7,000. Crocodile Dundee bought two pairs.
These prices do not put off educated consumers. Those in the know understand that this is the place to get boots decorated with the ZZ Top symbol or the University of Texas logo. A hot item is wedding boots.
Lusky explains, "You'd be surprised, but the fashions are always changing. Maybe not as quick as in other areas, but the traditional clothing does not stay the same. Lately, more and more cowboys are asking me for boots with a wide tip instead of a pointy tip. Why? Fashion. That's what they saw country singer Garth Brooks wearing and now they all want it."
He's not happy about the rodeo scene of late. It used to be for professional horsemen, but not anymore. "Today it's all about entertainment. They have clowns and entertainers to bring in kids and draw a big audience. They bring all sorts of bands and rock musicians to turn it into a family event. I remember the days when the rodeo was authentic. It was a meeting place for all those involved with horses, deals were made over entire herds. The rodeo today has lost the special touch that it had in the good old days. It turned into a circus."
In the basement of his store, Lusky has sewing machines, the same sewing machines that have been making popular cowboy saddles for decades. "Texas will always be the cowboy capital of the world. The world might change, but not Texas."
Lusky wants the people who live outside of Texas to understand that there's a big difference between the farmers and real cowboys who continue the old traditions and those who are all about fashion and don't know anything about horses. "If you go to the office of any bank manager in Texas, you can find a photograph having something to do with a farm and horses. It's not that they ever lived there, but it’s their big dream."
How does Lusky explain the fact that there are hardly any Jewish cowboys? "There's nothing to do. We prefer to sit in offices. Being a cowboy is not exactly a Jewish mother's dream."
3rd round up: The last Jewish cowboy
With nine Grammy awards on the wall, Ray Benson is the only Jewish country music artist in the US. "It's funny, isn't it? Think of how big country music is in the US and how few Jews there are. There's also very few black people in country music. When I was starting out in the 70's, nobody knew about my background which was fine with me because in a lot of places where I was performing, say West Virginia, they'd never seen a Jew before. They don't know what it is or what it means. So I wanted them first to know me as a musician."
Benson, 60 years old, has heard the expression, "to Jew them down" a few times in his life. This disparaging phrase refers to bargaining. The phrase still does not sit well with him.
"With all the changes and the years gone by, in the US people are still suspicious of other religions. There's lots of places where whoever isn't a white Christian is an alien. A while back I met a lady who was sure that the word Jew meant 'cheap.' I had to explain to her that that was simply incorrect and that Jesus was a Jew. She did not believe me. I still remember one of my performances in the 70s in some tiny town in Louisiana. People didn’t know my background yet. During the performance I realized something was off, 'Holy shit!' I said to my band members, we were invited to play at a Ku Klux Klan conference. That was the fastest performance we ever did in 40 years!"
Meanwhile in Dallas, Rachel Wolfson is standing among tens of cardboard boxes in her parents' house. Soon she will be moving to Israel with the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh, but meanwhile she has to sort out all of her belongings. It's not that she needs too much, she's planning to go shopping in Dizengoff.
If there's one thing that can get Rachel to smile, it's the words "Tel Aviv". She loves that city, she's wild about Israel. She spent a few months in Israel last year and came back to Texas just to get her belongings together and set up classes at an Ulpan to learn Hebrew. Then it's off to Israel and real life.
Why is she moving to Israel at age 23 when her friends are all going to Manhattan or San Francisco? "Life here is too comfortable, too easy. And being a Jew here is strange. When somebody finds out somehow that I'm Jewish they ask, 'So what does that mean? Do you believe in Jesus or not?' They ask me about my Star of David because they don't know what it means. When I walk through the streets of Tel Aviv, I feel like I'm among friends even if I don't know anybody. In Israel I feel secure even when I am walking down an unfamiliar street at five in the morning. Here in Texas as soon as it gets dark I feel that it's not safe even to walk near my cute little house."
A few miles away, we find the last real Jewish cowboy. Seventy five year old Charles Heart still goes out riding for days at a time moving herds from state to state. "I started riding horses before women were wearing pants."
Last year he went on a grueling twelve hour ride in the Grand Canyon. Heart has some strange stories to tell. For example, when his Christian friend who he's known for thirty years "all of a sudden became interested in Jews and asked, 'How come Jews have money and they run all the banks?' So I answered him that I heard that all Baptists are homosexuals, so does that mean that he's gay? He turned red and kept quiet, the subject never came up again. Stereotypes are the most idiotic thing in the world."
His ranch, somewhere between Dallas and Houston, is reminiscent of the Ewing estate, except that he has a Torah in the living room. This Torah scroll has been passed from father to son in his family for years and years. He walks around happily in his jeans and cowboy boots. The most he ever paid for a pair of jeans was $22.00, "and that was 25% too much to pay.
The only thing that's important about a pair of jeans is that it feels good and is flexible." He has heard rumors of people paying hundreds of dollars for a pair of jeans. "That's not even crazy, there is no way to explain that. Shocking." He has a collection of tens of cowboy hats and boots including a 40 year old paid that looks brand new, "That's because I take care of them with Vaseline."
He wakes up every morning at 5 am, whistles for his horse, gets the cows together and starts another day of work. It’s just him and his wife Joan, 70 years old, working on the farm, and they have enough energy for many more years. There's no way they are headed for an old age home.
He still remembers the days when Jewish mothers sent their boys to college, "Just so that they could find a Jewish girl, because there were no Jewish girls in the farmland. When the army sent me to Germany, my mother got really scared. Not on account of the war, she was just worried I'd come back with some German shiksa. But now everything's changed. Some of our children married Christians and we actually feel fine with it. The main thing is that they're happy and we spend the Seder together near the horses and the cattle."
When asked if he has any problem eating the cute cows that he works with, Charles says, "I love my cows but I'm not in love with them. I never use the shocker on them and I never make a steak out of one of my own cows. There's no way that a cow will be part of the herd one day and the next day roasting on my barbeque. But it’s a business, it's the circle of life. You have to understand that each of these cows is worth between $5,000 and $35,000. When a calf is in trouble, we take care of them like you would take care of a little child. We spend days and weeks to save a little calf, feeding it with a baby bottle. So it's not all about the money, but you can't get too attached. You've got to be tough, and I'm really, really tough. That's the only way to make it in this world."
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