It’s difficult to know how to feel about this Saturday New York Times article on the little-known but thoroughly charming—in a bad-Bernard-Malamud-story kind of way—Jews of Montana. The piece simply does not miss an opportunity to trade in Jewish kitsch. It reports “annual haggling” among rabbis over who gets to light the Hanukkiah at the Capitol building in Helena (two rabbis, three arguments!). These Jews may live in crazy, wild-west, white-bread Montana, but they still get excited about matzah at the supermarket, and they still brag about shipping pastrami in from Katz’s. Montana apparently used to have lots of Jews, and they toiled happily as “butchers, clothiers, jewelers, tailors and the like”—you know, Jewish-people jobs; in fact, did you know Mottel the Tailor moved Tzeitel and the kids to Bozeman after the pogrom?—but over time the Jews “assimilated or moved away to bigger cities,” as they are wont to do. Now, though, there are three rabbis in Montana, “one (appropriately) in Whitefish.” Appropriately, because, y’know, bagels and lox. Memo to the Times: a philo-Semitic stereotype is still a Semitic stereotype.
And yet! The story has at least two thoroughly enjoyable, even heart-warming set-pieces that just may, on balance, justify its existence. We learn that following an incident in Billings in which the windows of homes with menorahs were smashed, the townsfolk put menorahs in their windows. That’s sweet. (Let’s leave aside that such a shocking act of vandalism took place all the way back in … 1993.) Even sweeter and more adorable is the tale of Miky, the bomb-sniffing German sheperd who was raised in Israel but now plies his trade in Montana. Miky’s handler had trouble communicating with Miky because of the language barrier—Miky understands Hebrew, not English, you see—but after consulting with the local Lubavitcher rabbi and learning to articulate the hard “ch,” the trainer and Miky get along famously. Even more famously, now that they have been featured in the Times.
“So all is well in the Jewish community here because the Hasidic rabbi is helping the Montana cop speak Hebrew to his dog.” With a sentence like that, it is not surprising that, two days, later, the article is the third-most-emailed Times story. (As Slate’s Jack Shafer has noted, the surest way to write a popular article is to make it about an animal.) So we suppose it’s a win for the Times, a win for Miky, and perhaps even a win for the Jews. It’s certainly a win for the article’s author, Eric A. Stern—who, we learn at article’s close, is “senior counselor to Gov. Brian Schweitzer.” (Beats paying a reporter.) Looks like the article’s popularity is a win for Montana most of all.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.