The Wild Jewish West


The last time I saw the sun, it was setting over Tucson, Ariz.

Oggi and I started our cross-country drive in sunny Los Angeles. But somewhere in western Texas, we awoke to a cold drizzle, which turned into a week of rainstorms and unrelenting gray skies that we managed to follow, thanks to the jet stream, all the way to Boston. Where, as I write this a day after our arrival, the rain has just turned to — you guessed it — snow.

But Tucson was sunny and spectacular, its mountains blazing russet against a clear blue sky. We had driven south through Phoenix into the Sonoran desert; saguaro cactuses began sprouting up on either side of the highway, along with tiny yellow and tomato-red blossoms. Spring in the desert means perfect weather — days in the 80s and nights so balmy you can sit outside after dark, as we did at a café, marveling at how just a week earlier we had cowered through a blizzard.

But with an excellent Jewish history museum — with a brand-new Holocaust center — a major university that infuses the streets with youthful energy, and a funkiness notably lacking in other Sun Belt retirement havens, Tucson has a lot to recommend it at any time of year.

After the modern-day sprawl of Phoenix, Tucson has the feel of an old Western town. Modest, single-story bungalows on lots filled with sagebrush cluster in residential neighborhoods just blocks from the downtown office buildings. I like the way Tucson feels tidy but not manicured, with a sense of history lacking in much of the West.

We saw people of all ages and races walking on sidewalks throughout the city center. Tucson derives its vitality from a continual influx of transplants, many of them Jewish — from students and professors at the University of Arizona, whose flagship campus occupies a large swath of downtown, to retirees from cold-weather states and young professional families.

And Tucson’s Jewish community sustains a number of religious, social and cultural institutions — the most recent of which is the Holocaust History Center, an offshoot of the Tucson Jewish History Museum, which opened in a neighboring downtown building just over a year ago. Arizona’s only Holocaust research center is a product of grassroots support, and its evolving exhibits — which will occupy increasing space as funding allows — focus on the stories of Tucson’s 200-plus Holocaust survivors.

Next door, in a restored synagogue building that dates from the turn of the last century, the Jewish History Museum is the only institution of its kind in the Grand Canyon State. In addition to photographs of Jewish Tucsonians engaging in a variety of activities, from rodeo riding to getting married under a chuppah, the museum displays a fascinating collection of memorabilia. There are 19th-century Mexican centavo coins, pocket Bibles carried by Jewish soldiers in World War II, antique Haggadahs and bonnets worn by Jewish pioneer babies in the Arizona sun. On our visit, we saw an exhibit of Jewish wedding gowns and ketubahs, an annual show that runs through the end of March.

Tucson Jewry has flourished since pioneers settled the desert. One friend, who has lived here for nearly a decade, told me about a Jewish writer’s group. Another, a health fanatic, attends a Jewish sobriety group and works out at the popular Jewish Community Center gym. The Tucson JCC, which has more than 5,000 local members, is worth a stop for its pretty sculpture garden and the rotating exhibits in its Fine Art Gallery; currently on view are evocative mixed-media paintings by Lisa Michler, whose show, “L’Chayim – To Life,” tells the story of her parents’ Holocaust journey as Polish survivors.

We ended our last evening in Tucson with a stroll down Fourth Avenue, past record stores, sports bars, used-book emporia and family-style pizzerias where crowds of students waited for tables on a Saturday night. Seeking a calmer perch, we settled into the charming outdoor patio at Café Coronet, a vintage-style boîte in the historic Coronado Hotel building.

“I bet the owner is Jewish,” commented Oggi as he perused the menu of locally sourced, largely vegetarian cuisine — heavy on chickpeas, lemon, feta and nuts — and spotted shakshuka. He was right — and a few minutes later, we were chatting with Sally Kane, a bubbly, hyper-articulate Tucsonian who opened the café last year with Gregor Kretschmann. The pair received a historic preservation award for their sensitive restoration of the property, including local artwork and French bistro chairs that, along with twinkling lights, give the café an Old World feel.

As early St. Patrick’s Day revelers stumbled past, and trains glided into the nearby railway station, a diverse, artistic crowd filled the tables. Oggi and I leaned back in our seats, nibbled on fried chickpeas and surveyed the starry desert sky, thankful for such a pleasant respite on the road.