Tools for Elul: Marilyn and Len Asimow | Fringe of the Diaspora
The year was 1973. Len and I, along with our two young children, were living in Los Angeles as an entirely secular and unaffiliated Jewish family. Of course, our family and many friends were Jewish and we were comfortably immersed in the pervasive Jewish ambiance permeating West LA. Thus, we felt no special urgency in actively asserting our own Jewish identities.
Plus, we were still young and adventurous and, unlike most of our contemporaries, we were prepared to consider migrating away from the cultural milieu of one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. So, when people learned we were contemplating a relocation to (gasp!) Wyoming, there was no masking their astonishment. "Wyoming, are you serious?! It's a wilderness! There are NO Jews there! You'll have to drive 12 hours just to buy a bagel!"
And we thought...If not now, when?
Thus, forewarned, we schlepped to Wyoming for Len's one year position at the University of Wyoming in the infamous Gem City of the Plains, Laramie. The move did present issues about maintaining our Jewish identity, which we pretty much had taken for granted in LA. Marilyn raided the LA version of Pinskers for children's books on Jewish holidays, Hebrew language, holiday and other songs, etc.
As our children grew, we realized it would be incumbent upon us - and us alone - to maintain and nourish a Jewish awareness in our family.
For....If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
We learned that there was a well-established synagogue in Cheyenne, about 50 miles east of Laramie. We joined and began attending services, weather permitting. It was there that Len became Bar Mitzvah at the age of 40. It's where we celebrated the Bat Mitzvah of our daughter, Caren, a first in the 65-year history of the congregation. And where Marilyn chanted numerous Haftaroth over the 10 or so years of our membership.
But there was, as yet, no organized Jewish activity in Laramie proper. Our ONE YEAR in Laramie was stretching out and we began to consider that it was now home for us. We could keep driving to Cheyenne each week for services, but we were anxious to share our newfound enthusiasm for Jewish identity with people we came to care about closer to home. After all,
If I'm not for others, what am I?
The Lord works in mysterious ways, and sent us a family from New York, with six children, all well versed in all aspects of Judaism. The time was right for us to incorporate with other like-minded families as the Laramie Jewish Community Center (LJCC) in fall 1979.
We procured some discarded, ancient Union Prayer Books, and a small, printed mail-order Torah scroll. We housed it in an "ark" in the form of an elegant gun cabinet (widely available in Wyoming) that was contributed by a congregant who managed the local furniture store. We were open for business.
We offered High Holy Day services starting in 5740 and continuing until today, year 5780, utilizing student rabbis and occasionally retired rabbis. In addition to officiating our services, they spoke in university classes. We fried latkes every Chanukah. We held community Seders. We brought in speakers on a multitude of topics. We helped teachers find the resources they needed for Holocaust educational units. We once brought in a Mohel for a newborn son. We provided Bar Mitzvah lessons with tutors from Cheyenne's beautiful synagogue and occasionally from students at the University of Wyoming.
As our Jewish profile was rising, the general community was for the most part friendly and accommodating. Many people professed to have never met a Jewish person before and they asked some odd questions about Jewish practice. "Is it true Jews are buried vertically instead of horizontally?" "Would you show me your horns?"
Laramie is on the interstate and gets its share of itinerants down on their luck, some of whom would look through the phone book for Jewish sounding names who were "gutte neshumas," my Yiddish version of "good souls." These callers were then referred to Len and me, which led to some interesting encounters. We had meetings at coffee shops or motels, to give some funds to aid them moving on by bus or broken-down vehicle or provide some food along the way. We eventually teamed up with the Laramie Interfaith Good Samaritan group to handle these matters.
Providing for the unexpected and unanticipated request was now part of our lives.
Len once let a stranger borrow his tallit to take to the mountains where he and his non-Jewish bride would fashion a chuppah for their rustic, outdoors wedding.
We once had to reassure and calm a (non-Jewish) teacher from Russia when someone burned a swastika on her lawn. She was hysterical with worry that she was thought to be Jewish due to her Russian surname.
I once had to reassure a motel owner that because I met a Jewish occupant at her motel, her hidden Jewishness wouldn't be discovered by "the Jewish grapevine.". She spent years hiding and feared exposure.
Len was called upon to officiate at the funeral of a woman widely known and respected for her involvement in the outdoors/environmental community. She was not known to be Jewish, but her brother in New York was coming and could he (the brother) please chant the El Maleh Rachamim prayer at her service. Len at first demurred, explaining that if the brother could chant El Maleh Rachamin then he was far more qualified to lead the whole service. No, no, he insisted, he wanted a local person to do the honors. And so, an overflow crowd packed the local funeral home to witness a very unconventional, but meaningful, funeral service.
We moved away from Laramie in 1996. Now, 23 years later, the LJCC will be celebrating its 40th anniversary of High Holiday services. It is a source of great pride and gratification for us to see that the LJCC is still thriving and more active than ever.
-Marilyn and Len Asimow, Congregants