Dont mess with Texas Jewry, where a hora meets the hoedown

Jimmy is lanky with cowboy boots and a slow Southern drawl.

"Ya know," he says with a grin, "I asked your mama to marry me when she was 13."

We are leaning against a wooden rail overlooking a human-made lagoon in the west Texas desert. It is more than 100 degrees outside. Am I really standing in the far reaches of the Lone Star State talking to my mom's erstwhile suitor? Just hours ago, I was sipping cappuccino at a San Francisco Starbucks.

"Well, it's sure been nice chattin' witcha," Jimmy says and saunters back into Cattleman's. This is the restaurant my about-to-be-wed cousin and her fiancé have chosen as the site for their rehearsal dinner.

There will be no crudités at this affair, no almond-encrusted salmon or refreshing raspberry tarts. This is a Jewish weddin', west Texas-style, and barbecue ribs, chili and coleslaw are the order of the day.

Decorative wooden wagon wheels greet guests as they turn into the dusty driveway of this El Paso-area eatery. Saddles hang from the ceiling of the main dining room, where women in fringed white blouses and tasseled boots mingle with men in Stetsons.

Yes, Virginia, there are Jews in Texas, and most of them are my relatives.

Now, it's not like any of them are named JR. None of them owns a cattle ranch. My cousin didn't ride into the synagogue on a bull and we didn't yell "yee-ha" when the groom stomped on the glass.

But put it this way: As friends and family toasted and roasted the couple at the rehearsal dinner, someone got up and told a story about hunting for bobcats. The next morning, at a brunch for out-of-town guests, a mariachi band serenaded diners sitting at tables festooned with mini piñatas.

This, I dare say, is Jewish Americana in all its glory. These are my roots.

My parents grew up in El Paso, where their parents, immigrants from Russia and Lithuania, settled. My paternal grandfather entered this country through the port at Galveston and then crossed the state to El Paso, where he worked as a furniture salesman. My maternal grandfather traveled first to Mexico City, where he peddled pictures of Jesus and sent for my grandmother back in Balbirishkis, Lithuania. She journeyed 10 days by boat to Mexico, where my grandparents married before settling in the border town of Juarez.

Six years later, they ventured across the border into El Paso to realize their dream of becoming Americans. In El Paso — then a city whose downtown resembled that of a crumbling set from an old Western — both sets of grandparents adjusted to American life and raised their children in traditional Jewish homes with one eye on the Old Country and the other on the new.

My parents reflect that hybrid upbringing. In the house in which I grew up, dried chili pepper wreaths adorn kitchen walls. Paintings of cowboys and Native Americans hang next to etchings of Old World rabbis. Country music is as likely to blare from Dad's stereo as a recording of Yiddish oldies. At the Katz household, it's Wayne Newton meets the Catskills.

As a Jewish girl bred in Northern California, I marvel at this wacky family history. It's a history that comes to vibrant life every time I visit Texas, every time I hear an uncle or cousin say "y'all" while clutching a steel belt buckle the size of Texarkana or hold a rehearsal dinner at a restaurant that looks like Southfork.

For me, as for so many others, being an American Jew means being situated somewhere along a trajectory that has progressed across continents in sometimes odd and dramatic ways. My cousin's wedding reminded me of that yet again. And to that I can only say,"yee-ha."

The writer is a former Bulletin staffer whose column appears on the fourth Friday of the month. Contact her through the Bulletin or at [email protected], and visit her Web site at

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.