Over the years, I have created a long list of places I dream of visiting. Some of these I’ve managed to tick off. Like Iceland, the Mayan ruins of Guatemala, and Petra in Jordan. But many other places, like Buenos Aires in Argentina, Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, or anywhere in Mongolia, still hover in the “I-will-for-sure-get-there-one-day” category.
On the other hand, there is an equally long list of places that I never had the slightest inclination to travel to and yet which, due to the vagaries of work and circumstance, I have unexpectedly wound up in. Some of these have turned out to be brilliant (eg: spending the 4th of July cowboy-style in Lander, Wyoming; or tasting my way through the bootleg caviar market in Urumqi, far-western China). While others I would rather blot out of my memory forever (eg: Tashkent, Uzbekistan – the most depressingly Soviet place I’ve ever had the misfortune of stepping foot in).
Falling pretty much exactly in the middle of that spectrum is the town of Boise, Idaho. A tiny speck on the vast map of America whose name I doubt you even know how to pronounce properly (I had always assumed it was like in French – boy-zee, but it is actually BOY-see). And also a place which just happens to be the one I have always used in casual conversation as a stand-in for the blandest, most benign place I can possibly imagine. As in: “I bet that even in Boise, Idaho there would be more to do ….”
Hence why, until recently, it had never entered my mind that Boise was somewhere I might actually visit one day. And which I am sure would forever have remained the case, but for the fact of my girlfriend’s brother and his family relocating there earlier this year, leading to a brief visit a few months back.
So what can I tell you about Boise?
Well, it is a smallish town located on the banks of the Boise River, in a remote, faraway, north-western corner of the USA. It is the capital city of the US State of Idaho – a state itself not known for much besides good skiing, and the quality of its potatoes. Notwithstanding its capital-city status, Boise has less than 250,000 residents, making it not much bigger than a suburb in many 21st century metropolises.
While in Boise we got about mainly on bicycles – so quaint and old-school – riding through both the Downtown area (a neat grid of quiet boulevards, lined with sixties-style office buildings) and the suburbs (a neat grid of quiet streets, lined with drooping trees).
There were nice parks, and a decent selection of stores, and a whole host of burger shops and places to buy ice-creams and tacos. Many of Boise’s weatherboard houses were fronted by white picket fences. A good number also had Stars-n-Stripes flags flapping from poles in the front yard.
One afternoon was devoted to walking the length of a scenic path that wound its way along the banks of the river, from where we got great views of the beautifully domed State Capitol building, which was suitably old and stately.
Another afternoon was spent exploring Boise’s most exciting “ethnic” enclave – a single block of the downtown area known as “the Basque quarter”, where apparently the largest ex-pat community of Basques anywhere outside of Spain is to be found. Go figure….
And yet another afternoon was devoted to the important job of eating chicken wings – over-sized, fried and unhealthy in a way that seems to typify modern-American cuisine. At a neighborhood bar on a suburban street corner I stuffed my face on them, surrounded by TV screens that were airing baseball games, while eavesdropped on a rambunctious patron discussing politics with the bartender. He: “Trump is going to save this country.” She: “You really are drunk, aren’t you? – everyone knows he is going to get impeached.”
In short, Boise, Idaho, pretty much lived up to all of my expectations – exceedingly pleasant and lovely, in a most exceedingly benign, unremarkable kind of way. A place that was charming, safe, green, and ridiculously wholesome.
An all-American town, if ever I have been to one.
Still, my travels have taught me that even in the most sweetly vanilla of towns, if you look hard enough, there is always an intriguing story to be found. Which, in the case of Boise, involved two of the most sweetly vanilla of things: a tree, and a synagogue.
Apparently, several years ago, a decision was taken to expand one of the city’s main public hospitals. Undoubtedly a great thing for Boise, except for a minor snag: at the very spot where the new hospital wing was slated to be built, stood a magnificent, giant sequoia tree. It had been planted more than a century before, from a seed sent to an Idaho doctor by a botanist friend in California. Over time the tree had grown to become quite massive, and in the process a local landmark or sorts.
So, in the choice between a hospital and a tree, what did the good folk of Boise decide to do? Simple: build the new hospital extension, but first just move the tree.
Although as solutions go, in reality this one proved to be not-so-simple, because the tree in question was 10 stories high, and weighed about 400,000 kilos. So actually moving it required many months of detailed preparation, including digging around the tree to get its roots to form a ball; arranging a new location; hiring a team of environmental scientists and engineers to oversee the move; erecting scaffolding and inflatable supports; etc. Not to mention also costing the town a small fortune, with the total bill for project “move-the-tree” coming in at about $300,000.
Leading to the grand finale of the whole move, that just happened to be on the Saturday night when we were in Boise. At which time the tree was uprooted from its home of the past 100 years, and laid out horizontally on a steel platform that had been mounted atop a small fleet of trucks. It was then slowly driven round to its new location, where it was raised upright and replanted. A total journey of only about 3 miles, but that took a painstaking 12 hours to complete.
But the best part of the whole story is this: without being asked, a lot of Boise locals showed up for the event. Not merely to watch the tree’s relocation, but to participate actively in the move. A phalanx of men, women and children, from all different walks of life, formed a human escort of sorts, and for hours all through the night walked side-by-side with the ancient tree, as it made its way through the streets.
Of course, I had no idea it was happening. Much as I wish I could claim to have participated first-hand in this wonderful story, at the time of the tree’s relocation I was actually fast asleep. I only read about it in the local paper the following day.
Still, even if I wasn’t directly involved, I did feel a kind of vicarious connection – I had been in town at the time, after all. Not to mention that the way in which Boise’s tree was moved that night seemed a tale well worth telling people about. A truly touching, and genuinely real, display of care and respect, which is something that we don’t get to see too much of nowadays.
So how does a synagogue fit into this picture?
Well, regular readers will know that I often seek out sites of Jewish interest on my travels. I am a sucker for old synagogues, long-lost communities, abandoned cemeteries, purveyors of Jewish cuisines, and so on. Especially if these are to be found in far-flung, out-of-the-way places that one wouldn’t ordinarily associate with Jews.
So I was fascinated to read in a tourist brochure that tiny Boise is home to a synagogue of its own. My interest was further piqued when I read that Boise’s synagogue was built in 1895 so as to provide a place of worship for those Jews who had come to Idaho in the 1860’s gold rush. And I knew for sure I would have to make a quick visit there when I read that the Boise synagogue is, in fact, the oldest continuously used synagogue anywhere west of the Mississippi River. A seriously fun fact to know, if not also kind of bizarre given that Boise, as I may have mentioned, is a small place in the middle of nowhere, USA.
In any case, this explains why on my last morning in Boise I hopped on a bike, pedaled across the city, over the Boise River, and then on to Latah Street on the outskirts of town. There I came to a pleasant swatch of green parkland that comprises the Boise “Jewish campus”, if you will: a modern community center, a library, some classrooms, an outdoor amphitheater, a landscaped garden, a Jewish cemetery, and at the center of it all, the Ahavat Beth Israel Synagogue.
The synagogue’s exterior consisted of a solid stone foundation, atop of which was mounted a handsome, wood-shingled structure that kind of resembled a barn. Entry was via a set of sturdy wooden doors, above of which were panels of soaring, arched and circular stained-glass windows. Inside there were more arches, beautifully carved wooden columns on either side of the central bimah (prayer platform), aged wooden pews with a shiny patina that only constant use over a long time can produce, a barrel-vaulted ceiling, and sheets of pastel light reflecting into the interior though the colored windows.
The whole thing had a distinctly Moorish feel to it, which was odd, given we were in Idaho. But also no surprise, given that a small information sign noted that the synagogue had initially been modeled after a synagogue in Toledo, Spain. And, as synagogues go, this one seemed perfectly befitting of its location: sweet and smallish, but also overwhelmingly lovely. Just like Boise.
As I wandered around, I got talking to the lady who had let me in. She worked as the receptionist at the Community Center, and told me that there were about 200 Jewish families in Boise. She said that even though the synagogue was very old, it was also in constant use – a testament to Boise’s thriving, growing modern-day Jewish community.
She also told me that since 1972 the synagogue’s historic importance had been recognized with its inclusion on the US National Register of Historic Places. And then, almost as an afterthought, she told me something fascinating: that until 2003, the synagogue had been located somewhere else in Boise, on State Street in the center of town, about 3 miles away.
I must have looked confused, because she quickly proceeded to explain. She said that in the 108 years from when the synagogue was first built in central Boise, the town had grown such that the synagogue’s land was both physically constrained, and considerably more valuable than it had been a century earlier. And thus, in order to finance the construction of a much larger Jewish center, a cunning plan had been hatched: the synagogue’s land would be sold, new land would be acquired, and a new community center built.
With one minor snag – what to do with the historic old synagogue? The obvious answer: move it. Or as a member of the local community described it back then: “Rather than risk seeing our synagogue turned into a commercial development, such as a restaurant or law offices, we decided to integrate it into the design of our new facility”.
Thus it was that in 2003, shortly after the Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) service had concluded, a shofar (ram’s horn) was ceremonially blown, following which the entire synagogue was uprooted, hoisted onto a flatbed truck, and transported across town to its new home. The whole thing, all 60 tons of it, stained glass, wooden carvings – the lot, all moved in one piece. The (non-Jewish) Mayor of Boise put it quite beautifully when she said at the time: “Jews have so often been forced to move as an act of flight resulting from persecution and fear. This move was much more hopeful — the direct result of growth and health.”
The synagogue’s cross-Boise journey began at 1 am, and took almost 8 hours to complete. Along the way workers had to clear a path, moving power and phone lines, or pulling back overhanging branches. And, a crowd of spectators also turned up to accompany the synagogue on its travels. Apparently well over 400 people, Jews and non-Jews alike, walked alongside the synagogue all through the night, singing and applauding along the way.
See the parallels here? So did I. “Just like the tree the other night,” I said.
“Yes, absolutely,” my informal tour guide replied. “In fact, the company that arranged the move of the tree came to visit us a few times this past year, to get information and ideas from when we moved the synagogue. And a lot of the people who walked with the synagogue in 2003 were there again the other night, walking with the tree. That’s pretty special, don’t you think?”
I smiled and nodded: “Yes, that is pretty special.”
And pretty darn wonderful, too, I thought.
There are a lot of troubling things that can cause one to question the USA’s role as “leader of the free world”, especially at the present time. Things like the country’s current political leadership (idiotic), the attitude towards gun ownership held by many otherwise entirely normal Americans (insane), the growing levels of social inequality (worrisome), the sporadic outbursts of racism and xenophobia (fucking terrifying), etc.
Which is why, sometimes, it is also nice to be reminded of what makes America so great.
Because for all of that country’s issues and problems, there are few places on earth where enough people will care enough to ensure that an old tree is relocated at considerable expense, rather than being mercilessly chopped down in the name of development.
And also one of the few places on earth where, despite the best efforts of bigots and racists, minorities and immigrants can still generally feel safe and welcome. A place where a deeply entrenched respect for liberty means that even in faraway Boise, Idaho, people can walk down the main street, in the dead of night, accompanying an old synagogue to its new home, and can do so proudly and without fear.
All of which might not sound like a big deal, but trust me, it is. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine either an old tree or old synagogue being so readily relocated anywhere in Europe, or anywhere in the UK, or even anywhere in Australia. Apart from the USA, there aren’t too many other places in the world where these sorts of things would happen without incident.
So thanks Boise – small, remote and vanilla as you may be. You showed me how ordinary, everyday America can still shine a bright light of hope, and get it perfectly right. And why, despite what at the moment can often seem like a never-ending cascade of negative news, there is still nowhere else quite like the USA.