The Jews of Bisbee, Arizona: diverse, passionate and proud

Howard Kline welcomes patrons to his art gallery on the sunny side of Bisbee’s Main Street.
Howard Kline welcomes patrons to his art gallery on the sunny side of Bisbee’s Main Street.

A visual artist who started out as a rock drummer in the ’60s, a bookstore owner about to make aliyah, a Harvard Law School graduate who headed west to practice on the Navajo reservation — these are three of the 40 to 50 Jews currently living in Bisbee. Although they don’t celebrate Judaism as a community, celebrate they do, each of the six Bisbee residents interviewed by the AJP in his or her unique way.

“I’m proud of my Jewish heritage,” says artist Howard Kline, 64, a native of Rockport, Mass. In his younger days, he was the only Jewish lobsterman out of Swampscott, Mass. He didn’t deal with Jewish themes in his work until he attended Montserrat College of Art, near Boston, in 1972. “I liked Marc Chagall’s work. I studied with an artist who was Catholic and painted rabbis,” says Kline, who thought to himself, “Why can’t I do that?” In addition to rabbis, he’s painted Moses at the burning bush, the Ten Commandments and Jewish village scenes from “the old country.”

His vibrant Bisbee gallery is one of several Kline has owned over the past 43 years. About a year ago, he and his wife, Chris, moved from Big Sur, Calif. to settle in the funky Arizona town. Referring to himself by his Hebrew name, Chaim, Kline notes, “I’ve also played klezmer music on my drums for 50 years. If Bisbee had a temple, I’d be involved in some way.”

Joanie Werner, owner of Bisbee's Atalanta Music and Books, plans to make aliyah this summer. (Sheila Wilensky)
Joanie Werner, owner of Bisbee’s Atalanta Music and Books, plans to make aliyah this summer. (Sheila Wilensky)

Taking a different Jewish path is Joanie Werner, 61, owner of Bisbee’s Atalanta Music and Books for the past 38 years. “I arrived from Silver Spring, Md., on New Year’s Eve 1975. I’m hoping to be in Israel for the Jewish New Year,” says Werner, who has been to Israel four times, and is now planning to settle there.

“The most impressive thing to me in Israel is that I’m part of the prevailing culture. In the United States, I don’t quite fit in when the whole world is celebrating Christmas and Easter. I don’t understand why I didn’t stay in Israel the first time I was there in 1970,” she says. “My family expected that I would go to college. I did what my family wanted me to do.”

Werner grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and “took it for granted. I hadn’t been as involved in Judaism until connecting with someone whose grandmother was a Holocaust survivor,” she says. She started to re-evaluate her life and became more involved in Judaism.

Volunteering has always been important to her. On her 2009 trip to Israel, Werner did community service with the Sar-El National Project for Volunteers, sorting batteries for the Israel Defense Forces. She leads a Friday night service for Jewish prisoners at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Douglas, where there is currently one Jew. “We study Hebrew and read Jewish texts,” she says. Since community Seders and services don’t take place regularly in Bisbee, Werner has attended Pass­over Seders and High Holiday services at Temple Kol Hamidbar in Sierra Vista.

Last year, Werner traveled again to Israel, this time looking for a place to live in the Negev. Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that helps North American and British Jews make aliyah, is assisting her in making the transition. “One problem is that I’m an older single woman with no children. Israel is a very family-oriented place,” says Werner, adding that Nefesh B’Nefesh introduced her to other single women in the same circumstances.

“I feel like I belong in Israel. The Israelis are making it safe for me to be a Jew in the world and I feel like I should be there,” she affirms. “People in the United States get all upset, calling it an invasion, when people want to come here to find work. In Israel, the problems are real, like 350 million Arabs surrounding 6 million Jews.”

bisbee_Helen SubyIsrael doesn’t hold the same intense draw for Helen Suby, a child of Holocaust survivors, who has lived in Bisbee for 35 years. “I grew up in an Orthodox family and went to the Flatbush Yeshiva in Brooklyn,” says Suby, who was born Helen Simkin. She graduated from San Francisco State University, worked in education for a while and traveled to Nepal where she met her husband, Tom Suby, a North Dakotan who was in the Peace Corps.

In 1976, her sister, who is married to an Israeli artist and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., convinced the couple to join them in Bisbee. The Subys’ three children, now grown, all attended Bisbee public schools through high school. “I took the kids to Sierra Vista for High Holiday services and for Passover,” says Suby. “In the past, we had community Passover Seders.” She also made potato latkes in school for Chanukah while her children were there.

“For 20 years, I did Holocaust presentations in the schools for ‘Diversity Month,’ which was part of the sixth grade curriculum,” notes Suby. “I would bring a suitcase full of stuff from my mother, [including] family photos and a menorah. Teachers would ask me to come in. Now I do it for students at Cochise Community College.”

Suby’s mother, Jenny Simkin, at age 25, “was left an orphan of the Shoah and a partisan hidden in the swamps of Poland” according to a family history. At 31, she was left a widow with three children in America, says Suby. Her mother taught her three children “to go to battle every day, provide for the family and graciously open the door for guests. She was concerned about treating people fairly” and if a delivery man knocked, she would hand a dollar bill to one of her children, asking, “Did you give him a tip, or tzedakah?”

When Suby’s three children were young, “I took them to New York on Amtrak to see all their Orthodox relatives,” she says, adding that her mother came to Bisbee once — a world away from New York City. “My mother said, ‘I know who discovered America. Who discovered Bisbee?’”

Coincidentally, Suby and another Bisbee Jewish resident, Elizabeth Bernstein, share a bit of Jewish immigrant history. Suby’s mother and Bernstein’s grandmother both at one time owned shops on Orchard Street on New York’s Lower East Side. In Bisbee, Suby and Bernstein together gave Hebrew lessons to their combined six children.

Elizabeth Bernstein
Elizabeth Bernstein

“I was raised Reform in New York,” says Bernstein. “I went to Hebrew school and had a Bat Mitzvah.” In fact, Bernstein and her husband, John McKinnon, may have the only children who have ever celebrated a Bar and Bat Mitzvah in Bisbee.

“I was a lay leader of Friday night services in Sierra Vista,” she says, adding that her son and daughter learned their Torah portions via cassette tapes during the late ’90s and early 2000s. Lay leaders came from Temple Kol Hamidbar to officiate at the Bisbee Royale, which was built as a church in 1919 and later became a night club.

“We came to Bisbee in 1987 from the Navajo Reservation. I went there to practice law and met my husband, who’s also a lawyer,” says Bernstein. Her husband first worked in the Cochise County attorney’s office and is now Bisbee’s city attorney. Bernstein says her primary job has been to be a mother to her now-grown children. She’s also worked as a math teacher at Bisbee High School, and a tutor, and helps with legal issues in her husband’s private practice.

For spiritual comfort, Bernstein practices meditation, saying that it “offers some counterbalance to the intellectual side of Jewish life.”

bisbee_anna mae and Stanley SternRaised Catholic, Anna May Stern converted to Judaism because of “that social conscience part of it.” Already married to Stanley Stern for 16 years, she says, “I realized, I’m Jewish. I’m all those things that Jews care about. I want to see more equality in the world.” The couple has been married for 52 years. They purchased their Bisbee house as a winter getaway from Chicago in 1988. They began spending more time there, and Stern taught English at Douglas and Bisbee high schools from 2004 to 2008, retiring in 2010. “I had students who never knew anyone who was Jewish,” she notes. Stanley Stern retired in 2013 but still maintains a consulting business from Bisbee.

Stanley recalls taking Orthodox student rabbis visiting from Los Angeles to downtown Bisbee. “A former woman mayor went to hug them and they jumped back,” he says. “We’re living in a town where people have had very limited contact with Jewish people. But Bisbee is a very accepting town.”

When they settled permanently in Bisbee in 1995, “we immediately joined the synagogue in Sierra Vista,” says Stanley. “We go there for the High Holidays. I grew up in Terre Haute, Ind., where we were members of the United Hebrew Congregation. There were about 60 Jewish families. My father was Orthodox and was born in Paris. My mother was Reform,” so having a combined congregation worked out.

Mingling Jewish heritage takes many forms for the Bisbee Jewish population. As Bernstein discovered, living in a small town, “a lot of Judaism is home-based. It’s family-based.” In her family’s backyard are the remnants of a homemade sukkah. As she pointed it out, the family dog began barking. “Quiet, Tova” (Hebrew for “good”), she gently admonished.

There’s also pride in what the Jewish people have accomplished everywhere. “We’re the foundation of the arts,” says Kline. “Jews couldn’t own land [for many centuries]. What did they do? By default, Jews got into Yiddish theatre. They brought it here. My great-grandmother came from Odessa. I’m proud to be Jewish. My life is my art, and it’s my way of keeping my Judaism alive.”