July 12, 2024
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Torah and Tepees: Comanche Friend of the Jews

Part II of III

Sam was led on horseback into the Comanche camp. After three days of his being kept bound and blindfolded, he was brought before three chiefs, including the leader, Chief Bad Eagle. His blindfold removed, Sam took him to be in his early 20s, fairly tall with long dark hair and brown eyes. Bad Eagle sized up Sam very carefully and began to speak to him slowly in accented English:

“You don’t look like you’re a Mexican. My braves told me you were Mexican. Habla Espanol?”

“I’m an American, not Spanish,” replied Sam.

“I was myself captured by the Mexicans and lived and fought with them for five years, before being recaptured by my Comanche brothers,” said Bad Eagle. “My men say they examined your wagon and contents and found rather strange objects among your trade goods. I am curious if you can explain to me what they are. My Mexican captors taught me about their Catholic religion, but your objects I am not familiar with.”

The Comanches brought forth a blanket in which they had wrapped Sam’s tallit, kippah and tefillin and laid it on the ground in front of him:

Sam knelt down and carefully lifted the items from the ground. A Comanche attempted to restrain him, but Bad Eagle intervened:

“Let him be!” the chief declared. “What are these things you hold so important?”

Sam paused before describing in detail each of the items used in his daily prayers and beliefs.

“And so you pray three times a day, every day, to your god?” asked Bad Eagle, almost incredulously.

“Even four times on our Sabbath,” added Sam.

“These are strange customs. You don’t appear very strange from your looks and your clothes, hat and beard. My men also found books among your things written in a language I do not recognize.”

“It is Hebrew, a language spoken by my people far away and long ago. It is only the language of our prayers today. No one uses it for daily conversation.”

“Our Comanche language I fear will one day soon fall into such disuse. We are hemmed in on all sides by the Americans, Mexicans and other more numerous tribes. Perhaps we could learn from you how to keep our language alive if only to pray to our Great Spirit Tetonkah.”

Sam was weak from having eaten little since the day of his capture. He had been given plenty of water, but he had a gnawing feeling in his gut that water alone wouldn’t satisfy.

“Give him some of tamales and buffalo meat to chew on,” Bad Eagle ordered.

In his duress, Sam had no choice but to take what his captors offered. After his meeting with Bad Eagle, things went better for him in the Comanche camp. The tribe, as was its custom, was interested in exchanging him for something of value. It was just a matter of what opportunity would arise for such a transfer and how soon it would occur. In the meantime, Sam learned more about the Comanche way of life. Chief Bad Eagle sought him out on several occasions to discuss Jewish customs:

“Can Jews fight against other Jews?” the chief asked him one day.

“We are not a warlike people, we can fight, of course, if we have to, but we don’t, generally.”

“Comanches are forbidden by custom from making war on other Comanches. But we are surrounded by many enemies and there are no restrictions on killing them, of course.”

On another occasion, the chief asked Sam if he believed in many gods as the Comanches did. They thought every object had its own spirit, but that the buffalo embodied the great universal life-giving spirit. Sam by observation understood easily why the buffalo was central to the Comanche belief system, essential as the animal was to every aspect of life on the plains, but he tried to explain to Bad Eagle the concept of one God from which all emanated:

‘’My people, the Jews, believe that heaven and earth were created by the One, all-powerful, all-knowing God or spirit. There are no other gods. Our God is God. All of creation, including the buffalo, are His creation. We cannot see or touch God, but He exists just the same.”

Bad Eagle had much trouble at first with the concept Sam described, but seemed to accept the possibility by his pragmatic response:

“I’m not sure I understand you, Sam, but I sure am glad your god created the buffalo.”

Sam remained under Bad Eagle’s “supervision” for about four months. One early winter morning, however, he awoke in the Antelope camp to discover that his captors had left rather abruptly on some kind of mission, leaving him on his own. He never quite discovered why they had abandoned him, it being their general habit to never leave something of value behind. Food had been scarce and perhaps they didn’t want to continue feeding him. Even more extraordinarily, Sam found that they had left a pony tethered to a nearby tree. Sam rode toward the rising sun and in a day or so saw the smoke of a farmhouse in the distance. The settlers who took him in were fascinated by Sam’s story of captivity and were amazed he had survived his ordeal with the Comanche. Soon Sam was on his way toward Fort Sill and a full return to his old life.

Sam heard little over the next years about Chief Bad Eagle and his band of warriors. Sam had lost much weight during his ordeal and his hair had started to turn prematurely gray. In time Sam gave up the itinerant life, settled in St. Louis, opened a large general store, married a woman of his faith and raised several children. He became successful and a proud member of his community. His grandchildren often asked him about his pioneering adventures and his days among the feared Comanches:

“What ever happened to the chief who spoke with you, Grandpa?”

“I heard that many years after I was his captive, maybe around 1874 or 1875, Bad Eagle and his group finally surrendered. They were the last of his tribe to give up. You see, their empire had fallen. Their numbers were dwindling, and white men were overrunning their land. Band by band, the Texas Rangers hunted them down until one small group remained and I read that Bad Eagle and several other chiefs persuaded the last group to travel peacefully to Fort Sill. They had run out of options since the buffalo were gone, and they faced starvation in the coming winter months, always a hard time for the Indians.”

In time, Sam’s memories of his Comanche captivity faded. Within a week of each other, in 1909, both Sam and Bad Eagle died; Sam of a fever, surrounded by his many loved ones in St. Louis, a pillar of his growing Jewish community, and Bad Eagle of a stomach ailment, apparently after eating a tainted can of sardines, a suspected victim of tribal enemies. Unlike Sam’s fading memory of his days with the Comanche, Bad Eagle never forgot that strange American captive with his customs of the one God and his prayerful life. He told his children and grandchildren of this man, and as we will see, they didn’t forget the words of the old Comanche chief. In fact, one great-grandson of Bad Eagle did more, much more, than that.

Read the final installment next week in the Jewish Link!

By Joseph Rotenberg

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