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Torah and Teepees: A Comanche Friend of the Jews

Editor’s Note: The following chapter of historical fiction is excerpted from Joseph Rotenberg’s  Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment, soon to be published by Redmont Tales LLC/Gefen Publishing House. ISBN 9789652-299154.  The book contains over 60 short stories and sketches, some fiction some fact.  This is just one of those short stories:

By Joseph Rotenberg

Portrait of Joseph Yeagley (Drawing by Norman Sonne)

“There’s nothing new under the sun.” We’ve heard those words of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) so often that we assume they are an accurate description of reality. The following story shows that sometimes King Solomon’s biblical observation isn’t necessarily so!

Back in the 1850s Sam Bennett left his home in Lodz, Poland, for the distant shores of the United States. Back in Europe he was known as Shmuel Benovits, an aspiring rabbinical student, who somehow had also mastered the carpentry trade. Political unrest in Lodz had led to attacks on the Jews of that city, and since he had been orphaned at a young age, Shmuel’s uncle and aunt arranged passage for him on a train leaving from Lodz to Warsaw, and ultimately on to a ship bound for Philadelphia from Germany. He arrived weeks later in America, speaking the language with difficulty, and with just enough money to sustain himself for two weeks. No one was there to greet him, but after inquiry, he was guided to the home of a rabbi in the port area and so made his first friends in his newly acquired domicile. In a few weeks’ time he made more friends, got a job helping a master carpenter build wagons, and in every respect started to build his new life.

This was a period of great change in America, and soon talk of the West reached even the sections of Philadelphia in which Sam (Shmuel) lived. As a single fellow of twenty years, Sam was fascinated by the stories he heard about the West: the hostile and peaceful native tribes, the buffalo, the cavalry, and the hordes of settlers who clamored to leave the urban East where Sam lived for the wide-open spaces of the West. Soon the call to try his fortunes out West became too great, so Sam gathered up the courage to leave Philadelphia and head to Missouri, where he planned to open a trading post to sell all kinds of general goods to the new settlers arriving there. It took him three months to get to St. Joseph in Missouri, the jumping-off point for trips across the continent. To Sam’s chagrin, St. Joe, as the locals called it, had an abundance of trading posts and general stores and didn’t need Sam’s store at all. What was really needed were brave and hardy individuals who could carry supplies out into the wilderness to reach those distant smaller settlements and army forts that relied on these shipments for their very existence.

Sam decided to save his money, and he did so with a passion. In the next six months, by taking on numerous odd jobs, he accumulated a sufficient amount of capital to equip a sturdy wagon, four horses, and a supply of sundries to begin his life across the Mississippi River as an itinerant peddler. Whether you needed pots, pans, small tools, linens, or blankets, Sam the peddler was the man for you. He started out visiting smaller towns and villages in Iowa and Nebraska, always making sure he didn’t venture too far from the larger trading posts, where he could replenish his stock of goods and take some time off the road when he got tired. As the months and then years passed, Sam found himself traveling between US Army forts and encampments, often befriending cavalrymen and their families as the government expanded the American footprint on the prairies.

Of all the sights Sam beheld on his travels, nothing quite compared to the mammoth buffalo herds that regularly migrated from north to south across his path. The herds seemed endless and, in fact, were rumored to contain a million beasts in a single herd. When the buffalo departed, Sam quickly felt the loneliness of the prairie, a sense of the vastness of God’s creation that had few parallels. At such times, Sam keenly felt the absence of other humans. In his western wilderness, Sam prayed on a daily basis, referencing the almanac he carried in his wagon that told him what day of the week and what time of year it was, and utilizing the worn prayer book he always kept nearby.

In the summer of 1858, Sam found himself as far west as he had ever traveled – in the Texas panhandle near what is today Lawton, Oklahoma – when he had the misfortune of running into a war party of Comanche Indians, themselves traveling farther east than they had ever been before. The Comanche tribe was given their name (meaning “enemy”) by the Ute Tribe, with whom they were not on speaking terms. In fact, the Comanches, though not the most numerous tribe of Plains Indians, had no natural friends to speak of. They were known as the most adept horse soldiers in the West but were also regarded as the most capable horse thieves. Add to this their expertise in kidnapping for ransom any poor soul they might find out on the plains, and it is easy to see why Sam was in a great deal of trouble on that day in August when twelve Comanche horsemen entered his camp.

Now, Sam had met Indians of a less warlike nature at various forts and trading posts over the years. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was fortunate that this particular group of Comanches belonged to the Quahada or Antelope group headed by Chief Bad Eagle, a fairly advanced young man who was fluent in several languages, including English and Spanish. Comanches were sort of “equal opportunity” kidnappers in that they would take captive Mexicans, Texans, and other Indians almost without exception. They would trade them for horses, their most prized possession. As a result of this “trade,” the Comanches were rumored to have accumulated close to 250,000 of the finest horses on the continent. Sam’s team of horses was of great interest to the war party, as was Sam himself. Accordingly, the Comanches promptly sent Sam under guard to their larger encampment some two days away to the northwest. They didn’t physically harm him; there was no need to lessen his potential ransom value.

It’s worth noting here that the Comanches had never met a Jew before. As was their custom, they treated everyone they captured pretty much the same, and they made no exception in Sam’s case. After Sam was led on horseback into the Comanche camp, he was kept bound and blindfolded for three agonizing days during which he feared the worst. Finally, on the fourth day, two of his captors entered the tepee where he was being held and brought him before three of their leaders, including Chief Bad Eagle. His blindfold finally removed, Sam studied the chief: he was fairly tall with long dark hair and brown eyes, and looked to be in his early twenties. Bad Eagle sized up Sam very carefully and spoke to him slowly, in accented English: “You don’t look like you’re a Mexican. My braves told me you were Mexican. Habla Español?”

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

“I myself was 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 to know 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, yarmulke, 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?” the chief asked Sam.

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. Hardly anyone uses it for daily conversation.”

“Our Comanche language I fear will one day soon fall into such disuse,” the chief said. “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 Tetonka.

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 the 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 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.”

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,” Sam explained. “There are no other gods. Our god is God. All of creation, including the buffalo, is 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.

“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 (in Oklahoma) and a full return to his old life.

Sam heard little over the next years about Chief Bad Eagle and his band of warriors. He had lost a lot of weight during his ordeal, and his hair started to gray prematurely. 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 a successful and 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 their 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.”

Soon enough, Sam’s memories of his Comanche captivity faded. In 1909, within a week of each other, 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 they didn’t forget the words of the old Comanche chief. In fact, one descendant of Bad Eagle did more, much more, than that.

On a late December night in 2013, I was surfing the Internet when I happened upon a website created by a Dr. David A. Yeagley, a great-great-grandson of Comanche Chief Bad Eagle. Yeagley was a former professor of humanities, psychology, literature, music, and philosophy. He espoused quite conservative political views on the site, but it was not his political and Native American activism that caught my eye. Among the many features of the site were Yeagley’s take on matters spiritual and musical. He had obtained academic degrees from Oberlin College in music, Yale Divinity School in religion, and Emory College in liberal arts.

What struck me as unusual was that the website contained a series of serious articles written by Yeagley over the years on Jewish subjects, including dissertations on tractate Berachot of Talmud Bavli. Titles include “Midnight in the Talmud,” “Talmud in the Night,” and “Talmud, Time, and Temptation.” The most impressive of all was an article entitled “Neusner, Mishna, and the Talmud: When to Recite the Shema,” which he published on May 11, 2013. This article included a picture of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz whom Yeagley apparently met at Yale. It was quite a surprise to find a Comanche Indian, albeit a highly educated one, studying Jewish texts. Additionally, further research showed that Yeagley’s interest in Jewish scholarship and issues extended much deeper. In addition to these essays, Yeagley had undertaken a serious initiative to bring lessons in Chumash (the Five Books of Moses), or “shiurim,” as he called them, to a broad audience on YouTube. In fact, he recorded ninety five-minute shiurim over several months in 2012 in which he studied individual verses from Bereishit. His introductory video is quite enlightening and includes his explanation of why the descendant of a famed Indian chief would undertake such an endeavor:

I think it’s important for everyone…the goyim, the Gentiles, to realize the Torah came out of the Jewish mind, its shape is Jewish. I believe that it is supernatural, that the instrument through which scripture came is the Jewish mind. I think that is very important.… I believe the Torah was divinely inspired.… The fact that it was communicated through the Jewish nation gave [the Torah] a uniquely Jewish flavor and character.… These [YouTube] lessons…are comprehensible by anyone with or without formal training and might hold interest for those who have training, whether it’s at the level of aleph, bet, or gimmel I cannot say.… The lessons are not meant to offend anyone, especially Jewish people. Hopefully [they] might find an interest in how a half-breed Indian views Jewish things.…[1]

Asked why he had such a close affinity for Jews and Jewish issues, Yeagley responded that the first time he actually met a Jew was at Yale in the late 1970s. The ability to meet flesh and blood descendants of Abraham, Moshe, and David after years of his studying the Bible was a life-changing event for him. Whatever the source of Yeagley’s philo-Semitism, it permeated his life’s work. Aside from his religious scholarship, Yeagley composed several classical music pieces on the Holocaust and other Jewish themes, and his website is full of blogged articles in support of Israel and its policies. As I reviewed these various topics, I was looking for possible “ulterior motivation” behind Yeagley’s overtly pro-Jewish views, such as messianic messages and a hidden conversion agenda, and I couldn’t find any. In fact, as a sign of possible “higher” approval for Yeagley’s Torah-teaching endeavors, his introductory video is ironically immediately followed on YouTube by an inspiring video lecture by Rabbi Zev Leff of Moshav Matityahu in Israel, which is aptly entitled “Torah Learning Is Everything.”

Finally, based on how anti-Semitic bloggers regularly attacked him on the Internet, you can rest assured David Yeagley was a true friend of the Jews, maybe the best Comanche friend our people have had since…well…since Chief Bad Eagle!

Dr. Yeagley lost his lengthy battle with cancer on March 11, 2014, at the age of sixty-three. His website, www.badeagle.com, formerly contained many items of interest to the Jewish community. Those interested in the details of the life of this extraordinary American writer, activist, and composer could find them there. It was a site well worth visiting. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the site has been taken down and only a Wikipedia article and this biographical piece are the sole monuments to one of the most intriguing Comanches of all time.

[1] David Yeagley, “Shiurim Torah (Bereshith) Genesis 1,” YouTube video, March 10, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VI1xLQdKo0E

*
Rotenberg is an author and freelance writer based in Teaneck, New Jersey.

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  1. […] Author Joseph Rotenberg is a born story-teller, whether the subject is fiction, or non-fiction, or somewhere in-between, as it was in a piece that San Diego Jewish World recently was granted permission to excerpt: “Torah and Teepees—A Comanche Friend of the Jews.”  Here is a link. […]


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