Penny Wolin, self-described "official photographer emeritus of the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo," spent six years photographing and interviewing 100 of the Jews of Wyoming.

The Jews of Wyoming?

That's right.

"Cowboy and Yiddish. Wit and pathos. They're much alike," Wolin said from her home in Sebastopol, Calif.

No one believed her origins when she went to Hollywood 19 years ago. But indeed, Wolin is from a "robust and thriving Jewish community" in Cheyenne that at its peak had 700 members -- "complete with seven Torahs, ritual bath, sanctified burial ground and a dynamic synagogue," she boasted. A decade or so ago, between her regular shoots for motion picture companies and other businesses, she focused on the question "What does it mean to be a Jew from the Cowboy State?"

What developed is "Fringe of the Diaspora: The Jews of Wyoming," a traveling exhibit now at the National Museum of American History. Wolin's black-and-white photographs, made with a 4x5 Busch press camera

and printed using archival processes, have the quality of etchings. Some re-photographed historic pictures are included. Silk-screened onto mats are excerpts from interviews with four generations about their traditions: "What was Jewish, what was cowboy and what ultimately became American?" as Wolin writes in the exhibit brochure.

The quotations are all anonymous, and the subjects of the photographs, some with startling juxtapositions, are not identified. "Without names, they become an icon of what the message and idea is," Wolin said. The quotations are not verbatim, she acknowledged. "They're condensed, the grammar is corrected -- that's why they're not in quotes."

Going through the exhibition takes time as the viewer tries to understand the text and the photographs, both works of art. The words and pictures are so poignant and sometimes so surprising that they are worth the study. Wolin is a fine photographer and a first-class interviewer and her choices of people on whom to focus are inspired.

The coming of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1868 gave the southeastern Wyoming towns of Cheyenne and Laramie the nickname "Hell-on-Wheels," Wolin said. The boom towns attracted German Jews, arriving between 1840 and 1880, disappointed by the failure of the revolution of 1848 in their homeland. They brought their culture with them, including a 20-volume, leather-bound Talmud printed in 1859 and shown in a photo at the exhibit.

Wolin said agriculture was encouraged among the early immigrants, but the land was poor and advice bad. Her "Huntley Homestead" sets a turn-of-the-century photograph of young would-be farmers with their tools against a background of straw and a bleached, tooth-encrusted jawbone.

Other newcomers fared better. In 1890 "Max Meyer's dry goods store was the 10-gallon hat capital of the world," the text asserts. Later, fan dancer Sally Rand modeled such a topper during a Frontier Days event.

"I know a couple of Jewish people who used to close their stores on Saturday, go to shul {synagogue} and their sons would come in and run the store. The father was in shul and he didn't know the store was open," one of the oral histories states.

Between 1881 and 1941, refugees from eastern Russia's Pale of Settlement came to the United States, bringing terrible stories. One panel tells of men who maimed themselves to escape 10 years of servitude in the Russian army.

Another quotes a woman whose mother came to the United States on a ship, alone except for "me, a little baby who had scarlet fever ... All the passengers told her to throw me overboard. They said she would never get me here alive, because I was so sick."

Once in Wyoming, the immigrants did their best to make a good life for themselves and their community. A still life of knives and kosher meat pays tribute to one furniture store owner who, because there was no one in his town trained as a kosher butcher, went to another town and learned the traditional technique.

Wolin's own father, Aaron Meyer ben Avrahom, a fine-looking white-haired man, was photographed sitting in an old revolving office chair in the midst of a dry Western field. Another picture shows the deed to his land and his badge as a deputy sheriff. Wolin's parents also posed for a novelty photo in which their faces appear through the cutouts in painted cowboy figures. The legend reads, "Mom and Dad, Before Me." Wolin's father, who died this year, was born just before the Great War, after his father left Russia for Wyoming, where he'd been told the government was giving land away. "Free land he never heard of in Russia! So he came to Cheyenne and applied for a homestead." Not until the end of World War I could Wolin's grandfather send for his wife and five children. After being quarantined for measles in Chicago, Aaron at last met the father he'd never seen.

In one of Wolin's photographs, a man with a yarmulke and tallit (prayer shawl) stands against a barbed-wire fence on a cloudy and wind-swept day. The title is "Home for the High Holy Days," and accompanying it is a quotation: "Wyoming is so big, and the population so small, there are few opportunities. ... On one hand, you're trying to survive, and on the other you're trying to be the best because you're a Jew."

After World War II, young people began to leave the community. The overall population of Wyoming "has dwindled in the last 10 years," Wolin said.

She makes the point with the picture "Sisters Moved to Denver." The caption notes they were a "cheerleader and a junior class president. Both married non-Jews and divorced. 'Having different holidays, and the religions being so far apart ... it was harder than we thought.' "

A handsome woman ("Eighteen Years Sisterhood President") gives another view. "We converts to Judaism don't take anything for granted. The Talmud says, when someone becomes Jewish it's as if they were always Jewish, and they should never be reminded otherwise."

A wizened old man in one panel holds tight to a picture of a woman. On a plank wall behind him hang portraits of other family members. The title reads: "That's His Mother. He Never Married." The text says, "When my grandfather brought my folks here from Minsk to Cheyenne, he bought this piece of ground here, with just the two rooms. ... this is home, and that's why I hang around here."

"He's the end of his line," Wolin explained.

The small but splendid traveling exhibition is at the National Museum of American History through Oct. 25. The free brochure reproducing six photographs with their texts makes the viewer long for a full book.