It turns out that Tucson rests in the northern section of the Sonoran Desert, one of the wettest deserts in the world. Some sections can get an average of 16 inches of rainfall per year. All that water supports millions of cacti, including the majestic Saguaro variety made famous in countless cowboy movies, as well as grasses and bushes that lend the dunes their green tint.
Throw in various mountain ranges that ring the city, and Tucson offers some of the most spectacular scenery of any U.S. metropolis.
I was not the first Jew drawn to this part of Arizona. That distinction belongs to the Jacobs brothers, Barron and Lionel, who arrived from San Bernardino, Calif., in 1869, according to Eileen Warshaw, executive director of the Jewish Heritage Center of the Southwest.
The Jacobs brothers started out as merchants, and later opened Tucson's first successful bank. More Jews soon followed. Eventually, the community grew large enough to build the first synagogue in Arizona. Temple Emanu-El opened on Stone Avenue in 1910 with 120 member families.
Today, the Stone Avenue temple has reinvented itself as the Jewish Heritage Center of Tucson (www.jewishheritagecenter.net; 520-670-9073).
The center provides a historic venue for cultural performances and the celebration of joyous events, including weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. The center has its own beautiful Torah — a Holocaust survivor.
Throughout the month of January, the center will present "Letters to Sala," a special traveling exhibition of letters that a young Jewish teenager received from her family during the Holocaust and hid during her time in a Nazi slave-labor camp.
Visitors to the center can admire the beautiful stained-glass windows decorated with the shofar, menorah and other Jewish symbols. They can view a life-sized photograph of Moses Jacob Charles ("Charlie") Strauss, a Philadelphian who became the first Jewish mayor of Tucson in 1882. The city has had four more Jewish mayors since then.
Those seeking more evidence of the thriving Jewish scene need look no further than the Tucson Jewish Community Center (tucsonjcc.org; 520-299-3000).
Birthday Party for Israel
The JCC serves as a hub of the Jewish community. Locals and visitors alike enjoy the extensive athletic facilities (fitness center, pool and tennis courts), as well as cultural events like an annual Tucson Jewish Film Festival, running from Jan. 12 to Feb. 24.
If you're coming to Tucson later in the spring, definitely pencil in a trip to the Israel Festival, scheduled for Sunday, April 6. As many as 10,000 people are expected to join in a celebration of Israel's 60th birthday at the JCC.
Of course, there is much else to take in in this city. Most visitors and local Tucsonans find the desert landscape to be the greatest attraction.
Tucson is bracketed to the east and west by the two halves of the Saguaro National Park (www.nps.gov/sagu). Near the western section of the park, you'll find the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum (www.desertmuseum.org; 520-883-1380), a combination zoo, museum and botanical garden, where you can see raptors in free flight, observe prairie dogs in their colony and walk through a hummingbird aviary.
If you want to experience a bit of the desert right in the middle of Tucson proper, look no further than Tohono Chul Park (520-742-6455). Start your day with huevos rancheros in the park's Tea Room, then take a docent-led tour of the 49-acre preserve to learn about the local flora. Afterward, you can pick up your own little cactus from the park's greenhouse shop.
Looking for some local art? Visit the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun (www.degrazia.org; 520-299-9191) to tour the galleries that artist Ettore DeGrazia built with his own hands, and see changing exhibits from among the 15,000 pieces of art in the gallery's permanent collection.
You're sure to recognize DeGrazia's most famous work: "Los Niños," a painting reproduced on countless UNICEF cards in 1960.
Where to eat? Tucson is famous for its Southwestern and Mexican cuisine. Head over to Blanco Tacos & Tequila in the Encantada shopping mall (520-232-1007) for enchiladas and a selection of nearly 30 premium tequila brands.
You can't miss the green-chile tater tots, yellow velvet soup (corn and yellow peppers), pistachio-dusted salmon and other irresistible creations of Jamie West, executive chef at the Westward Look resort's Gold Room restaurant (1-800-722- 2500).
The resort itself is in the midst of a full renovation that promises to return the charming property to its glory days as the retreat of Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, Vivian Leigh and John Wayne.
Also, note that both the JCC and the University of Arizona Hillel (www.uahillel.org; 520-624-6561) have kosher cafes on their premises.
As for where to stay … The Westin La Paloma (www.westinlapalomaresort. com; 520-742-6000) offers families lots of choices with golf, tennis and an Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa for the adults. There's also the Southwest's longest resort waterslide (177 feet) for kids of all ages.
Couples or individual travelers seeking a bit more rest and seclusion on their visit to Tucson might prefer the comfort of the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa (www.jwmarriottstarrpass.com; 520-792-3500). The resort's Hashani Spa offers a hot stone-therapy massage that incorporates the same heated basalt stones used in local Native American treatments.
For more information, go to: www. visittucson.org.