West Coast Jews


by Deborah Dash Moore

Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America’s Edge,
by Ellen Eisenberg, Ava F. Kahn, and William Toll,
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 336 pp.

Three talented historians, Ellen Eisenberg, Ava F. Kahn, and William Toll, have teamed up to write this history of West Coast Jews. They bring complementary backgrounds to the project, each having focused on different cities in their previous research. Their book, Jews of the Pacific Coast, presents a comparative account largely of urban Jews in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle and emphasizes the first century, beginning with the 1840s Gold Rush. This evenhanded chronology situates the important postwar decades and last half of the twentieth century as extensions of previous decades. It does not privilege those years when Los Angeles became the second largest Jewish city in the United States over its nineteenth-century history. By contrast, San Francisco, which flourished as the second largest Jewish city in the years after the Civil War, occupies a central place in this volume as an influential metropolis with extensive economic and social ties to other towns and cities along the Pacific Coast. 

With its emphasis on building distinctive western forms of Jewish community, Jews of the Pacific Coast encodes a vision of the West and western history in order to offer a new interpretation of Jewish history. Its version of western history is definitely not The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West of Patricia Nelson Limerick (1987). Conquest, for Limerick, plays a key role in the history of the American West as slavery does in the American South. It is the region’s peculiar historical burden. Rather Jews of the Pacific Coast hews more closely to Frederick Jackson Turner’s ideas about frontier and section, including his conceptualization of the West as contributing to both American democracy and the ideal of making a better world for the future. Turner argued that westerners introduced ideas about government that empowered voters even as they demanded government support to build a new society.

Eisenberg, Kahn, and Toll stress the creative freedom Jews found in western society, unburdening them from past constraints. Not that life was a blank slate, but living in the West offered previously unimagined opportunities for those willing to take risks. And since most Jews who landed in California, Oregon, or Washington in the nineteenth century had braved daunting difficulties just to arrive, they were inclined to experiment in the types of communities they established. Most had tarried for a number of years in the eastern United States and spoke English before heading west. This gave them familiarity with American culture and eased their adaptation to the new Pacific Coast society. They integrated relatively easily into booming cities and eschewed most forms of residential and social segregation.

As a result, economic networks undergirded communal activities. Most Jews entered small-scale commerce, though some tried agriculture and manufacturing. Eisenberg, Kahn, and Toll do not focus on the famous sons of the Pacific West, such as Levi Strauss, but leaven their descriptions of social and economic developments with stories of relatively obscure individuals drawn from the archives. These vignettes illustrate particular patterns of mobility, of financial failure as well as success, of migration from small towns to larger cities or from rural to urban environments, and of gender relations and family ties. The economic connections helped Jews as they settled down to forge those communal organizations–from congregations to women’s clubs–that weave a web of common concern and commitment.

The authors also keep in mind dominant narratives of American Jewish history, especially when the mass migration of Jews from eastern Europe dramatically shifted the center of gravity to very large cities like New York. They point out effectively where and how western Jews differed from their eastern compatriots. Those differences appeared not only in occupational structure but also in social and political integration achieved in such cities as San Francisco. Active among the founders of many Pacific Coast cities, Jews enjoyed equality with their socioeconomic peers. A number participated in municipal and state politics, winning election to public office with little attention paid to their Jewish identity. As a very small minority of each city and state’s population, Jews did not stand out as different from other whites, in contrast to Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and African Americans. In the twentieth century, the trajectory of Pacific Coast Jews diverged most clearly from that of the majority of American Jews living in crowded immigrant slums, working in garment factories and other light manufacturing, speaking Yiddish, and consuming a vibrant Yiddish popular culture.

Such freedom from discrimination as Jews enjoyed in the Pacific West encouraged them to develop communal institutions that fostered relatively few ties with the old country or even with other Jews in the United States. Congregations catered to their members. Many attracted talented rabbis who took seriously their leadership roles as representatives of the Jewish community. The authors waver on whether the reputation of Pacific Coast Jews for a staunch anti-Zionism is deserved; they give evidence of opposition but also note the popularity of Hadassah and political support for a Jewish state. When the book reaches the post-World War I period, it struggles to explain some of the changes that took place, since these indicate Jewish exclusion from politics, elite social circles, and economic opportunities. As Jewish population stagnated in the northern cities, the book shifts its focus to Los Angeles and the arrival of east European Jews whose concentrated settlement pattern disrupted previously established norms of integration.

The authors discuss the rise of Hollywood and “the moguls.” Their use of this term to describe Jewish entrepreneurs, producers, and business executives clearly distinguishes them from earlier western Jewish capitalists who were not labeled pejoratively. Although such language is widespread among historians, it would be wise for American Jewish historians to model evenhandedness when discussing motion picture studio executives. No one talks of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and other exploitive “captains of industry” as “robber barons” these days. Jews, it seems, were model “moguls,” a word with overtones of “oriental” potentates, rather than industry business executives.

Jews of the Pacific Coast has an almost square format trim size, designed to facilitate illustrations. The book includes an insert of full-color images to complement the text as well as other illustrations. The authors begin by referencing one of the color plates: a stained glass window in Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco of Moses holding the tablets of the law. Although such a figurative representation would not be allowed in an orthodox synagogue, it is not atypical to find depictions of men (and occasionally women) in Reform temples. Atypically this window portrays Moses descending with the tablets not from Mt. Sinai but rather from El Capitan, the famously impossible-to-scale rock formation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of San Francisco. This image conveys how Jews imagined linking their religious tradition with the majesty of the western landscape as they gathered to receive the Torah in Yosemite. Jews brought their inheritance to the West, a new Zion in America. The window’s powerful vision of synthesis and integration captures the history Eisenberg, Kahn, and Toll seek to tell.

Piece originally published at H-Net Reviews  |  

About the Author:

Deborah Dash Moore  is the Director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and a Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Her fields of study are American Jewish history; 20th century urbanization, migration, acculturation; and community building.