Academic journal article American Jewish History

Western Reality: Jewish Diversity during the "German" Period *

Academic journal article American Jewish History

Western Reality: Jewish Diversity during the "German" Period *

Article excerpt

Recognition of diversity in American Jewish history has emerged during the last several decades. Where New York and other eastern Jewish communities were once accepted as the model of development, recent histories recognize variations in the trajectories of communities outside of these major urban manufacturing centers. Most significantly, historians have recognized that the widely accepted chronology of Jewish waves of immigration--first Sephardic, then German, then East European--does not apply to the Pacific West. (1) Indeed, in part because the East European Jewish migration to the West was far smaller than in the East, it is widely accepted that Germans were the major founders of the nineteenth-century Jewish communities in the western states.

The stereotype of German dominance is attributable not only to the fact that East Europeans came to the West in smaller numbers than to the East. The successes of Jews of Bavarian origin made their names prominent in San Francisco and Portland. From the Levi Strauss Corporation to the Steinhart Aquarium, the Fleishhaker Zoo, and dozens of other businesses and philanthropies, the names of German and especially Bavarian Jews are visible to this day on San Francisco's landmarks and corporate logos. Likewise, many of Portland's most prominent Jews in the nineteenth century, including Portland mayors Bernard Goldsmith and Philip Wasserman, and Aaron Meier, founder of Meier and Frank department store, were Bavarian born. The visibility of these Bavarian Jews and the congregations they formed, Emanu-El in San Francisco and Beth Israel in Portland, has fed the stereotype of German dominance of the nineteenth-century Jewish West.

Yet, as the Germans built their business, political, cultural, and religious institutions, other Jews also migrated to these cities. These other Jews and the institutions they built were often characterized dismissively as "Polish. This label masks as much as it reveals. While these diverse "others" established a variety of shorter-lived and less prominent congregations, in both cities they founded one major congregation of "others"--a congregation to rival Emanu-El and Beth Israel. Examination of those congregations in each city--Sherith Israel in San Francisco and Ahavai Shalom in Portland--illuminates the diverse origins represented within each of these Jewish communities and calls into question the stereotype of the German Jewish West. (2)

In the 1850s, San Francisco developed quickly, with the world's peoples rushing in to take advantage of gold-rush riches. For the developing coastal towns, interior river ports, cities, and small communities of the Far West, San Francisco was the center of the universe. The "City" was the primary port and focus of commerce, supplying manpower, commercial goods, and entertainment for smaller towns' needs. In this period, most Jews first came to the Pacific West by ship, arriving in San Francisco. If they succeeded they stayed, and if not they moved on, often to another western city or town. In many cases, one brother or cousin set up shop in San Francisco while another moved to a smaller town in the Pacific West, where goods could easily be sent from the San Francisco store. One such town was Portland, and many Jews who settled there in the 1860s had their start in San Francisco. For example, Rafael Prag, a native of Posen (the easternmost province of Prussia on the Polish border), first ventured to San Francisco where he became a part of its burgeoning Jewish community. Later, he moved to Portland and helped to found congregation Ahavai Shalom.

Portland, a river city, developed at a slower pace than San Francisco with its "rush" origins. In 1860, a little over a decade after the gold rush, San Francisco had a population of 56,793, while Portland's population reached only 4,141. (3) The same disparity was evident in the Jewish population, where, in the same year, the number of Jews in San Francisco reached approximately 5,000, compared to 135 in Portland. …

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