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Another paradigm for historians: Jewish life on the West Coast

May 1, 2010 Leave a comment
By Joellyn Zollman

Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America’s Edge. Ellen Eisenberg, Ava F. Kahn, and William Toll. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009, 309pp.

SAN DIEGO–The New York Jewish experience has long served as the template for understanding American Jewish history. In Jews of the Pacific Coast, historians Ellen Eisenberg, Ava F. Kahn and William Toll reinvent the template. Instead of assuming that all of American Jewish history is, at some level, patterned after or derivative of the New York Jewish experience, the authors approach the Pacific Coast as a blank slate. They explore how Pacific Coast reality and mentality influenced Jews, and how Jews, in turn, impacted the Pacific Coast.

The resulting book is a regional history of Jewish life in California, Oregon and Washington from the original Gold Rush era settlements through the 1980s. It is not a chronicle of events, individuals, or communities in these states, but rather a thoughtful analysis of the interplay between community and region.

Eisenberg, Kahn and Toll are well-suited to craft a regional history of Jews on the Pacific Coast. Each historian has made significant contributions to the scholarship on western Jewish history, with several books and articles to his/her credit. Collectively, they are a western Jewish history powerhouse. The choice to co-author the book is an intriguing, unusual move for historians working in Jewish studies. It would be much more typical to produce a collection of individually authored essays. In this case, three esteemed historians collaborating to (re)consider regional history adds weight to the resulting scholarship.

The choice to speak in one voice also establishes them as a voting block in the ongoing debate regarding regionalism in Jewish Studies. Scholarly opinions vary regarding the significance of place in American Jewish history, the correct definition and scope of regionalism, and its usefulness as a tool for analysis.

In his study of southern Jews, for example, Mark Bauman found that Jews living in that region had more in common with co-religionists in any other region, save the northeast, than they did with southern white Protestants.[1] Is there, then, a southern Jewish identity? Historian Deborah Dash Moore has suggested that more than north, south, east and west, American Jews are products of “urban regionalism.” It’s their city dwelling that defines them more than the position of that city on an American map.[2]

Eisenberg, Kahn and Toll assert that traditional, old school regionalism has and does play a determinative role in western American Jewish history: “We argue that the timing of the settlement, and the social, political, religious, ethnic, and economic climate of cities and towns profoundly influenced regional identities for Jews and other westerners”

However, they are also careful to point out that modern Jewish identity is multi-layered, and informed by a variety of factors including history, geography and culture. The authors do not place a limit on the number of hyphens in an individual’s identity: “Individuals could embrace their identities as western Jews while at the same time identifying as Russians, Oregonians, Zionists, merchants, and even former New Yorkers.”

Using regionalism as an interpretive lens allows Eisenberg, Kahn and Toll to explore different dimensions of western Jewish life. For example, their research demonstrates that from the very first Gold Rush era settlements, western Jews lived in communities that were racially, ethnically and religiously diverse. San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles were home to a wide variety of people, including, for example, Asians, Mexican Hispanics, American Hispanics, and Native Americans; Catholics, Mormons, and Buddhists. Historian D. Michael Quinn called the region “the inverted image of the Protestant mainstream”

The authors suggest that the remarkable distinctiveness of Pacific Coast Jewry can, in part, be attributed to its place in the western spectrum of race, ethnicity and religion. From the time that they settled in the western United States, Jews were considered part of the Anglo community. This is in contrast with their more fluid racial identity in the south and on the East Coast during the same period, the nineteenth century.[3] Along the Pacific Coast, Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans were the deemed and demeaned “other.”

In such an environment, Jews were not only welcome to set up their own religious communities, but also to assume positions of civic leadership and responsibility in the larger community. Dozens of Jewish men held offices in local government, and Jewish women lead community-wide settlement work and philanthropy in Pacific Coast cities at the turn of the century. These trends, a predilection toward political office and a leadership role in secular philanthropy, continue to characterize western Jewry through the present day.

The swift integration of Jews into western communities did not stumble with the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. In fact, the authors suggest, that this gigantic wave of immigrants, who so profoundly altered American Jewish life on the East Coast, did not remake western Jewish communities. Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe came more gradually and in smaller numbers to the cities on the West Coast.

More influential in the west, particularly in Los Angeles and Seattle, was the smaller wave of Sephardic immigration that occurred in the early 20th century. Again, the western Jewish experience has been characterized by diversity, this time within the Jewish community, that yields a unique historical reality. Diversity continues to characterize Pacific Coast cities. The authors point to the significant populations of Israeli, Persian, Russian and Latin American Jews as key to understanding contemporary western Jewish identity.

West Coast cities have been remarkably welcoming places for Jews to live, conclude Eisenberg, Kahn and Toll. At times, this enthusiasm for Pacific Coast residency resembles boosterism. This is particularly notable in the book’s treatment of anti-Semitism, which is often couched in oddly cheerful or defensive terms. In the introduction, the authors write, “While southern, eastern, and midwestern Jews faced heightened anti-Semitism beginning in the late nineteenth century, Jews of the West continued to celebrate their high level of inclusion and civic prominence. 

A few paragraphs later, they acknowledge an increase in anti-Semitism in California in the early 20th century, which, they argue, can be traced to the large number of midwesterners with prejudiced attitudes who moved to the area, Later, more detailed, discussions of anti-Semitism in the body of the book follow the same pattern and tone: There is anti-Semitism here, but it’s not as bad as other parts of the country. When it does flare up, as in the interwar period or the postwar period, it can often be traced to “newcomers.” There is a disappointing reluctance to put aside the good news in favor of discussion and analysis of native anti-Semitic impulses.

Still, the research is both thoughtful and challenging, an engaging combination that leaves the reader wanting more. How, for example, did the actual western landscape shape the actual western Jewish landscape? In other words, how does material culture, including synagogues, camps, museums and ritual objects, look when viewed through the regional lens?

The book opens with a discussion of the famous stained glass window at Shearith Israel in San Francisco, which depicts Moses delivering the Ten Commandments from El Capitan. Did Bay Area churches or Buddhist centers feature variations on this theme? This is a provocative piece of material culture, deserving of closer analysis. The book would benefit from more considered examination of the physical landscape of western Jewish communities.

In addition, though the book includes the broad term “Pacific Coast” in its title, it is really the history of four major urban communities on the coast: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle. So, local readers looking to gain insight on the San Diego Jewish experience should approach the book with appropriate expectations. San Diego is a sidebar here. Still, it is an interesting exercise to read the book with San Diego in mind, testing the conclusions of the authors in the narrative of San Diego history.

Jewish history is never just one story. By considering Pacific Coast Jewish history as part of the larger narrative of western history, Eisenberg, Kahn, and Toll reveal important characteristics of western Jewish life. At the same time, the authors are aware of the larger narratives of American and Modern Jewish history that impact all American Jews. This does not mean that they always give adequate weight to each narrative. This is a book focused on regional identity, after all. As a result, though the tone sometimes resembles cheerleading, the book succeeds in making the case that regional realities have impacted Jewish identities on the Pacific Coast.

[1] Mark K. Bauman, The Southern as American: Jewish Style (Cincinnati: American Jewish Archives, 1996) 30.

[2] Deborah Dash Moore, William Ferris, et al. “Regionalism: The Significance of Place in American Jewish Life,” American Jewish History 93:2 (June 2007) 115-117.

[3] For a discussion of Jews and whiteness, see Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.


Joellyn Wallen Zollman holds a Ph.D. in Jewish history from Brandeis University. She has taught courses in Modern Jewish History, American Jewish History, and Religious Material Culture at SDSU and UCSD.