Arts & Culture Yeehaw! Los Angeles Museum Celebrates History of Western Jews

Contrary to popular notion, not all Jewish immigrants to the United States came through Ellis Island and settled in New York or other cities along the Eastern Seaboard.

Many of the more adventurous sought their fortunes along the ever-shifting frontier of the American West, which stretched from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.

The lives and deeds of these pioneers are traced in an ambitious and richly documented exhibit, “Jewish Life in the American West,” which runs through Jan. 30, 2003 at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles.

Official poster boys for the exhibit are Adolph and Sam Frankel, posing self-consciously for the camera in Cushing, Okla., around 1915. Sam Frankel is dressed in a three-piece suit, stiff collared shirt, necktie and fedora. Adolph Frankel, by contrast, is the complete cowboy, sporting a rakishly tilted Stetson, kerchief, wooly chaps, pistol and lasso.

The single picture captures the transformation of the European Jew from shtetl greenhorn or urban Easterner to proud Westerner and American.

While the first Jews arrived in the West with the early Spanish expeditions of the 16th century, perhaps the true prototype of the Jewish pioneer of the 19th century was Solomon Nunes Carvalho.

He served as the official artist and photographer in the Fremont expeditions that explored vast tracts of the West, and then became one of the founding fathers of the Los Angeles Jewish community.

Also chronicled is another larger-than-life pioneer, Adolphus Sterne, who smuggled arms to Sam Houston, then fighting for the independence of Texas from Mexican rule.

Jews, who wanted to get as far away as possible from the revolutionary upheavals in Europe, headed for California, particularly during the 1848 Gold Rush. Among them was Joseph Newmark, who, after organizing congregations in New York and St. Louis, arrived in the dusty village of Los Angeles and helped found the Hebrew Benevolent Society as the cornerstone of the evolving Jewish community.

The creation of Hollywood as a Jewish “empire” is illustrated through the making of a 1914 six-reeler, “The Squaw Man,” by Cecil B. DeMille, Sam Goldwyn and Jesse Lasky. The film is arguably the movie capital’s first blockbuster.

The Autry Museum was inaugurated in 1988 and was endowed by the silver screen’s wildly popular “Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry, and his wife, Jackie. It includes galleries, archives, a discovery center and a collection of 51,000 objects.

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