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Arts & Culture the Promised Land in the West: Book Focuses on California’s Jews

January 29, 2004
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The book-jacket cover of “California Jews” shows a windswept Moses bearing the Ten Commandments.

He is not descending Mount Sinai, but the granite face of El Capitan at Yosemite National Park in California.

The waiting tribes of Israel, each under their own banner, are assembled at the foot of the mountain in Yosemite Valley.

The picture is reproduced from a stained-glass window in San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel and informs us that as a result of Moses’ descent, “California is transformed into the Promised Land.”

Ever since its admission to the United States in 1850, the state of California has been viewed by outsiders, most notably East Coast pundits, as, alternately, Paradise Gained or Paradise Lost.

By and large, the 16 essay contributors to “California Jews” come down on the rosy side.

Just as Israelis — whose ecological and climatic similarity to California is frequently stressed — sought to create the “new Jew,” so too their California cousins see themselves as a breed apart from the Jews of the “Old America” in the East, South and Midwest.

As the book’s co-editors, Ava F. Kahn and Marc Dollinger, write in the introduction, “Jewish immigrants to California took advantage of its physical environment, ethnic diversity and cultural distinctiveness to fashion a form of Judaism unique in the American experience.”

A key determinant was that the Jews of the mid-19th century Gold Rush era arrived not as outsiders in settled communities, but as pioneers in an as-yet unformed society, made up of newly arrived immigrants.

Much has changed in the past 154 years, but by bringing the California Jewish story into the 21st century, the contributors largely agree that the state’s 1 million Jews remain distinctive from their Eastern brethren — less traditional, less religious, more individualistic, less community-involved, more willing to embark on new paths.

The book’s chapters are fairly eclectic and focus on certain movements and institutions, rather than giving a comprehensive overview of contemporary Jewry in the Golden State.

Tel Aviv University professor Na’ama Sabar writes in “Kibbutz San Fernando” of the large number of former Israeli kibbutzniks who have settled in the northern part of Los Angeles, socializing almost exclusively among themselves.

There are chapters on “Ketubot in the Golden State,” which often incorporate scenes from the state’s natural wonders, on early synagogue architecture, and on contemporary stained glass art.

Amy Hill Shevitz, one of the livelier authors, paints a portrait of Venice, lapped by the Pacific Ocean, where Jewish retirees and Orthodox worshipers mingle easily with bikers and muscle builders.

A chapter on the early Hollywood moguls by Felicia Herman adds a useful dimension to the familiar story of the ambitious immigrant entrepreneurs — and insecure Jews — who founded the studios by stressing the role of Jewish- community and defense organizations in “protecting” the Jewish image in films.

Their job was not only to keep anti-Semitic stereotypes out of the movies, but to discourage “excessively” pro-Jewish characters and storylines, to deprive those who railed against Jewish control of Hollywood of additional ammunition.

Ellen Eisenberg chronicles one of the less glorious moments of the state’s Jewish community when it failed to protest the internment of Japanese-American citizens after Pearl Harbor, while demanding that Jewish refugees from Germany not be classified as “enemy aliens.”

Kahn and Glenna Matthews stress the prominence of Jewish women in the suffrage movement, politics, trade unions and community affairs.

The 1960s and ’70s descendants of these doughty women, writes Dollinger, sparked the counterculture, civil rights and anti-war movements in their native state and then turned their energies to revitalizing Jewish life and practice.

This generation of California Jews, like their forbears, enjoyed a position on “the sharp edge of life,” observes Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who did much to sharpen the edge.

Bruce Powell describes lovingly the remarkable experiment in modern Jewish living and education that evolved into the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, and the life of founder Shlomo Bardin, who abandoned the East Coast to find in Southern California “people willing to take chances, to build, to dream, to plant their own unique roots.”

Perhaps the most useful chapter for readers eager to divine the future of Los Angeles Jewry is Steven Windmuller’s analysis of Jewish interaction with the area’s Latino population, which will soon constitute a majority of the city’s residents.

Windmuller sees in an alliance of the two ethnic groups a chance for California and for American Jews to re-engage in their historical, but largely abandoned, role as catalysts of social reform in the nation’s cities.

Unfortunately, the role of California’s colorful newspapers and periodicals is all but ignored, except for some references to stories in the defunct B’nai B’rith Messenger.

The editors also are parsimonious in crediting earlier historians who mined the Jewish history of California and the West before it became a fashionable academic discipline.

These omissions notwithstanding, “California Jews” offers a window into one of the most intriguing communities in American Jewish history.

“California Jews” is published by Brandeis University Press as part of its series on American History, Culture, and Life. The 216-page book, including 17 color illustrations, is priced at $34.95.

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