Secret history of Jewish Portland revealed


Last weekend the Jewish community of Portland, Oregon threw itself a big party.

The Food for Thought festival organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland sought to strengthen community identity, bring unaffiliated into the fold and collect food for the Oregon Food Bank, a local charity. It was also an opportunity to showcase the city’s surprisingly rich Jewish past.

A guided tour of Portland’s historic Alphabet district showed where many of the city’s most notable Jewish denizens lived and told their stories. This spooky wooden mansion, for instance, was the home of Vera Katz, Portland’s mayor from 1993 to 2005. Katz is one of five Jews to hold that position to date.


Bernard Goldsmith, the first Jewish mayor who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany, was elected in 1869.

“Within 20 years of Portland’s founding there was already a Jewish mayor,” explained Judith Margles, the director of the Oregon Jewish Museum. “Jewish Germans came here very early and back then Portland and San Francisco were the only two developed cities on the West Coast.”

The pretty wooden building below was built by Nathan Loeb, a German Jewish trader, in 1893 and later became a hippie den in the 1960s and 1970s. But the true treasure in the photo is tour guide Michael Ryreson, a renowned photojournalist and fourth-generation Jewish Portlander.

In 1979 he made a poster showing local bar owner Bud Clark flashing a female nude sculpture with the slogan “expose yourself to art.” The image became wildly popular selling by the hundreds of thousands.

Clark consequently became a household name in Portland and used his fame to launch a surprisingly successful bid to become Portland’s mayor, a position he held from 1985 to 1992, the year he lost an election to the aforementioned Katz. Only in Portland.

No overtly Jewish connection in the photo above. Just an interesting fact. This residential building in the fore of a typically overcast Portland sky was where director Gus Van Sant shot his critically acclaimed film Drugstore Cowboy in 1989.

It’s located just two blocks from the Oregon Jewish Museum, which has a wealth of information on the history of the Jews in the Beaver State. The permanent exhibit displays photos snapped by Jewish photographer Arthur Rothstein in Oregon during the Great Depression, like the one below.

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