Ava F. Kahn, ed. Jewish Voices of the California Gold Rush: A Documentary History, 1849-1880. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002. 549 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8143-2859-0.
Reviewed by Peter Blodgett (H. Russell Smith Foundation Curator of Western American History, Huntington Library)
Published on H-California (August, 2003)
A Chosen People, a Promised Land: Jewish Immigration to Gold Rush California
A Chosen People, a Promised Land: Jewish Immigration to Gold Rush California
Among the most valuable legacies of California's recently concluded sesquicentennial has been the welcome array of documentary compilations that it has encouraged. Michael Kowalewski's Gold Rush: A Literary Exploration, Joshua Paddison's A World Transformed, and Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz's Lands of Promise and Despair in particular have accomplished that challenging but indispensable task of restoring the once-stilled voices of the past. With Jewish Voices of the California Gold Rush, Ava Kahn has made a valuable contribution to that crucial labor of historical recovery.
Winnowing through the welter of words accumulated over the centuries concerning California to find intelligent, articulate, and lively observers whose comments will captivate and enlighten the contemporary reader challenges any editor. Not only can the sheer volume housed in libraries and archives intimidate the most intrepid explorer, but even the most tentative foray into the written records soon encounters the obstinate paradox of famine amidst feast. While the narratives of overland crossings, sea voyages, and the pursuit of gold as experienced by Anglo-Americans abound, teasing out the stories of eyewitnesses from other nations, races, and creeds can require patience, persistence, and skill. In assembling the contents of this volume, Kahn has brought all those characteristics to bear.
Clearly intrigued by the development of what she describes as a "new pluralistic, heterogeneous society [that] accepted and even celebrated economic and religious freedom" (p. 41) in post-gold-discovery California, Kahn believes that the circumstances of this new society allowed Judaism to move in a "new direction" (p. 36). Jews in the Golden State, she argues, like other Europeans or Euro-Americans, "could assert their claims to public place and recognition to an unusual degree" in a setting that lacked the restraining hand of an "established social order" (p. 42). Above all, however, she proposes to illuminate "how Jews of this time and place became one with American life" (p. 35). To do so, she has brought together 110 documents from a marvelously varied assortment of perspectives. Though rich in such traditional fare as excerpts from diaries, letters, and published accounts chronicling the journey to El Dorado and life in the mining camps and boom towns, the volume also includes selected newspaper advertisements, reports of charitable societies, court decisions, and business records as well as accounts of every phase of personal life from birth to death within northern California's Jewish communities. Gold seekers, merchants, teachers, rabbis and travelers, sojourners and permanent residents, men and women, all share the stage that Kahn has erected.
To give coherence to her presentation of the documents, Kahn has organized this anthology into six parts labeled "Looking West," "San Francisco: The Instant Pacific Metropolis," "Personal Struggles," "Gold Rush Country," "Group Relations," and "Looking Backward and Forward." These, in turn, are divided into a series of twelve thematic chapters. Bearing such titles as "Europe Discovers America," "Caring for One's Own," "Earning a Living," and "Family Life," many of them emphasize issues common to the experience of nearly all immigrants in the United States. Various documents depict the struggles of immigrants to reach the new land; the search by newcomers to find or build ties with those who share their nationality or faith; their search for economic success to ensure their future and that of their children; and their efforts to adjust to the strange customs and folkways of a new land without sacrificing their own heritage and beliefs. Other chapters, addressing such subjects as "Judaism Takes Root," "'The Mythical Jew' and 'The Jew Next Door'," "The Wider Community," and "A Part of the Jewish World," focus upon the founding of Jewish religious institutions, the changing nature of belief and worship among many California congregations, the obstacles created by ethnic and religious stereotypes and by anti-Semitism, the evolving relationships of Jews and Gentiles, and the bonds forged between the synagogues of San Francisco and Jewish populations in Europe and the Middle East.
In casting her net so widely, Kahn has gathered in a catch that should appeal to various scholarly tastes. Many of these documents, for example, amplify our understanding of urban development during and after the Gold Rush, from the establishment of a merchant class to the proliferation of social and philanthropic associations that bind together any community. Other selections highlight the dizzying pursuit of wealth and the commensurate fear of failure that characterized the period. Still others portray the crises, large and small, within California Judaism, namely the falling away of many Jews from strict adherence to their faith, the fractiousness that erupted in many congregations riven by dissension over the proper forms of worship, and the acrimonious debates among many Jews over the rise of Reform Judaism elsewhere in the United States. We observe San Francisco's rise as a center for Judaism second only to New York City and note, with interest, the editor's contention that, for the majority of those Jews who traveled to the Golden State at this time, life in California meant a peaceful integration into the broader Euro-American culture at nearly all levels in the decades immediately following gold discovery.
As the foregoing should suggest, Kahn has set herself an ambitious agenda in the conception of this volume; happily, the end result mostly fulfills the potential. Through the choice of documents, she illuminates both the lives of individuals and the life of this community within the setting of Gold Rush California from a variety of perspectives. She has captured its vibrancy, the controversies that marked its evolution, and the sense of liberation--personal, social, religious--felt by many Jews in these new circumstances. She has portrayed the success that many of its members had in sinking roots deep into California's soil and she delineates the burgeoning networks created by that community to sustain the indigent, the ailing, and the newcomer. Kahn's success extends to her handling of the editorial apparatus as well. She furnishes the reader with concise yet informative introductions at every level, from individual documents to chapters to sections, not only identifying the people or organizations who have authored the texts but surrounding them, when necessary, with the contextual details. Similarly, her judicious use of annotations (in the commendable form of footnotes rather than endnotes) enlightens without overwhelming the reader in minutiae. For those readers not conversant with Jewish religious holidays or practices, the glossary of terms offers clarification, just as her instructive bibliographical essay situates her anthology within the growing body of scholarship on the Jewish experience in the American West. The one gap that the volume does not explain is the exclusion of southern California from the framework, despite the presence in Los Angeles of a significant Jewish community that over time would include the extended Newmark clan and Isaias W. Hellman. With over five hundred pages devoted to the Jewish world in northern California, it would be understandable if the editor felt that she had gone about as far as she could, but specific discussion of her decisions in that regard would be welcome.
Given its hefty size and price tag, Jewish Voices may not find frequent use as a reader in survey or introductory courses on the history of California or the American West, though it may fill the bill for more focused classes in other areas such as American religious history, immigration, or urbanization. Its meticulous documentation of the original sources and its reproduction of extensive passages or complete texts, however, ensure its worth as a resource for students and scholars who might be investigating Jewish life in the nineteenth-century West or probing California's post-gold-rush economic, ethnic, social, or religious development. It will be a welcome addition to many libraries, personal and institutional.
. Michael Kowalewski, ed., Gold Rush: A Literary Exploration (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1997); Joshua Paddison, ed., A World Transformed: Firsthand Accounts of California before the Gold Rush (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1999); and Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz, eds., Lands of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of Early California, 1535-1846 (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2001). Two other similar anthologies of note are Malcolm Barker, ed., San Francisco Memories, 1835-1851: Eyewitness Accounts of the Birth of a City (San Francisco: Londonborn Publications, 1994); and Ida Rae Egli, ed., No Rooms of Their Own: Women Writers of Early California, 1849-1869 (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1997).
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Peter Blodgett. Review of Kahn, Ava F., ed., Jewish Voices of the California Gold Rush: A Documentary History, 1849-1880.
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