For many Jews, the promised land was California

The Romanian Jew tore open the letter and read the admonition that would forever change his life: “If you want to be poor all your life, go to New York.” If not, “Go to the other side.”

Mordechai Dollinger took the advice, immigrating to the “other side” — San Francisco. Half a dozen generations later, his direct descendant, Professor Marc Dollinger, and historian Ava Kahn, have edited a history of Mordechai and, in large part, all California Jews since in the matter-of-factly titled “California Jews.”

The editors believe their book may be the first retrospective encompassing the California Jewish experience.

“What Marc and I tried to do with this book is talk about things that haven’t been talked about before, and we brought together a group of authors who have different perspectives,” said Kahn, a longtime Jewish historian currently serving as a visiting scholar at U.C. Berkeley’s California Studies Center.

“We’ve tried to emphasize how Jews have related to other ethnic groups and other religious groups and to the land and image of California itself.”

Gold pans full of ink have been spilled, recounting the role of Jews in California’s Gold Rush, and “California Jews” doesn’t fail to cover this territory. The book is jammed with sepia-toned photos of Jews in swallow-tail coats and newsboy caps that ought to come equipped with their own Scott Joplin soundtrack.

Kahn, who penned the chapter on the Gold Rush, dug a little deeper, however. Everyone remembers the German Jews who profited during the rush and went on to form Northern California’s Jewish gentry. But they weren’t the only ones lured by the hope of golden riches in a promised land.

“Sephardim always got left out of this, and a lot of American-born Sephardic Jews came in the early days. They were the English-speaking people, the professionals, the aldermen. They were in California’s first supreme court; they were the lawyers in the community,” she said.

“People think of the Gold Rush as just immigrants from Germany [like] Levi Strauss, but there really were people who had been in the U.S. for generations. There were people from Poland; really, the whole Jewish world rushed in. Not everyone popularized blue jeans, but not everyone was successful. There were Jews who committed suicide. Businesses failed and people moved.”

Unlike so many books about Jews in the West, “California Jews” doesn’t close the book on the Jewish community in the era when Adolph Sutro was mayor and Abe Ruef was boss.

In addition, the book sheds some light on underexplored topics such as the role of Jewish women in the past 150 years (contrary to popular misconception, the first Jewish U.S. congresswoman wasn’t New York’s Bella Abzug but California’s Florence Prag Kahn in 1925). It also touches on California’s Catholic-Jewish relations, the Jewish reaction to Japanese American internment (mostly silence, sadly) and Latino-Jewish relations.

“Most research done on American Jewish history deals with black-Jewish history, which is very important but that is defined by a North-South understanding and not East-West,” said Dollinger, a San Francisco State professor of Jewish studies.

In addition to the heavy stuff, “California Jews” also has chapters on synagogue architecture as well as color spreads picturing the stained glass mastery of Michelle and David Plachte-Zuieback and the handmade ketubot of Robert Saslow (including the baseball diamond-themed ketubah he created for certified Los Angeles Dodger fiends Sari Scherer and Joel Poremba).

“I think, for a lot of people, there are real parallels between California and Israel. There’s an idea this is the promised land, with the same climate. I think California has always been a place people can reinvent themselves,” said Kahn, no relation to the former congresswoman.

“And I think Jews are a part of this. People can come out from wherever they were in the world to California and start over.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.