The somewhat secret history of Solano County’s Jews

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In 1884, the citizens of Vacaville elected as their mayor Moses Blum, a director of the Vaca Valley Railroad Co. He was a prominent businessman who owned a downtown produce store and operated a shipping business. He also was a member of the only Jewish family in town.

Kullman, Salz & Co., a Jewish-owned tannery from 1881, was on First Street in Benicia. (Photo/Benicia Historical Museum)

This historical nugget, and many more, can be found in the newly published “Jewish Com-munity of Solano County,” part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series.

Authors Rachel Raskin-Zrihen, Rachel Rae Moncharsh-Lessem and Shoshana Deutscher-Nurik combed local archives going as far back to the Gold Rush era to unearth stories of Jews who settled in the region, many of whom didn’t advertise their Jewish identity.

The Jewish-owned Kullman, Salz & Co. Tannery, part of Benicia’s booming leather tanning industry, lined First Street for decades and was one of the largest employers in the region. In Vallejo after the 1906 earthquake, Chaim Bercu opened the San Francisco Free Market, a food shop, and Meyer Liberman opened a naval tailor store and later became a large manufacturer of work and mining pants.

The authors, all Solano County residents who have known each other for years and are members of Hadassah, were inspired to write the book after Arcadia published one about Napa County’s Jewish history in 2012.

“If they can do it, we can do it,” Raskin-Zrihen remembers thinking. Arcadia approved the project, and the authors began searching archives from the Sons and Daughters of Israel, the Benicia Historical Museum, the Benicia Arsenal, the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum, the Vallejo Times Herald and the Benicia Herald for Jewish names and photographs that could be included in their photo-illustrated book. They tracked down stories that were hinted at in the archives and confirmed Jewish-sounding names through cemetery or synagogue records.

Many Jews who came to Solano County in the 19th and early 20th century were immigrants from Germany or the Alsace region of France, Raskin-Zrihen said. Early immigrants were drawn to the area for the same reasons others flooded the region during the Gold Rush: opportunity.

At that time many Jews found it advantageous to start businesses catering to prospectors and other residents.

“They came for the excitement,” Moncharsh-Lessem said. “It had nothing to do with them being Jewish.” After the 1906 earthquake, Jewish immigrants were also drawn to the Bay Area by work opportunities rebuilding the region.

Kaskill “King” Casper brought Vallejo into the modern era by rescuing a power company on the verge of folding and converting the city’s gas lamps to electric lights. Casper had changed his last name from Blumenthal as a young adult, and no one outside the Jewish community knew he was Jewish, Raskin-Zrihen said. The authors were only able to confirm his Jewish identity through a cemetery record and later, a synagogue memorial board.

Though the Jewish community became more organized in the 20th century with the 1910 formation of Sons and Daughters of Israel (later to become Vallejo’s Congregation B’nai Israel), the authors said that to this day some in Solano County’s Jewish community of about 5,000 don’t advertise their identity. One Vacaville business owner asked not to be included in the book because she said she had been threatened by the Ku Klux Klan earlier in her life. The authors, unaware there had been Klan activity in Solano County, later found an undated photo of a large Klan gathering in the Vallejo Naval Museum archives.

The authors hope the book bolsters the community. “There have been Jewish people in the community for a very, very long time, and people shouldn’t have to feel afraid to be who they are,” Deutscher-Nurik said. “We’ve come a long way.”

“Jewish Community of Solano County” (127 pages, www.arcadiapublishing.com, $21.99)


Book signings,
1:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum, 734 Marin St.; 4:30 p.m. Nov. 9 at Bookshop Benicia, 636 First St.; and 12:30 p.m. Nov. 23 at B’nai Israel, 1256 Nebraska St., Vallejo. Hadassah book event Nov. 16; RSVP to [email protected].

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.