The Hebrew Cemetery in Marysville takes up a corner of the city cemetery, located right off Highway 70. The gate is originally from a Jewish cemetery in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
The Hebrew Cemetery in Marysville takes up a corner of the city cemetery, located right off Highway 70. The gate is originally from a Jewish cemetery in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

How the Gold Rush sprinkled Northern California with Jews

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In J.’s current print issue, we profile the growing Jewish community of Lake Tahoe, tucked among fragrant rows of pines and, at times, immense drifts of snow.

It may seem that our archives are city-centric — and it’s undeniable that a lot of what this paper reported over the past 128 years centered on San Francisco and the East Bay. But over the years we have also reported tidbits from some of the more far-flung spots where Jews lived, worshipped and socialized in California.

For example, in 1906 we reported on a romantic encounter at that very same Lake Tahoe, already a popular vacation spot for city folk, just as it is today:

“The friends of Mr. Charles Sutro will be pleased to hear of the announcement of his engagement to Miss Marie Berger, a beautiful and fascinating young lady. The betrothal is the result of a romantic summer at Lake Tahoe.”

Sutro was well-heeled and the nephew of Adolf Sutro, a notable businessman and mayor of San Francisco in the 1890s. (Adolf Sutro’s own legacy has been re-examined in recent years, in part because his famed Sutro Baths banned Black people in the late 1800s.)

The Gold Rush drew Jews from across the country and the world to some fairly isolated sites in hopes of finding their fortune. We wrote in 1912 that such adventurers “who chose the rural districts for their abode and business operations were not so madly seized with temporal matters as to entirely overlook spiritual ones.

“Wherever possible, cemeteries were founded, benevolent societies formed, and finally, chartered congregations loomed up in Sacramento, Stockton, Marysville, Placerville, and in many other places.”

In an 1895 essay about the foundation of the Eureka Benevolent Society (now Jewish Family and Children’s Service), we mentioned Marysville, which had its own Jewish cemetery established in 1855. (It still exists!) August Helbling, co-founder of the benevolent society, wrote this from San Francisco:

“An incident happened in the early fifties. A co-religionist living in Marysville lost his wife who left him a boy baby. He took the latter to bring him to this city to be cared for.

“On his way down the steamboat ‘Governor Dana’ exploded her boilers and he lost his life. The baby was brought here and was adopted by this society which bestowed great care upon him, in time had him taught a trade, supported him until he could support himself.”

Congregation Beth Shalom in Marysville, a Reform synagogue of about 25 older members located near the town center and the Yuba River. If it looks like the town watering hole, that's because the building was originally built as a saloon. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Congregation Beth Shalom in Marysville, a Reform synagogue located near the town center and the Yuba River, seen in 2020. If it looks like the town watering hole, that’s because the building was originally built as a saloon. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

In 1896, we carried this description of Sonora, not far from Yosemite.

“Sonora has a small congregation of eight families besides a number of young people. They always have services, and they have a society called the Sonora Hebrew Benevolent Society, which has existed for the past forty years.

“In former years a number of Jewish people lived in Columbia, four miles from Sonora, where they had a society called the Columbia Hebrew Benevolent Society, but as all Jews had disappeared from there the society fell to pieces.

“The Jewish people of Sonora usually keep Yom Kippers and Rosh Hashonah; they have a sepher and readers for the Holiday, and generally do the best they can; they have a cemetery, than which there is no prettier spot outside of San Francisco.”

In 1898, we described the progress of Reform Judaism in Stockton in fulsome terms. (This was a Reform paper and the writer (“D.M.”) obviously approved of the progressive Reform ideals alive in Stockton).

“Since Stockton has been a city it has never had a rabbi, but having a temple, a well organized congregation and a cemetery, the Jews have long felt the need of one,” we wrote.

“With the progress of the city the reform movement has taken as deep a hold on the local Yehudim as it has elsewhere, and in order to perpetuate Judaism in the true spirit and also to educate the rising generation in the religion of their fathers in a comprehensive manner, Stockton has at last followed in the path of progress and has been fortunate enough to services of Rev. R. Farber.”

By 1915, Stockton’s Jewish community was building and thriving, enough so that it could be a resource for even smaller towns in the region:

“The annual meeting of Temple Israel was held during the month of December and a detailed and interesting report was read by the president, M. Coblentz. Progress was reported in every direction.

“The religious school has an enrollment of eighty children — the largest in the history of the institution — and Rabbi Magnin has arranged to have Jewish children come in from Lodi, Turlock, Modesto and the surrounding towns periodically.”

RELATED: A road trip through Jewish Gold Country

In 1920, we ran a story with a long and very enthusiastic headline: “Jewish Populace of Fresno Fast Becoming Recognized for Its Unity of Strength. From an Insignificant Movement of a Few Years Ago, the Jewish Spirit Has Spread to Its Families, Now Numbering Nearly Three Hundred — Synagogue in Contemplation.”

The community was headed by Rabbi Alexander Segel, who seems to have done as well as a rabbi can do, according to our article: “Greeted with open arms by a religious-hungry populace, his sermons have been remarkably attended.”

“Never could he have selected a more fruitful field for the spiritual work he has set out as his life’s work as in Fresno, where he is honestly and wholeheartedly received by a population hungry for Jewish knowledge.”

There was even a Hebrew school: “Occasionally the tots are treated to a picnic or a fete or festival.”

Children were also getting a Jewish education in Modesto, where in 1927 we wrote: “Although still in its infancy, the school has quite a large attendance already, and the committee in charge is expecting to have all the children interested shortly.” No word on whether that came to pass.

In 1936, new activity was afoot in the San Joaquin Valley, an area rich in farmland if not in synagogues: “Jewish Families in San Joaquin Meet For Cultural Activities.”

“For the first time, San Joaquin Valley Jews are organizing,” we wrote. “Tulare and Kings counties’ families have established social and cultural contacts. Under the guidance of Rabbi David L. Greenberg and J. Cooper, president of the Kings-Tulare County Jewish Group, meetings are held twice monthly by residents of Tulare, Hanford, Visalia, and other small neighboring towns. This first attempt to formulate an inter-community Jewish life in sections long isolated from the centers of Jewish activity brings together approximately fifty families.”

These are just a sprinkling of mentions of Jewish life in the more remote parts of Northern California. But it’s clear that whether it was an uphill battle like in Visalia or a smooth roll like in Stockton, Jews were determined to make community and forge connections wherever they found themselves.

Or, as we said about the “rural Jews” in 1912: “They are not losing their identity, are known as Jews, and, as a rule, make good and desirable citizens.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.