Readers may recall that about a year ago, my collection of JTNews columns was published as The End of Jewish Radar. It was the subtitle, however, that really telegraphed the book’s argument : “Snapshots of a Postethnic American Judaism.”
My point was that something is happening in Seattle and, indeed, throughout the region we call the “Pacific Northwest” that signals a real shift in the character of North American Jewish culture. Instead of nourishing itself at the breast of the Jewish cultures of New York and L.A., something is happening among us that might in fact be trend-setting in the context of American Jewish history. Is American Jewish culture beginning to flow from West to East?
Some readers have challenged my point, arguing that — given the number of Hebrew and Yiddish expressions that required a glossary of over a hundred terms — the book’s evidence for “postethnicity” among PNW Jews may be overstated. They may have a point; but, in any case, since I offered my comments in the spirit of journalistic provocation rather than academic sobriety, my job was to be entertaining rather than right! [Editor’s note: Hey, wait a second!]
That’s why I was fascinated to learn that the UW Press (which declined, ahem, to publish my own book) has just now released a volume entitled Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America’s Edge. The authors, Ellen Eisenberg, Ava F. Kahn, and William Toll, are all professional historians with longstanding interests in our region’s Jewish history.
The idea of “reinventing community” at a place called “America’s Edge” really caught my attention. Would I find, in this book, scholarly kindling to feed the fires of my own journalistic intuitions?
In a word: No. Which is both a good thing and, I think, a bad thing. Let me explain.
First the very good news. This book, which traces the history of West Coast Jewish cultural and communal institutions from the earliest migrants to San Francisco till about 2005, is the first of its kind that I’m aware of. The authors see the region of the “Pacific Coast” (broadly envisioned as incorporating the states of California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, as well as parts of BC, Idaho, Colorado, and Arizona) as a Jewishly meaningful cultural entity that has its own “story” within the larger “story” of American Jewish history.
The authors argue, convincingly I think, that just as Northeast, Southern, or Midwestern American culture is part of the larger context that colored the culture of American Jewries of those regions, so too the culture of the Pacific Coast has decisively shaped the Jewish culture of our region.
They point out differences in patterns of migration that distinguish Pacific Coast Jewries from those of the Eastern, Southern, and Midwestern Jewish population centers. The specific economic opportunities of the Pacific Coast wrought subtle differences in areas as diverse as residential patterns, philanthropic projects, and the meaning of “religious” and “ethnic” identity. Even the threat of anti-Semitism and its role in Jewish life are measurably different in the relatively libertarian and “unchurched” Pacific West than in the fabled East.
Not only have the authors done a wonderful job of telling the “story” of Western Jewry in a way that distinguishes it from other American-Jewish regional cultures. They also tease out the nuances of difference within the diverse Jewish cultures of the Pacific West. They tell a multi-dimensional tale of many cities and their hinterlands. San Francisco and Los Angeles dominate the narrative, as well they should. But plenty of attention is drawn to the fortunes of Portland, Seattle, Bellingham (who knew?), Spokane, Denver, Phoenix, and other centers of significant Jewish settlement.
And if the generality of American Jewish historical memory is dominated by the Ashkenazic experience, this book gives the fullest accounting of the Sephardic experience in the American Pacific Coast that I’m aware of in a book not devoted entirely to Sephardic-American history..
Complete with archival photos, charts of population shifts, and all the other accoutrements of professional historiography (hundreds of notes and a large bibliography), the book is a goldmine of up-to-date information. It is also written with a light touch and an eye toward the general reader. Its large format and wonderful pictures make it appear like the proverbial “coffee table book,” but it’s much more.
Nevertheless, the book fails in a way to deliver on the promise of its subtitle. Readers expecting textured descriptions of Jewish folkways of “community reinvention” at the “edge” of American culture (whatever that is) will be disappointed by a story dominated by the usual cast of conventional characters — synagogue boards, business tycoons, goniffs, philanthropists, and, of course, golden-tongued oratorical rabbis of all flavors.
So, once again, the best is the enemy of the good. But let’s not put the cart before the horse! We have now at hand, thanks to Profs. Eisenberg, Kahn, and Toll, the historical context that will enable more nuanced anthropological studies of the Jewish tribes of the Pacific Coast.