Being Jewish on the East Coast is not the same as being Jewish on the West Coast. It’s a feeling a lot of people may have, but can’t quantify in any specific way beyond the availability of pastrami and corned beef. Ellen Eisenberg has made her career about the study of those differences, and how the history of Jews on the West Coast is so different from those who either migrated to or stayed East.
“American Jewish history is so dominated by New York, and there is sort of an attitude that once you know New York Jewry, you know American Jewry and everything else is a kind of microcosm.” Eisenberg said. “We know that’s not the case.”
Eisenberg, a professor of American History at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. has spent between the last 12 and 15 years studying West Coast Jewry. She came up to Seattle at the beginning of the month for two separate events based on two separate books she has recently authored or co-authored. One, a history of Jewish response to Japanese Internment, The First to Cry Down Injustice? Western Jews and Japanese Removal During WWII, was the subject of a talk she gave for the Stroum Jewish Studies Program at the University of Washington. The other, Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America’s Edge, was written over the course of 10 years with fellow experts Ava F. Kahn and William Toll. Eisenberg spoke about this book and heard from many of the people most interested in the subject of local Jewish history at the Washington State Jewish Historical Society’s annual meeting.
Eisenberg said there has been ongoing debate about whether differences exist between different populations of Jews around the country, as well as the importance of those differences.
“At some times it’s reduced to, ‘Are Jewish Southerners more like other Southerners or are they more like Jews in other parts of the country?’ and there are proponents on both sides of that,” Eisenberg said. “As we compare notes on different communities in different time periods, we really came to a conclusion that the differences were significant, that it wasn’t just superficial.”
In the case of Jews that came West, often starting with the gold rush in the mid-1800s, those differences were immediate.
“Starting from the moment of settlement, Jews came in with everybody else, so they weren’t newcomers coming to this established society,” Eisenberg said. “The diversity of the population here meant that Jews were received as part of the white majority.”
The openness and inclusion that came with everyone being new to these parts meant that the sensibility of being a white minority religious group was different than in the East.
That inclusion extended into areas where Jews typically might not have been allowed in places like New York, including country clubs, chambers of commerce, and even elected office.
Here in Washington, one of Seattle’s early mayors, Bailey Gatzert, was Jewish, as was one of its territorial governors. In some of the smaller towns, the Jewish store was often the centerpiece and sometimes the first brick building. Anti-Semitism did rear its head at times, including a period in the 1920s and ’30s in Los Angeles when Jews who had founded the chamber of commerce were no longer allowed to be members. But, Eisenberg noted, “that didn’t happen in other cities.”
What has distinguished the Seattle area from its other West Coast counterparts is its Sephardic population.
“The Sephardic community made up a larger percentage of the total Jewish community than anywhere else, really,” Eisenberg said.
Jews of the Pacific Coast covers ground all the way to the beginning of the 21st century.
“I get nervous when the history gets too recent, because it’s hard to draw conclusions based on something that happened last week,” Eisenberg said. “But we did try to move the book in that direction.”
Research took time, and having access to records was a challenging experience at times — though not always.
“We’re very fortunate here in Seattle that they’re all consolidated here at the University of Washington,” Eisenberg said. “There are communities that have some of their own records, but the Jewish Historical Society has done a good job of bringing them together in one place, with professional archive management. That’s not true in many other places.”
Meeting some of the people whose families and institutions she has written about has been an eye-opening experience, she said. Though nobody has offered significant conflicting historical accounts, Eisenberg said she has heard some feedback from history enthusiasts that sifting through archives can’t offer.
“They were quick to correct my pronunciation of local names and terms,” she said.