Jews in the California Gold Rush

Jewish adventurers were crucial in establishing American civilization on the West Coast.

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Jewish Life

Most of the Jews who moved to California in the Gold Rush were single, young, entrepreneurial men, and they cherished the company of other Jews. As they set up dry goods supply businesses, they also founded Jewish fraternal clubs in far-flung mining towns and in San Francisco. Usually a few years after they settled in California, their siblings and parents overseas joined them in immigrating to the American West Coast.

The new California Jews built a substantive society that looked after its own, religiously and socially. They started kosher bakeries and founded boarding houses that served kosher meals. They also established synagogues, religious schools, relief organizations like the Hebrew Benevolent Society, and newspapers.
jewish gold rush
In 1856 Rabbi Julius Eckmann of Temple Emanu-El, San Francisco's first synagogue, published a letter in Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums, a Jewish weekly in Germany. "[T]he lure of gold," he wrote, "which brought people from all lands in 1849, also brought with it a number of Abraham's progeny, who have in the meantime expanded their population to such an extent that there is no town in California where not a few of our brothers are settled…[T]he number of them in San Francisco alone is probably around seven thousand."

Despite communal cohesion and growing numbers, the Jewish transplants were not adamant about religious observance. Rabbi Eckmann chided that "[a] massive indifference rules almost everywhere here. Usually, the first step toward religious life begins with death." Of course, Rabbi Eckmann spoke sardonically, but his concern was based in reality.

Indeed, the Gold Rush Jews were well integrated--some might say assimilated--among their non-Jewish neighbors. However, they did experience a few anti-Semitic incidents. In 1854, Santa Cruz County Congressman William Stow alleged that Jews would "leave the country as soon as they have money," and suggested a "Jew-tax" as punishment.

The Jews fought back. They published a rebuttal in a newspaper, lambasting Stow's "religious persecution," and lamenting that "a Jew-tax, such as in the dark ages, was suggested in the halls of the law-makers of California." Though Stow's Jew-tax idea did not receive serious attention, his prejudice nonetheless disturbed California's Jews.

Persistence

California's first Jews displayed remarkable resilience. The boom following 1849 didn't allow for proper streets to be surveyed or buildings built of masonry. Fires frequently swept through the extemporaneous settlements, swallowing up businesses housed in wooden shanties. But, like their neighboring non-Jewish businessmen, the Gold Rush Jews persisted; they rebuilt their stores, restocked, and tried again. 
   
Though the majority of California's Jews no longer trace their lineage to the Jews who came in the Gold Rush, it was this group of adventurers who first established a strong Jewish community in the American West. The Gold Rush came and went. But the Jewish community stayed.

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Jonathan Ellowitz

Jonathan Ellowitz is an educator and a freelance writer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.