American Jewry, 1945-1980

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California alone encompassed 700,000 of them, San Francisco was the veteran Jewish settlement, of course, and remained a bastion of German Jewry well into the twentieth century. Yet even before World War I, East Europeans had begun arriving there in modest numbers. By World War II they outnumbered the Central Europeans. By the 1980s they constituted three-quarters of the Bay Area’s Jewish population of approximately 95,000.

Their presence in Los Angeles was far more vivid. Like the city itself, the Jewish settlement in Los Angeles developed much later than that in San Francisco. As recently of 1900, Los Angeles’s 2,500 Central European Jews supported only two synagogues, a small collection of fraternal and philanthropic activities, and a single downtown social club, the Concords (strictly German). Then, between 1900 and 1920, the Jewish population surged to 30,000, and the great majority of these were East Europeans.

Some came for business opportunities, some for the mild climate. In any case, they never stopped. Even the Depression did not slow their arrival. As in Miami Beach, they came in proportions almost twice those of non-Jews, and the decades of their greatest expansion still lay ahead. In the burgeoning westward migration after World War II, the rate for Jewish newcomers again surpassed that of the population at large. Thus, even as Greater Los Angeles itself had become America’s second largest metropolis by 1980, with a population of 6,000,000, so the 600,000 Jews of Los Angeles constituted 10 percent of that population and 12 percent of American Jewry altogether. More Jews lived in Los Angeles than in Philadelphia or Chicago—or Tel Aviv. Indeed, except for New York, Los Angeles Jewry was the largest urban community in the world.

It was a comfortable enclave. As elsewhere in the United States, the Jews of postwar Los Angles made their most spectacular fortunes in property development. S. Mark Taper, an English Jew with experience in London home construction, arrived in Los Angles in 1939 to lay the basis for one of California’s great real estate empires. Louis Boyer similarly became one of the state’s largest home developers, putting up 50,000 units by the mid-1960s.

At one point in the late 1960s, Jew comprised perhaps 40 percent of southern California’s homebuilders and at least half of the builders of shopping centers. Other Jewish entrepreneurs provided their building materials. David Familian’s pipe and supply company was the city’s largest. Reuben and Lester Finkelstein built their grandfather’s scrap business into the vastly successful Southwest Steel Rolling Mills, the city’s second largest. Harvey Aluminum Inc., founded in 1934 as a small machine tool company, became southern California’s leading producer of aluminum, titanium, and special alloys.

Jewish builders not infrequently began investing their savings in banks and savings and loan associations, until Jewish builders-cum-financiers surpassed even the older film magnates as the city’s economic heavyweights. All the while, too, Jews continued to play their traditional role as producers of consumer goods. As in the East, southern California’s clothing industry was largely Jewish, as were liquor and tobacco, and much of the wholesale food trade.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.