Western States Jewish History
Reviews Currently on This Page.
MANNIE’S CROWD: Emanuel Lowenstein, Colorful Character of Old Los Angeles
JEWISH PIONEERS OF NEW MEXICO
JEWISH VOICES OF THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH: A Documentary History
MANNIE’S CROWD: Emanuel Lowenstein, Colorful Character of Old Los Angeles, by Norton B. Stern. Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1970. 136 pp. Illustrations, Bibliography, Index. Some copies available at varying prices at Amazon.com.
Reviewed by Abraham Hoffman, (February, 2007)
In 1970 Norton Stern wrote Mannie’s Crowd, a life-and-times biography of Emanuel Lowenstein (1857-1939). Mannie, as he was known, never held public office or ran for one. Although he was a founder of what became the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, he was not a wealthy philanthropist. Mannie wrote numerous plays, none of which were published, and many songs and poems, of which a few did get some recognition. He was a businessman operating such retail establishments in Los Angeles as tobacco stores; he ran a real estate business, which made money, and invested in mines, which didn’t. Mannie’s father, Hilliard Loewenstein, was a Prussian Jewish immigrant who came to Los Angeles in the 1850s and joined the small group of pioneer Jews who prospered in local businesses, ranching, and real estate development.
Mannie Lowenstein seems to have been an ordinary person who lived in an extraordinary time in Los Angeles as the city grew from a dusty little cow town to major metropolis within an average person’s lifetime. In one respect, however, Mannie was more than an ordinary person. He was a character, a man with a sharp wit, controversial personality, and a circle of friends who put up with his barbs and enjoyed his company. For many years Mannie occupied center stage at his daily lunches at Levy’s Café, a gathering spot for attorneys, journalists, other professionals, and businessmen. Close friends included Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios; composer George M. Cohan; film actors such as Jimmy Durante, Groucho Marx, and Jack Oakie; and assorted Edelmans, Cohns, Pragers, Newmarks, and other members of the Los Angeles Jewish community. A life-long bachelor, Mannie had an active social life that included the theater, race track, and night clubs. Rabbi Edgar Magnin officiated at his funeral service. Newspaper obituaries said Mannie “was one of the most colorful figures in the history of the city” (p. 56).
An indefatigable researcher, Norton Stern discovered Mannie Lowenstein in tracking down the author of a diary written in 1880. The trail led to collateral descendants, friends of friends, and people still living that in one way or another had known Mannie at some point in their lives. Stern also checked Los Angeles newspapers, documents, and the few published studies that dealt with Mannie or his contemporaries. The book that emerged from his efforts tells more than the life of one man. Stern captured Los Angeles as it developed into a major city; the growth of the city’s Jewish community; the businesses that promoted the city’s economic life. The book also includes Mannie’s diary, the account he kept of his departure from Los Angeles in May 1880 with his father to open a general merchandise store in Tucson, Arizona Territory. The diary also contains a brief entry made in 1883, reviewing the success of the store, Tucson’s Jewish community, and the growth of the town in just three years.
Stern’s book succeeds in standing the test of time. He tells an engaging story that is solidly researched and brings to life someone who otherwise would be lost in the selectivity of history. History may deal more with politicians and millionaires, but they would have been hard pressed to list as many friends as those who enjoyed the company of Mannie Lowenstein.
JEWISH PIONEERS OF NEW MEXICO, by Tomas Jaehn. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003. 100 pp. Map, Illustrations, Bibliography. Cloth, $39.95. Order from Museum of New Mexico Press, P.O. Box 2987, Santa Fe, NM 87504. 5; www.mnmpress.org.
Reviewed by Abraham Hoffman (February, 2007)
From October 2000 to December 2004 the Palace of the Governors Museum of New Mexico, in Santa Fe, featured the exhibition “Jewish Pioneers of New Mexico, 1821-1917.” The volume under review is the companion book to the exhibition. It includes color photographs of items from the exhibition such as phylacteries, wedding shoes, eyeglasses, dinnerware, candlesticks, and other items loaned by descendants of pioneer New Mexico Jewish families or from collections at the Palace of the Governors. The book also features 150 historic photographs, many of them portrait pictures of successful Jewish merchants such as Charles Ilfeld, the Spiegelberg brothers, and others who came from Europe and found a home in the American Southwest. There are also photographs of their stores, street scenes, social clubs, a birthday party, and residences. For anyone who did not visit the exhibition, the book provides a surrogate experience in seeing these pioneer Jews, largely of Germanic origin, and what they accomplished in New Mexico, mostly in its territorial period.
As seems inevitable in companion books based on exhibitions, this one has its virtues and vices. On the plus side are the photographs; they suggest an image of prosperity, or people who came to an isolated place, worked hard, and achieved success. Many of the names will be familiar to people interested in Western Jewish history, from Seligman to Zeckendorf, plus the names mentioned above. The book is divided into four chapters—Immigration, Economic Activities & Politics, Social & Family Life, and Jewish Faith on the New Mexico Frontier. Henry Tobias, author of The History of the Jews in New Mexico (1990), provides a brief Afterword.
Each chapter begins with a brief summary by Tomas Jaehn, followed by a portfolio of photographs. Here is where the problems begin. Jaehn, listed on the title page as compiler and editor rather than author, doesn’t provide enough information in his summaries to place the pioneer Jews in a New Mexico political context. For example, Jaehn states, “There was a so-called ‘Santa Fe Ring’ in politics, headed by Thomas Benton Catron, and with the aid of various stalwart individuals in the Republican Party, Catron became the most dominant politician and business figure ever to hold sway in New Mexico….The original ring included A. Staab…” (p. 10) And that’s it. No mention of the general view of historians that the Santa Fe Ring was a major land-grabbing group that connived successfully to separate native New Mexicans, i.e., the Hispanos and Indian people who predated U.S. conquest, from their ancestral lands. No information is given as to Abraham Staab’s role in the ring’s machinations.
Also missing from the text is the Lincoln County War of the 1870s, best known for the participation of William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid. A conflict between ranchers competing for government contracts to supply beef to the Army, it is difficult to see how Jewish merchants could have avoided getting involved. Another omission, the activities of Las Gorras Blancas (the White Caps) concerned resistance from Hispanic farmers and ranchers to Anglo takeover of their communal lands and other property in the 1880s. Again, the question of where Jewish merchants stood in this controversy remains unaddressed. Jewish participation or, at the very least, awareness and observation, regarding these important events in New Mexico history merit examination.
There also seems to be a problem with the book’s photographs, though it may come down to a matter of personal taste. Rather than simply printing pictures, the book’s design is such that intimate portraits are given lots of space and large scenes are very small in size. Thus a humorous photo of the Shriners with R.W. Isaacs dominates p. 67, but the picture on the same page of the Masonic Lodge Group, in which Isaacs also appears, is 1 ¾ x 3 ¼ inches in size—a bit small for a picture that includes almost eighty people! Many photographs are superimposed on others, taking up a corner or more of the larger picture. Captions are placed on many photos instead of next to them. A worst case example of design gone wild is the picture of the Albuquerque Browns Baseball Club on p. 71, featuring Mike Mandell. The other plays are lost in a grayish wash, leaving Mandell highlighted as if a spotlight was shining on him. Might as well have captioned the picture, “Here’s the Jew!”
One other criticism: In focusing on New Mexico’s Jews within the constraints of the 1821-1917 time frame, no mention is made of the research of Professor Stanley Hordes of the University of New Mexico who is writing a book on crypto-Jews, or of the DNA project of Father William Sanchez to identify Jewish ancestry through genetic footprints. Clearly, the history of New Mexico Jewry is a fascinating topic that offers many opportunities for research. This book provides a familiar look rather than a fresh perspective and is therefore of interest to anyone not knowing much about the pioneer Jews of New Mexico.
JEWISH VOICES OF THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH: A Documentary History, 1849-1880, edited by Ava F. Kahn. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002. 551 pp. Illustrations, Glossary, Maps, Bibliographical Essay, Index. Cloth, $39.95. Order from Wayne State University Press, Leonard M. Simons Bldg., 4809 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI 48201-1309 3.
Reviewed by Abraham Hoffman (February, 2007)
Hard on the heels of Ava Kahn’s Jews in the American West, the companion volume for the “Jews in the American West” exhibit at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in 2002, comes Kahn’s essential documentary history on Jews in the California Gold Rush. Until now the Jewish experience in the Gold Rush and, in a larger context, the trans-Mississippi West, has been given only limited scholarly inquiry. Rudolf Glanz’s The Jews of California: From the Discovery of Gold Until 1880 (1960), and Robert E. Levinson’s The Jews in the California Gold Rush (1978; Kahn did not note that the 1994 edition she cites is a reprint) have been standard if somewhat dated sources of information. Authors treating the Gold Rush more generally have minimized Jewish participation or, while noting Jewish goldseekers, have not gone into much detail about them. Still, books such as Jews of the American West (1991), edited by Moses Rischin and John Livingston, and monographic studies dealing with Western synagogues, Jews in Western towns, biographies of Western Jews, and other topics, point the way to the opportunities in research and publication about the Western Jewish experience. Kahn provides an excellent bibliographical essay in Jewish Voices of the California Gold Rush, but it’s icing on the cake when compared to the richness of the book’s documents.
Most of the selections in the book consist of written documents, including excerpts from diaries, memoirs, correspondence, sermons, and other written materials. However, Kahn liberally defines “documentary history” and provides photographs, maps, newspaper advertisements, bills of sale, drawings, wedding invitations, and even a baker’s announcement about matzoth. The book organizes the selections into six categories—Looking West, San Francisco, Personal Struggles, Gold Rush Country, Group Relations, and Looking Backward and Forward. In all, there are 110 documents, plus 53 illustrations. Kahn includes an introduction, a historical overview, a glossary, a chronology, and an index, important tools for readers and researchers alike.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this documentary history is the window it opens for us to learn at first hand what it meant for Jews to join in the rush for gold. Prospecting for the precious but elusive mineral was but one part of the story. For Jews who kept kosher there was the challenge of avoiding malnutrition and/or starvation, of sticking to the rules or adapting to harsh realities. Observant Jews lost no time in establishing synagogues, but isolated Jewish prospectors found it tempting to give up religious distinctiveness for inclusion in the larger community. It is one thing to read in a book about the Gold Rush that Jewish prospectors endured hardship while crossing the continent; quite another to read what that hardship involved. For example, Louis Sloss and his companions encountered on the trail “in one place, furniture and household ornaments; in another, a barrel of flour; in another canned meats and bacon; here, a fine selection of books; there, cooking utensils and stoves,” all discarded from overloaded wagons. (p. 109) Such vivid word portraits bring the experiences of the past to life and enrich our understanding of these pioneer ambitions and sacrifices.
There is much more here than goldseeking. Jews wrote to relatives, friends, and for publication about their successes and failures in business, of frontier justice, the encounters now and then with anti-Semitism, the founding of a synagogue, the search for a rabbi to lead it, the oddities (Benjamin Lloyd writing in 1876 of “Emperor” Joshua Norton), and the various fortunes and misfortunes of Jewish men, women, and children who fully participated in this early version of the California dream. The documents center mainly on San Francisco and the Gold Rush region. Los Angeles is barely mentioned, a lawless backwater town in the 1850s whose activities were chronicled by Harris Newmark. Kahn evidently figured there was no need to include any excerpts from Newmark’s classic Sixty Years in Southern California since Los Angeles was at best marginal to the Gold Rush.
Ava Kahn’s fine editorial work, the selections themselves, and their vivid descriptions, make this work a basic source for anyone interested in learning of the roles Jews played in the Gold Rush, as a source for research into the topic, or just for the pleasure of reading so many eyewitness descriptions from a Jewish point of view. The book is a valuable addition to a growing body of work on Jews in the West.
Abraham Hoffman is Book Editor of WSJH. He teaches history at Los Angeles Valley College.