My specialty is American Jewish history, and I teach everything from the Bible to modern Israel. I look at material culture—arts and artifacts—to understand history, especially the "lesser-known chapters" of American Jewish life.
It became clear to me that the narrative of the American Jew was very driven by the New York Jewish experience, which is important, but far from the only chapter in the book. I grew up in a small Pennsylvania town and didn't see myself in the American Jewish story, so I started asking questions about region and identity. What happens when you're somewhere else, somewhere other than New York? In short, what role does region play in American Jewish life?
That's what drives this class. Who comes to the West? What kind of Jewish person in the 19th century says, "Let's go to the edge of the country"? A person who embraces innovation and doesn't mind lack of infrastructure and past – that's a very specific personality type. It's fascinating to learn who that person is, how their experiences are shaped by living in the West and vice versa.
The class will have a special focus on California, where I live. An old joke runs: "Who goes to CA? If you have one lung or two wives." Yes, people came for health – Jews and non-Jews – and to be outside of the box, in a place that gives you opportunities that you might not have elsewhere. For Jews, especially, a lot of innovators come to the West Coast. For example, the man who introduced ice cream to San Diego (using ice from Lake Tahoe) was a Jewish entrepreneur.
Jews were in the West as an American territory from the beginning. They helped build the communities and made themselves insiders in ways that were already out of their reach in New York, where everything was already well-established, and it was harder to break into certain businesses and social circles. At the turn of the 20th century, San Francisco's Jewish population was second only to New York's. People don't realize that it was the center of Jewish life in the West.
One of my favorite pieces of material culture that we study in the course is a stained-glass window in Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco that shows Moses bringing the tablets down from the mountain—but the mountain is El Capitan in Yosemite. The symbolism of America, and California, as the promised land is clear – as are the possibilities for Jews making a home here. We also examine synagogue architecture across the West, and intimate, personal letters from immigrants about their journeys.
So, what is it like to be Jewish in this place? For starters, it's much more diverse, lively and historic than we all might realize.
Dr. Joellyn Zollman holds a Ph.D. in Jewish history from Brandeis University and has worked with the Jewish material culture collections at the Smithsonian Institution, Skirball Museum, and American Jewish Historical Society. She lives in San Diego and has taught classes on Jewish history, American religion, and religious art and architecture at San Diego State University, UCSD, and the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture.
Register for "Roaming the American West: Jewish Settlement and Identity" here.
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