Historian traces Jews pivotal role, hasty exit in Napa

Before Calistoga was a brand of bottled water and a Napa Valley wine center, it was a failed resort. So when spa-resort founder Sam Brannan decided to reverse fields and create an actual town, he knew just what to do — call in a Jewish shopkeeper and get things started.

When it comes to the cities of Napa, St. Helena and Calistoga, "Jews played such a big role in the founding of these communities. That's really important and something that people didn't know," said Lin Weber, a St. Helena historian and author.

"You never read that anyplace. But it's plain as day when you look at the ads in the newspaper."

Weber, who is not Jewish, is in the midst of researching a book on the surprisingly important role Jews played in shaping Napa Valley. She became intrigued with the concept after Zoe Kahn and Donna Mendelsohn of the newly formed Jewish Historical Society of Napa Valley approached her for advice on writing a history of Jews in the area.

Within a few days, however, Kahn and Mendelsohn realized the task required an experienced researcher and author, and they asked Weber if she would take on the project. With a $6,000 grant from the Jewish Community of Napa, Weber, also a marriage and family counselor, has been able to hire a research assistant, who primarily interviews Napa's living bridges to its Jewish past.

The first Jews settled in the Napa region not long after the Gold Rush, with the pioneering Levinson family being perhaps the very first. Seventh- and eighth-generation Levinsons still reside in the area, said Weber.

A number of Jewish families from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France (and sometimes Germany) were pivotal in establishing the dry-goods trades that allowed boom towns to grow roots. In one instance, Weber discovered, a Jewish family called Level that owned a dry-goods store wrote a goodbye letter to the community in the local paper upon their return to France, urging customers to shop at the Lazarus brothers' shop across the street.

Jewish-owned shops lined the main streets of all the Napa Valley towns. In addition to dry goods, Jews sold tobacco, paper products, books, watches and jewelry, and a guy named Max Bagelspecher sold, appropriately, bagels.

Additionally, for a stretch of many years, Weber discovered, every postmaster in Calistoga was either a Jew or married to one.

In addition to the litany of dry-goods merchants and shopkeepers, a number of colorful Jews of Napa's yore have been uncovered via Weber's trek through yellowing newspapers and microfilm.

One of the brightest — and most tragic — was J.C. Weinberger, a confectioner and vintner. In the midst of his winemaking work, he developed a unique method of crafting grape syrup from Mission grapes utilizing a "patent evaporator," a complicated device used in syrup-making. He hawked the syrup to sweet-makers and chefs, but he was wise not to quit his day job in the wine business.

His story came to a tragic end when he was shot dead by a man in love with his daughter. Facing a jury comprised of some of Weinberger's best friends, the murderous lover hung himself.

Yet, the years up to and following World War I would be dark ones for Napa Valley's Jews. First, during the Great War, many of the German-born Jews demonstrated a less hearty degree of patriotism than their non-Jewish neighbors would have liked. In one instance, a postmaster — Jewish, of course — was alleged to have uttered pro-German sentiments and was dragged by an angry mob to the town hall, where he was made to kiss the American flag. Later, he was arrested.

Prohibition wiped out many of the valley's Jewish winemaking families, and the widespread xenophobia of the 1920s made the largely rural and small-town region an inhospitable one for Jews. In 1924, the same year quotas were imposed on European and Asian immigration, 8,000 people poured into St. Helena — a town of only 1,200 — for a Ku Klux Klan rally.

"They had 8,000 people watching the KKK out in a rented field near town, burning crosses and having anti-Semitic, anti-everything speeches," said Weber.

At this time, she noted, Jews began to say, "I think I'll move." Most did.

Weber is "up to 1936" in her history of the Jews of the region and hopes to have the tentatively titled "Under the Vine and the Fig Tree" on bookstore shelves by the spring.

"This is something nobody knows about," Weber said of her subject matter. "Jews are a very big part of human history here."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.