German immigrant Edward Kusel opened photo galleries and variety shops in California’s Central Valley. (Photo/Courtesy Arcadia Publishing)
German immigrant Edward Kusel opened photo galleries and variety shops in California’s Central Valley. (Photo/Courtesy Arcadia Publishing)

New book tells Jewish stories of the Gold Rush

German immigrant Samuel Snow led a wagon train from the Midwest to California, arriving in El Dorado County in August 1850. He opened a tent store near Placerville and a year later acquired a mine that proved profitable for almost a century.

Aaron Baruh owned a grocery store and saloon in Nevada City, eventually staking a mining claim named after his daughter, Jenny, and taking a leading role in the local Jewish community.

Edward Kusel sewed canvas hoses for miners before establishing a photo gallery in Marysville, and then a stationery, cigar and variety store in Oroville, where he became active in civic affairs.

These Jewish pioneers — as well as dozens of others — are profiled in the newly released “Images of America: Jewish Gold Country” by Jonathan L. Friedmann.

Richly illustrated with archival photos accompanied by informative biographical captions, the 128-page paperback tells the story of the brave men and their families drawn to the foothills of north-central California during the Gold Rush.

Even for Jewish history buff Friedmann, director of the virtual Jewish Museum of the American West, researching this book proved quite enlightening.

A cantor, musicologist and professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles, Friedmann has access to several thousand archival photos through the nonprofit association he heads as a volunteer.

The author of “Jewish Los Angeles,” as well as a slew of scholarly books and articles on Jewish and sacred music, Friedmann said that delving into the lives of the people in some of the photos was challenging. Gravestones and local newspapers that printed obituaries often proved to be the best sources of information on Jewish families from that boom-and-bust era.

A miner stocks up on supplies from the Cohn-Goodday store in Magalia as pioneer Hirsch Cohn’s daughters Norma and Hortense look on. (Photo/Courtesy Arcadia Publishing)
A miner stocks up on supplies from the Cohn-Goodday store in Magalia as pioneer Hirsch Cohn’s daughters Norma and Hortense look on. (Photo/Courtesy Arcadia Publishing)

Friedmann credited the Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks in the West for helping to preserve and protect many Jewish burial grounds.

“Without the tombstones, we would know very little about these populations,” Friedmann said from his home near Riverside. “These were boomtowns, and then they would become ghost towns” after the mines dried up. “Some of these towns kind of evaporated,” he said.

The gravesites also provided a “stark reminder of how fragile life was for the people,” he added. “Often the life span of these people was very short. These pioneers really did take a major risk coming out West.”

Many of the Jews who made their way to the Mother Lode after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 were formerly merchants from Central and Western Europe. They “didn’t know the language” in America and often were coming from urban settings, he said.

These adventurers settled near the mines and peddled supplies, sometimes from horse-drawn carts or tents before setting up more permanent businesses as dry goods or variety stores in emerging towns. In some cases, multiple generations remained and expanded these enterprises for years to come.

The pioneers tended to be “less strict in their religious observance” and more open to leaving close-knit Jewish communities behind, Friedmann pointed out. The few who did keep kosher, he said, were called “egg eaters,” in reference to their go-to source of protein.

He found little evidence of anti-Semitism or discrimination, though non-whites (especially indigenous populations) suffered greatly in the Gold Rush milieu.

Samuel Sussman Snow (Photo/Courtesy Arcadia Publishing)
Samuel Sussman Snow (Photo/Courtesy Arcadia Publishing)

Another discovery: “The generic story is that Jews didn’t involve themselves in gold mining,” Friedmann said. “But some families, like the Snow family [of Placerville], got involved and made a lot of money.”

“Jewish Gold Country” highlights Jewish settlers in 12 Central and Northern California counties, but skirts away from some of the best-known figures, such as Levi Strauss. “I thought that those stories were maybe too obvious. I didn’t want to retread some of those areas,” said Friedmann, 39, who grew up in Long Beach and spent a year studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem before settling in Riverside County. He is the cantor at Reform Temple Bet Knesset Bamidbar in Las Vegas and Humanist congregation Adat Chaverim in Los Angeles.

“The general narrative of American Jewish history is very Eastern-focused,” he said, dwelling on the immigrants who crowded into New York City tenements and other East Coast population centers in the early 20th century.

Friedmann relished the opportunity to “raise the profile” of Western contributions to American Jewish life. “It’s a very different kind of story, it’s a very different Jew and I think it’s still in the DNA” of many who live in the West.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.