There is a strip of land about a mile wide and 120 miles long in Northern California, a vein that hugs the western edge of the Sierra Nevada, stretching from tiny Georgetown in the north to tiny Mormon Bar in the south. It is where, once upon a time, fortunes were found — or lost — overnight.
This is the Mother Lode, an area that once held some of the richest deposits of gold in the world. During the Gold Rush, a 30-year period that started in 1848, a very lucky miner could uncover a gold nugget as thick as his thumb.
Jews were among the thousands who descended on the area, coming to make their mark and make some money, too. Some were escaping the political upheavals in Europe at the time, fearing a possible resurgence of antisemitism after a period of relative calm.
They made their way from Germany and other Central European countries to the Golden State, a journey that was far from easy. Some crossed the Atlantic, then trudged over the continental U.S. Others took a boat around Cape Horn in Chile before the Panama Canal was built. Either way, most landed in San Francisco, continuing the trek eastward to Gold Country on horseback.
The Gold Rush lasted until the late 1880s, but in their wake Jews left behind cemeteries, buildings and memories. Over two days in late October, a road trip covering 500 miles included stops at some of these historical sites: starting in Stockton, where the proud caretaker of the Jewish cemetery showed how he tends to the gravestones; to the West, deep into Gold Country, where small Jewish cemeteries are present in Sonora and Jackson; up north to a 25-member synagogue in Marysville whose building was once a saloon; and finally to San Leandro to tour the “Little Shul,” the oldest known synagogue in California still standing. (The first synagogue in the state was Sacramento’s Congregation B’nai Israel, built in 1852. Two months after the shul was established, most of it burned in a fire. A plaque commemorates the site.)
The tale of the Jews in California Gold Country is largely one of reinvention. Those who came found a society that viewed their contributions to the frontier in a positive light.
“It was a real release from the onerous lives that they left behind in Europe,” said Jonathan L. Friedmann, president of the Western States Jewish History Association and director of the Jewish Museum of the American West. “There was so much more freedom of movement, freedom of self-expression.”
While some Jews gravitated toward cities and other populated areas, many embraced the opportunity to establish themselves in burgeoning communities.
A few worked in the mines, but most ended up selling clothing and tobacco to cater to the region’s surging population. In fact, Jews dominated those sectors. It was not unusual at the time, writes Robert E. Levinson, author of “The Jews in the California Gold Rush,” to see 10 advertisements for Jewish-owned clothing or tobacco stores in a local newspaper, “and perhaps one from a Gentile.”
Organized antisemitism in Gold Country was rare, according to Levinson; this relief for Jews came largely at the expense of their Mexican and Chinese counterparts, who faced extraordinary prejudice and even lynchings. Jews, however, were able to assimilate and become part of the dominant white class. If there ever was an occasional antisemitic incident, newspapers were quick to come to the Jews’ defense.
The Jews in this population weren’t particularly religious. Only two towns in the Mother Lode, Jackson and Placerville, had synagogues.
Today, what remains of Gold Rush-era Jewish history resides in cemeteries near the old mining towns. The cemeteries are a fitting representation of the end of the Gold Rush, when Jews turned to richer opportunities in Bay Area cities.
A good place to start this trip through history is Stockton, known during the Gold Rush as one of the “economic appendages” of San Francisco, providing an inland port along the San Joaquin River for the Mother Lode region.
Sheldon Barr is caretaker of the oldest continuously operating Jewish cemetery west of the Rockies. Barr loves overseeing the place. He loves it so much he even has a plot reserved for himself and his wife, Arlene. For the last 20 years, Barr has made it his mission to keep the cemetery in tip-top shape. He walks through the 300-square-foot space, noticing everything. At one point, he bends over to prop up a bouquet of flowers that had fallen over next to a headstone.
“I take a lot of pride in it,” said Barr. “Maybe too much pride. It’s important. No Jew can let a Jewish cemetery go in disrepair.”
In 1851, a Jewish society was established in Stockton called Ryhim Ahoovim, Hebrew for brotherly love. That same year, a cemetery was built after the death of a Polish Jewish merchant named Solomon Friedman. Since then, about 600 Jews have been buried at the cemetery, Barr said. Tillie Lewis, a successful female entrepreneur who died in 1977, is interred there. Close by is the tomb of Charles Brown, a distinguished Civil War veteran who died in 1911. Barr has even seen his own family and friends buried, including Lillian Friedberg, his mother-in-law, and Joel “Sandy” Senderov, the cemetery’s previous caretaker.
In 1855, about 40 members of Ryhim Ahoovim established a synagogue and formed its first congregation. With no sawmill in the city, lumber was shipped around Cape Horn. Congregants helped haul the pieces from the Stockton waterfront to save money on transport. By 1900 the shul had been named Temple Israel, moving from location to location over the years until finding a permanent home in 1972, a 10-minute drive from the cemetery. Barr is a congregant.
Stockton’s Jews also built a JCC in 1926, designed by the city’s “architect laureate” Glen Allen. In 1964 it was purchased by the Stockton Civic Theater and repurposed. Located on a corner next to an apartment complex, the original JCC building stands out with its imposing, beautiful orange-yellow brick facade and blueish-yellow stained-glass windows above the door.
The facility is currently used for housing for low-income residents. Sitting by the front door below the carved-in-stone “Jewish Community Center” sign was one resident who said he likes to take photos of the building at night, when the light inside illuminates the stained-glass windows.
As you leave Stockton’s shallow, flat valley and drive toward Sonora, also known as “Queen of the Southern Mines,” you gain close to 2,000 feet of elevation. The town’s Hebrew Cemetery is located near the main street. To enter, you must first go to the sheriff’s office and ask for the key. Then, it’s just a minute-long walk around the corner of the Tuolumne County Jail, where you come upon a roughly 50-square-foot plot surrounded by a stone wall and high trees.
Sonora’s official city historian, Patricia Perry, knows a thing or two about the place. Soft-spoken and curious, she comes ready with a 3-inch-thick binder full of stories and pictures of those who are buried here.
“It’s just a real treasure,” she said.
Perry moved to Sonora in 1984, and after retiring became the city’s historian in 2002. Even though she is not Jewish, she’s always been fascinated with the history. Growing up in a neighborhood in Burbank, she said the sole Jewish family there was ignored by the rest of the community.
“They seemed like really nice people to me, but nobody would talk to them,” Perry recalls. “And I just thought that was very weird. And so when I was at San Jose State, I took a few classes in Jewish history. I think these people have a lot to be admired.”
Sonora’s first Jewish congregation formed in 1851. Members of the Hebrew Congregation of Sonora did not build a synagogue but instead met at the local Odd Fellows building for services. The cemetery was built in 1853 and was in use during the Gold Rush years.
Each of the 70 or so graves comes with a story. Perry shared one, that of George Morris, whose family owned a store at Chinese Camp, about 20 miles from Sonora. In 1895, an unknown assailant shot and killed Morris during a robbery of the store. The Morris family hired a detective, who pinned it on the McReynolds brothers. The detective convinced Ada McReynolds to write a false confession blaming her brothers for the murder, with the false promise of a $5,000 insurance policy payout. Ada wrote the confession but then later recanted. One of her brothers committed suicide at the jail, while the other was later let go.
“It’s just one of these big unknowns,” Perry said. “It’s one of these stories that keeps on giving.”
Perhaps the most prominent Jews of Sonora were the Baers, who have a family plot at the cemetery. Meyer Baer started a clothing business in 1851 on the city’s main drag on South Washington Street. It stayed open until 1995, a nearly 150-year run.
Meyer’s son Julius took care of the Sonora cemetery until he was in his 90s. In the 1960s, he was interviewed by Robert E. Levinson, who undertook a vast study of Jewish Gold Rush history in the 1960s.
In 1962, Levinson helped establish the Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks, along with Seymour Fromer, co-founder of the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley. The commission oversees seven Jewish cemeteries in the Mother Lode region: in Sonora, Placerville, Nevada City, Mokelumne Hill, Marysville, Jackson and Grass Valley. They vary in size and upkeep needs.
The Jackson Pioneer Jewish Cemetery, for example, is located in Amador County, considered the heart of the Mother Lode. Also known as Givoth Olam, Hebrew for Hills of Eternity, the cemetery is a quick drive from the center of Jackson yet somewhat hard to find. Surrounded by cypress trees and a wrought-iron fence, the cemetery has 32 gravestones on a plot of land about the size of a tennis court. It was established in 1857 by Congregation B’nai Israel, the first synagogue in the Mother Lode. The building became a private home in 1888 and was razed exactly 100 years later.
Two hours north of San Francisco is Marysville, an important transit stop during the era that lies along the Yuba River, also known as the “Gateway to the Gold Fields.” The Hebrew Cemetery takes up a corner of the city cemetery, located right off Highway 70. Four large brick pillars hold a gate with two Stars of David (the gate is originally from a Jewish cemetery in San Francisco). The cemetery was built in 1855 by the Marysville Hebrew Benevolent Society and used until 1945. It was abandoned and fell into a state of disrepair until 1995, when the commission took it over. The site has about 50 graves.
“We’ve always kind of felt like we are the caretakers,” said Miriam Root, co-president of Congregation Beth Shalom. Some of the members of the synagogue, with help from the city, periodically visit the cemetery to keep it free of weeds and the headstones clean.
Root continues the legacy of Jewish practice in Marysville. Beth Shalom is a Reform shul of about 25 older members and is located near the town center and the Yuba River.
From the outside, the synagogue looks more like a place where you would ask for a beer rather than a bracha. In fact, Ed Walls built it in 1905 as a saloon and called it Ed’s Place, according to Root’s son Garret, a senior architectural historian in Sacramento. Walls advertised the saloon’s all-night hours and cold beer, but he only employed white labor, suggesting an anti-immigrant sentiment, said Garret Root.
“I’m guessing he didn’t care for Jews either, so there is some irony in that,” Root said later by email.
The upstairs rooms were rented out to newly arrived immigrants and laborers. (There is a possibility it was used as a brothel, but that appears unlikely based on Root’s research.) In 1921, the saloon became a boarding house for laborers, including Japanese, Indians and Mexicans. It changed again in 1940 when the nonprofit Twin Cities Rescue Mission took over the building. It was unused from 1982 until 2003, when Root’s congregation established itself there.
The Jewish story of the Mother Lode is a brief one, ending in the late 1890s. By then, most Jews had left the region. Much of the surface gold had been snatched up, and prospectors looked to other states for mining ventures. Jewish merchants found it much harder to run their businesses. Their clientele shrunk considerably, and with the growth of agriculture in the region, their goods became useless to the self-sufficient farming communities.
So they turned their sights on the cities, especially San Francisco, which had become an economic juggernaut following the Gold Rush. They were looking for better business opportunities, education for their children and a place to practice their Judaism more freely.
In San Leandro, that came in the form of the Little Shul, a hidden gem in the backyard of Temple Beth Sholom.
A little over 1,000 square feet, the Little Shul was built in 1889 by members of the San Leandro Hebrew Congregation, which had been established just a year prior. They paid a single dollar for the land. In 1952, the building was purchased by First Baptist Church, which burned the original pews for firewood. Later in the decade, the Magnes museum bought it, later selling it back to Temple Beth Sholom for, you guessed it, a single dollar.
“Everybody who walks in there is like, ‘Oh, this feels so good,’” said former congregational president Julie Rubenstein. “It’s so cozy. It has a funny smell to it. I know that smell every time I walk in there. Just smells like old books and weird paneling.”
The entrance to the Little Shul is through a set of golden-brown wooden arched doors, which lead to a small anteroom, where a list of the synagogue’s founding members hangs on the wall. The main room is basked in natural light, with large latticed windows on both sides and a replica ark from the original time period on the far end. The 1970s-style wood paneling from a renovation during that decade encompasses the space.
Beth Zygielbaum, the director of operations, said that when she first joined the temple five years ago, she and others wondered what they should do with the Little Shul.
“Should we be using this?” Zygielbaum recalled. “Should we be saving this thing for services?” The congregation soon decided that the space would work well for a preschool classroom, Saturday services and special occasions. On this Friday it was vacant, with a box of markers and crayons sitting idly along with a used milk crate full of children’s books.
“Those founders are smiling when there’s a bunch of kids in there,” said Zygielbaum.