When we think of the Jewish community in the nineteenth century the first image that comes to mind is born of old movies or documentaries that show folks with horses and wagons. Often they are in the tenements of the large cities of the East Coast.
By Roberta H. Martinez
The experience was very different for many of the Jews who first came to Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley, and Pasadena.
Some of the first who came to California were 49ers; some settled in San Francisco and some quickly moved to Southern California. And stayed. They liked the clean air and the climate; they felt they would have a better chance of living their dreams in California.
Jacob Weil was the only Jewish person among some forty or fifty families that arrived in El Monte in 1851. By 1853 he had moved north to the area that will become Pasadena. Nathan Tuck came to San Gabriel and lived the rest of his life there. We would likely think of Mr. Weil and Mr. Tuck as pioneers, individuals who have set out to make a new, and perhaps, better life for their families and who are moving for an opportunity to do so rather than to be a part of a community.
By the 1860s the Jewish pioneers are a bit different. Yes, there are those who are escaping the congestion and the grime that were often a part of the crowded cities of the East. In the west, there is room to develop your business. This is land you can claim where you can grow, and space to think.
It was also a place where one could identify as being German Jewish, with an emphasis on the country as much as religion. It could be an intellectual approach to identity, rather than a religious approach.
Historian Carson Anderson, in his “Ethnic History Research Project,” refers to this wave of migrants as being “deeply influenced by the European Enlightenment.” They were able to enter the professional ranks; the wealthy social circles were open to them, especially in the West where you could invent or reinvent yourself!
The men, and at that time it was primarily men, seem to identify as Jews through a cultural rather than a religious lens. Yes, they are Jewish, but they are also members of the Odd Fellows or the Masons. They are also Universalists.
California Colony of Indiana
Moritz Rosenbaum is among the members of the group who initiate the colonizing of Rancho San Pascual, on which all of modern Pasadena lies. He was born in Germany; in 1856 he became a naturalized citizen in Ohio. He was among the settlers – the California Colony of Indiana – who settled Pasadena. According to Anderson “[Rosenbaum and his wife, Mina]…saw themselves, and were seen in the community as German rather than Jewish”.
Anderson further shares that, like other upper class German Jews of the period, being involved in elite civic endeavors like helping to fund the public library assured Mr. Rosenbaum’s acceptance with the general population. His affluence didn’t hurt his acceptance.
Many of the founding families were a generation or two removed from those who had lived in rough-hewn homes or whose families had come to the United States with more hope than money.
There were others who came to Pasadena whose involvement with civic ideals mattered more than ethnicity or religion. In 1880 the population was 391 people. Most folks who lived here knew each other and knew the good works that were done. Being a part of the community and doing good works seemed to be the most common measure of how you were valued as a member of the towns.
Early Jewish resident Matthew Slavin, a building contractor, had become a member of the City Board of Directors. He constructed the Hotel Green, Pasadena Furniture Company Building, and the Slavin Block on Fair Oaks just above Colorado Blvd.
By 1890 Pasadena became incorporated and the city’s population had soared to over 4,000. By 1900 the population was just over 9,000. The village had become a town and the needs of a thriving town at the turn of the twentieth century were great. Many of the Jewish individuals in Pasadena were among those who were tailors, machinists, shoemakers, clerks, jewelers, dressmakers, physicians, pharmacists, and wine coopers. Thurston’s Directory lists their residences as being in close proximity to their work.
There was an effort in 1908 to establish a Jewish congregation, but the efforts were not successful; weekly services continued to be held in people’s homes or businesses. Between 1910 and 1920 there was a surge in clubs and fraternal societies. Some were mutual aid societies and others were religious or spiritually based.
It was during this period that notices of Jewish services were announced in the Pasadena Star. Helena Goldman, whose husband Isidor was a tailor, is credited with instituting the first Jewish Sunday school in the area and with the establishment of the Ladies Aid Society.
Roles were changing, sometimes in subtle ways, as a result of the move to Women’s Suffrage and the influence of Social Gospel Movement. The latter was a social reform crusade that sought the betterment of society through the application of the principals of charity and justice. Between 1910 and 1920 the Pasadena population grew by over 200%; during this decade the number of religious and culturally related institutions increased across the city. Many houses of worship espoused the ideas or values that were a part of the Social Gospel Movement.
In 1920 property was acquired and after three years of fundraising Congregation B’nai Israel Congregation completed its synagogue. Its congregation was Conservative. There were two other efforts to establish a synagogue: Congregation Shaarei Zedk (Orthodox) and the Jewish Center (Reformed); neither were able to sustain themselves.
The B’nai B’rith Lodge was a men’s organization that responded to the needs of Jews who had encountered discrimination. A chapter was established in Pasadena in 1924 and the son of Helena and Isidor Goldman, David, served as president. A separate sisterhood organization was established in 1929.
At the turn of the twentieth century Jewish families who lived in Pasadena would travel to East Los Angeles to buy kosher food. In 1930 they could go to one of two kosher butchers in downtown Pasadena. If they didn’t like the one off of Union, they could travel up Fair Oaks, to the one off of Walnut.
> The map of businesses that existed in downtown Pasadena was researched and drawn by independent scholar Michael Several. On this you will find the stores that reflect the growth and vibrancy of the Jewish community during years between World War I and World War II.
Mr. Several is seriously thinking of writing a book on the History of the Jews in Pasadena. I hope he is able to do so. The community has a part of the diversity that is Pasadena.
Roberta H. Marinez is the author of the well-received book, Images of America: Latinos in Pasadena (2009). She has spoken to historical groups, children’s groups, and others in her effort to share her meticulous scholarly knowledge. She is a reader at the Huntington Library, a lecturer and also holds a master’s degree in music history from the University of California, Riverside.
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