Many of you have heard me compare California and the Land of Israel. Just a bit of the physical geography makes a stunning comparison. The sun rises over the desert in the east and sets into the ocean on the west. The mountains with tall evergreen trees rise in the north and the south has more deserts and even gulfs of water. Mountain ranges form the north-south spines of both lands while cities hug the coasts. San Francisco and Haifa each house major natural deep-water ports; they think of themselves as cities of intellect and culture. Further south, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv sprawl across the flat ground; they live for the moment: what's new, what's in, how do you do, let's win. The Golden State and the Land of Milk and Honey even each have a great salt sea in the desert, created out of the folly of the people who lived in the area. I can draw the physical metaphor further, beyond the boundaries of the State of California to Sodom and Gomorrah in the Nevada desert.


But let's turn to another feature of the metaphor. People come to this place seeking a new way of life. Some come for the pleasures of an easier life where waters come from the skies and don't need complex social organizations to maintain them. Others cross over river and mountain range to seek new meaning for their lives. As Wallace Stegner wrote, "[the] West is hope's native home."


Through all the years of American California Jews have played a unique role. We Jews are spread throughout the history and geography of this state.


It is possible that some Jews reached California long before the Gold Rush. Though we're not sure he was Jewish, as early as 1826, Emanuel Lazarus (who was probably killed by Indians) was with Jedidiah Smith in one of the first groups of Europeans to cross overland into California. Lewis Pollack arrived before 1840 and ran a store in the little town up by the big bay called Yerba Buena, which was the Spanish name for San Francisco


In February of 1849, Jews were among those who disembarked from the first Pacific mail steamer to come to San Francisco. Over 60 Jews arrived in that first year 1849 and High Holiday services were held then as well. The first Torah probably arrived in San Francisco in 1850 brought by a Mr. Davidson for the synagogue; Moses Montefiore gave a second Torah to Emanu El four years later. Estimates suggest that there were 3000 Jews in San Francisco by in 1860. One San Francisco resident said the next year: "It became a matter of astonishment to all who see the large number of mercantile houses conducted by Israelites being much greater in proportion to the commerce than in any other city in America. Every line of business is engaged in by them, with credit to themselves and honor to the community." The records show very little violence against Jews.


From the earliest days there were always about 1000 Jews in the many mining camp towns. There appear to have always been different groups of Jews. Some stayed, but others moved on. The locals now say that the Jews didn't remain in the Gold Rush towns because they were not used to the hard life there. While the mining folk often came single and with next to nothing--and often had little to go back to, the Jews who came were different. They didn't come to mine. Records of Mariposa county list only five Jews as having owned mining claims. By and large, the Jews came to supply the miners. These Jews came from a different stratum of society. Though they may have made their way west as peddlers, to settle in a town, they had to be able to afford to pay for the goods they kept in their stores: clothing, dry-goods, tobacco. When life got too tough, they moved further down into the hot, agriculturally rich, San Juaquin and Sacramento valleys and established the Jewish communities of Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno....


Nonetheless, in the mine country congregations flourished. In Grass Valley, San Andreas, Sonora, Nevada City... synagogues were often the first brick buildings in town, this fact managed to save them and their possessions from the fires that often raged through the tent towns Though these buildings no longer stand, we can still see some of the remains of these old Jewish communities. The Judah L. Magnes museum restores and maintains tiny Jewish cemeteries in towns all along State Route 49. Many of the markers offer bitter testimony of the harsh conditions faced by our predecessors. Tiny headstones mark the graves of small children who died in the difficult life of the mining towns.


Other indicators are of more pleasant interest. The famous marshall Wyatt Earp lays buried in the Jewish "Hills of Eternity Cemetery" in Colma the place where gold was first discovered. Though not a Jew, Earp lies buried next to his Jewish wife Josephine Marcus of San Francisco who insisted that he be buried there.


Closer to our area, in Escondido, down the hill, Sig Steiner and his non-Jewish partner, P. O. Graham, opened the town's first store in 1886. Born in Auburn, California, near Colma where Marshall found gold, Steiner also served as mayor of Escondido from 1894 to 1906.


Up in the mountains here, in Julian, the same year Steiner opened his store, Joseph Marks built a store: the Marks Building at the south-east corner of Washington and Main streets in the center of town. A plaque on the building tells its story.


And down by the ocean, in San Diego, believe it or not, though it bears his name, Balboa Park is not at tribute to Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who discovered the Pacific Ocean. The park is a tribute to Marcus Schiller and Joseph Mannasse, two pioneer settlers and prominent businessmen of the town. Joseph Mannasse was president of the Board of Trustees (City Council) in 1868 when it reserved 320 acres for a public park and site of the zoo.


Closer to our hearts, though no longer in San Diego County, even the little town of Temecula figures in our story. In 1858 the French Jew Louis Wolf built an adobe house and operated a general store in the town. He owned a small hotel, served as postmaster, was a justice of the peace and was employer and friend of the Indians. Wolf married a woman of mixed Indian and Black ancestry: Ramona Place, and, according to one account, in 1882, when Helen Hunt Jackson gathered material for a novel, she spent a short time at the Wolf home in Temecula. Mrs. Jackson named her book, published two years later, after Wolf's wife. Our town of Ramona is named after her.


So what does all this mean to us who live in the Ramona Valley?


Though we're not shop-keepers like the earliest Jewish Californians, we are not like most of Ramona's inhabitants either. We are still pioneers. Jewish life in California began little more than a century and a half ago two hundred years after the first Jews came to North America. Many of our communities are still in their formative stages. But still, the time has come to take stock in what we have done and who we are. Our non-Jewish neighbors accept us as full members of the community and we take leadership positions in our town. Like some of our forebears who were new to their land, many of us are intermarried.


Many of us are like one of the earliest pioneers: Abraham, who left the place of his birth to move west to an unknown land. Abraham entered a country whose people cared more for the material than the spiritual. He fully immersed himself in the life there, raised his family, but never felt quite at home. In fact it took generations for his people to finally feel at home in the land.


So, we, who have come to this land, work to maintain our spiritual values in a commercial environment. Returning to the physical metaphor of the Land of Sunshine and the Land of Promise, one might say that we live in the hill country of Judah, where Abraham lived in his old age. There, as here, oak tress abound, their hard woods growing to great age and great heights spread to shade a wide area. Among oaks such as these, our tradition tells us, Abraham pitched his tent and held counsel. "Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya'akov...; How goodly are your tents...." As we sink our roots here, we build our congregation Etz Chaim, and nurture it as a Tree of Life that gives us shade and produces fruit to nourish us throughout our lives.

©Mark Hurvitz