Jonathan L. Friedmann’s new book, “Jewish Gold Country,” chronicles the Jewish experience during California’s Gold Rush.

While much can be learned from reading up on local history, they say that a picture is worth 1,000 words.

That’s what’s so great about Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series. The books combine historical narratives with photos taken at the time, transporting readers back into the nation’s past.

Recently, Arcadia announced the upcoming March 23 release of a new addition to the series, “Jewish Gold Country” by Jonathan L. Friedmann.

Friedmann is the president of the Western States Jewish History Association and director of the Jewish Museum of the American West, an online museum that features over 600 virtual exhibits. He is also the author or editor of over 20 books – many dealing with Jewish music – and professor of Jewish Music History and associate dean of the Master of Jewish Studies Program at the Academy for Jewish Religion California.

Friedmann said he had been impressed by other Arcadia books that he has come across in the past.

“I had been impressed, from a historian’s perspective, with the archival element – the immense amount of photographs that are available out there to document these kinds of things, the different regional histories,” he said. “In a way, our museum is a perfect fit for a publisher like that, because we do have so many photos in our archives, and it was a lot of fun to piece together.”

When he was approached by Arcadia about compiling the book, Friedmann jumped at the opportunity.

“I was able to delve into our archives; we have several thousand photographs,” he said. “I found 162 photos for this book and put it all together.”

The book focuses on the Jewish experience during the Gold Rush, pairing the stories of individuals and families with historic photos.

“The discovery of gold on Jan. 24, 1848, in Coloma, north-central California, initiated a gold rush that would bring hundreds of thousands to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada,” Friedmann writes. “An international cast of gold-seekers, merchants, and tradespeople arrived via overland trails and through the port of San Francisco.”

Among the newcomers were Jewish settlers, who sought a better life in California.

“By and large, Jews drawn to Northern California from Europe and the Eastern United States escaped racially driven attacks,” Friedmann writes. “Anti-semitism was rare in California during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Jews’ European skin tone allowed them to ‘pass’ as whites, and their general avoidance of mining kept them away from bloody turf wars.”

Instead of mining, many Jewish settlers turned to shopkeeping during the Gold Rush.

“Jewish settlers, many of whom had backgrounds as merchants and peddlers, opened stores and businesses in small towns and mining camps,” Friedmann writes. “Although they came from different regions, spoke different languages, and had different customs, they all embraced the ethos of the self-made ‘Western man,’ believing that integrity, intelligence, diligence and some good fortune would lead to success.”

Not all of the newcomers were successful, but many Jewish settlers did well in California.

“A remarkable number of Jewish pioneers became prominent merchants, business leaders and bankers,” Friedmann writes. “Jews were also elected to public office at nearly every level, despite forming a small portion of the electorate, and were well represented in private clubs.”

Gold Rush merchants, Jewish settlers among them, fulfilled an important need in mining camps and supply towns.

“Scores of mostly unprepared and untrained men headed to the gold mining areas, each of them needing food, cookware, clothing, blankets, boots, picks, shovels, pans and so on,” Friedmann writes. “Invoices and freight papers from the period show that Jewish importers, wholesalers, distributors and manufacturers dealt mainly with each other, forming a fluid network and highly efficient chain of supply. Jewish businesses were known to be stocked with the right merchandise at the right time and at reasonable prices.”

Jewish settlers during the Gold Rush tended to be less religious than those who stayed home.

“Pious Jews needed close-knit communities with access to kosher food, a mikvah (ritual bath), and a synagogue within walking distance,” Friedmann writes. “Most Western Jewish settlers only attended services during the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), often in a private home and using a printed Torah.”

Jewish settlers were much more likely to establish cemeteries than synagogues during the Gold Rush.

“According to Jewish law, prayer services, festivals and weddings can be performed without a professional leader or synagogue building,” Friedmann writes. “However, the dead must be prepared for burial in accordance with Jewish law and interred in specially consecrated ground.”

Friedmann’s book features many images from pioneer Jewish cemeteries.

“Hebrew Benevolent Societies assumed these responsibilities, establishing pioneer cemeteries in the Gold Rush towns such as Marysville, Grass Valley, Nevada City, Placerville, Jackson, Mokelumne Hill and Sonora,” he writes.

As the years passed, Jewish communities formed, with their associated congregations, fraternal lodges and charitable organizations.

“Young men, who often ventured west alone, began marrying and settling down,” Friedmann writes. “By the 1870s and 1880s, many of these Jewish families had relocated to growing urban centers, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, which provided better opportunities for education, stable work and cultural enrichment. Other families remained in the Gold Country, relocating from town to town until finding steady communities.”

Although the scope of the book stretches across the entire Mother Lode region, one chapter is dedicated to El Dorado, Amador and Calaveras counties.

Among the more notable facts on local history included in the book: the first synagogue in the Gold Country was dedicated in Jackson in 1857; the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Mother Lode is the Sonora Hebrew Cemetery; and Dinkelspiel’s store in Vallecito – which was established by Jewish merchant Moses Dinkelspiel in 1851 – is the oldest known surviving store in Calaveras County.

Friedmann said that the Jewish experience during the Gold Rush sheds light on the larger Jewish experience in America during the mid-19th and early-20th centuries.

“It was truly going into the frontier and reinventing themselves,” he said. “I think it’s a wonderful testament to this generation, and how brave they were to kind of step out of their language, context – to step out of their cultural context – and adapt to the situation. But I think that’s indicative of the wider Jewish immigrant experience during that time period.”

Although Friedmann’s research indicated that most Jewish settlers were drawn to trade rather than mining, he said that he was surprised by the number of Jewish miners he did come across.

“The standard line has always been, at least from my experience of historians of American West and the Jewish experience specifically in the American West, is that Jews weren’t really involved in the mining or the prospecting so much as establishing businesses that would serve miners,” he said. “One thing that I did find is there were quite a few more actual miners – that is, Jews involved in the mining business – than I had assumed.”

Friedmann said that he was struck by the difficulty of life during the Gold Rush period.

“Much of what we’ve learned about these pioneers comes from first finding the tombstone and then doing research to figure out, through obituaries and other newspaper items, who these people were,” he said. “The amount of children that died very young, and even adults who didn’t live a very long time; it’s a testament to the harshness of life in those times.”

Friedmann said that he sought to add complexity to traditional narratives written about the Gold Rush.

“I think one of the main things that I was excited about in terms of putting this together, was just to add to the multicultural nature of that period in history,” he said. “The Jewish experience is just one part of that fabric that includes Mexicans, and Latin Americans, and certainly Chinese and Native Americans.”

For those interested in Jewish history, Friedmann recommended visiting the Jewish Museum of the American West at jmaw.org.

“If they are interested in the subject, certainly visit our museum,” he said. “We have not only the Gold Country, but all states west of the Mississippi, represented – and beyond.”

Friedman is currently working on another book for Arcadia about the Jewish experience in Los Angeles, to be released later this year.

“Everything outside of New York and the East Coast is kind of secondary in the general view of Jewish history,” he said. “Our mission is to help flesh out the American Jewish experience story through our examination of the western states and their contributions. So even though the association has been around since 1968, there’s still work to be done in that area.”

Other books in the “Images of America” series that deal with county history include “Around Murphys” by Judith Marvin; “Angels Camp and Copperopolis” by Judith Marvin, Julia Costello and Salvatore Manna; “Northern Calaveras County” by Judith Marvin, Julia Costello and Salvatore Manna; and “Calaveras Big Trees” by Carol A. Kramer.

The books are available for purchase at local museums and on Arcadia’s website at arcadiapublishing.com.



Noah Berner has lived in Calaveras County most of his life, and graduated from University of California, Santa Cruz with a degree in history.

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