Shalom, Pardner!

by Pat Launer April 29, 2011


You may be surprised to know that Jews played a prominent role in the Old West, actively contributing to its cultural, political and economic growth — as pioneers, cowboys, merchants, mayors, rabbis and even an Indian chief.

San Diego filmmakers Isaac and Jude Artenstein are hell bent on lassoing the facts and setting the record straight with their latest documentary, “Frontier Jews.” The full-length feature, still a work in progress, is focused on four Southwest communities: San Diego, Tucson, Santa Fe and El Paso.

“I’m really, really excited about this project,” says Isaac, who produced “A Day Without a Mexican” (2004) and wrote and directed the award-winning 2005 documentary “Tijuana Jews,” which premiered at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival.

There’s certainly no shortage of historical material at the Artensteins’ disposal.

“The story of Jews in the American West goes back to the 1850s,” says Isaac, who was inspired by the book, “Pioneer Jews,” by Harriet and Fred Rochlin (2000). “It’s a wonderful saga. We couldn’t wait to dig in, to tell this often-overlooked story.”

He and his wife, under the banner of their Cinewest Productions, traveled to each of the four cities and unearthed many memorable tales.

Four frontier towns

El Paso, Isaac relates, was one of the oldest, largest Jewish communities in the Old West. It was the wellspring of the “circuit-riding rabbis, who’d travel around the Southwest performing weddings, brises and bar mitzvahs.”

In New Mexico, the first mayor of Albuquerque was Henry Jaffa (1885), followed by Mike Mandell, another Jewish merchant.

Not far away, at the Acoma Pueblo, Jewish trader Solomon Bibo won the trust and affection of the Pueblo Indians. In 1885, Isaac reports, Bibo married Juana Valle, granddaughter of the pueblo’s governor. “Salomono,” as he was known, ultimately became governor himself. The Acoma actually petitioned the U.S. government to recognize Bibo as their tribal leader.

“So we have an Indian chief who raised his kids as Jews,” Isaac reports. “Bibo later moved his family to San Francisco, and he’s buried in nearby Colma, in the same Jewish cemetery as Wyatt Earp.”

Tucson had five Jewish mayors in its early years, and the Artensteins met the descendents of those residents.

“We were so fortunate to get old family photos,” Isaac says. “The first temple in that territory was the Stone Avenue Temple, founded between 1911-1912. It’s now the Southwestern Jewish Heritage Center. Another Jewish pioneer, Jacob Mansfeld, helped bring the University of Arizona to Tucson.”

In Tombstone, Ariz., the silver-mining boomtown, Wyatt Earp wed Josephine Marcus, a Jewish actress.

“She was tied to the Neiman-Marcus family,” Isaac explains. “They later opened gambling saloons in the Stingaree, the Red Light district of San Diego.

Nearby, in Old Town, the alley connecting San Diego and Juan streets was known as El Callejón de los Judíos — Jews Alley, “because of the presence of Jewish shops and businesses since the mid-1800s.”

San Diego was the first city in Southern California to hold a Jewish marriage (1853) and establish a Jewish congregation (1861). In 1856, Marcus Schiller, a Prussian Jew, moved to town and became one of San Diego’s most philanthropic citizens. He contributed generously to the building of the first telegraph line and was one of three city trustees who had the vision to set aside 1,400 acres for a city park, now Balboa Park.

“I’m totally fascinated by all these stories,” says Isaac, “and how they fit into that most archetypal of American stories, the Old West. The film’s journey, almost like a road picture, will set the people and places against the magnificent landscape of the Southwest. The project lends itself to intercultural dialogue.”

Isaac and the Tijuana Jews

Isaac, always intrigued by history, was born into a multicultural perspective. He grew up in Tijuana. Both of his parents were Mexican Jews; his father’s family was Polish Ashkenazim, and his mother’s side was Sephardim from Turkey.

“Dad, a sales rep for leather goods from Mexico City, had a store on Fourth and Revolución, right across from Sara’s Imports. Tijuana was a very generous, dynamic, active border city at that time, and it had a very tightly knit Jewish community, as I show in ‘Tijuana Jews.’

“My parents were the first mixed marriage,” Isaac continues with a chuckle. ”It was a big deal in the Jewish community in 1950s Mexico. The families had to compromise on a ceremony at the Maguen David (Sephardic) Temple with the reception at the Hatikvah (Ashkenazi) Temple. My uncle Nathan Golden, who was the first Jewish charro [Mexican cowboy] and an owner of legendary nightclubs in the ‘50s, left behind a rich repository of photos and 8mm film from the era, including the time he was president of the Tijuana Jewish community. They all found their way into our documentary.”

Isaac and his family moved north in the 1960s, and he attended Chula Vista’s Hilltop Junior High and High School. He went on to study painting and photography at UCLA, and film and video production at the California Institute of the Arts.

In 1983, he created “Ballad of an Unsung Hero” about radio pioneer Pedro Gonzalez, who “had been Pancho Villa’s telegraph operator and became the most popular radio/recording star in the Southwest.” The film went national on PBS. Among other projects, Isaac directed the documentaries “Diana Kennedy: Cuisines of Mexico” and “Border Brujo,” an experimental work featuring performance artist Guillermo Gómez Peña.

In “Break of Dawn” (1988), a historical drama made for TV, there was drama behind the scenes, too.

“We re-created 1930s L.A. in San Diego. We used locations at USD, in Golden Hill — keeping the satellite dishes out of the frame!”

Isaac confesses that “faking it” was a cornerstone of those early, low-budget, indie days.

He produced “Love Always,” which Jude adapted from the novel “Finding Signs,” by Sharlene Baker. Set in the 1970s, it starred Moon Zappa as a young woman hitchhiking from San Diego to Spokane to visit an old flame.

“We literally cheated that entire road trip,” Isaac admits. “Anza Borrego became Arizona, downtown San Diego was Boston, Cuyamaca stood in for Washington state. When we produced ‘A Day Without a Mexican’ (2004), a sort of sci-fi mockumentary, we faked all of California in San Diego. It was the magic of filmmaking.”

Isaac expounds on the magic of filmmaking as a visiting professor at UCSD, where he teaches video production and Latin American film history.

Jude goes to the dogs

Jude Artenstein had a different personal and professional trajectory, but travel and cross-cultural understanding feature prominently.

Adopted at age 2, she grew up “all over; up and down the East coast and on various Caribbean islands. It was a bit of a gypsy life, but I was immersed in cultural diversity, from Caribbean schools to being marched out with my class to the Civil Rights actions in Washington, D.C.

“My passion,” Jude says, “was always telling people’s stories. I was that annoying kid who knows exactly what she wants to do. I wanted to make movies. History projects are especially wonderful. They give us a way of understanding ourselves and our common humanity so we can better face the future.”

Jude met Isaac at film school; they’ve been married for nearly 30 years.

“Filmmaking is not an easy craft,” she concedes. “It requires tremendous perseverance and optimism. But the most challenging part is fundraising. We spend 80 percent of our productive time doing that.”

Several years ago, Jude fell off a ladder and broke her wrist and knee. During the six months she was unable to walk, her golden retriever, Scout, never left her side.

“It was really healing,” she says. Predictably, it made her think about a documentary. She started reading about people abandoning their dogs, which was especially common during the foreclosure crisis.

Jude began writing “Rescue Me,” about dogs and the people who rescue them. Soon she asked herself, ‘What can I do to help here in San Diego?’ Employing her skills as a producer, organizer, facilitator and people-and-pet person, she brought together all those involved in dog rescue and inaugurated the Doggie Street Festival.

Now in its third year (coming July 31 to Liberty Station/NTC in Point Loma), the festival has become the major pet adoption event in Southern California.

The first year, 2009, a few hundred people were expected to come; 5,000 showed up. This time, Jude’s increasing the educational element, as well as providing entertainment, food, pet products and services — and dogs for adoption.

She’s working on the screenplay for an animated feature for kids, based on the dog adoption information she’s accrued. The feature film, “Cholo and Scout,” pays homage to her own beloved Scout, named for the main character in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Isaac is co-producing.

“Real life feeds your fictional creativity,” Jude asserts.

Right now, in addition to shooting, fundraising and gearing up for showing “Frontier Jews” at the 2011 San Diego Jewish Film Festival, Isaac is presenting a sneak-peek of the documentary at a San Diego Jewish Education event (May 2, 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. at the Lawrence Family JCC).

“The way we survive professionally,” Isaac explains, “is we only develop projects we love. ‘Frontier Jews’ has become my obsession. Having Jude produce frees me up to write and direct. We’re both consumed by the story.”

“‘Frontier Jews’ has all the emotions, mystery, fascination and whimsy of the Wild, Wild West,” adds Jude. “And who doesn’t love that?”

For more information about Isaac’s May 2 presentation of “Frontier Jews,” call (858) 268-9200, ext. 100.

To contribute to the making of “Frontier Jews,” contact


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