The Jews at the Edge of the Worldby Natalie Jacobs February 27, 2017
Among the San Diego History Center’s collection of 45 million documents and 2.5 million images are many details about San Diego’s pioneer families – those who arrived here with statehood in 1850. Surprising to many, Jewish families were among the first settlers, and they shaped civic life here in ways disproportionate to their small numbers.
“It’s a small percentage [of Jewish people in early San Diego], but they’re serving in roles as varied as postmaster, on the county board of supervisors, as library trustees, on the city council, as judges,” says Joellyn Zollman, guest curator for the History Center’s new year-long exhibition “The History and Heritage of San Diego’s Jewish Community.”
“They’re really in these important political roles in the early city,” she adds, “helping to build the city.”
Zollman says one of the goals of this exhibition – which takes up nearly 10,000 square feet of space in the Balboa Park institution – is to show how Jewish people have “shaped the city” since the beginning.
“I sensed maybe a little skepticism from our staff that we would find a lot,” when they started looking in the basement archives at the Center. “The truth was, we found so much that we could fill maybe twice the amount of gallery space that we have.”
Unlike much of Jewish migration throughout history, the first Jewish settlers in San Diego were not specifically escaping persecution.
“The people who came to San Diego are, I like to say, people with chutzpah,” Zollman smiles. “These are people who have already left Europe. Most of the Jews who come during the pioneer times came from German lands, the loose confederation of German states that became Germany. They’re escaping persecution there and then they come to some place like New York, some of them settle in Baltimore, in New Orleans.”
To Zollman, it takes a special kind of person to want to keep moving west, after resettling in a new country.
“Who is this person who says ‘This is not what I want, I don’t want to be in New York in this organized community that’s already formed. I want something different, I want to go live on the edge of the world.’”
She describes this as a sense of adventure, but cautions against assuming that it means these pioneer Jewish families were not connected to their Judaism. Even though there was no synagogue in 1850, no kosher butcher, and no minyan, Zollman found examples of San Diego’s original Jewish families continuing to practice their religion.
One of the only objects on display from a private collection is the diary of a 17-year-old named Victoria Jacobs. Her father moved the family of 14 from Baltimore (after resettling from Prussia and England) to San Diego in the 1850s. As an engagement present, Victoria’s fiancé gave her a diary.
“To have a diary by a woman in San Diego who’s Jewish is remarkable,” Zollman says, her eyes glittering with enthusiasm. “And an adolescent voice is really rare. We think about adolescents today writing diaries all the time, but most of the diaries that come to us from this point in history come from adults.”
Of those diaries from California’s early history, most are by male gold-rushers in the north. Zollman found reference to Victoria Jacobs’ diary in some History Center documents and tracked down the physical object in Tucson, with descendants of the diary’s author.
Victoria grew up in Old Town. She followed the Hebrew calendar, observed Shabbat, celebrated Purim and Sukkot and Passover.
“These aren’t synagogue-going Jews,” Zollman says of the pioneer families, “they’re not what we would think of as religious by that kind of traditional definition, but they were religious. Their religious identity was really important to them.”
Throughout its entire history, San Diego has been a community of newcomers, or what people now call “transplants.” With this, Zollman points out that one of the interesting things about the San Diego Jewish community is that it only grows.
“After 1885 with the arrival of the railroad, the community only gets bigger. That’s not true of every American Jewish community.”
She points to Detroit and Cleveland, whose Jewish populations shrank in the late 20th century.
Despite a surprisingly deep Jewish tradition rooted here, San Diego was never immune to the discrimination that comes along with newcomers. During the isolationist era of the 1920s and 30s, Jewish populations in San Diego were targeted here as they were throughout the country. Most people who have lived in this city for decades know that Jewish people, along with African Americans and other minority groups, were not allowed to purchase property in La Jolla. Zollman says the History Center exhibit grapples with this.
“How can you be both an insider and an outsider? How can it be that San Diego’s pioneer Jews helped to build the city and then somehow they became excluded from it?”
She admits that the exhibition doesn’t answer these questions, nor does she think that it should. But she has placed this history into a larger context of what was going on politically in the United States and the world during this time.
To explore how San Diego was reacting and adapting to the isolationism of the World War II era, this exhibit has copies of San Diego’s own isolationist, nativist newspaper The Broom on display.
“It was anti-Semitic but also anti-Chinese,” Zollman explains. “It was horrible, contained horrible treatments of black people. This was a horrible newspaper. But the San Diego History Center has it in its collection so that we can document the kind of local hatred that was a reality here in the 1920s and 30s.”
There are also KKK objects on display in the exhibition.
Many of the more contemporary items come to the History Center from the Jewish Historical Society, whose archives are housed at the Special Collections and University Archives of San Diego State. They’ve worked in conjunction with the History Center to select more than 100 items and documents to display at the exhibit, particularly on items from the mid-20th century.
Laurel and Stan Schwartz run the Historical Society, and they also wrote the book on San Diego’s Jewish history (“Old Town, New Town” published in 1994). Their collection includes archives from the original locations of the Jewish Community Center on both 54th Street and El Cajon Blvd., as well as the Jewish Federation collection which runs from 1940 to 2013.
Part of the Historical Society’s charge is to document the present for future generations here.
“For instance,” Laurel says, “today I got an email from Jewish Family Service. They’re having a big event for people to come together and see what we can do about the refugee crisis that’s happening now. That event, I don’t know if you would consider it significant today, but in 10 years it might be very significant that the Jewish community came together and tried to help today’s refugees.”
She says most of what is in their collection is everyday things that may be easy to dismiss as meaningless, but when they’re the only thing that’s left after a certain amount of time has passed, they offer a valuable snapshot of what life was like “back then.”
The History Center’s exhibition will encourage this kind of contemporary history-gathering as well.
“We have six portraits on the wall and then we have two frames that contain monitors so we can accommodate as many digital images as people want to send,” Zollman explains.
There is also a video kiosk that invites visitors to tell their own “California stories.” Those will be curated and a few will be projected on the wall in a rotation throughout the show.
“We want all aspects of the community to come into the exhibit, start looking at the questions and asking the questions among themselves,” says Bill Lawrence, the History Center’s executive director.
Later in the exhibit’s run, likely in September, the History Center will premiere a documentary film focusing on the stories of contemporary San Diego Jews, including Congresswoman Susan Davis.
“San Diego is very much a quilt of cultures today,” says Lawrence, “and it was back with American statehood in the 1850s.”
To showcase that diversity, Lawrence says they’ve consulted with the Ken Mexican Jewish community, the South African Jewish community through its organization SAJAC, and the Russian-Jewish community. They’re also working with local Jewish organizations to offer programming and curatorial tours of the exhibit.
At its heart, the sprawling exhibition explores the connections between region, religion and identity.
“The History and Heritage of San Diego’s Jewish Community” opens March 11 and will be on view through January 2018. Find programming and exhibit details at sandiegohistory.org.
More information and research hours for the Jewish Historical Society can be found at jewishstudies.sdsu.edu/archives.