February 18, 2013

Researching Judaism in the West

by Shari Rabin

Over the last few years the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley has acquired the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life from the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley. Included in this collection is the Western Jewish Americana Collection, which I spent a month with last summer as part of my dissertation research on the importance of geographic mobility in nineteenth century American Judaism. In addition to being a beautiful research facility in a moderate climate with easy access to great food and really strong single origin coffee, working at the Bancroft was an exciting opportunity to research in a major archive with broad holdings in western history.

Jewish materials tend to be held in separate archives, most notably the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati and the American Jewish Historical Society in New York. Such archival divisions beget historiographical ones, however, and I hope that the presence of Jewish materials in the Bancroft, where those with interests outside of Jewish history can easily access them, will help bring Judaism into more studies of religion in the American West.

While there are sources in German, French, Yiddish, and Hebrew, some come with translations and there are plenty of fascinating materials in English. A few highlights from the collection:
The most compelling and robust congregational collection is that of Congregation Sherith Israel, one of the two oldest Jewish congregations in San Francisco. In addition to the congregation’s constitution, minutes, and marriage records, particularly fascinating is its documentation of the contentious relationship between the congregation and its clergy. For instance the collection includes a paper war over animosities with Rabbi Aron J. Messing in 1872 – he was accused of financial misdeeds, misrepresenting his English abilities, and “using during his address from the pulpit profane and indecorous language…to attack the Board of Trustees personally” – followed by a stack of applications from the ensuing search for a new rabbi.

Clerical-congregational acrimony flowed both ways. In 1855 San Francisco’s cantankerous Rabbi Julius Eckman wrote a letter to Solomon Nunes Carvalho, who had been the daguerrotypist on John C. Fremont’s Fifth Expedition. Exasperated with the indifference and bad behavior of his congregants, he noted as an example the “strange mode gaining countenance here of celebrating Wedding banquets.” Receptions were being held – and announced in the synagogue – at the non-kosher Shepherds Brewery Saloon “without grace, without a blessing.” Furthermore, “the room was crowded, people got in spirit[, and] four ladies fell headlong to the ground in the room.”

Of the Collection’s various personal memoirs, of particular interest to American religious historians is Florence Prag Kahn’s 1904 account of living in Utah as a young bride in the late 1860s. In “My Life Among the Mormons” she describes life in Salt Lake City and socializing with Brigham Young, recounting: “Did they ever try to convert us? No. One day Brigham asked us, 'Are you Jews by birth and race, or converts to Judaism?' By birth, race, faith, conviction, was the reply. 'Then you can never become Mormons; no true Jew can be converted to Mormonism.'"

Cantankerous congregants, badly behaved clergy, non-normative religious practice, interreligious encounter: these are not just Jewish stories, but are classic themes of western religious history. If you are conducting research at the Bancroft, consider taking a look, and including some Jewish stories as you document the excitement, challenges, and eclectic forms of Western religious life.

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