Closer To Home: A Cultural History of Jews in California (Casden Institute’s Annual Review, vol. 7)

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Tuesday August 24 2010

Congratulations to the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life (USC) for publishing the seventh volume of its Annual Review (August 2010).

Casden Institute Annual Review, vol. 7 (2010)

A Cultural History of Jews in California, edited by Bruce Zuckerman with William Deverell (guest editor) and Lisa Ansell (associate editor) covers a topic that is defined as “close to home” by its authors:

“With this volume (Volume 7), we continue this policy of focusing on a single topic, but in this case the topic we have turned to is, quite literally, closer to home: the Jewish role in California life.

There are two aspects of this volume that merit special notice. First, the aim of the collection of essays and studies in this volume is intended to stress the cultural aspects of the Jewish experience of coming up to and living in the Golden State. We cannot hope to present in this limited venue a comprehensive and detailed history of how Jews came to live in California, per se. Rather, it is our more limited goal to consider a number of insightful perspectives on how the Jews, who settled in California, helped shape the Golden State’s culture and were, in turn, themselves molded by cultural influences that were uniquely Californian. Second, while this volume looks at the Jewish experience in California in general – nonetheless, particular emphasis is placed on Southern California. Both these concerns, of course, are natural ones for the Casden Institute to consider. First of all, the focus on California simply follows – although in more geographical detail – the overall mandate of the Casden Institute, to consider the special part that Jews have played in the culture of their adopted homeland. Moreover it seems entirely appropriate that an institute that resides at the University of Southern California should look out at the Jewish role in this special state as seen from the perspective of this even more special, local neighborhood. After all, Jews played (and continue to play) a notable role in building and defining what Southern California is and, beyond this, what we imagine it to be. We firmly believe that there is something special about the Jewish role in California and even more in Southern California – that here on the lower left-coast Jews have had an Americanization experience that is significantly different from that which Jews have experienced elsewhere in the USA. Conversely, Southern California would be quite a different place without the Jews who made it their home.

We begin our cultural history at a crucial moment in California history, the mid-nineteenth century in the after-glow of the California Gold Rush, where we encounter a European Jewish emigrant, fresh off the boat, who could (and did) get a chance to make a fortune in the pueblo of Los Angeles and, in doing so, helped define what California is. We conclude it with a personal mediation from one of the latest group of refugees to come to the west, the Iranian Jews who were forced out of their ancient homeland some thirty years ago and who found in Southern California a particularly hospitable (yet no less difficult) place to transplant their cultural roots. In between, we are treated to a few snapshots of how life developed and changed for Jews in California as California itself evolved and grew. But if this volume proves one thing for sure, it is this: that we have only just begun to scratch the surface of a rich but largely unknown cultural resource. At best, this volume can only give us a hint of what we have yet to learn.”

The cultural history of the Jews in California is obviously a topic that is close to home for us at the Magnes, for many reasons, and this volume is no exception. Not only our involvement with Judaica Californiana is evident in the Western Jewish Americana focus of the Magnes archival collections, which are now an important component of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, in our blog posts, and in our many digital programs. The very content of the new volume is closely connected with our institution as well, since two of the contributors are (also) our close partners.




Frances Dinkelspiel
Isaias Hellman and the Creation of California

Karen S. Wilson
A Twice-Told Journey: Sarah Newmark in the Russian Polish Shtetl – How a Jewish California Matron Confronted Her European Heritage

Gladys Sturman and David Epstein
Postscript: The Western States Jewish History Archives

Shana Bernstein
From Civic Defense to Civil Rights: The Growth of Jewish American Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Los Angeles

Gina Nahai
The Third Temple: Iranian Jews and the Blessings of Exile – A personal Memoir

Marsha Kinder
Jewish Homegrown History: In the Golden State and Beyond

Frances Dinkelspiel, author of Towers of Gold and past President of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, has led the transition of the Magnes to UC Berkeley and is now serving on the Council of the Friends of The Bancroft Library.

Marsha Kinder, University Professor at the University of Southern California, has been a partner of the Magnes for many years. As the director of the Labyrinth Project, Marsha has presented the installation, Danube Exodus at the Magnes in 2005-2006, and a partner in the grant jointly awarded to Labyrinth and the Magnes by the Walter & Elise Haas Fund in 2007, Jews in the Golden State, which helped jumpstarting several Magnes digital programs.

On our request, our colleague Paul Hamburg, Librarian for the Judaica Collection, just ordered a copy of this new volume. We look forward to receiving it and sharing it with the UC Berkeley Campus.

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