By Adi Eshman
A new documentary about the old American West covers just about everything you’d expect, from gunslingers and cattle barons to lawmen and wide-open spaces.
And one thing you wouldn’t: Jews.
“Jews of the Wild West” from award-winning Amanda Kinsey shows how Jews were as much a part of the Western expansion as covered wagons and riveted blue jeans (the latter, of course, invented by a Jew).
Kinsey says their stories resonate not just because of the almost comical idea of a Jewish cowboy but because, at a time when immigrants are increasingly demonized, stories of Jews who helped settle the West show how integral they were in building the America we know today.
“Their stories were sidelined for social, political and economic reasons,” Kinsey says. “But they were visionaries who saw opportunity, who were rooted in family and tradition.”
So how did Jews from the shtetls of Europe end up becoming frontier pioneers? If there’s one man to credit, it was German-Jewish banker, businessman and philanthropist Jacob Schiff.
After the Civil War, a huge influx of Jews arrived at Ellis Island. They settled on the Lower East Side, started businesses and started families.
But Schiff was concerned. If Jews only spoke Yiddish all day and never encountered Americans, how could they integrate in American society?
So he started the Jewish Industrial Removal Office. If you were a Jewish immigrant and tired of living in crowded, filthy tenements, the agency would resettle you with a Jewish family out west. More than 75,000 Jews eventually took up the offer.
Not being satisfied with relocating Jews from the East Coast, Schiff also established a port of entry into the United States through Galveston, Tex.
Schiff believed Jewish immigrants could take on the challenge of assimilating. “Being American is what you feel on the inside,” he said.
Jews spread throughout the U.S., taking risks to seek opportunity as the nation pushed westward. In many ways, their stories are interwoven into the fabric of how the West is understood and romanticized.
Take Josephine Marcus. The daughter of Bavarian immigrants, she was born in San Francisco and ran away from home at 18 to become an actress. She then met the legendary Arizona lawman Wyatt Earp and was captivated by his broad shoulders, blonde hair and blue eyes.
Marcus became Earp’s common-law wife for more than 40 years. After Earp died in 1929, she buried him alongside her parents in a Jewish cemetery outside Colma, Calif.
There were also the Miller brothers, Joe and Robert Lazar, whose entrepreneurial spirit was emblematic of the ethos many Jews brought with them to the Old West. After migrating from modern-day Lithuania, the brothers started a butcher shop in Denver.
After being robbed, they sought work in the stockyards, which were similar to the Wall Street stock exchange except traders speculated on heads of cattle rather than corporate shares.
“Also,” Kinsey says, “they conducted their business on horseback.”
The Millers would accumulate more than 100,000 heads of cattle. After a handshake agreement, cowboys would accompany their herds to the vast tracks of land the brothers had purchased in Wyoming and Colorado, keeping the cattle safe from coyotes, rustlers and bandits along the way.
But the most prominent story of Jewish success in the West was that of Levi Strauss. The Bavaria native became a leader of San Francisco’s Jewish community in the 1800s. Tailor Jacob Davis approached Strauss with the innovative idea of putting rivets in pants, resulting in less wear-and-tear. And thus Levi’s, one of the most iconic American brands, was born.
Less well-known is the story of Rachel “Ray” Frank, a Jewish teacher and journalist born in San Francisco in 1860. During Rosh Hashanah one year, Frank was invited to speak in Spokane. When she arrived, Frank discovered that a rift between the city’s Orthodox and Reform meant there weren’t enough Jews to form a minyan. Frank brokered an agreement and gave a fiery sermon to the community, admonishing them for ignoring their tradition.
Frank became a traveling speaker who was covered widely by the press. “They called her ‘the Deborah of the American West,’” Kinsey says, alluding to the biblical prophet. “My favorite headline was one that called her ‘The Heart Throb of Israel.’”
The myths and legends of the Wild West remain in wide circulation. Just last year, the Coen Brothers released “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” an anthology of short films set on the Western frontier. Around the same time, Rockstar Games released “Red Dead Redemption 2,” which lets players experience the world through the eyes of a grizzled outlaw. The video game had the largest opening weekend in entertainment history, grossing over $725 million in just three days.
But Kinsey notes the stories of Jews in the Wild West have been marginalized or erased. She believes it’s important to publicize these narratives because they shape how we see our past.
“These are also positive immigration stories,” she says. “They put a face to immigration. They help humanize it and show what happened through dedication, hard work and survival.”
“Jews of the Wild West” is slated for release in 2020.
A New York-based playwright and screenwriter, Adi Eshman writes for the JTA global news source.
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