THE JEWISH COMMUNITY NEWS
Happy Trails Await You at the Gene Autry Museum
Last summer, on the day of the solstice, the Gene Autry opened their exhibition “Jewish Life in the American West: from Generation to Generation." Despite a recommendation from an acquaintance, whose intellect and opinion I respect, I did not see it. I presumed it would be a macho interpretation of wild-west shows, the pony express and would falsely portray cowboys with the values of freedom, self-reliance and bravery when in actuality they were a class of laborers who were overworked and underpaid.
On November 16, I attended the Jewish Federation Book Festival and Campaign Reception at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, which banished my stereotypes on pioneers forever.
The walls are lined with photographs, art, documents, media and artifacts showing a variety of culture and traditions that Jews brought to the American West from all corners of the world. One object of interest is a Kiddush Cup brought from Amsterdam in 1705. Another item that captured my curiosity was the photo and story behind Nanette Rochman of San Francisco in 1880. Both she and her husband were Orthodox Jews who would close shop on the Sabbath and wanted to open on Sundays. Together they contested a bill in the State Legislature that would target Jewish merchants trading on Sunday. Although they didn’t win the battle in their lifetime, they gave a good fight. However, this exhibition is not only about a Jewish experience – it’s about an immigrant experience. It captures the dreams of unlimited opportunities in the West that beckoned travelers to push their way through California, Oregon, Texas and Arizona.
As I walked the corridors of the exhibit, I met invited guest author Harriet Rochlin who later in the evening would discuss her book. In conversation, she loses her train of thought, but when it comes to discussing her books, her memory never waivers.
After we viewed the exhibit, Rochlin discussed her soon to be published fifth book, “A Mixed Chorus: Jewish Women in the American West." Her book presents an array of inspiring Western female Jewish pioneers that fuels our ability to adapt to different societies and environments. Born in Boyle Heights she has been a full time writer of both fiction and non- fiction since the 1960’s. In the last 30 years she has been writing on Western Jewish History. Rochlin is to Jews what Alex Haley is to African-Americans. She personifies Roots. “Jewish history has as much to say about pioneering as it does about persecution” she said. She stated how women socially fit into the western era. "Women’s names were in the media three times, when they were born, when they married and when they died” she claimed.
From the photographs, my belief was that Jewish women perpetuated religion after they came out West and relied on Judaism to sustain their identity. More than likely, they formed Sisterhoods and observed the rituals of Kashrut (Kosher Laws), the Sabbath and Holidays. They also had to banish grievances and had to interact with other Jews regardless of where they came from. It appeared to me from viewing the exhibit that a generation later, by assimilation and intermarriage, the Jewish communities must have dismantled. When I asked Rochlin to comment on the accuracy of my opinions, she disagreed, “The communities still have their traditions. A large Sephardic community exists in Seattle, and San Francisco has two strong Synagogues that uphold Judaism."
She discussed four short vignettes of different women’s lives: the compassionate, the greedy, the meritorious and the adventurous. I found the Adventurous the most progressive and fascinating. Esther Lyons Goldstein, born in New York City was a Broadway actress, Alaskan explorer and Klondike rush entertainer. In 1894 after performing, she and her husband decided to go on an expedition to the Arctic circle. They traveled with a group on foot, dog sled, raft and boat for 14 months in the Arctic. She recorded the event in a narrative and photographs and toured the United States lecturing in her Alaskan costume, and wrote a series for a weekly publication.
Rochlin regards writing as the effort to form thoughts and to research her ideas fully. “I found out that I was intrigued with looking things up” she said, “When you’re in print, accuracy is so important.”
When the evening concluded, Chairperson Mickey Jones joyfully added, “Every year the festival gets better. We have chosen good authors who are successful. And we have a fantastic committee who start working in May, their time and dedication is what makes it happen."