The Peoples of Utah, ed. by Helen Z. Papanikolas, © 1976
“Jews in Zion,” pp. 187–220
by Jack Goodman
Except for the pitifully few American Indians occupying remnant of their once pristine homeland, we are a nation peopled solely by the descendants of immigrants. “Americans all, immigrants all,” Franklin Roosevelt once said. Rather than a melting pot, the United States as a whole, and each segment of the federal union, is the sum of a hundred cultures, cultures washing across the North American continent in successive waves. From the time of Columbus until today, those waves have crossed the Alleghenies, the wide Missouri, and the Rockies, with eddies and crosscurrents washing west to east, north to south, and vice-versa after the continent-spanning nation “filled up.”
Our viewpoints, mores, and folkways–the foundations of those diverse cultures–are themselves accretions having their beginnings in lands lapped by the Baltic, the Aegean, the Mediterranean, the waters of the Bristol Channel, the Irish Sea, even the Java Sea, or Mozambique Gulf. In any of the globe’s lands, on the shores of scores of seas, oceans, gulfs, and bays, men and women came from upland moors or backcountry villages to peer across the restless waters towards a new world.
Americans all–immigrants all, with some, to he sure, emigrating and immigrating earlier than others. Some came penned in the holds of slave ships, others freely ventured aboard the Mayflower. Some came in steerage, some few traveled first cabin. Some journeyed in sleek clippers, others were crowded into the lower decks of four-funneled Nordeutscher Lloyd liners. Most would never again venture upon the sea to visit lost homelands on another continent. Instead, on dry land at long last and after fervent prayer, they began treading a continent extending far beyond their earliest imagined childhood horizons. Some settled in coastal cities, some migrated across the new land earlier and farther than their peers, thereby gaining pride of place among their descendants.
The Spanish explorers, the mountain men, the straggling, struggling Donner party, the Monnon settlers and government mapmakers, the forty-niners, the railroad builders, irrigators, merchants, miners, dam-builders, military men–all were caught up in a westering wave that washed across the boundaries of what came to be called Utah. And with them all, or almost all, came the wandering Jew, an emigrant and immigrant before, during, and even more so since biblical times. To Utah–to Zion–as elsewhere in the West, there came a trickle, a thin stream, of Jewish settlers. By reason of limitations set by geography and economics, the number of Jews crossing the Wasatch was never large in any year–perhaps never greater than one thousand per annum, although most such figures are at best conjectural. Indeed, the number of Jewish immigrants in the nation as a whole was not great at first. Then upheavals (ca. 1848) in the Austrian and German states caused a major outpouring of Jews from Central Europe. Later, when the pressures of pogroms or of czarist military programs caused the largest out-migration of Jews Europe had ever known, most Jews were content to settle wearily in the cities of the East Coast, in New York, Philadelphia, Providence, New Haven, where earlier immigrants, often relatives, could help them find shelter, food, and work. If there were attractions in the “outback,” they were more likely to be found in Saint Louis, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and golden California than in the isolated, semi-arid Zion of a foreign faith.
At this juncture it is necessary to try to explain–for most readers in this dot on the globe where Jews are Gentiles–what a Jew is, and what a Jew is not. Definitions are imprecise, but one can begin by pointing out that Jews are Hebrews, the Semites whose sages and scholars gave the world three major monotheistic religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
But Jews are no longer members of a single race. Since the Diaspora, the dispersion of the People of the Book, nearly two thousand years ago, Jews have made their homes in many lands in the Mediterranean littoral, in eastern and western Europe, in Asia and Africa. Living in such lands so long, they have acquired some physical characteristics of the natives who people those lands. Does anyone look more “Spanish” than a Spanish Jew? Meeting one of the handful residing in Toledo, one may learn of an ancestor who crossed with Columbus on the great navigator’s second voyage, while his ancestors had lived in Spain throughout the Moorish era. Why should he not look “Spanish?” However, Americans–Jews as well as Gentiles–insist there is a characteristic “Jewish look” recognizable in some of their neighbors. This “look” may make such neighbors more, less, or just as acceptable as the red-headed “Irish look” or the pink-cheeked “Scottish look” or the sleek-haired, dark “Italian look.” But there are “black Irishmen” and blonde Italians–blonde Jews, too. In truth, in the case of most American Jews, their “racial” appearance is of eastern or middle European origin. While early Utah Jews were of German origin, the majority of Utah’s few thousand present-day Jews had parents, grandparents, or prior ancestors who arrived in the great wave of immigration that brought two and one-half million Russian, Polish, and Rumanian-Hungarian Jews to American shores between 1881 (immediately after the assassination of Czar Alexander II and the resultant pogroms) and 1924 (when the Johnson-Lodge immigration bill effectively shut off the flow).
While American Jews, and therefore Utah’s Jews, are not members of a single ethnic stock, they are not a cohesive religious unit either. While some would debate the point, virtually all Jewish scholars hold that to be born Jewish is to be Jewish forever. One may choose not to practice the Hebrew religion; one may have taken leave of synagogue, temple, or congregation formally or informally. In the main, justly or not, fellow Jews will continue to consider such a person Jewish. One can depart most faiths at will, or at least after excommunication. But as many Jews learned to their sorrow in Nazi Germany and elsewhere during the holocaust, most neighbors, including former coreligionists, will continue to consider a Jew Jewish, even if he or she had parents or grandparents who departed the faith a half-century earlier.
This brings us to the Jews of Utah, a scant twenty-five hundred men, women, and children residing in Utah in the 1970s and some of those who came before.
It is easy, to be sure, to count as Jews those who have been members of Utah’s Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Hebrew congregations. Presently, for example, Salt Lake’s Kol Ami, which combines Reform and Conservative congregants, lists 310 family memberships, with perhaps seven hundred people affiliated and fairly active. But how many Jews have resided in Utah, in Utah Territory, in Deseret, down through the years? Although no one is certain, the number is doubtless small, perhaps no more than twenty-five thousand in the century-plus history of Jews in the area. That number includes the few hundred from outside Salt Lake City whose friends and family saw fit to give them proper burial in the sanctified earth of Salt Lake’s Jewish cemetery established in 1864. However, one can only estimate the number of Jews who scattered across Zion in Utah’s early years as merchants, farmers, ranchers, and miners outside of what was first called Great Salt Lake City. Certainly there were only a score or so in the territory’s initial two decades.
Long before forming the territory’s initial congregation, a few obviously heeded the scriptural “Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord our God is One; and thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” Jews, unlike Latter-day Saints, were not given to keeping “journals” of the everyday affairs. How many fastened amezuzah upon their tent posts or cabin lintels in isolated new settlements? And for every Utah Jew who placed a tiny, rolled sampling of the Lord’s Word upon his door as commanded in Deuteronomy, how many others quietly bound their Tefillin upon their forearms, or continued to set “frontlets between thine eyes” as they had done in Prussia, Austria, Holland, or England? We shall never know precisely.
There are no Jewish names among the “First Company” members of 1847 listed on the Brigham Young Monument at South Temple and Main in the Utah capital city. Just a few years later, however, Jews in some number crossed the territory in the white-topped wagons heading for California and Oregon. According to journal-keeping Lorenzo Brown, on March 1, 1851, he “called to see some Hungarian Jews living in the ward–emigrants bound for the [California] mines…forced to leave their native land because of the revolution.”
Aside from this anonymous vanguard of the larger number of Jews who would soon be fleeing Europe’s wars, revolutions, and pogroms, the first Jewish arrivals to “settle in” were Julius Gerson Brooks and his wife Isabell, usually identified by her nickname, Fanny. The Brooks, or Brucks, family were natives of Silesia. Born in 1821, Julius left Germany at twenty-one, took passage to New York, lived with a sister, and, according to Leon Watters, “peddled in New England.” Like many immigrants of the period, he earned a modest sum, returned to Silesia, and took a bride of sixteen summers back to the New World.
The young couple’s story is almost a standard tale of the period. They journeyed to Illinois, were fascinated by tales of the Far West told them by a recently returned army man, then headed for Oregon country by way of Utah. They reached the Salt Lake Valley in July 1854 as members of a train of fifteen wagons and decided to stay. Soon afterwards, the Millennial Star, listing twenty-two business establishments in Great Salt Lake City, recorded among them “Mrs. Brooks, Millinery Store and Bakery.” Julius and Fanny Brooks were to become solid citizens of the business, religious, and social community, their name recalled in the brick and stone Brooks Arcade building at State and Third South streets. However, Julius was a bit restless, operating shops in the California mining towns and junketing to New York, Portland, Boise, and San Francisco. Years later Brooks told his daughter, Mrs. Samuel H. Auerbach, that the army man whose tales had spurred them west from Galena, Illinois, starting place of their wagon, was Ulysses S. Grant–an army lieutenant turned unsuccessful farmer.
Another early arrival was a thirty-nine-year-old artist-photographer of considerable talent, luck, and fame, whose name, Solomon Nunes Carvalho, turns up with some frequency in volumes devoted to the military exploration of the West. A South Carolina native of Portuguese and Sephardic Jewish descent, Carvalho had the good or bad fortune to join John C. Fremont’s 1853-54 mapping expedition to the Rocky Mountains, one of a series of ventures that brought Fremont the rank of general, the popular title of the Pathfinder, and even made him a candidate for the presidency (he was soundly trounced).
Carvalho signed on with Fremont as artist and daguerreotypist for the expedition on August 22, 1853. In fulfilling his assignment, he faced familiar hazards of western exploration: dwindling rations, freezing temperatures, and hostile Indians. Added to these difficulties were the particular challenges of wet-plate photography:
While suffering from frozen feet and hands, without food for twenty-four hours, travelling on foot over mountains of snow, I have stopped on the trail, made pictures of the country, repacked my materials, and found myself frequently with my friend Egloffstien [sic], who generally remained with me to make barometrical observations, and a muleteer, some five or six miles behind camp, which was only reached with great expense of bodily as well as mental suffering.
Fighting against bitter cold, but determined to cheer himself and his companions, Carvalho “had reserved with religious care, two boxes containing one pound each, of Alden’s preserved eggs and milk. Nobody knew I had them. A paper of arrowroot I had also reserved. These three comestibles, boiled in six gallons of water, made as fine a blanc mange as ever was managed on Mount Blanc.” Dreaming perhaps of traditional Rosh Hashanah observances, Carvalho served his dessert on the secular New Year’s Day, January 1, 1854, to the “satisfaction and astonishment of the whole party,” a fitting climax to a meal of horse soup and horse steaks fried in buffalo tallow.
In February the expedition nearly perished in the mountains outside of Parowan, but settlers rescued the party and took them into their homes. Carvalho stayed at the home of a Mr. Heap for fourteen days, suffering from severe frostbite, diarrhea, and the symptoms of scurvy. The artist, accompanied by “Egloffstien,” was taken by wagon to Salt Lake City where the topographer would join the remnants of the Gunnison party and where Carvalho would set up as a portraitist, hoping to earn cash for his trek hack to Baltimore. Among the results of this effort were paintings of Brigham Young, Daniel H. Wells, Wilford Woodruff, and other church and civic leaders. Then Carvalho journeyed south with Brigham Young, sketched Chief Walker and other local Indian leaders, and joined Parley P. Pratt and a group headed toward Las Vegas and San Bernardino, sites of new Mormon settlements. He went on to Los Angeles, met a few fellow Jews, then returned east where in 1857 his Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West was published. Carvalho’s vivid narrative of the expedition remains one of the most readable accounts of travel in the West and continues to be a prime source of information on the 1853 expedition for which Fremont kept only sketchy notes. During just ten weeks in Salt Lake City and another few months on the trail in the territory, Carvalho filled sketchbooks and notebooks with drawings, paintings, and meticulous observations that are still studied for a record of pioneer times in Utah.
While the Brookses became Utah’s first Jewish family, and Carvalho the first Jew of prominence to limn the territory, several Jewish converts to Mormonism had preceded them. Watters and other historians cite Alexander Neibaur who reached Utah in 1848 as having been “educated to be a rabbi.” Levi Abrahams came to Utah in 1854 and joined the Mormon church, and there obviously were other converts. But the most important newcomers to Utah in the context of “Jewish pioneering” were the merchants who arrived shortly after Johnston’s army.
As most Utah-educated children and adults know, friction akin to war had developed between Mormon leaders and federal officials within the first decade of settlement. Brigham Young had sought to develop a self-sustaining, theologically based Zion in the mountains, in what had been Mexican territory; federal laws, courts, and troops followed close behind his wagons to ensure that Deseret would be a part of the Union. In 1857, following serio-comic stresses and strains between none-too-judicious federal judges and a people who looked inward for guidance, President James Buchanan sent a new territorial governor to Utah–plus the troops deemed necessary to support the laws of the land. One result of the “Utah War” that followed was the departure, for a ten-year period, of Mr. and Mrs. Julius Brooks, who wanted no part of the bloodshed they foresaw. Another and more significant result was the establishment of Camp Floyd, thirty-five miles south and west of the city, on the Pony Express route of the period.
The troops led by Col. Albert Sidney Johnston fired few, if any, shots in anger; and whether or not abandonment of Mormon settlements in California and Nevada, plus Brigham Young’s evacuation of his capital city, was indeed necessary has long been debated by Utah historians. But the troops who marched through a deserted Great Salt Lake City in June 1858 to set up camp in Cedar Valley brought with them large supplies of “eastern goods,” including harness, hardware, uniforms, and the like. All of their stores became available at a few cents on the dollar when a far more serious revolt led President Lincoln’s War Department to recall its bluecoats from the Jordan to the Potomac.
To improve supply services and communications for military and civil establishments, both the Pony Express and the Overland Stage services were soon initiated. Even before the men of Johnston’s command marched off to battle in the Civil War, settlers, wagoners, freighters, and shopkeepers clustered in the Camp Floyd vicinity where hard cash and government paper money had be-come available. Previously, barter or church scrip had usually substituted for more familiar forms of legal tender.
While such firms as Walker Brothers were on hand earlier, Jewish merchants and freighters were doing business with the military at Camp Floyd by 1858. Apparently the first to arrive was Nicholas Siegfried Ransohoff, whose name appears on bills of lading in 1858, then as a member of Utah’s first Masonic Lodge which was founded at Camp Floyd in April 1859. Ransohoff apparently had Orthodox dietary scruples–there is a fairly well authenticated story that he lent Brigham Young $30,000 to purchase Camp Floyd’s entire supply of pork when the post closed, due to Ransohoff’s distaste for the treyfa (“unclean, forbidden”) meat.
The most important arrival of 1859–or so it was to prove– was Samuel H. Auerbach, who wheeled in with a wagonload of goods from California where he had set up in business with his brothers Frederick and Theodore during the gold rush. Natives of Prussia, the brothers ran tent and woodshack stores at Rabbit Creek and Bodie, California, and later at Austin, Nevada, after first spending a few years on the eastern seaboard. Although they traded in Camp Floyd in 1859, it was 1864 before Frederick came to Salt Lake with a wagonload of general merchandise, conferred with Brigham Young, and was able to set up “The People’s Store in a Main Street adobe. Samuel, eleven years his junior, became Fred’s partner, while Theodore moved back east to New York City.
F. Auerbach & Bro. flourished, moving to larger and larger locations and finally settling in at State and Broadway where it continues under family direction as one of the city’s best-known institutions. However, in the interim, the Auerbach brothers had simultaneously set up branches at railheads along the line of the Union Pacific Railroad as it advanced from Bryan, Wyoming, to Ogden and then Promontory. The Auerbachs prospered, paying such San Francisco creditors as Levi Strauss in gold, “until 1868 when the institution known as Z.C.M.I. was started…for a time this seemed to threaten our existence as merchants…”
The brothers Auerbach, with other “Gentile” merchants, found themselves caught up in an ideological-economic war unique to Utah. This short-lived struggle had its roots in the openly expressed belief on the part of church leaders that non-Mormon businessmen were guilty of outrageously overcharging the general populace. By the time the situation came to a head, the city’s Jewish merchants included three Siegel brothers, Ichel and Abraham Watters, Charles Popper, Nathan and James Ellis, as well as the Auerbachs. And it must be stressed that the economic warfare that soon centered around the ZCMI and later at the new Gentile city of Corinne was not anti-Semitic in nature. In fact, church leaders looked with rather more favor upon Jewish businessmen such as the Ransohoffs and Auerbachs than they did upon the Walker brothers and other non-Mormon or ex-Mormon merchants and traders.
Indeed, open-minded reading makes it clear that, from its earliest days, the founders and leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave those who professed the Hebrew faith special consideration. This appears to be due to Mormon acceptance of the Jews as God’s chosen people, their literal belief “in the gathering of Israel and the restoration of the Ten tribes,” Mormon acceptance of the Old Testament, and the Mormon belief that Jews will be returned to Jerusalem prior to Christ’s Second Coming. Back in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1836, Joseph Smith had persuaded the highly regarded Joshua Seixas to instruct church leaders in Hebrew; at Nauvoo in 1842, when Joseph Smith officiated as chaplain at the installation of a new Masonic Lodge, the grand master who came from Columbus, Ohio, for the installation was Abraham Jonas, a Jew.
In part as the result of a national anathema towards Mormons linked to the practice of polygamy, in part as the residue of the Utah War and ill will bred by the presence of federal troops and courts, in part because of the approach of the railroad and an end to isolation in the mountains, and, of course, due to matters economic centering around charges of villainous profiteering, local frictions led to shootings and at least a pair of murders. There was preaching against dealing with non-Mormons–and finally a near panic among the Gentile merchants, who, on December 20, 1866, sent Brigham Young a most remarkable petition, signed with twenty-three names, including many Jews. The petitioners offered to sell out and move on, providing that all outstanding accounts of church members be settled and that all “goods, merchandise, chattels, houses, improvements…be taken at cash valuation, and we make a deduction of twenty-five per cent from the total amount.”
President Young would have none of the bargain, perhaps realizing that the departure of the Gentile merchants would be followed by the departure of all non-Mormons and the raising of questions in Congress and elsewhere concerning the situation under which the members of a single religious faith could persuade all others to vacate a territory of the United States. Young took a different tack, apparently reasoning that establishment of a church-owned “yardstick” would show Saints and Gentiles alike what prices and profits were deemed fair and reasonable. Reversing former precedent, the church leader developed the idea that the Latter-day Saints should engage in business cooperatively. In establishing Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, the church purchased six Mormon-owned businesses, and one Jewish-owned establishment, that of Nicholas Ransohoff, Young’s good friend.
When the ZCMI opened, signboards bearing an “all-seeing eye” with the inscription “holiness to the Lord” appeared over the doorways of its scattered shops. Mormons were exhorted in tabernacle and wardhouse meetings to patronize their own cooperative, and dealings with Gentile merchants were discouraged. Sales at the Auerbach brothers’ store fell sharply. While Auerbach figures are not available, business at the large Walker Brothers shop was reported to have fallen from a $60,000 a month figure to $5,000 monthly in the second year of ZCMI operation. Auerbachs, the Kahn, Siegel, and other sizeable Jewish businesses apparently were hit as severely. As a result, many small merchants shuttered their shops and moved out of the territory or to Corinne. This new metropolis of mud streets and wood fronts gave signs of becoming Utah’s Gentile city, serving mining towns in Idaho and Montana and east into Wyoming, as well as Utah communities. By 1873 Corinne had nearly four thousand residents and its streets were alive with freight wagons meeting Central and Union Pacific trains. But Utah’s business as well as religious center remained in Salt Lake.
In two decades Corinne was a ghost town. The prevailing church had gradually eased its strictures on trade with Gentiles; its parallel effort at cooperative communal ownership, the United Order, had failed in rural Utah, although the ZCMI flourished. Jewish merchants again set up shop in Salt Lake City, Provo, and along the lines of the new railroads. But Corinne–or rather the isolationist efforts by church leaders that brought it into being-had produced something of a new political spirit among Gentiles. Utah’s first opposition political party, the Liberal party, took shape in the hamlet on the Bear River. Its initial members included such Jewish citizens as Samuel Kahn, Gumpert Goldberg, Julius Malsh, and a newcomer, Simon Bamberger. A short, quick-spoken, eminently energetic man, Bamberger became a major figure in Utah business, railroading, mining, and its only Jewish governor.
While the territory’s score or two of Jews were busily trying to survive economically in this strange new sector of a strange new land, they were almost equally active trying to keep their old religious way of life viable.
Although it is just conjecture, it must be presumed that many of the score or two of Jews who had wandered to and through Utah Territory in the era of the Utah War, Civil War, and Gentile economic war, carried Siddurs (prayer books) in their wagons or packs and carried the faith of their fathers in their hearts. In October 1864 the Salt Lake Telegraph reported that Jews of the territory’s largest city had celebrated the Day of Atonement in the “home of an East Temple Street merchant, since a synagogue is lacking.” Illustrative of the way in which news got around, the Archives Israelites in distant Paris reported with some amazement that Salt Lake’s Jewry comprised members enough for aminyan and closed their places of business on Holy Days–this in 1865. Somehow a Torah, or sacred scroll, turned up, for a year later the Salt Lake Telegraph reported services at which H. M. Cohen “read ably” from such a hand-lettered scroll at services in the Masonic Hall presided over by Nathan Ellis. In 1866 services were held in the Seventies Hall, and a committee resolution signed by Ellis, Auerbach, and Siegel formally thanked Brigham Young for his kindness in furnishing this site for High Holy Days worship.
At the midpoint in this same decade, the community’s half-hundred Jews joined Gentiles of other persuasions in raising funds for the purchase of land and construction of a building called Independence Hall, which was to be the first non-Mormon church in Utah Territory. Although the deed was entered in the name of “Trustees of the First Church of Jesus Christ Congregation,” one trustee, Samuel Kahn, was indubitably Jewish, and the building, at Third South just west of Main, was utilized for Jewish Holy Days as well as Sabbath services. However, on occasion Jewish services were again held in such quarters as the Masonic Hall, the Seventies Hall on Temple Square, and even at Richard’s Skating Rink.
Lacking a rabbi, services were variously conducted by Ichel Watters, Moses Caspar Phillips, or other local savants. The community was also lacking a moel to perform circumcisions. However, by 1872 the Salt Lake Tribune was able to report the temporary availability of a visitor, Rabbi H. Lovenberg, of Elko, Nevada, who circumcised a trio of youngsters. And from that year forward the Tribune and Telegram took regular note of Passover, New Year, and Atonement services held by the tiny Jewish community.
It is obvious, particularly from the notes left by the Watters and Auerbach families, that the impossibility of maintaining dietary laws centering around kosher meats was recognized early by Utah Jews, but it is equally obvious that holiday ceremonies were observed as fully as possible. The Watters home was apparently a center and haven, with as many as thirty persons, including most of the city’s Jewish bachelors, often on hand for Passover meals where matzohs (“unleavened bread”), wine, the requisite bitter herbs, and traditional songs were all features.
During thirty or so years following the entry of the first Jews into Zion, there was social fellowship and economic cooperation of the sort to be expected among newcomers of similar antecedents far from their homelands. And there were discussions concerning formal establishment of a religious congregation and construction of a suitable house of worship. However, numbers were considered insufficient until March 1, 1881, when twenty-three solid citizens met to form B’nai Israel of Salt Lake City. Board President Henry Siegel and his aides purchased a $2,600 lot at Third South and First West as a building site. Planning and fund-raising continued until, by September 30, 1883, the city’s first Jewish house of worship was dedicated, a brick structure that served as both Hebrew school and synagogue.
Ideological problems paralleling those still surfacing during present days arose almost immediately. Congregation B’nai Israel, formed by the community’s few Jewish families, initially followed Orthodox ritual using Hebrew texts, with members wearing hats, or yarmulkahs (“skull caps”), and, apparently, with women separated from men at services in traditional fashion. But in 1884 Rabbi Leon Strauss of Belleville, Ohio, was called to the congregation, after consultation with Dr. Isaac M. Wise of Cincinnati, one of the founders of the American “Reform” movement. Heads were uncovered during the ensuing High Holy Days, the Minhag America, or Reform, prayers were used, and dissension flared. The combined Hebrew and English services aroused the displeasure of Isadore Morris, Moses Phillips, and others, and factionalism was given as a reason for the resignation of Rabbi Strauss in July 1885. Those who know the present Congregation Kol Ami, itself a merger of Temple B’nai Israel (Reform) and Congregation Monteflore (Conservative), will instantly and sadly realize that ecumenical movements in Utah Judaism are a bit hard to achieve, or will quickly appreciate that problems perplexing today’s Salt Lake Jewry have a historical base.
With the schism came a decline in income as well as membership. By 1886 peacemaker Samuel Auerbach was suggesting return to the older ritual for the High Holy Days to appease the former members who held to Orthodox tenets. But B’nai Israel struggled on and made considerable fiscal progress by selling its building for a reputed $20,000 in 1889, after which the present property at Fourth East between Second and Third South was purchased as a site for “old B’nai Israel.” A youthful graduate of the new Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Heiman J. Elkin was employed, and under him the Reform ritual became the established form at B’nai Israel.
Shortly afterwards the congregation had a new home, a structure that proved reasonably adequate to its needs for some eighty years–with a few additions, to be sure. The building, costing about $37,500 and still standing, is in effect a small replica of the Great Synagogue in Berlin. Its architect was Philip Meyer, a nephew of Frederick Auerbach. The Salt Lake merchant brought his nephew to Utah at his own expense, and Meyer prepared the architectural designs for the domed, kyune sandstone building gratis. As if to illustrate the subtleties of fate, Berlin’s Great Synagogue was to have its glass smashed in the Kristalnacht of the Nazis and then to be smashed to rubble by bombing planes. Some may have been piloted by Jewish lads from Utah. As for Philip Meyer–he was to die in one of Hitler’s death camps. Not a few of the congregants at B’nai Israel, thousands of miles from the holocaust, found it difficult to believe, in the initial years of National Socialism, that German Jews who had successfully accommodated themselves to the ways of Bismark and the kaisers could really be threatened by an Austrian house-painter named Adolph Hitler.
Congregation Monteflore had its inception in 1889 when a gathering of Orthodox and Conservative Jews took place at the home of Nathan Rosenblatt at Eighth South and State Street. While it would be an oversimplification to state that Utah by that year was seeing a major influx of Russian, Polish, and Central European Jews, it seems likely that the proportion of Jews of Germanic extraction was dropping perceptibly and that immigrants from the Russo-Polish “Pale of Settlement” would soon be numerically in the ascendancy. Certainly census figures reflecting arrivals at Castle Garden and later Ellis Island in New York show increasing thousands were migrating from the shtettels(“villages”) and ghettos of czarist Russia. By the turn of the century, shortly after Utah Mormons at long last rejected polygamy and achieved statehood, it seems likely that Yiddish-speakers who had spent their childhoods under the kaisers or Emperor Franz Josef were beginning to be outnumbered, in Utah, by Yiddish-speakers who had departed the embrace of the Russian Bear.
Total familial membership at Congregation Montefiore reached thirty by 1904. Morris Levy donated a lot, Isadore Morris led off contributions with $150 in gold dust, and such worthies as Joshua Shapiro, Benjamin Kahn, Nathan Rosenblatt, Moses Nathan, and assorted Levitts, Levys, and Lewises set about building the twindomed, Moorish-looking structure that stands today. The Mormon church, apparently at the urging of Isadore Morris, contributed $650 to the building fund. This donation came partially in gratitude for the activities of Morris who earlier had gone to Washington to successfully petition for the release from prison of Bishop William R. Smith. Smith had been imprisoned for polygamy under the Edmunds Act, along with a score of other Mormon leaders, and church officials were grateful for the support they had received from Jews–among them Fred Simon, who had insisted discrimination against Mormons be ended in the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce of which he was president. It was Simon who wrote Governor Caleb West protesting federal and state disfranchisement of Mormons for the crime of polygamy–said “crime” being part and parcel of their sincerely held religious beliefs. Such an argument, Simon wrote of the Cullom Bill, sets precedents so far reaching as to “terminate by gradually disenfranchising the Catholic for believing too much and the Infidel for believing too little.”
Setting benchmarks in the history of any group, large or small, can be more of a vice than a virtue, but for convenience one can broadly assert that the pioneering days of Utah’s Jewry closed at about the beginning of the new century, just as the pioneering days for the Utah Saints ended with the coming of the transcontinental railroad. Not only were there two congregations in Salt Lake City, plus a B’nai Brith Lodge, plus the much-needed women’s auxiliaries, but Jewish stores and businesses were pretty firmly established in a dozen Utah towns by 1900-15. Except in Ogden, there were never enough families in these towns for the minyan. But there was a Lessing Hotel in Minersville, and A. B. Cline’s Golden Rule Store in Beaver. Arthur Frank had set up in the clothing business at Midvale, and Louis Frank in Nephi. Max and Sol Krotki operated stores first in Richfield, then Kimberly, then Marysvale. Max Cohen’s general store in Gunnison thrived to the point he became president of the local bank; in the coal towns Harry Lowenstein and Sam Stein had stores in Price and Helper, while one Morris Glass-man branched out from Vernal to Castle Dale and Huntington. There were success stories and failures. Nate Home, who operated a store in Payson, sold out to his clerk Ben Roe in 1920. Roe and his brother expanded, operated a sizeable store on State Street in Salt Lake, and Ben Roe became one of the city’s best regarded community members. But in addition to shopkeepers, there were Jewish peddlers who worked manfully but never quite made money enough to set up proper stores. There were dealers in furs and hides, dealers in scrap iron or “junk” who prospered mightily; there were others who failed and moved on as the market for their wares rose and fell.
This might be a good time to cite Nathan Rosenblatt, who arrived in the valley a few years prior to the turn of the century, then went peddling to the nearby mining towns of Alta, Park City, and Bingham with wagonloads of goods from the Auerbach brothers’ stores. Rather than return to State Street with an empty wagon, young Rosenblatt began buying odds and ends of outworn mining machinery–scrap iron, or junk. By the time his sons Simon and Morris grew to adulthood, peddling was abandoned for an iron foundry and machinery business, which eventually became the multi-million dollar Eimco firm. The surviving son, Joseph, headed it prior to its sale a dozen years ago. Much earlier, during World War I, the father-and-sons firm ventured its capital and all it could borrow to set up Utah’s first steel mill at Midvale. The Armistice brought cancellation of wartime contracts, and Nathan Rosenblatt found himself heavily in debt. “It’s a great country,” he is reputed to have said. “I came here without a dime, and now I owe a million dollars.” The debt was paid in full.
A major success story is, of course, that of Simon Bamberger, one of four brothers who came to Utah from Hesse, Germany, by way of New York and Saint Louis. Fourteen years old when he reached New York, Simon took the steam-cars to Cincinnati to board with relatives but failed to change trains and wound up in Indianapolis, an error all too typical of the travels and travails of “greenhorns” fresh off the boat and unable to speak the language of the new land. Luckily there was a Bamberger cousin in Indianapolis who employed the youngster. After a few months he joined an older brother, Herman, at Wilmington, Ohio. There, during the Civil War, “Herman guarded bridges and I guarded his store,” Simon recalled.
When the Civil War ended, Bamberger worked his way west in an effort to make collections of some bad debts. Then, keeping pace with the work camps of the Union Pacific as its rails were laid, he began cashing and rediscounting paychecks for construction workers. Soon the youthful businessman was erecting and renting tents and shacks in the rough, tough camps. Reaching Ogden, he had cash enough to buy a half-interest in the Lester House Hotel, operated by Mr. and Mrs. Briner Cohen. A smallpox epidemic wrote finis to the hotel in 1869 or thereabouts, after which the venturesome Bamberger joined the Cohens as partner in the Delmonico Hotel (renamed the White House) at the southwest corner of Main and Second South in Salt Lake City.
By 1872 Bamberger was “in mining,” at the Sailor Jack operation in Tintic. As his brothers Jacob, Herman, and Louis arrived, he set them up in business but made his major strike with W. S. McCornick and W. W. Chisholm in the Centennial Eureka mine in the silver-rich district. Looking into some coalmines in Sanpete County, Bamberger began to realize that a railroad to Nephi was necessary for successful operation. According to an interview with Watters, he promptly’ set off for England, where he raised a million dollars. He then built the requisite railroad, “but the coal turned out to be of inferior quality and the venture was a failure.”
Untroubled by his million-dollar loss–or perhaps spurred on to meet the venture’s debts–he obtained a franchise for a new railroad extending north from Salt Lake City to Ogden, in competition with the existing steam lines. The line reached Ogden in 1908, but earlier, after completion to Beck’s Hot Springs, Bamberger had built the Lagoon resort, still operating successfully. Electrified in 1910, the railroad ran profitably through the World War II years, when its rails served the complex of military depots south of Ogden. The line shut down in the mid-1950s. Had it remained viable, Simon Bamberger’s visionary electric interurban line might today be helping cut traffic and pollution along the Wasatch Front.
Gentiles and Mormons alike recognized Bamberger as a vigorous, honest man–outspoken and dealing fairly with miners, railroaders, and clerical help in a period when relationships between capital and labor were increasingly strained. He was a Board of Education member from 1898 until 1903, a time when bitter battles between Mormons, Masons, and Gentile groups filled the columns of Salt Lake’s daily newspapers. He became a state senator and served from 1903 to 1907, gaining considerable respect despite an accent that troubled some fellow solons. In 1916 he was elected Utah’s governor on the Democratic ticket, promising the state’s half-million citizens a liberal and progressive administration acceptable to followers of both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Despite his business ties, he pressed firmly for a state public utilities commission capable of regulating utilities and railroads, fostered efficient budgeting practices, helped gain annual salaries for teachers, planned successfully for establishment of a public health department, worked vigorously for a workmen’s compensation measure, and stressed the right of labor to organize. Considerably ahead of his time, Governor Bamberger proposed a corrupt practices act, limits of expenditures by candidates, and nonpartisan election of judges. A feisty, short-statured, volatile redhead, he was a teetotaler, an anti-tobacconist–again a man somewhat ahead of his time.
Utah’s first and only Jewish governor was as intrigued by the problems of local and national Jewry as by state and business affairs. One involvement that met ultimate failure was the effort to establish a Jewish agricultural colony called Clarion, near Gunnison. During that era, when Zionist colonies were being painfully established in Israel through the efforts of Theodore Herzel, American Jews were giving thought to similar agricultural efforts, hoping to shift as many Jews as possible from eastern ghettos to the nation’s vacant lands.
The Clarion effort began in 1910 with ninety-five pioneers from New York City and fifty-five from the Philadelphia area. Samuel Newhouse, the mining man whose name is memorialized in the Newhouse Hotel and Newhouse Building on Salt Lake’s Main Street, was a major backer, along with George Auerbach. Nearly six thousand acres of central Utah land were purchased. Gov. William Spry and state officials agreed to set aside sufficient irrigating water for initial needs. With further funding necessary, a Utah Colonization Fund was established with the Auerbachs, Bambergers, and such distinguished community members as Daniel Alexander, Henry Cohen, Adolf Baer, Adolph Simon, David Spitz, and Rabbi Charles Freund helping underwrite a $150,000 bond issue. Back east, Jacob Schiff and Julius Rosenwald, two of Jewry’s most potent leaders, were interested in the venture; the Mormon church contributed some funds; and by 1913 grain, hay, and vegetables were being raised on 1,560 acres, with colonists living in forty-six homes.
However, the settlers had ignored the advice of natives to insulate plank cottages with adobe or plaster, and as a result the houses were freezing in winter and sweltering in summer. In addition many of the colonists were city dwellers, totally unprepared for the problems of handling farm animals, cultivation, and irrigation. As had happened in poorly sited Mormon colonies from Pariah to Iosepa, buildings were abandoned, ditches crumbled, and the plow that broke the plains was itself broken. However, Clarion was to lead to two successful Utah enterprises and careers. Benjamin Brown, one of the colonists, stayed on in the state to found the Utah Poultry Cooperative Association that slowly built up a market for the state’s eggs and fowl. And one youthful settler, Maurice Warshaw, moved on to California, then back to Utah, to peddle produce from a wagon, open a small store, develop it to a sizeable market, then expand into today’s Grand Central and Warshaw market chains, familiar to thousands of Utah patrons.
Jewish immigrants to Utah in the initial decade of the twentieth century came by train, rather than in white-topped wagons from the broad Missouri or across mountains and desert lands from California. They crossed the Atlantic in steamships, instead of sailing by clipper to New York, or around the Horn, or to the Isthmus of Panama. The journey was easier but not without pain or pangs of loneliness. Usually half-a-week’s time was spent departing Russia or Poland, in a manner not unlike that in Fiddler on the Roof.There were passport problems, inspection problems, ticketing problems, baggage problems, first at Hamburg, or Rotterdam, or any of a dozen ports of embarkation–and equally frightening health inspection problems in the Ports of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Boston.
The very enormity of the influx of newcomers baffled the immigration authorities working at Ellis Island, within sight of the Statue of Liberty and its inscription–written by a Jewish woman–inviting the wretched and storm tossed to these shores. The New York Post, reporting on January 7, 1905, that 70 percent of all Russian immigrants were Jewish, noted that one hundred thousand persons came from the czarist empire in the previous year, plus at least twenty thousand from Austria-Hungary and another six thousand from Rumania. The newspaper cited “midnight expulsions from Moscow, the awful suffering at St. Petersburg and Kiev…the revival of persecution reaching its most intolerable manifestation at Kishenev” as reasons for the tide of emigrants. There were to be other horrors, other waves of refugees, a quarter century later.
Numerically, the number of Jews reaching Utah was a trickle, but although they now arrived by train, they had often suffered as much in the old country, in steerage quarters in the bowels of pitching steamships, and in a few bewildering days in the New York ghettos as their brethren who came via sail and wagon. Early or late, as Dr. Louis C. Zucker succinctly put it in his “Shalom Paper” of 1972, they were animated by Horatio Alger motives and virtues, plus a resolve to find a permanent, viable home.
The newcomers of the new century were, like those who came before, most likely to find their livelihood as shopkeepers, often serving an informal apprenticeship in the stores of fellow Jews of the earlier generation. A cluster of stores on Main Street, State Street, and “Broadway” in Utah’s metropolis remains as a memorial to their diligence, their hours of toil. Unlike the situation in New York or Chicago, where the family “lived in back,” in a few drafty rooms behind a clothing, grocery, cigar, furniture, or dry goods shop, Utah’s newcomers were usually able to find a side-street rental house or apartment and would walk to work or ride the trolley to their labors. Talk with today’s Shapiros, Wolfes, Axelrads, Tannenbaums, Ziniks, Franks, or their peers about parents or grandparents and the story comes through basically the same. First, a weary arrival from the seaboard, perhaps after a halt at Denver. There a larger Jewish colony thrived due partly to a hospital specializing in tuberculosis and other lung diseases to which the people of the ghettos were especially prone. Somehow parents and grandparents put a few dollars together, rented a tiny shop, persuaded wholesalers to take credit risks, and a new luggage, furniture, or dry goods establishment came into being. Cash was the commodity lacking–faith and the ability to work agonizingly long and hard were present in abundance. “Poor relations” kept arriving, and, as in the tales of Sholem Aleichem, there was always room at the table, on a couch, or even on the floor. A job? Someone had knowledge of one–not through the State Employment Service, but down the street at some fellow Jew’s store, or at meetings of the temple or synagogue auxiliary, or at Hadassah, or “Council,” or “Sisterhood.” From 1916 till 1940 there was an Orthodox congregation, Shaarey Tzadek, for those newcomers who chose not to depart old forms and ritual.
Now and again the community had a kosher butcher, but not too frequently, which seems to have been one reason ultra-Orthodox faithful departed the city. Somehow, since the community’s earliest beginnings, residents found a way to maintain a Hebrew school where some rudimentary training in biblical lore and Jewish history was available. Dollars for the rabbi’s salary were hard to come by, but the Lord–and his adherents–provided.
As Sholem Aleichem might have said, “the community didn’t exactly prosper, but it survived.” A few Jews, as might be expected, prospered more than others. Down through the years many Utah Jews have taken pride in the achievements of their fellows in business, education, science, medicine, and the arts.
The business roster is the longest. Some firms, such as the candy company founded by Leon Sweet have a regional reputation. Eimco, became one of the city’s largest employers. Standard Optical, founded by the Schubach brothers, is operated by a second generation of Schubach brothers. New faces with established old names operate such well-regarded firms as Pepper’s Allied Metals, Shapiro’s Luggage, Tannenbaum’s National Store, Axelrad Furniture, Wolfe’s, and Makoff’s. In quite a few instances the older generation comes around to see how children or grandchildren are doing.
A multitude of visionaries come to mind. Utah’s television and radio industry recently honored Sid Fox, who founded KDYL and Channel 4. Louis Marcus was a Salt Lake motion picture pioneer as well as one of the city’s more efficient and honest mayors. Sid Cohen pioneered television film buying and the little theatre presentation of fine foreign films. Joe Dupler was long known as the city’s largest furrier and a major mink rancher. Charlie McGillis grew with newspaper distribution, starting with a news wagon and winding up handling virtually the entire run of the city’s largest daily. The growth of the insurance business found Herbert Hirschman and son, and then Jack Weinstock and son, in leading local roles. One of the city’s major fortunes was earned by James A. White, who came down from Ogden, early saw the potential of coal mine company stock and arbitrage, and later gave his name to Salt Lake’s handsome Jewish Community Center.
As with Jews everywhere, members of the earlier generations sought the best in education for their youngsters–in Utah, as elsewhere, Jews remain People of the Book in more ways than one. Prior to the turn of the century, a handful of Utah young people went east or to California to attend universities. In the first three decades of the new century, increasing numbers of parents could speak with pride of children at Stanford and Pennsylvania, Columbia and Yale. In more than a few instances those youngsters, accustomed to the free and easy camaraderie of old Salt Lake High, (or East, South, or West highs after such schools were built) unhappily discovered overt anti-Semitism for the first time. Perhaps more important, Utah’s Jewish collegians found they could, by and large, succeed in campus life–scholastically at least–in competition with the easterners they were encountering for the first time.
Those same years were years of great growth for the University of Utah, which earlier lagged behind state institutions in the Midwest. As the university’s offerings increased, more and more Jewish graduates of city and county high schools found it a gateway to chosen professions in law, medicine, engineering, mining, or business. The university served a leavening function for the community as well. Dr. Louis Zucker was its single Jewish faculty member in 1928, but there were a dozen during the war years and upwards of fifty today. When a four-year College of Medicine was established at the end of World War II, men who wrote the textbooks, including Dr. Max Wintrobe, Dr. Leo Samuels, and Dr. Louis Goodman, took major roles in winning the institution a national reputation. In addition, it attracted part-time faculty members interested in both research and the practice of medical specialties, men such as Dr. Irving Ershler and Dr. David Dolowitz who settled in to stay, side by side with the few native sons, such as Dr. Milton Pepper, practicing medicine in the valley.
Today a parallel situation is evident in legal circles, with Law School faculty members, such as Lionel Frankel and relative newcomers to the community such as Dan Berman and David Geldzahler winning prominent legal or political roles equaling those long since gained by established community members, including A. Wally Sandack, Irving Arnowitz, and Alvin Smith. Just as the university was attracting new professionals to the area, the campus and the businesses it fostered have been bringing local Jewry a leavening of physical and social scientists. This had also happened during and shortly after World War II, when hundreds of Jewish men, stationed at Camp Kearns, Wendover, Hill, the Ogden General Depot, or Clearfield, liked what they found in Utah–perhaps the mountains, perhaps a pert college girl–and decided to settle in Zion at war’s end.
Unfortunately, to match the influx of new professionals and businessmen, students, artisans, and a handful of retirees, Utah’s Jewish community, along with Mormon and other groups, suffered the attrition of mortality and the debilitating out-migration that has long plagued the state. Just as rabbis came and departed, just as collegians and faculty members came and went, so too have bright young Jews of both sexes come of age, taken a long look at available opportunities, and departed. Utah may indeed be Zion to some, but to others it is a small provincial state in the hinterland of a far larger nation. As always, far fields seem greenest to those hoping to make their mark in the world. Again, statistics are impossible to gather, but a great many Utah-born Jews are actively engaged in communications, medicine, law, sciences, arts, and just plain seeking a livelihood, across the Sierras in California, or back east in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
To be sure, there are opportunities in such slightly esoteric fields as the dance, music, and the visual arts that might have caused some headshaking among old-timers in the valley before Maurice Abravanel arrived to conduct the Utah Symphony. His orchestra has a sizeable number of Jewish names in its string and wind sections, as well as on its boards and lists of donors. Salt Lake City now has a ballet, modern dance group, art center and museum, plus a half-dozen small and large theatres able to absorb a proportion of the talent that once of necessity went elsewhere.
It is a matter of curiosity to some that Utah’s Jews have as yet produced no painter or sculptor of major reputation. Pianist Gladys Gladstone, the Jewish community’s major performing artist, is herself an import–albeit of a quarter-century standing. No author of both stature and Jewish persuasion (or even non-persuasion) has yet loomed on the horizon. Helen Sandack and her Temple Sisterhood Follies have not as yet brought a Utah-born Jewish stage, screen, or television star of national prominence to the public ken. Nor has Utah Jewry produced politicians of note since Governor Bamberger, Mayor Marcus, or Tooele’s State Senator Sol Selvin made local headlines. Perhaps the distaff side with prominent women such as Esther Landa or Corrinne Sweet will produce the next Jewish vote-getter.
Analyzing Jewish life in Zion a bit more seriously, it seems apparent–although many will argue the point–that the state’s Jews, like many Mormons, remain more than a mite removed from the mainstream of American life, not to mention worldwide Jewry. The world across the sheltering Wasatch does impinge on occasion. In the 1917-18 war that shook the Old World of their parents to its foundations, thirty-seven members of the Jewish community wore khaki leggings or navy blue, a list extending alphabetically from Alexander to Weitz. When Pearl Harbor erupted in 1941 and the nation had a need for a two-ocean navy, a huge army, and an air force capable of reaching the heartland of both Germany and Japan, 180 Utahns left Jewish homes for military duty. Harold Glazier, Morris Romick, Sherman Pomerance, and Edward Cherenik never returned, their young lives taken by a global conflagration from which many of their neighbors had believed Zion isolated. Korea and Vietnam once again saw Jewish men in uniform. In the latter conflict, at least a few Jewish young people deliberately stood aside, making clear their distaste for a war they felt should never have been visited upon the world.
Meanwhile, like it or not, Utah Jews have come to a realization that they cannot escape the woes of their fellows in Israel, in the lands fringing the Mediterranean, or in the regions governed by the Soviets. Things were rather different earlier on, when, in the 1920s, as Dr. Louis Zucker has indicated, a majority of the members of the Utah community wore blinders, and initially felt the woes of Germany’s Jews were of little concern to Americans. In his “Recollections and Observations,” he makes clear “the Zionist movement languished,” while B’nai B’rith lodge meetings were spent in “parliamentary skirmishes about nothing of importance.” Rabbis Joseph Krikstein of Montefiore and Sam Gordon of B’nai Israel were “militant ideologues” chiefly concerned with the faithfulness of the folk to Rabbinic Judaism and the routine of confirmation or Bar Mitzvah.
Hitler’s regime and its overt anti-Semitism changed the isolation of Utah’s Jews. By 1936 the local United Jewish Council and Salt Lake’s Jewish Welfare Fund were raising thousands of dollars to bring refugees to a free land. By war’s end, after Hitler’s holocaust had eradicated millions of Jews, newcomers as diverse as the Edgar Bodenheimers (both law professors) and the Lu Dombush family (they founded the city’s finest Jewish delicatessen; he wears a concentration camp tattoo on one arm) were making new homes in Salt Lake City. Refugee families brought a new language and ancient customs to the city’s suburbs, to Ogden, Cedar City, and points north and south. Many of the newly arrived prewar and postwar refugees were to move on to major West Coast centers, but Utahns take pride in the role they played in providing an initial emergency haven for the new wave of tempest-tossed.
To coin a phrase, there were always Zionists in Zion, dating back to the movement’s inception at Basle in 1897. The local Hadassah, the feminine arm of this activist movement, was formed just six years later, in 1903. Looking back over the past few decades, Simon Shapiro, Ben Roe, and Louis and Ethel Zucker can be seen as the early goads and spurs of a community conscience too long unconscious of overseas needs and goals. When World War II ended, and it was obvious that the pitiful remnants of European Jewry needed a land of their own, the city’s earliest Zionists were joined by Simon Rosenblatt and young Joel Shapiro in approaching Mormon leader George Albert Smith, gaining meaningful Latter-day Saints backing in the local Jewish effort to support a reborn Jewish state named Israel.
Since those years, Zion’s Jews have donated millions of dollars to help keep that tiny but plucky land viable. Like their brethren from coast to coast, Utah Jews groan when approached to buy tickets for dinners, luncheons, concerts, motion pictures, and plays, to attend lectures and benefits, to pledge dollars, to hear ambassadors and authors. They groan, but, admitting to the grievous need, contribute their tithes, buy bonds, sign checks.
What of the future? Two struggling congregations have joined forces in an effort to weld a single living congregation, Kol Ami. Vigorous, youthful Rabbi Abner Bergman spreads the gospel to the members who regularly attend Sabbath services and to the far greater number of Jews crowding two old houses of worship on the High Holy Days. Arguments concerning the use of Hebrew and English, cantor, choir, and organist sound much like those of a century ago when Orthodox and Reform contended. An article in a January 1975 Deseret News concerning the impossibility of finding kosher foodstuffs in Utah parallels one found in a city daily seventy-five years earlier.
However, Utah’s Jews have happily been spared many of the abrasive and frustrating problems that, in all too many American communities, have been rooted in anti-Semitism. Utahns have generally accepted Jews as neighbors, as business associates, as fellow citizens, and as the folks next door. Perhaps because of the rather special role Mormon theology accords them, perhaps because of their small numbers, overt anti-Semitism is largely unknown. When the Ku Klux Klan was being resurrected and at the time when Father Coughlin inveighed against “foreigners” from his radio pulpit, crosses occasionally burned in Salt Lake’s foothills, but old-timers say the principal targets of such bitter demonstrations were the region’s Catholics and outlanders of any persuasion. However, some Utahns joined Silver Shirt groups in support of Nazism in the 1930s. A Salt Lake City attorney, Justin C. Stewart, remembers serving as moderator on a public forum broadcast by KUTA radio in 1938. One program featured Rabbi Samuel H. Gordon and a local Silver Shirt representative:
The Silver Shirt said, “you can always tell a Jew just by looking at him.” Rabbi Gordon challenged him to pick out the Jews in the audience of fifty or sixty people. Well, of course, he missed as many as he got. He was forced to admit that he didn’t think even Rabbi Gordon looked especially Jewish.
As Hitler gained strength, a few Mormon missionaries in Germany, along with some LDS converts, were infected with the Nazi’s racist ideology, but their views never seriously affected the ethical course chosen by the Latter-day Saints’ leadership.
On the national level the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith has assessed anti-Semitism in business, industry, education, labor, and the professions, as well as in social matters. By ADL standards, Utah comes off well, especially if numbers are the criteria. The country clubs and downtown clubs where businessmen and their spouses congregate to dine and play bridge have Jewish members, although they may or may not have implicit quotas. There seems to be no problem concerning admission of Jews to the state’s public and private schools, colleges, and universities, although Jews here as elsewhere were once excluded from fraternities and sororities that restricted membership to believers in Christ. As in other parts of the nation, Utah’s Jews have long taken an active role in seeking to keep church affairs, school affairs, and state affairs strictly separate, and have sought to keep curricula, texts, and teaching clear of taint.
Down through the years, national surveys indicate Jews have had few posts of consequence in railroading, utilities, banking, or mining. While Utah Jews have held few such positions in railroading and utilities, they have been conspicuous in mining. Sam New-house and Simon Bamberger were followed by Louis Buchman, who rose from the ranks to head Kennecott Copper’s western operations, and Wallace Woolf, a University of Utah graduate who directed Bunker Hill’s facilities in neighboring Idaho. Although Jews have not risen to leadership posts in local banking, Joseph Rosenblatt is a long-time director of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and Jewish names dot the directorships of major Utah corporations.
Enter almost any Jewish home in Salt Lake or Ogden, or find a group of Jewish youngsters at the University of Utah Commons, and the conversations concerning intermarriage, conversion, and just plain “falling away” from the faith of parents and grandparents will likely produce a feeling of deja vu in auditors fortyish or older. Intermarriage, whether the Jewish party be male or female, still causes concern, misgiving, and wrangling in Jewish homes in Utah, as it assuredly does in Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Mormon, Greek Orthodox, and even nondenominational settings across the nation.
However, when the High Holy Days come around annually, as they have done for five thousand or so years, male or female members of an interfaith marriage will as likely as not put aside their daily chores, or even call off a round of golf, and set forth for a day of communal devotion. Following in parental footsteps, they keep the youngsters home from school on Rosh Hashanah (“New Year’s Day”) and Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), dress the children in Sabbath best, and join, family style, in intoning prayers as long-lived as any in the history of mankind.
As in generations past, Utah’s Jews will stream to their house of worship, observe the fast day, ask the Lord to inscribe them in the Book of Life. A strong-lunged member of the congregation will sound the sho far on a simple ram’s horn–echoing the ancient times when shepherds tended flocks in a very different place and time.
On the Passover, a tattered, treasured Hagodah will be read to the assembled family by the clan’s elder sage, while the youngest answers questions concerning the Exodus that have been put to Jewish children in a multitude of lands and in a multitude of conditions. The household’s finest napery will be on the table, a special set of cutlery, tableware, and china will gleam, candles will cast their glow upon a treasured samovar brought from the old country.
Next, the odors of k’nedlach and charoses, matzoh brie and a roasting fowl mingle with the sharper aroma of gefulte fish and t’simmas. There is food enough for all comers–indeed, someone will order the door opened for Elijah or any hungry stranger, while a napkin-wrapped matzoh will be hidden, to be sought later by the family’s children.
Seated at such a ceremonial dinner, a few oldsters will recall similar Passovers years ago–in Brest Litovsk, or Kiev, in Berlin, perhaps, or Salonika, Warsaw, Riga, or Budapest. Members of a younger generation can realize, with some awe, that the Passover being celebrated near Utah’s Jordan and the Great Salt Lake is being marked in precisely the same fashion beside another River Jordan and Dead Sea.
And so, two hundred years after a Declaration of enduring Independence signed near the banks of the Delaware, it can be hazarded that Jewry in distant Utah will survive–perhaps even flourish–not because of, or as the result of, or in spite of, classes in Hebrew at the temple, a library of Judaica at the university, nor even classes in weaving, finger-painting, or skiing at the Jewish Community Center. Perhaps it will live and develop because of nostalgia, a hidden hunger for old songs as well as grandmother’s cooking, or because of some inner knowledge that greater Jewish faith is indeed needed, but that faith alone will not suffice in perpetuating an ancient heritage.
Having settled in a Zion very different in space and time from the land of their ethnic and ethical beginnings, Utah’s Jews remain, along with their neighbors, Americans all, with their roots as firmly in this place as any People of the Book anywhere.