When the Yiddish Cowboy Roamed; Autry exhibition tells the tale of Jews in the Old West. It is controversial, curators say, for what it does not tackle in depth.
The Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; Jun 24, 2002
PHOTO: The Newmark family in Yosemite in 1881;left to right, Carrie Newmark Isaacs, Harris Newmark, Emily Newmark, J.L. Isaacs, Ella Newmark Photographer: Autry Museum of Western Heritage
The idea of chicken soup on the range, of kosher picnics beside the covered wagon, isn't what usually comes to mind when talk turns to tales of America's pioneers.
But then again, the West wasn't won just by lanky Mayflower types who swaggered across the land, guns drawn, shooting bears and outlaws. Among pioneers on the uncharted Western trails were immigrants of many colors from many countries of many faiths--all seeking adventure, opportunity, escape.
Some were Jewish, settlers who first arrived in the East from Europe and then made the perilous but gloriously scenic trek West to settle land that must have looked like nirvana.
A new exhibit at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, "Jewish Life in the American West: Generation to Generation," helps clarify the reality and expand the mental image to include the diversity that really was the Wild West.
"Early Jewish settlers were miners, explorers, gunslingers, cowboys, suppliers, store owners. Like all who came West, of every religion, the Jews participated in the whole gamut of activities," says Lisa Marr, an assistant curator of the exhibit. Case in point: There's sheet music on display titled, "I'm a Yiddish Cowboy," written by Tough Guy Levi.
"There was so much to do that everyone really had to dive in and get along with each other," she says.
The exhibit focuses mainly on the years 1820-1924. It tells of families like the Newmarks, who emigrated from West Prussia to New York City, then moved West in about 1850 and left a lasting mark on the culture. Joseph Newmark, a lay rabbi, made the trip first. Then he sent for his wife and six children, who travelled by boat around Cape Horn to meet him. While at sea, 14-year-old Myer Newmark kept a daily journal that describes the scenery, food, games, all the activities they did and didn't enjoy. The journal, in meticulous handwriting on yellowed pages, is among the artifacts and photos displayed at the Autry. "It's an amazing document," says assistant curator Meredith Hackleman, "for the compelling picture it offers of the journey."
Myer grew up to become one of the first Jewish lawyers in L.A. Another of Joseph Newmark's children, Sarah, married one of his nephews, Harris Newmark; the couple helped found L.A.'s oldest museum, the Southwest Museum, the Los Angeles Library, and the Jewish Orphans Home (now Vista Del Mar), which Newmark descendants still support. Harris later wrote a book, "Sixty Years in Southern California," which Hackleman calls "one of the best sources on early Los Angeles life." Harris Newmark’s nephew Kaspare Cohn founded the hospital that eventually became Cedars-Sinai and started the bank that today is called Union Bank of California. Joseph and his wife helped found the university that eventually became Loyola-Marymount.
Tales of pioneer women are told through the work of artist Andrea Kalinowski, whose mixed-media canvas combines quilt designs with digitally reproduced pictures of Jewish pioneer women, along with the women's own words gathered from letters and journals about the experience of helping to settle the West. (A full display opens July 25 at the Skirball Cultural Center.)
Also highlighted, in a book curators call "riveting," is the true story of pioneer Rachel Calof, "Jewish Homesteaders on the Northern Plains" (Indiana Press).
The Autry exhibit is controversial, its curators say, more for what it does not tackle in depth than for what it does. The matter of crypto-Jews, also called conversos, for example, is touched only lightly.
"Jews have actually been in the American West since the 16th century, when they, along with Muslims and all other non-Catholics were expelled from Spain," Hackleman says. Many of these conversos came to what was then called New Spain (which became Mexico in 1821). The inquisition followed them there, and some converted to Catholicism rather than be forced to find a new homeland, she adds. It is believed by some that the conversos then moved North into what is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona. From there, they spread across the West. Now, more than 500 years and 20 generations later, a strong movement has emerged among some of these Catholics to discover their roots. And an opposing movement, equally strong, has developed among those not interested in such investigations.
A document from the Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives at the University of Arizona warns, before launching into documentation gathered on conversos, "no names are used because of sensitivities within Hispanic families. Some want to search out their roots, but in the same family there are those who either are indifferent or antagonistic and do not want to know of a different historic past."
Says Hackleman, "Scholars are still debating all of this, and many crypto-Jews refuse to speak publicly on the subject." Flavio Montoya, who is identified as a crypto-Jew from Los Angeles, allowed his name and photo to be used at the exhibit. But curators were hesitant to discuss him. It is a very delicate issue, they explained. Montoya is out of the country at a converso conference in Portugal and could not be reached for comment.
Museum managing curator Michael Duchemin says the Autry has offered a series of exhibits since 1993, highlighting contributions of various groups to the development of America's West: Native Americans, Mexican Americans, African Americans and Chinese Americans have each been given individual exhibits. "Now it's the Jewish American's turn," he said. "And the magic of this one is that it pulls together all these local stories into one big picture" of how this group assisted in the development of the West.
"We drew on 77 different collections, some private, some from museums and historical societies, from the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress and the National Archives.
Major sponsors of the Autry exhibit, which runs through January, are Wells Fargo bank and Steven Spielberg's Righteous Person's Foundation.
Of course the real coup in an era such as this might be to pull together in one exhibition the intertwined stories of all these various ethnic and religious groups that worked together--largely without animosity--to create one of the most spectacular and diverse societies in the modern world.