Jewish pioneer cemeteries of Mother Lode tell culture tales
As a photographer, I’m always on the lookout for interesting places to photograph, and I have discovered cemeteries make great subject matter.
You learn a lot about a culture by the way they treat their dead. The cemeteries are often in out-of-the-way spots set aside by generations years earlier. Who they were, and the legacy that is maintained by their descendents all comes into play.
So imagine my surprise in discovering a notation in a list of California cemeteries for Jewish pioneer cemeteries of the Mother Lode. Intrigued, I began researching and have begun visiting these places.
Steeped in the history of the west are stories of Jewish pioneers who, like every other immigrant, carved a life and destiny out of a rugged and unforgiving landscape. Leaving behind political upheaval, food riots and anti-Semitism, the European Jewish immigrants arrived in California, like every other immigrant coming west upon the discovery of gold in northern California, by either wagon or ship. It was a journey which could take upwards of eight months to a year.
Often arriving by ship as it was the less expensive means to San Francisco, an arduous and deadly journey for many around the bottom of South America, sailing through extreme conditions or by way of Panama, landing on the east side then traversing through a mosquito and malaria infested region to the Pacific side to finish the long journey.
Coming to the west, these Jewish immigrants would arrive in San Francisco then make their way up the delta to Stockton and Sacramento and then into the Sierra.
Jewish immigrants had a long history in Europe of being merchants, so they began trading and selling provisions to the gold miners and often brought culture to the regions. As Kenneth Libo and Irving Howe wrote in their 1984 book, “We Lived There Too”: “Jews literally brought civilization to countless cities and towns in the west ... by establishing the department store.”
In addition to their skill sets as merchants, the Jewish community brought with it a long tradition of civic mindedness that stems from the Talmud, a sacred Jewish text: “Do not remove yourself from the community.”
And they did not. Historians point out that west of the Mississippi, most towns and cities had a Jewish mayor, even Deadwood, South Dakota. The city of Placerville had their own in David Snow. Jewish involvement was also within civic-minded groups like the Odd Fellows and the Masons.
Seen as fellow settlers, Jewish communities encountered little anti-Semitism from their fellow pioneers. It’s been estimated that between 1840 and 1880, 15,000 to 250,000 Jewish immigrants made their way to California.
As Jewish immigrants settled, the first thing they would do to maintain their history and religious beliefs was to create a cemetery. The first was established by the Hebrew congregation of Sonora in 1851 and maintained by Julius Baer. Even before a synagogue or school, the cemetery was established.
A Jewish cemetery is first and foremost consecrated ground. It guarantees the observance of Jewish rituals of death and dying, even specific wood is used for the caskets, typically pine, to ensure full disintegration. “Ashes to ashes” is taken literally, and will include no distinctions of wealth.
Traditionally, Jews include two pieces of information on every matzeivah (stone monument).
First, the deceased’s Hebrew name and the Hebrew date of death, so future generations will know when the Yahrzeit (an anniversary of the death for mourners and prayers) is. Jewish graves also have several markers and often symbols which can signify a range of information, including the father’s last name, which greatly assists genealogy and symbols denoting organizations that person belonged to.
In the Nevada City cemetery, my tour guide, Rabbi Alan Greenbaum, of Congregation B’nai Harim, pointed out a headstone that was made to look like a cut sapling, which symbolized a person dying in the prime of their life.
Doves and lambs would often be placed on the headstones of children, or even the placement of small stones atop a grave, signifying that that person has not been forgotten. I saw several stones resting on several tombstones that day. Remembering the dead and honoring them, part of the mitzvah, is religious obligation.
In 1962, in association with the Judah Magnus Center in Berkeley, the Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks of the West was created to not only preserve and maintain these cemeteries but also to provide history of the Jewish immigrant experience, help find descendents of relatives to continue the education of why Jews came to the American West and their contributions to it.
There are currently seven pioneer Jewish cemeteries.
Including the two in Grass Valley and Nevada City there are also ones in Jackson and Marysville, which was vandalized a couple of years ago. It is estimated that there could be as many as 40 more Jewish pioneer cemeteries. Like the gold rush towns that would boom then bust then vanish, many of these cemeteries are hiding in the Sierra Nevada hills and mountains of Northern California, waiting to be discovered.
Even today, you can also remember the influence of the Jewish pioneer experience on California and the world every time you slip on a pair of Jewish pioneer Levi Straus’ invention for the gold miner needing tough pants, the jean.
A guide to Jewish cemeteries in the foothills
Online: For a complete list and maps of how to see these historical landmarks go to www.pioneerjewishcemeteries.org
Call: (831) 607-8749
Email: Pioneerjewishcemeteries@gmail.com or Rabbi Alan Greenbaum, Alan.Greenbaum@gmail.com to arrange a tour