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American Jews of the Wild West

Jews were among the earliest settlers of the American West, which, as late as the 19th century, was populated mainly by Indian tribes.

Most Jewish immigrants arriving in the United States settled in major east coast cities, but a few ventured west, to fast- developing states like California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.

Antisemitism was not really an issue in this corner of America, giving Jews sufficient elbow room to prosper.

Amanda Kinsey’s documentary, Jews of the Wild West, documents this American exodus. It will be screened at this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which runs from June 9-26.

Kinsey starts with several clips from The Great Train Robbery, the first silent Western. Released in 1903, it starred the Jewish actor Gilbert Anderson, whose real name was Maxwell Aronson and who appeared in countless Westerns. He was not a cowboy, but he certainly looked like one.

Josephine Marcus, a Jewish actress from Poland, was the wife of  legendary federal marshal Wyatt Earp. For a while, they lived in the Arizona mining town of Tombstone. Strangely enough, this American hero is buried in a Jewish cemetery in California.

Levi Strauss, a Jewish boy from Bavaria, immigrated to the United States in the 1840s and opened a wholesale dry goods business in San Francisco. He and Jacob Davis, the inventor of blue jeans, joined forces and made a fortune.

For a brief period between the 1870s and the 1890s, Leadville was the most prosperous mining town in Colorado. Jewish merchants set down roots and prospered. Meyer Guggenheim, an immigrant from Switzerland, bought gold and silver mines in the vicinity, his stepping stones to immense wealth.

Much of the West was explored by John Fremont, but his path-breaking expeditions were recorded by the photographer Solomon Nunes Carvalho, a Sephardi Jew born in Charleston, South Carolina.

Solomon Bibo, a German-Jewish merchant, landed in New Mexico and traded with the local Lacuna people. He married a native woman, and their children were completely assimilated into tribal culture.

In Denver, Jews gravitated into the cattle feedlot business. Golda Meir, a future prime minister of Israel, spent two years in the city.

The Shwayder brothers in Colorado founded the Samsonite luggage company. It’s a brand that has been tested by time.

Toward the end of the film, Scott Gerber, a self-described cowboy, hums a plaintive Yiddish song as he plays a guitar.

Jews of the Wild West is by no means comprehensive, but it offers an interesting glimpse of Jewish settlement in the western American states.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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