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I wrote this series in monthly installments during my term as newsletter editor for Congregation Beth Israel in Chico, California. I have since (in April of 2016) resigned from their board and as newsletter editor. This series has been slightly modified at places, but is essentially the same as the original piece.
In many ways the Jews of Butte County are typical of non-Orthodox Jews throughout the U.S. In other ways, their regional history makes them unique. But then, that too is typical of Jews everywhere. This series offers a glimpse into the Jews of Butte County.
In the year 70 CE1 the Beit HaMikdash,2 HaShem's3 Holy Jerusalem Temple, was destroyed by the Romans. The Jews of Eretz Y'israel were slaughtered or driven from our Homeland. Most of the surviving Jews traveled much of the known world seeking safety and community, although there have always been Jews in Israel. Many of these Jews found their way into Europe. The descendants of these European Jews were among the earliest Europeans to travel to the New World in search of freedom and prosperity.
From Spain and Portugal came Sephardi Jews such as Elias Legarde, who arrived at James City, Virginia (or James Cittie as it was then called) on the HMS Abigail in 1621. Sephardi Jews mainly settled along the Atlantic Seaboard as early as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These however were not the Jews who made their way west into Butte County California.
It was the Gold Rush of 1849 that first attracted Jews to California. Without a Protestant hegemony and with comparatively little antisemitism here, Jews and Jewish institutions began to flourish in Northern California. Selling dry goods and clothing to miners and other new arrivals, most Jewish men became merchants, wholesalers, or clerks in San Francisco, Sacramento, or in the numerous river bed and mining towns. Jewish women, usually the wives or sisters of these merchants, often opened shops, worked as milliners, and/or school teachers. Some of these Jews eventually ventured into Butte County where the third largest gold nugget ever found4 was discovered. That solid gold nugget, found in 1859, weighed in at 54 pounds!
Virtually all of the early settler Jews who heeded the call to “Go West” were non-Orthodox Ashkenazim as we will discuss next tine. These Jews carried with them the traditions and views of Central and Eastern Europe, coupled with the strong independent spirit of the Old West. They were the original Jews of Butte County. In part two we will consider who they were and how their Jewish world views continue to impact our own.
Notes and References consulted:
- CE and BCE are used throughout this series to indicate the more common AD and BC -- they signify "Common Era" and "Before Common Era."
- Beit HaMikdash or "House of the Holy" refers to the Holy Jerusalem Temple of the Jews.
- Throughout this study the Jewish term HaShem (literally "The Name") is used for the God of Israel. Observant Jews do not use the Sacred Name of Four Letters.
- There is some debate about the comparative size of this gold nugget. Visit the Gold Nugget Museum, Paradise, CA. for more
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