The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1995, Volume 41, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Old Town. New Town: An Enjoyment of San Diego Jewish History.

William M. Kramer, Editor; Stanley and Laurel Schwartz, Associate Editors. Los Angeles; Western States Jewish History Association, 1994. Bibliography. Illustrations. 96 pages. $12.00. 

Reviewed by Lawrence Baron, Nasatir Professor of Modern Jewish History and Director of the Lipinsky Institute for Judaic Studies, San Diego State University.

Although Jews have played a significant role in the development of San Diego since the 1850s, they generally have received scant attention as a group in studies of the city’s history. The useful bibliography compiled by Stanley Schwartz for the book under review reveals how little has been written about San Diego Jewish history. In contrast to Los Angeles Jewry which has been the subject of several major books, there is no comprehensive publication about the history of the Jews in San Diego. Most of the articles on the topic have been published in the quarterly magazine Western States Jewish History. The remainder have appeared in The Journal of San Diego History. Thus, the editors of Old Town, New Town should be commended for selecting a number of these articles on early San Diego Jewish history and making them available in an inexpensive paperback volume.

The majority of pieces in the collection focus on San Diego’s founding Jewish entrepreneurs. In the best example of this biographical approach, Norton B. Stern ad William M. Kramer chronicle the considerable accomplishments of Louis Rose (1807-1888). Rose’s purchase and development o£ tracts of land in Old Town, Point Loma, and the Rose Canyon greatly contributed to San Diego’s economic growth in the second half of the 19th century. Rose spearheaded early attempts to expand San Diego’s maritime facilities and procure a railroad connection for the town. He held a number of important posts in city and county government and played a key role in establishing the city’s first Jewish cemetery, congregation, and welfare organization. The book’s other biographical sketches depict the careers of figures with similar business, civic, and/or religious records like Sig Steiner, Heymann Mannasse, Marcus Schiller, Isidor Louis, and the members of the Mark I. Jacobs family. As Stern and Kramer note in the Rose article, these prominent pioneers identified with the Jewish community and still “enjoyed total social integration with the leading non-Jewish families” in San Diego.

Only two articles in Old Town, New Town deal with collective Jewish endeavors. Henry Schwartz, who assuredly deserves the acknowledgement the book’s editors give him or his personal crusade to preserve and record the history of San Diego Jewry, documents how the rapid growth of the local Jewish population following the city’s linkage to the railroad in 1885 prompted the decision to construct Temple Beth Israel four years later. To accommodate larger number of congregants, a new temple replaced the first one in 1926. Schartz points out that the original Beth Israel building now standing in Heritage Park is the “oldest structure extant erected as a synagogue in Southern California.” The other non-biographical article in the collection describes various attempts starting in 1890 and ending in 1938 to create a refuge in Baja California for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe. Publicity surrounding the plan ultimately generated too much Mexican opposition for it to be implemented. Stern and Kramer, who authored the article, conclude that the Baja campaign demonstrated that American Jews were not indifferent to the plight of their co-religionists in Europe as is sometimes charged, and marked “the rise of Los Angeles Jewry into the counsels of American Jewish decision making.”

Unfortunately, the broader historical perspective which Stern and Kramer adopt is missing from most of the articles in Old Town, San Diego. As the editors of the valuable anthology Jews of the American West (eds. Moses Rischin and John Livingston, Detroit: Wayne State University, 1991) correctly observe, most local Jewish history suffers from being too narrowly concerned with “lauding communal leaders and memorializing the institutions they built.” In the same volume, Marc Lee Raphael argues for local Jewish historians to engage in a serious analysis of the economic, political, religious, and social activities of the Jewish community as a whole and not just of its elites. This, he contends, is particularly important for the study of the Jews in the West because the standard interpretations of American Jewish history are based primarily on the experiences of the major Jewish population centers in the East and Midwest. The majority of the articles in Old Town, New Town epitomize the older type of parochial local history which tends to be as superficial as it is charming. One hopes, however, that this book will stimulate a new generation of local historians to delve more deeply not only into San Diego’s Jewish past, but also into its vibrant present which has witnessed an increase of the local Jewish population from 11,000 to over 70,000 people in the last twenty-five years.