Early Jews of Butte CountyWhen most people think of Jews they think of big cities like New York and Tel Aviv. Indeed with a Jewish population of 2,028,200 New York is second only to Tel Aviv (at 3,214,800) in Jewish population. Haifa (at 708,000) and Jerusalem (at 687,000) follow at 3rd and 4th.1 The benefits of city living have never been lost on the Jewish people. Community is vital for our people. For instance, while our daily obligations of prayer can be met privately, halacha bestows additional blessings on those who pray, study, and worship in community. Observant Jews also need access to kosher butchers and other services, a mikveh, rabbinic leadership, and much more. We are generally a social people.
As Jews began making their way into the western frontiers of North America, it was only natural that they would settle in the established cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento. What may come as a surprise to many however, is that some Jews, then as now, preferred more rural settings like Butte County. In this case, living closer to the newly found gold deposits inspired their decisions. Community is one of the great blessings we enjoy through CBI and we inherited much of this wonderful community from these frontier Jews of yesteryear.
We have limited information on the original Jews of this area, nothing more than Jewish sounding names in some cases, however we do know that Jews were living here, and in some cases thriving, as early as the mid-1800's. Many of their descendants are CBI members. They made homes for themselves in Oroville and Chico, in Magalia, Cherokee, Gridley, Nimshew, Oregon City, and other areas of the county.2
During those early years, nineteenth century Orovillians elected three Jewish mayors, a state assembly person, a city treasurer, and numerous minor city officials. As the Jewish population increased, they established the Jewish Cemetery in Oroville that is still in use today. It is located 1934 Feather River Blvd. and includes headstone inscriptions of many of the early Jews.
Samuel Rosenbaum was a popular attorney in Oroville. All that is known about him is from his ad in the Weekly Butte Record in 1863. He was also mentioned in the Well's and Chambers' history of Butte County. Rosenbaum won election as the county's district of attorney, receiving 1,932 of the 3,354 ballots cast. He was re-elected in 1865.Was he Jewish? All we have to go on is his name.
Another early likely Jew was Oscar Greenbaum. He ran a small general store in Dayton, adjacent to Chico. We know that he was active in the Republican Party around this same period. He boasted that his merchandise store offered “everything needed for farmers.”3
Mr. Rosenbaum and Mr. Greenbaum were typical of the Jewish settlers of this period. As discussed previously, most of the Jews who came West during the Gold Rush era did not come as prospectors, but as merchants providing for their needs and helping to bring structure and commerce to the area. While we find nothing specifically Jewish about many of these settlers, that too was typical of the time for those who had, knowingly or not, embraced the developing world view of Jewish Haskalah.4
Records reveal that John Bidwell, famous throughout California and across the nation as an important pioneer, farmer, soldier, statesman, politician, prohibitionist, philanthropist, and founder of Chico, sold at least two of his properties to people with Jewish sounding names: one to Markus & King on January 26, 1861, and one to Elias Nathan, on December 14, 1868. There are several such references to Jews in government records, local newspapers, and so on throughout this period. For instance, the Chico Register ran ads for the Marcuse & Company Cigar store. The Pacific Coast Business Directory lists two Jewish businesses in Chico in 1867: B. Breslauer, general merchandise, and Samuel Marks, tailor and clothier.3
While Butte County's Jewish community today is more centrally located in Chico, back then Oroville was the hub of Jewish life. In 1867 there were at least ten Jewish businesses in Oroville: Joseph Block Groceries, Newman Dzergowsky Clothing, Daniel Friesleben Dry Goods and Clothing, Edward A. Kusel Photographer, B. Marks & Company Dry Goods, Marcus Reyman Tobacco, Attorney S. Rosenbaum (mentioned above), and Joseph Rothschild Tobacco.
When we consider that the population of these towns was under 4000 people, this many Jewish businesses is impressive and demonstrates another of the reasons why Jews made their homes here. Despite the widespread antisemitism of the nineteenth century, and the general mistrust of strangers given the transient and often desperate nature of the gold miners, the people of Butte County welcomed us into their community and they continue to do so today. Despite the presence of a few sometimes vocal exceptions, the people of this county generally regard us as friends and good neighbors. For this we, the current Jews of Butte County, remain grateful.
- Tales of the Paradise Ridge, Gold Nugget Museum and History Center, article by Kathy Steenson, page 26.
- A list of many early known local Jews, their countries of origin, where they settled in the county, and more can be found in the Butte Historical Society's publication Diggin's, Fall and Winter edition of 1985 (vol. 29, no. 3&4). Special thanks are due to Professor Rosaline Levenson of Chico State University and Irv Schiffman.
- i.e the early Reform movement philosophy, for more see last month's issue or http://allfaith.com/Religions/awakening, parts 16 and 17, by Rabbi Shlomo Nachman, 1989
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