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Reviewed by:
  • Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America's Edge, and: Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area
  • Yong Chen (bio)
Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America's Edge. By Ellen Eisenberg, Ava F. Kahn, and William Toll. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009. xv + 309 pp.
Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area. By Fred Rosenbaum. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. xviii + 439 pp.

The United States has been seen primarily as part of the Atlantic world. This perspective has significantly influenced how scholars have studied American history and the history of ethnic groups such as the Jews. Their work has tended to focus on the East Coast. Recent scholarship has made significant inroads into the American West though we still have a long way to go in fully comprehending its importance—for understanding not merely regionalism in U.S. history but a host of vital issues concerning the nation as a whole, such as the rise of America as a global power, race relations, and cultural identity. The authors of the two books under review point out the longstanding East Coast bias in the studies of American Jewish history. In Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area, Fred Rosenbaum writes: "American Jewish historians long neglected developments west of the Mississippi" (xiii). In their Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America's Edge, Ellen Eisenberg, Ava F. Kahn, and William Toll note similarly that the historiography "of American Jewry has focused on the saga of immigration and assimilation. Regrettably, Jews of the American West have been given very limited attention and no distinctive mode" (ix).

These two volumes represent the growing scholarship in recent years that promises to rectify the East Coast bias in the historiography of American Jewry. Equally important, such studies will make meaningful contributions to the historiography of the American West. Well researched, these two volumes take a comprehensive look at Jewish life in the West after the beginning of the Gold Rush, examining Jewish activities in different areas including politics, culture, and the economy. Informed by recent scholarship in American history, the two books nicely situate the development of western Jewish communities not only in American Jewish history but also in the context of America's multiethnic [End Page 183] and multiracial West. For example, both books offer insightful discussions of non-Jewish groups, such as Chinese, African Americans, Mexicans, and Catholics. Such discussions also shed valuable light on the differences of western Jewish communities from their counterparts in the East as well as the contributions of Jews to the development of the American West. Instead of presenting western Jews as monolithic, both studies devote significant space to their cultural, religious, and socioeconomic diversity and the divisions among them, offering a nuanced and intimate picture of their complexity.

These two volumes adopt different yet intellectually complimentary approaches. While Cosmopolitans provides a focused investigation of the Jews in the San Francisco Bay area, Jews of the Pacific Coast covers a much broader area, examining a host of West Coast communities. Furthermore, Cosmopolitans concentrates primarily on the period from the Gold Rush to 1948, when Israel was created and when "a demographic sea change" (xiv) was about to happen for Bay Area Jewry. By comparison, the coverage of Jews of the Pacific Coast extends to the postwar decades.

Lucidly written and coherently organized, Rosenbaum's Cosmopolitans emphasizes the uniqueness of the Jewish experience in the San Francisco Bay area. This is because the Jews there were well integrated into local mainstream society from the very beginning and encountered little ethnic prejudice in their socioeconomic and political advancement. Another characteristic of Bay Area Jews is their preoccupation with the arts, especially visual and performing arts. This, in turn, also affected their sensibility and identity as Jews. Chapter one of the book outlines the swift emergence of the Jewish community in San Francisco shortly after the Gold Rush. Rosenbaum notes, "Overall, San Francisco Jews achieved unparalleled standing in mid-century America" (31). Chapter two focuses on...


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