- The Jewish Oregon Story, 1950 – 2010 by Ellen Eisenberg
Regional histories help broaden our understanding of the wider American Jewish experience beyond the East Coast. The Jewish Oregon Story, 1950–2010, is, therefore, a welcome companion to Ellen Eisenberg’s earlier book, Embracing a Western Identity: Jewish Oregonians, 1849–1950 (2015). In that volume, Eisenberg examined the stories of the state’s Jewish pioneers and later residents from the perspectives of commerce, politics, social welfare, and interethnic and interracial relationships. Like Jewish citizens throughout the West, Jews in Oregon often arrived during the region’s formative years. Early arrival frequently conferred respected pioneer status on Jewish westerners that allowed them to enter business, politics, and civic endeavors with more ease than they had encountered in Europe and other areas of the United States. While there were some incidents of anti-Semitism, Jews were generally accepted as full members into the broader Oregon community, viewed as “white” residents in frontier communities that included Native Americans and Asians.
In The Jewish Oregon Story, Eisenberg explores the transformation of Jewish identity in the state post-1950 and the influence of Jewish ethnicity in tandem with the progressive ethos that has come to be associated with the state of Oregon. The American West has always loomed large in the American imagination, and this phenomenon again took center stage in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century as young, well-educated adults from a variety of ethnic and religious groups moved to Oregon, part of a general migration to the Pacific West. According to Eisenberg, starting in the 1970s, they were attracted to Oregon’s increasing “reputation for progressivism, thoughtful development, and an environmental ethos” (xv).
Early Jewish residents of Oregon populated hamlets throughout the state, but today’s Jewish population is centered primarily in Portland, Oregon’s largest city, though some smaller communities experienced a revival beginning in the 1970s. This population influx included younger Jews who helped boost Oregon’s modest Jewish population of only around 9,000 in the late 1970s to an estimated 36,000 in Portland [End Page 405] and over 40,000 statewide in 2010. Throughout the book, Eisenberg emphasizes the theme of dramatic change and reflects on how national trends in both the general and Jewish American communities centering on the subjects of liberal politics, enlarged roles for women, environmentalism, increasing secularism, and diversity interacted with the local Oregon progressive outlook and the traditions of the earlier Oregonian Jewish community.
Given Oregon’s reputation for progressiveness, it is unsurprising that a plurality of Jews in Portland who were surveyed in 2009 asserted that “promotion of civil rights and tolerance” should be the highest priority for the local Jewish community (161). Between 1950 and 2010, Oregonian Jews moved toward stronger focus on broader external rather than specifically Jewish issues. As a result, early united support of Israel and the plight of Soviet Jewry and other Jewish causes of the 1960s and 1970s, when the Jewish community had “turned inward,” began to fragment in the late 1980s (xv). Eisenberg contends that in this trend Jews in Oregon was somewhat ahead of the curve within the American Jewish community. In terms of religion, Eisenberg asserts that “Even with the addition of the Orthodox congregation in Eugene and the expanding Chabad presence, the affiliation choices of Jewish Oregonians tend firmly toward the progressive/liberal end of the Jewish spectrum, and set them apart from Jews in other regions” (231). The last chapter in the book centers mostly on the diverse Jewish religious experience available in the state, with an emphasis on the Jewish renewal movement.
Eisenberg is an engaging writer, and she incorporates the skills of a trained historian with good use of both primary and secondary sources, including a large collection of oral histories that help enliven the narrative. However, writing about recent history is often a tricky enterprise, and sometimes the book reverts to a celebratory style highlighted by generalized platitudes. For example, at the end of Chapter Two, titled “What Happened to Old South Portland,” the...