Local historian Erin Graffy gave a Zoom lecture on Thursday titled: “From Oy Vey! to Ole! The Jewish community in Santa Barbara,” sharing stories of some of the first arrivals and influential Jewish leaders who came to the city.
She covered three waves of Jewish immigrants, and how they served the Santa Barbara community and helped it grow into the city it is today.
Starting with the Gold Rush that attracted many German Jews to California, Mrs. Graffy said they were most successful not exactly as miners themselves but as merchants providing the goods and services to the miners.
She added that there was a sense of prejudice in California, but not distinctly anti-Semitism.
“The people who were already here considered themselves Californians, not Mexican at all, not Spanish,” the historian said. “They didn’t like the Jews, but they didn’t like anybody that was not a Californian, Spanish-speaking and Catholic.”
Mrs. Graffy called it a “one size fits all prejudice, nothing distinct directed toward Jews.”
That being said, California afforded the Jews a “great deal of freedom.”
“The Jews operated with a great deal of autonomy and independence,” she said. “There was no social hierarchy established. …You just prove yourself on your own merits.”
Some of the most successful German Jews in California included Isaias Wolf Hellman, the founder of USC; William Haas, who built the landmark San Francisco Haas-Lilienthal House; Solomon Lazard, the first naturalized American in Los Angeles County; and the Newmark family, one of the most important leading Jewish families in California history.
Originally from Prussia, members of the Newmark family started the Hebrew Benevolent Society, founded the first Jewish cemetery, founded Congregation B’nai B’rith in LA and founded the LA Public Library.
The first known Jewish resident of Santa Barbara is thought to be Cerf Levy, who came from Alsace-Lorraine in 1868. His son was a wine merchant in the 500 block of State Street, and they built a home on the second block of East De La Guerra.
His daughter, Rachel Levy, born in Santa Barbara in 1872, moved to LA and became the founder of L’alliance Francaise, the president of Women of Reform Judaism, formerly known as the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, and was involved in the National Council of Jewish Women, the LA City Planning Commission and the LA City Art Commission.
She graduated from Santa Barbara High School, class of 1892.
In 1875, a large group of French Jews came to Santa Barbara and landed on Stearns Wharf. They became merchants in the center of town, which was the 500, 600 and 700 blocks of Ortega Street at the time.
They ran shoe stores, clothing stores and became leaders in the community, holding positions of importance and respect.
“What was Jewish life like in the 19th century?” Mrs. Graffy asked. “They were totally accepted in and by the community. This doesn’t follow the pattern you see back east.”
The first Jewish ceremony known in Santa Barbara was in 1895, where a father brought his infant son, Marc Eissman, into the Bond of Israel with the first circumcision.
In the 19th century, Jewish students in Santa Barbara had to go to LA or SF to study for their bar mitzvah, staying with relatives or friends.
The second wave of Jews in Santa Barbara came from 1914 through 1924, escaping persecution from the pograms of Eastern Europe.
“We don’t take things seriously enough, because we’re kind of conditioned by our present-day culture so that when we say people had terrible persecution, we’re not quite giving it the justice it deserves,” Mrs. Graffy said. “The stuff that was happening to them was horrific. Hitler wasn’t the one that started what’s been happening historically to the Jews.”
Some of the 20th century Santa Barbara Jews from Eastern Europe, and maybe a few familiar names, included: Sam Percal of Poland, Joseph Safina of Russia, Max Rosenthal of Odessa, Abraham Cross of Poland, Morris Katz of Austria, Abraham Fishkin of Russia, Joseph Solomon of Romania, Jacob and Helen Motto of Poland, Irving Firestone Romania, William Shoen of Austria Hungary, Sam Licker/Lichter of Ukraine, Nathan Leeker of Russia, Max Friedman of Austria, Sophie Goldberg Friedman of Russia, Lester GIrsh of Lithuania, Samuel Liker of Russia, Solomon Wasserman of Russia and Nathan Weidis of Russia.
Mrs. Graffy said that while they were persecuted for their faith in Eastern Europe, faith was the only thing holding them together in the U.S.
The first orthodox service was held in a home in 1924, along with the first bar mitzvah in 1925.
The Jewish community gained its first official organization’s torah in 1927, and opened its first temple in 1932.
The building is still on 1028 State Street, but has since been repurposed.
“Santa Barbara had an uncommon record of acceptance for Jews,” Mrs. Graffy concluded. “I think that the history of the Jewish people in Santa Barbara holds a significant part in our community history, not just if you’re Jewish, because these people were important merchants…It was a small crowd, yet they were accepted on their own merits and contributions to the community.”
The lecture was hosted by the Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society.