Woman, Jew, and Westerner: Excerpts from "A Mixed Chorus"

By Harriet Rochlin


     My next book, A Mixed Chorus: Jewish Women in the American West, 1849 to 1924, is a hybrid history--documentary, social, and pictorial. The book and its format sprang from a pressing need to illuminate and give voice to my triple identity--woman, Jew, and Westerner.

     In 1965, as the ethnic history movement spread nationwide, someone asked me what I knew about Jews in the early West.  "Nothing," was my response -- but not for long.  In the next forty-five years, I published articles on the subject, delivered speeches across the country, and, with my late husband Fred, produced the landmark illustrated social history, Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West, which remained in print at Houghton Mifflin for twenty-six years.

     When I joined the rush of roots-seekers bent on adding their omitted kind to the Western record, my credentials consisted of an upbringing in Boyle Heights, then a heavily Jewish, mixed-immigrant Los Angeles neighborhood; a UC Berkeley Bachelor of Arts in Hispanic American Studies; marriage to a Jewish native of Nogales, Arizona; experience as a journalist; and a bad case of the Who-Am-I's.
    
     To my good fortune, Pioneer Jews took shape in the wake of the 1970s women's movement when the biographies, memoirs, diaries, letters, and oral histories of American women were popping up like wildflowers in a west spring. Some were newly published; others had languished for decades in public and private collections and antiquarian bookdealers' catalogs. Among them were a number of outstanding works by or about Western Jewish women. Biographical sketches, articles, and essays had also begun to turn up in general and Jewish historical society journals and newsletters.

     I felt an instant kinship with these newfound predecessors. Each pioneer reminded me of an early twentieth-century arrival I'd known intimately: my mother, a Missourian turned Los Angeles motorist, homebuilder, gardener, and businesswoman; my Russian-born mother-in-law, who'd known poverty in five communities in Canada and the Pacific Northwest before rooting with her husband and five children on a twenty-acre site on the outskirts of an Arizona-Sonora border town; my Yiddish-speaking Orthodox maternal grandmother, who arrived in Los Angeles wearing a sheitel, a matron's wig. Some even reminded me of myself, especially the daughters and granddaughters of those earlier pioneers who wore Western birth as a badge of distinction. Born in the West, I too was viscerally attached to Southern California's climate and culture. But I never identified myself as a Westerner until I cam to know more about my diverse spiritual antecedents than my bloodline forebears.

      I began to focus my research and writing on Western Jewish women. I published articles, presented papers at women's history and Western Jewish conferences, and spent much of the 1990s writing the three novels that became the Desert Dwellers Trilogy, an exploration of the exhilarating and excruciating inner experiences of a young Jewish woman and her California and Arizona cohorts as they journeyed from newcomers to Westerners in the late nineteenth century. Mixing facts, family lore, memories, and imagination, their stories became mine, and mine theirs.

      In 1999, I received an invitation to edit an anthology of articles on Western Jewish women published in Western States Jewish History, from its publisher Gladys Sturman, a close personal friend. My husband and I had supported the quarterly since its inception and had frequently drawn on its unremitting flow of scholarly and homespun contents. After spending a year and a half gathering nearly a hundred excerpts from the journal and my personal collection, composing introductions to each contribution, and collecting ninety period photographs, I realized that what I had assembled was not an anthology of complete articles. It was a documentary, social, and pictorial history--too long, off-beat, and abundantly illustrated for WSJH's format. It pained me to tell Gladys that I had strayed beyond return.

      As it turned out, running in the wrong direction I had stumbled upon the format I'd been moving toward for years. To permanently eradicate the widespread notion that Jewish women were too fear-ridden, inbred, and city-bound to venture into the remote and thinly-settled Far West would require the voices of hundreds of Jewish women, speaking for themselves, and in so doing, for thousands of voiceless others. Not only were these women of diverse origins, educational backgrounds, social classes, and affiliations, they and their female offspring were widely dispersed, variously engaged, and in their personal writings reported experiences and innermost thoughts most male counterparts would rather be whipped than reveal.

      On nearly every page, these women bear the markings of this erratic period and vast, eminently exploitable region. Fired by the pioneer impulse to build homes, enterprises, institutions, and communities, hopes soared, were dashed, and were reborn. Ingrained beliefs, customs, and tastes had to be fiercely retained, adjusted, or discarded. The rewards obviously outweighed the obstacles. In seventy-five years, Jewish women grew from a scant presence in the Far West to tens of thousands of enfranchised citizens. The least fortunate were too ill-equipped, ill-located, or ill-mated to meet the challenges they faced. The most qualified became outstanding leaders in communal organizations, businesses, professions, and public office.

      The title, A Mixed Chorus, came to me early in the undertaking. Wherever I searched, I found Western Jewish women of every stripe:  homemakers and homebreakers, stalwarts and suicides, pawns and protagonists, pious and secular, grand dames and paupers, educated and illiterate, traditionalists and reformers, rural and urban.  Alone, I discovered, each voice is real and distinctive.  Together, they create an oratorio of Jewish women breaking ground in a developing region and a new age.

     The following is a small sampling of the pioneering Jewish women whose stories will appear in the book, A Mixed Chorus: Jewish Women in the American West, 1849 to 1924.

 

Blanche Coleman (1884-1978): First woman to pass the South Dakota State Bar. Practiced law for 50 years. Photograph courtesy, Al AlshulerBlanche Coleman (1884-1978): First woman to pass the South Dakota State Bar. Practiced law for 50 years. Photograph courtesy, Al Alshuler

Blanche Colman was born in Deadwood, Dakota Territory in 1884, just eight years after rich gold strikes set off the rush that attracted some 18,000 seekers to the Black Hills, her father, Nathan, among them. If her birthplace brings to mind the profane, crime-polluted, greed-crazed Deadwood depicted in a recent televised series of the same name, forget it. Shortly after her father arrived, he became both lay rabbi for the town’s Jewish population and Deadwood’s longtime Justice of the Peace, affectionately dubbed “the Judge.” When Blanche graduated from high school in 1902, she took a job in the legal department of the Homestake Mining Company in nearby Lead. From clerk, she rose to stenographer and then to legal assistant, all the while studying law on her own. On October, 3, 1911, she became the first woman to be admitted to the South Dakota State Bar. For much of her career, she was on the legal staff of the Homestake, described by historian Rodman Paul as "one of the greatest gold quartz mines in the world." Colman retired from the firm in 1950 and thereafter maintained a private practice. In 1961, she received an award naming her the first woman to practice law for fifty years in South Dakota. Throughout her long career, local newspapers awarded celebrity status to the town’s first female attorney:  “Admitted to Practice. Miss Blanche Colman First Woman Lawyer in Hills." “Girl Picks Job as Gold Mine Lawyer.” "Blanche Colman To Be Honored by Bar Assn.” “Blanche Colman has made Deadwood her home for 90 years.”

Drawn from materials collected by her grand-nephew, Al Niederman.


Elizabeth Fleishmann-Ascheim (1867-1905): Pioneer Radiographer, Founder of the First X-Ray Laboratory in the West. Photograph courtesy, Peter E. Palmquist, Arcata, CAElizabeth Fleishmann-Ascheim (1867-1905): Pioneer Radiographer, Founder of the First X-Ray Laboratory in the West. Photograph courtesy, Peter E. Palmquist, Arcata, CA

Born in El Dorado, California, Elizabeth Fleischmann-Ascheim was supporting herself as a bookkeeper in San Francisco in 1895 when her brother-in-law, a physician, introduced her to the newly developing field of radiology. In less than a year, Elizabeth, who had never completed high school, had mastered the technique of radiophotography and opened the first X-ray laboratory in California. Located at 611 Sutter Street, the facility was soon regarded as the best-equipped radiology lab in the American West. During the Spanish American War (1898), injured American soldiers were brought from the Philippines to a hospital in San Francisco where some of the most severely wounded were X-rayed by Fleischmann. Wrote Peter Palmquist, photography historian, “Not only did she pioneer in a previously unknown occupation—X-ray photography—but in her [tragically brief] lifetime achieved worldwide recognition for her extraordinary skill and dedication to this life-saving science.” Fleischmann accomplished all this in one decade, working alone, in a period when most doors to the medical profession were stubbornly closed to women. In 1905, the San Francisco Chronicle reported her demise, as "Death of a Famous Radiophotographer." She was thirty-eight years old, and had been suffering for several years from radiation poisoning due to exposure to unshielded X-rays. The epitaph on her gravestone in the Salem Cemetery, a Jewish burial ground outside of San Francisco, reads, “I think I did some good in this world.”

 

Hannah Marks Solomons: School Teacher and Mother of Five Successful ChildrenHannah Marks Solomons: School Teacher and Mother of Five Successful Children

As an orphaned girl growing up with her Orthodox uncle in Philadelphia, Hannah Marks Solomons was ready to make a life for herself but had few resources at her disposal. When a lonely western suitor sent her passage money to California in 1853, she hastily accepted. However, once Hannah met her betrothed, she refused to go through with the marriage, much to her family's disapproval. Her mind made up, Hannah went to work as a school teacher and eventually married Gershom Mendes Seixas Solomons, a leader in the San Francisco Jewish community. They were wed in the early 1860s, but the marriage was hardly ideal. Although he was an upstanding citizen in the public eye, privately Gershom became a heavy drinker, leaving Hannah to raise a family virtually alone. Nonetheless, her children did her great credit: Theodore became a renowned explorer and cartographer of Yosemite; Leon, a psychology professor; Lucius, an attorney; Adele, a medical doctor and a child psychologist; and Selina, a writer and a woman suffragist.

Three of Hannah Marks Solomons' Five Brilliant Children

Theodore Solomons: Renowned explorer and cartographer of YosemiteTheodore Solomons: Renowned explorer and cartographer of YosemiteSelina Solomons: Writer and woman suffragistSelina Solomons: Writer and woman suffragist

Adele Solomons: Medical doctor and child psychologistAdele Solomons: Medical doctor and child psychologist