Monday, August 17, 2009

The Pioneer Researcher

The man who laid the groundwork for research on the Jews of the Gold Rush was Dr. Robert E. Levinson. Most of his comprehensive work, now held by the Western Jewish History Center at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California, was accomplished as part of a doctoral thesis in the early 1960's. He combed local newspapers contemporary to the Gold Rush era, investigated county records, interviewed surviving descendents, and took meticulous notes, and while doing field work discovered six previously undocumented Jewish cemeteries in what is now known as the "Gold Country." His work was cut short in 1980 when he was killed in a car crash. He was instrumental in creating the Commission for the Preservation of Jewish Pioneer Cemeteries and Landmarks, and the six cemeteries he found and surveyed are overseen by the Commission.

Some of Dr. Levinson's research was originally published in much abridged form in his 1968 book, "The Jews in the California Gold Rush," which was reissued in 1994. A book published in 1996, "A Traveler's Guide to Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries of the California Gold Rush" by Susan Morris, supplies directions to the six cemeteries and transcriptions of the headstones, in addition to a brief history of each community. Thus far I have photographed the Placerville Jewish cemetery, one of the six. The other cemeteries are located in Mokelumne Hill, Jackson, Sonora, Nevada City and Grass Valley.

It was not uncommon for Jewish settlers to be buried in non-Jewish cemeteries, given the hardships of life and the difficulty of travel in those early days. Burial in a non-Jewish cemetery is also a reflection of the unique experience of the Jews in the mining towns - most miners were immigrants, and the Jews were usually not singled out, indeed, they were accepted as equals and lauded as worthy neighbors and citizens. Embraced by the community, they enthusiastically joined fraternal lodges, and sometimes were buried in lodge cemeteries. There are several Jewish headstones in the I.O.O.F Cemetery in Sonora that were documented by Dr. Levinson.

I have also photographed the headstones at what was once a separate, consecrated Jewish cemetery in Folsom, but has been absorbed into the larger sectarian Lakeside Cemetery.

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