Gold Rush-era matza eaters

American Jews filled the wagon trains, flocking to the West and baking matza in San Francisco and Tucson.

famous picture from 1907 used in the ‘American Heritage Haggada,’ the Heppner family of San Francisco has a Seder. (photo credit: Courtesy)
famous picture from 1907 used in the ‘American Heritage Haggada,’ the Heppner family of San Francisco has a Seder.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Go West” was loudly trumpeted throughout the United States following the discovery of gold in Sutter’s Creek in 1848.
The wagon trains were filled, but many took ships around the Isthmus of Panama to get to San Francisco as fast as possible. After stocking up with equipment to pan gold and live in the wilderness, they made their way northeast, to the closest areas of discovery.
Among these thousands of amateur miners were Jews, also hoping to strike it rich. Our brethren back then brought their Judaism with them, and sought to practice it the best way they could.
Passover was especially important because of the requirements of matza and Seder. A letter from 1851 will give us a running start on Passover way out West: “Dear Sister,” S. H. Cohen writes from San Francisco on May 8, 1851. “We have kosher meat, a burial ground and synagogue, which was formed these days before Passover by 12 single young men and one married man.”
The Jewish statistics compiled on the early years specifically focus on the single men present. They were from every country in the world, since seeking instant treasure was a peak interest in the middle of the 19th century. The Western US was a virgin land, which was slowly but surely being cleared of its Native Americans.
Jews were no different than anyone else when it came to being prospectors on the one hand, and store owners on the other. Both were needed.
To his sister in London, one of the younger travelers in the West wrote in 1851: “We have 42 members, principally English, and we have some married men to lead us the correct way.” That same word, “correct,” kept popping up generation after generation.
“Our form of prayers is that of the Great Synagogue of Bevis Marks of London. M. Isaacs of Brown’s has baked the matzot for Passover, with whom 12 of us youngsters passed the festival.”
His conclusion underlined why this holiday meant so much. “I do not think that the Jews in any part of the world could have keep the Passover more strictly than we did.”
THE HISTORY of Passover in America stretches all the way back to 1654, when the first group of Jews landed in New Amsterdam and formed a synagogue. By the second year, members of that small group were baking their own matzot, having ordered them from Caribbean congregations a year before.
Extensive records exist on matza-baking in New York, Philadelphia and Newport. The southern colonies – Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia – probably received their matza from the North prior to the Revolutionary War.
Only in the 1850s was an American matza company founded that had out-of-state clients. San Francisco, once established Jewishly, became the home of Western-baked matza, the earliest record being in 1851.
By that time, the Jewish population in San Francisco had grown to the extent that it was even noted in a California general paper. “In California, the Jews are so numerous and their influence so great that steamers bound for foreign ports are frequently detained when a Jewish festival or fast day has occurred on these days.”
Then something most unusual was stated. “In this [with the increase in Jewish population], as with most other states, Saturday, being the Jewish Sabbath, is made a holiday for the pupils of the various schools.”
This, of course, is very exaggerated, but Jews were flocking to Western America.
In fact, a tourist can become an active participant in that era by visiting any of the Jewish cemeteries in Sonora, Marysville, Grass Valley, Jackson, Mokelumne Hill, Placerville and Nevada City, where 160 individuals were laid to rest.
A PASSING descriptive parade of Passover ceremonies found in the various local newspapers can be helpful. Historian Prof. Ava Kahn discovered an early “matzoth” or “Passover bread” ad from San Francisco, published in 1851.
The ad clarified how matza was ordered and produced in that era. “The undersigned, having received the contract for Baking the Passover Bread for the congregation Sherith Israel, for the ensuing holidays, is ready to receive orders for the same.”
The two bakers who had bid on and received the contract were P. Woolf at Sutter and Dupont, and Mr. Ashim at Commercial and Leidendorff. According to newspapers ads, these two had been doing general baking for about a year. “The community may depend upon their being of superior quality, as he had the baking of them [matza] last year for the congregation Emanu-el, which gave entire satisfaction.”
The ad is important because it demonstrates that Emanu- el no longer saw the baking of matza as a priority. Since the mother synagogue was backing away from matza, Sherith Israel, probably the No. 2 Jewish religious institution founded, had to make sure that its congregants and anyone else who wanted to buy matza could do so. Yet no rabbi or reverend’s name was mentioned as the individual who ensured the matza was kosher.
No other matza ads have surfaced for the 1850s, but there is a nice tribute to the holiday and Judaism that was written in 1858 in the Daily Alta of San Francisco. “The observance of Passover is confined to the elder church. In United States, it [the holiday] is commemorative of the release of a nation from a bondage of 430 years.”
Next, there was a spotlight on Moses.
“Freedom came via instrumentality of an individual whose doctrine, given thousands of years since, forms the groundwork of the jurisprudence of the modern world.”
The most telling comment related to an act of the Israelites before leaving Egypt.
“‘Borrowing’ in the Exodus text is conveyed as an application of the Jews being requested to act dishonestly. This is an error,” the writer emphasized. “The verb [in Hebrew] means to ask. This is part of the charges of venality against the Jews.”
WHEN MATZA-baking began in San Francisco, there was only a limited amount being made due to the lower level of demand. But in the 1860s, the city’s Jewish population, merchants and miners, increased in number out of the gold fields.
Other bakers who had arrived in the city took up matza-baking, but were forced out of business by individuals who stated they owned the monopoly.
The unusual state of matza consumption seems to have spiritually rallied Western Jews. While this does not mean they practiced their ritual more, in regard to matza, there was a surge – perhaps a reminder of home.
The initial matza-bakers could not produce enough, so new stores arose. In fact, on May 19, 1884, the Daily Alta published a story about the newly formed matza association.
For several years, the gentlemen Miller, Wolf, Friedman and Alexander controlled matza-baking and sales in San Francisco.
The price had gone, in a few years, from 8.5 cents to 12.5 cents per pound. Matza only cost 5 cents a pound to make, so the profits had become exaggerated.
The People’s Matza Association of San Francisco was formed to deal with this price gouging. By 1889, the price had dropped significantly.
FAST-FORWARD to the first few years of the 20th century, when immigration from Eastern Europe to the US was at its height; HIAS sent immigrants out to parts of the US where there was work.
In the Arizona territory, more and more Jews were arriving – with 2,000 by 1900.
The master baker in Tucson was very clever, sending matza samples to the editor of the Arizona Daily. As a result, for three years running, the editor commented on the quality of matza, and mentioned it was available for all.
In San Francisco, Golden Gate Park and other major community projects were under way, so by the time of the city’s great earthquake of 1906, at least 2,500 Jews were living in the area. Their abodes were shanties, which they received from the local Jewish community at minimal rent.
When the earthquake hit, notable structures like Temple Emanu-el were destroyed, along with other major buildings. The immigrant Jews suffered terribly, as their living quarters were completely demolished and they were put into tents, some for as long as five years – though this was 1906 California, not a shtetl hundreds of years before.
Yet in spite of the natural disaster, Jews continued to flow to the West Coast.
For Passover 1907, food was made available to the tent-dwellers. The pictured family, the Heppners, seemed to have obtained slightly upgraded housing. The Seder was planned in grand style, with signs, flags and lovely outfits.
This famous picture provides a moving testimony to life renewed in the Jewish world – with a Magen David flag and, in a nod to America, the Stars and Stripes.
San Francisco Jews subsequently became anti-Zionists, but in 1907, the joy of American Judaism pointing to Zion was poignantly unveiled.
The writer is the author of the American Heritage Haggadah, which will reappear in 2015 with Civil War Passover material and special material on the Saigon Sedarim, 1966-1968.
Making Passover a priority during World War II
The first Passover during World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor required enormous logistical planning, to ensure that the nearly 105,000 Jewish service personnel on battlefields in Asia, North Africa and Europe were provided with the needed ingredients for hundreds of Sedarim.
The task to locate the enormous amount of food fell to Dr.
Philip Goodman of New York.
The Jewish Welfare Board’s Committee on Army and Navy Religious Affairs knew in January 1942 that it would need someone to handle the enormous task of providing kosher food in general, and Passover food in particular. Goodman was chosen because of his stellar record as executive director and rabbi of the Hebrew Institutional Synagogue and Community Center –at the time in Harlem, New York.
His first task was to obtain kosher canned meat, despite the fact that the US government had established rationing of meat and tin because they were needed for the military personnel. Goodman, whom I knew in the last 15 years of his life when we both lived in Jerusalem, did not hesitate for a moment. He visited with one of the leaders of the Orthodox movement, who connected Goodman to a meatpacker in Minneapolis. As soon as the Pentagon gave permission, that individual said he could handle the order. By March, thousands of cans of kosher meat were available and shipped to military installations all over the world.
Passover was next. Matza was ordered from the biggest matza- makers in the US. As soon as the matza, kosher-for-Passover chicken in cans, macaroons, Haggadot and other Passover supplies became available, not only were they shipped, they were parachuted from airplanes over bases in the Aleutian Islands.
“Passover came later that year because it was a Jewish leap year,” Goodman recalled, “so we had a little extra time.”
Initially, 105,000 personnel had been identified, but the figure rose to 130,000. “Nothing would deter us – actually, it was good practice, since in 1944 and 1945 there were 550,000 Jews serving in the American armed forces.”
In 1942, Goodman became the poster boy for the Seder he conducted at Camp Upton in Long Island, New York. “When the Jewish suppliers learned about needs, they rounded up plates, cups, cutlery, flowers, Passover sponge cakes with a hechsher [kosher certification]. Moreover, a designer put together a ‘V for Victory’ tableau made with matza.”
Goodman is best-known to us for his holiday anthologies, which are still in print and used throughout the Jewish world.
IN 1943, in late winter, Chaplain Earl Stone, who was stationed in Tunisia, began making preparations for the Seder.
Stone told his commanding officer the date of the Seder. The commander then swore the chaplain to secrecy – that night had already been selected for the division to move north, for a surprise attack on the last German stronghold in Tunisia.
Since Stone could not have a Seder, he decided to mark the occasion in another fashion, the night before it should have taken place. In an open field, he told the 100 Jewish, battle-hardened veterans about his plans for the Seder.
He tried to give them the feeling that they were participating in the “most unique Seder they had ever experienced.” He asked them to sit on the ground and think about their Sedarim at home.
Together, they asked the Four Questions. With an imaginary cup of wine in his hand, Stone recited kiddush and asked everyone to think about the taste of matza. They sang Passover songs. He concluded by telling them that by serving in the US Army, they were helping to destroy the 20th-century Pharaoh, the accursed Hitler.”
“At the end of the service, man after man, with tears flowing down their cheeks, bade me ‘Gut yontif,’” Stone recounted.
“The following night, about the time that the first Seder should have been getting under way, we were loaded into trucks and began that famous sneak march around the Atlas Mountains to surprise the Germans.”
IN 1946, Chaplain Abraham Klausner held a long-remembered Seder for displaced persons and military personnel in Munich.
Chaplain Jacob Kraft was an attendee that night. “My colleague Abraham Klausner had commissioned a Haggada supplement, which wove together the tragedies of the Holocaust with the ancient agonies of slavery in Egypt. For the DPs, this was their first Seder in years, and they cheered as Klausner compared [Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe] Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to the Moses of old.
“I can never forget that Seder, for it took me spiritually from the bitterness of the death of six million, to freedom – which was my American heritage.”