February 15, 2007
Western Jewish history collection gets broken up among local academic institutions
"Mr. Nathan Jacoby and party spent Sunday at Arrowhead Springs, making the journey in their automobile," reported the B'nai B'rith Messenger of Los Angeles on April 16, 1909.
"Automobiles are a service of great joy to their owners and the fact that so many are being purchased by the Jewish community is noteworthy," the story continued. "Mr. Sam Newmark has a new Locomobile, Mr. Jacob Loew has a Packard car, and there are many more on the way."
This little gem tells us perhaps more about the upwardly mobile Jews of early Los Angeles than a demographic treatise, and there's more where that came from.
A lot more. The spacious three-car garage of Gladys Sturman's house in Calabasas is jammed to the high ceiling with 400 boxes crammed with documents, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, memoirs, photos and assorted memorabilia, a veritable treasure trove of the Jewish history in California and the Western United States.
This massive accumulation of history in the raw is the legacy of two self-made historians. William M. Kramer and Norton B. Stern started to collect and preserve, scrap by scrap, the records left by the pioneering Jews and their descendants, when that subject was still beneath academic notice.
Kramer was a larger-than-life rabbi, lawyer, professor, author, sometime actor and advertising pitchman, while Stern was an optometrist. Avid collectors, they were too busy to index and archive their material.
When Kramer, who survived Stern, died in 2004, every inch of his large Westwood home was covered with boxes, books, folders and files.
Two volunteers, who had also been bitten by the Western history bug, decided to take over the massive legacy. One is David W. Epstein, a longtime traveling manufacturer's representative, who set up "a little typesetting business on the side" in the 1970s.
From typesetting, he branched out into publishing a number of small Jewish magazines, among them the Jewish Calendar for the San Fernando Valley, Being Jewish and the still active The American Rabbi.
In the early 1990s, after Stern's death, Epstein took over the production end of Western States Jewish History, a quarterly magazine founded, and largely written, by Kramer and Stern.
When Kramer relinquished editorial control of the quarterly a few years later, Epstein teamed up with Sturman and they took over the publication.
Sturman had studied Jewish history under Kramer while taking her degree at the University of Judaism, and helped him with his research during his final years.
Both Epstein and Sturman are now listed as publishers and editors of Western States Jewish History, though she concentrates on the editorial side, and he on the production and business end.
The current Winter 2007 issue is devoted to the autobiography of the late Herb Brin, a feisty journalist and longtime publisher of the Heritage weekly.
Over the past few years, the two historians, amateurs no longer, have worked full and overtime cataloging, indexing and archiving the Kramer-Stern legacy, and their expertise has won the respect of prominent academicians.
They have been aided by 11 volunteers from Congregation Shir Ami in Woodland Hills, an $18,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation and $10,000 from Sturman's own pocket.
The fruits of their labor have been moving by trucks over the last few weeks to leading academic institutions in the Los Angeles area, for the benefit of present and future generations of students and scholars.
Some 30,000 cataloged papers and 4,000 folders have been delivered to the special collections department of UCLA's Young Library.
The University of Judaism has received more than 1,000 books.
Ephemera, very old books and pamphlets are destined for the Huntington Research Library in San Marino, in partnership with USC.
The 2,000-photo collection is going to the Autry National Center, which specializes in the history of the American West.
A large number of scrapbooks and diaries are being divided between the Autry and the Huntington.
Sturman says that it will take her another year to organize Kramer's personal writings, which, she hopes, will be the basis for some ambitious student's doctoral thesis.
Professor David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, is greatly impressed by the passion and skill the Epstein-Sturman team brought to their task.
"The material we have received at UCLA is exceptionally well organized and a real treasure for scholars," he said. "Gladys and David have done a heroic job."
Epstein projects that much of the material and its database will be available in the future on the Web sites of the participating institutions and on his own.
The 69-year-old Woodland Hills resident has also evolved into a popular lecturer on the pioneer Jews of the West, among them merchants, madams and hookers.
"I'm not a scholar, I'm a storyteller," Epstein classifies himself. "For thousands of years, we Jews have survived because we passed on our stories.
American Jews don't do that anymore, we've become too sophisticated, so we're becoming Jewishly illiterate."
Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, has some reservations about the Kramer-Stern trove going to outside academic institutions.
"Much of the material came from members of the Jewish community, and I hope might stay within the community," Sass said. "I hope our organization can be involved and we can work together."
Epstein responded that he and Sturman purposely gave the material to prestigious academic institutions, where both Jewish and non-Jewish scholars would have easy access.
"I don't want Jews to be written out of Western states history as we were out of medieval history," he said.
Sturman observed that the Jewish Historical Society has not yet put its own archives in order, while Sass noted that his membership has been focusing on the rehabilitation of the historic Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights and was preparing an oral history project.
To close on a historical note, here's an abbreviated item from San Francisco's Daily Alta Californian, dated June 23, 1851, which proves that the pioneer Jews were not solely occupied with establishing dry goods stores and houses of worship.
Under the headline "Terrible Affair," the newspaper chronicled the last night on earth of Lewis Polack, believed to have been the first Jew to settle in Yerba Buena (later known as San Francisco) in 1837.
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