August 1, 2002
A behind-the-scenes look at the Autry Museum's "Jewish Life in the American West" exhibit.
Adolph and Sam Frankel are the official poster boys for "Jewish Life in the American West: Generation to Generation," one of the most ambitious exhibitions ever mounted by the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. The exhibit opens to the public on Sunday, June 23.
Derived from a photo, taken around 1915 in Cushing, Okla., it shows the Frankel brothers posing, somewhat self-consciously, for the camera.
Sam is dressed in a three-piece suit, stiff collar shirt, necktie and fedora. Adolph, by contrast, is the complete cowboy, sporting a rakishly tilted Stetson, kerchief, woolly chaps, pistol and lasso.
The single picture captures the transformation of the European Jew from shtetl, city-bred greenhorn or urban Easterner, to proud Westerner and American, a century-long process (roughly 1820-1920) richly illustrated and documented in the Autry exhibit.
Contrary to popular notion, not all Jewish immigrants to the land of unlimited opportunities settled in New York or other cities along the Eastern seaboard.
Many of the more adventurous sought their fortunes along the ever-moving frontier of the American West, stretching from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
While the first Jews arrived in the West with the early Spanish expeditions of the 16th century, perhaps the true prototype of the Jewish pioneer of the 19th century was Solomon Nunes Carvalho.
Carvalho served as the official artist and photographer in the Fremont expeditions that explored vast areas of the West, and then became one of the founding fathers of the Los Angeles Jewish community.
Carvalho's photos and writings occupy one small corner of the 5,400-square- foot exhibit, which has been four years in the making at a cost of well over $1 million.
Technicians and artists were still working feverishly on preparations in the Autry's workshops a month before the opening, when managing curator Michael Duchemin and assistant curator Meredith Blake Hackleman gave The Jewish Journal a preview tour.
By way of introduction, Duchemin noted that "Jewish history in the West tends to be compartmentalized by states, with a separate Utah history, an Arizona history, and so forth. This is the first time that an exhibit has tried to pull together all the regional histories into one."
The configuration and schematics for turning vision into reality are outlined on 30 storyboards stretching along one wall. They show four different sections, starting with "Exhibit Introduction and Orientation."
Included in this section are displays illustrating the diverse backgrounds and traditions of the immigrant Jews, ranging from Turkish Sephardic Jews to Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe.
A panel chronicles the adventures of another larger-than-life pioneer, Adolphus Sterne, a crypto-Jew who smuggled arms to Sam Houston, fighting for the independence of Texas from Mexican rule.
Next the visitor enters the "Journey West" section, which celebrates the Jewish immigrant trader and peddler, "who was as much of the frontier experience as the cowboy and mountain man," says Duchemin.
With the 1848 Gold Rush and the simultaneous revolutionary upheavals sweeping Europe, adventurous Jews headed for California. Among them was Joseph Newmark, who, after organizing congregations in New York and St. Louis, arrived in the dusty village of Los Angeles in 1854 and helped found the Hebrew Benevolent Society as the cornerstone of the evolving Jewish community.
The third section, labeled "Community and Diversity," shows the separate developments of the nascent Jewish communities of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states, San Francisco, Los Angeles/Boyle Heights and Seattle.
Throughout the exhibit, the general evolution of the Jewish West is exemplified through the histories of individual participants, including the Nudelman family, among whose descendants is Rabbi Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
The creation of Hollywood as a Jewish "empire" is illustrated through the making of the 1914 six-reeler "The Squaw Man" by Cecil B. DeMille, Sam Goldwyn and Jesse Lasky, arguable the movie capital's first blockbuster.
Videos will focus on other aspects of L.A.'s Jewish history, such as the pioneer Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, Hackleman said.
The final section, "Contemporary Reflections," includes explanations of Jewish holidays, as well as a large quilt canvas by Santa Fe artist Andrea Kalinowski, portraying the struggles of Jewish pioneer women.
In addition, one room is devoted to genealogy and family histories, and another to Western Jewish history resources.
Among financial supporters of the "Jewish Life in the West" exhibit are foundations endowed by Steven Spielberg, Walter and Elise Haas, Maurice Amado, David and Fela Shapell and the Jewish Community Foundation. Additional support came from Wells Fargo, Jay Grodin, John Sussman, Steven Gunther and the Western States Historical Quarterly.
The Autry Museum was inaugurated in 1988 and endowed by Hollywood's popular "Singing Cowboy," Gene Autry, and his wife, Jackie. It includes galleries, archives, a discovery center and a collection of 51,000 objects.