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Uncorking Anaheim’s Jewish past — the vintage years

by Edmon J. Rodman

July 2, 2013 | 1:29 pm

Center Street, circa 1885. Courtesy of Anaheim Public Library<br />

Center Street, circa 1885. Courtesy of Anaheim Public Library

Long before Tomorrowland, there was another land in Anaheim, created and inhabited by Jews, that as a child growing up there in the 1950s and ’60s I had not the slightest clue existed.

Little did I know from my education there that generations before Mickey and Minnie, Goofy and Donald, there were Kohler and Frohling, Dreyfus and Goodman.

Influenced by “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic” — a show that explores the history of the Los Angeles Jewish community at the Autry museum — I began to wonder where I fit into the mosaic of my home town, which up until 1889 was actually part of Los Angeles County.

In elementary school, we learned that the Anaheim colony was founded in 1857 by 50 German grape growers. I even remember dressing as “a little old winemaker” for the city’s annual downtown Halloween parade.

Unknown to me then was that I should have worn that costume with a drop of ethnic pride, as near 100 years before, Jews in Anaheim were not only growing grapes, but making wine, some of it even kosher.

“Benjamin Dreyfus was known as king of the Anaheim winemakers,” said Dalia Taft, who edited “Jewish Pioneers of Orange County” and is the archivist for Orange County’s Jewish Historical Society.

For a period of time, Dreyfus was even an owner of the first house in Anaheim, known as the “Mother Colony House” — built by surveyor George Hansen, said Taft, who writes a monthly history column for Orange County Jewish Life magazine.

[Related: How the Jews changed L.A.]

In 1885, Dreyfus built a winery that eventually would produce, according to an article in Taft’s book by Gladys Sturman, 300,000 to 400,000 gallons of wine and brandy annually. The kosher wine he produced is considered the first mass-produced kosher-for-Passover wine made in the United States.

As a kid, I remember seeing the abandoned-looking building. Today, I wonder how knowing of its Jewish origins might have shaped my identity growing up behind the “Orange Curtain.”  

My parents, when they came to California, moved first to Whittier, and then to Anaheim, in 1955. They were transplants from the Bronx, and never totally buying into the Southern California dream, they had a mural of the New York skyline painted on their living-room wall. Like many of the Jewish adults I met growing up who had moved to Anaheim from parts East, they lacked a feeling of belonging and place — not knowing that Anaheim was a place for Jews from the very beginning.

“Approximately a third of the 50 founders of Anaheim were Jewish,” said Taft, pointing out on a map the plots of land that each had owned.

Two Jewish pioneers, San Francisco businessmen Charles Kohler and John Frohling, first conceived of “Anaheim as a colony devoted to grape cultivation and wine production,” and recruited the first settlers from Germany for the colony. In the society’s archives there is even an image of a Kohler & Frohling Grape Brandy label.

“By the 1870s, there was a Torah in Anaheim,” Taft said. “Though there was not a synagogue; they prayed in homes,” she added.

In 1880, the Anaheim Gazette, describing the influence of Jews who had opened businesses on the city’s main street, reported that it had been a “week of extremes.”

“On Monday, the streets had been uncomfortably filled with people, and on Wednesday, owing to the closing of many of the stores on account of it being a Jewish holiday, the town was abnormally quiet and dull.”

By 1885, on one block of the city’s main street, “three of the businesses were Jewish,” Taft said. Morris L. Goodman, who was Jewish and was born in Bavaria, had previously established himself in 1850 as one of Los Angeles’ first city councilmen. He was co-owner of a dry goods store, selling “clothing, furnishing goods, boots and shoes, hats and caps.”

In 1893, adding a fourth Jewish-owned business to the block, was Lemuel Goldwater, the politician Barry Goldwater’s second cousin, who bought into the Citizens Bank, becoming the cashier; another Jewish pioneer, Hippolyte Cahen, was the president.

Considering all the Jewish participation in the creation and settlement of Anaheim, and even governance — Dreyfus was the city’s mayor from 1881 to 1883 — you would think that some knowledge of the history would have survived.

“The Jewish influence in Orange County has fingerprints everywhere,” wrote John M.W. Moorlach, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, in the forward of Taft’s book. But in WASPy, conservative Orange County, especially in the 1950s and ’60s, were the prints wiped away or covered up?

“I think of it more as a whitewashing. We had no idea of our history here,” Taft said.

“There definitely was a period when you didn’t talk about being Jewish,” she added, referring to the period between 1915 and 1980, which she calls “the quiet years.”

My wife, who also grew up in Anaheim, recalls how in the 1970s at her parents’ home, which is not far from the “Happiest Place on Earth,” a swastika was burned into their front-yard lawn. I also remember, apart from the mostly benign interest in my religion, how while walking my dog, a neighbor once ran out of her house and screamed, “Keep that f---ing Jew dog out of my yard!”

Taft, who gives talks about her research at Orange Country synagogues, related that “when I tell them that Anaheim was started by Jews, they are shocked.” She feels that children especially need to be aware of their legacy. “You cannot know where you are going until you know where you came from,” she said.

“History gets lost when people don’t care,” said David Epstein, president and co-publisher of the Western States Jewish History Association.

As an example of how quickly history can vanish: When Temple Beth Emet bought its first building in 1956 — a Craftsman house on North Emily Street in downtown Anaheim that had been converted to a dance studio (I learned to read Hebrew in its converted garage) — they had no idea that they had located just blocks away from where the original Jewish pioneers settled. 

“We built the foundations of many of the cities of the West,” said Epstein, who thought the problems for Jews started in the West around the 1880s as a result of the migrations from the Transcontinental Railroad. “They brought the restrictions and the anti-Semitism with them,” said Epstein, whose organization recently opened an Orange County Exhibition Hall in its virtual Jewish Museum of the American West (jmaw.org).

In the 19th century and into the early 20th, Jews lived openly in Anaheim, according to Taft, even in business partnerships with Christians. They were buried in a nonsectarian cemetery, and in 1887 a circumcision was even announced in the Anaheim Gazette.

Wanting to connect with this history, I went to downtown Anaheim to visit the Anaheim Heritage Center. There, in thick files, including one labeled “Jews,” I found articles by Dr. Norton B. Stern, who, along with Rabbis William Kramer and Max Vorspan, wrote about Anaheim’s and Orange County’s Jewish history. In another folder, I found a black-and-white photo of a spectacular house built by Cahen in 1882.

“Do you know where it is?” I asked the librarian. While explaining that it had been relocated from its original location, she drew me a map.

On a street of one-story bungalows, the Cahen residence, a Queen Ann house at the street’s end, stands out in scale, and its tower peeked out over the trees. “Cahen, a Jewish immigrant from Algiers, was one of Anaheim’s leading citizens. He owned a dry-goods store. Started the First National bank of Anaheim,” Taft’s book says.

It was late in the afternoon as I parked and walked up to the house. It was fenced, and as I looked up to the long wooden porch out front, I imagined Cahen and his family sitting there on an afternoon, perhaps tossing back a glass of Dreyfus’ wine. As two dogs ran up to the fence to greet me, I knew I was home.

The Cahen House, circa 1902. Courtesy Orange County Jewish Historical Society

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