May 17, 2007
Jewish threads wind way through Temecula’s history
The area's ocean breezes draw climate comparisons to southern France, and hot air balloon enthusiasts flock to the Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival -- this year June 1-3 -- to glide over its grassy fields.
Aside from its Old Town, which features a collection of 1890s buildings that house mostly antique shops, very little of the town's Old West origins remain.
The community's bustling population of about 100,000 people features a small Jewish community, which one estimate puts at about 5,000. Area congregations include Congregation Havurim, Chabad of Temecula Valley and B'nai Chaim in neighboring Murrieta.
What makes Temecula's development as an exurb of Los Angeles especially interesting is that if you're a Temecula booster, you're also likely a pioneer Jewish history buff. The reason is Louis Wolf.
Dubbed by the local Native Americans the "King of Temecula," Wolf was a Jewish immigrant from Alsace, born in 1833, who moved to the frontier community in 1857. He maintained a sense of Jewish identity, although without any institutional support.
The Wolf Store, at Old Town's Butterfield Overland Stage and Mail Depot, was Wolf's launching pad to a career as postmaster, justice of the peace and magistrate presiding over the law books with whiskey and Colt revolver. He also served as a school board member and Indian trader and agent.
He married Ramona Place, an Indian of European and African ancestry, who befriended visiting author Helen Hunt Jackson. Jackson's tragic Indian romance novel, "Ramona," features a sympathetic tavern-owning couple, the Hartsels, modeled on the Wolfs.
Wolf befriended the local Luiseo Indians, gave them credit and was made an honorary chief to serve as their representative in dealings with the federal government. But he was also a member of the posse that in 1875, after the tribe's land grant claim was rejected by a San Francisco Superior Court, forced them from Temecula onto what is now the reservation of the Pechanga Band of Luiseo Indians. At least this is the way that some Pechangas remember Wolf.
Four of Wolf's eight children with Ramona died before his death in 1887. Local legend has it that the Protestant C Street Cemetery refused to inter them, as did Catholic Mission burial grounds. There is no evidence of this. Whatever his reason, Wolf obtained permission to build for the family on his land an imposing brick tomb on a hillside overlooking the Temecula and Wolf valleys, although Ramona had a Catholic burial in the Mission San Luis Rey when she died a decade later.
Wolf's death marked the end of an era for Temecula. A few years later, floods washed out the railroad tracks in Temecula Canyon, although the town survived as a center for the cattle trade.
In recent years, Jews have been elected to the City Council and served as mayor. And while there is probably no such thing as a "representative" Temeculan Jewish exurbanite, an intriguing example is Selma Lesser.
Lesser was first pictured as an exurban pioneer in the Los Angeles Times in 1989, soon after she moved from Sherman Oaks. Grieving over the death of her architect husband, Reinhard, Lesser sought solace in the high desert, which the couple had often visited.
At 70 years old, she braved a hot air balloon ride that ended, unceremoniously, with a downdraft and jarring landing into the top branches of an oak tree. Even so, what she saw sold her on Temecula, which translates from Luise?o as "the place where the sun breaks through the mist."
She said of the balloon ride, "We arose. Enchantment, for as I looked to the west, I was awed to see the well-defined silhouette of our balloon floating gently against the mist that still covered the village. And encircling this silhouette of the balloon a gorgeous halo of color -- red, violet, blue -- clinging to the circumference of the silhouette as if part of our balloon itself."
Enchanted with Temecula, Lesser bought a 30-acre ranch at the foot of Tucalota Mountain, near Wolf Valley, in 1988. Initially, she enjoyed "a monthly star party" with Temecula Valley Astronomers, amateur enthusiasts who met on her ranch to watch the heavens against the backdrop of the pure black desert sky.
This brought back memories for her of growing up in the small Ohio town of Delphos, where she first explored the night skies at a farm with her young friend, Leslie Peltier, the comet hunter whom Dr. Harlow Shapley of Harvard University later referred to as "the world's greatest amateur astronomer."
Lesser also volunteered to work at the local Temecula Valley Museum, where she discovered the saga of Louis Wolf.
In her 80s, Lesser became a bit of pioneer herself. Her life took a more down-to-earth turn when she decided to plant a vineyard with the help of her son, Eric.
Vineyard Tucolota took five years to become productive, but in 2002, she sold her first harvest, from which Miramonte Winery made a rose that won a double gold and best of class at the San Diego International Wine Competition. In 2006, two French clones of southern France produced for the Lesser Vineyard 24 tons of viognier and 36 tons of cinsault. Keeping one ton for herself, she has now started a small winery for her family.
To explain how Temecula history has come full circle -- two Jewish explorers a century apart -- Lesser likes to quote T.S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival
Chabad of Temecula Valley
Congregation B'nai Chaim
Temecula Valley Museum
Harold Brackman is a consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center who lives in San Diego.