On Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023, I went to the Scottsdale Museum of the West to see a screening of the documentary film, Jews of the Wild West.
As I watched the film, I kept thinking about how the stories of Jewish people who immigrated to the United States and later to the Western United States appear to be missing from American history. The absence continues to be perpetuated in books and films today. A special thanks is owed to the nonprofit production company and to the filmmaker, Amanda Kinsey, for uncovering and sharing such a significant part of American history.
Notable Jewish migrants to the West are Levi Strauss, who we can thank for the jeans we wear; Isaac Shwayder, whose son, Jesse, founded the premier luggage line Samsonite; and Meyer Guggenheim, patriarch of the philanthropic Guggenheim family whose wealth came from the mining and smelting business. Women such as Golda Meir were also prominent in establishing a Jewish presence in the West. To say that these families had humble beginnings is an understatement.
They used their ingenuity, persistence, grit, and desire to make a life without persecution—one in which they not only survived the hardships of the frontier but thrived. They found that the Wild West had less antisemitism than New York City. In general, people who moved West had one thing on their minds: taking advantage of the riches the frontier would eventually offer.
The Jews who migrated West, for the most part, were not panning streams and mining for gold. They understood that people needed practical products and clothes as they pursued their dreams of a better life and their road to riches. The Jewish migrants may have started out as peddlers who made enough money to open a dry goods store as in the case of Shwayder. Eventually, they found markets within their communities and beyond that became their road to success. Because they were usually the only people in the community with a business, they often became the mayors of these frontier towns.
Jews of the Wild West is rich with the personal stories of the Jews who struck out for the Wild West and made good. Check out streaming platforms and American Public Television to see this film.