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Ventura County

A Little-Known Past Comes Alive

History: A museum exhibit chronicles the story of the early Jewish settlers in Ventura County.

April 01, 2002|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first Jewish settlers in Ventura County came from Europe in the 1860s, seeking freedom from persecution and a golden slice of the American dream.

They set up banks, shoe stores, pharmacies and saloons. They shaved their beards to blend into American society. Many kept their businesses open on the Sabbath, sold bacon and had a Santa Claus in their stores every Christmas.

But few forgot where they came from, and a new exhibit at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art chronicles that journey from the 1860s through the 1940s. The exhibition--"Jewish Heritage & History in Ventura County"--is full of old photographs, memorabilia and religious objects.

"I want people to understand how hard it was to come from this religious tradition and then arrive in a totally foreign environment," said Diana Boydstun, curator of the exhibit. "They lived two separate lives."

Most Jewish settlers came from Poland, Germany, Russia or France. At one point, an area of what is now El Rio in Oxnard was named New Jerusalem after a store established by Simon Cohn in the early 1870s.

Jews soon occupied prominent positions in the local business community. French immigrant Achille Levy helped establish Hueneme Bank in 1891 and then Bank of A. Levy, which lasted until 1994. Levy loaned money to farmers who were just getting established, Boydstun said.

There was also Leon Cerf, another French immigrant, who had a store and a saloon in downtown Ventura. And Joseph Wolfson, a cattle and hide trader who managed the Ventura Wharf in 1875.

The exhibit has grainy black-and-white photos of early immigrant families--the Zanders, the Cohns, the Lehmanns and the Wolfsons.

An old wooden steamer trunk is filled with ritual implements such as a knife used for the slaughter of animals for kosher meat. There are also kosher bowls--one for milk, one for meat--and kosher soap with no animal fat added.

The exhibit has large Torah scrolls, a small silver mezuza cover to hold prayers and a cookbook with recipes for "matzo omelet, matzo meal omelet and matzo scrambled eggs."

Boydstun said these bits of Judaica kept the newcomers in touch with their roots. At the same time, she said, there is nothing in the early photographs identifying them as Jews.

"They wanted very badly to be Americans," she said. "In the old country, the women would have had their hair covered and the men would probably be wearing kipahs," or yarmulkes. "Christians could not see these ritual objects because they were kept in their homes away from people."

The nearest synagogue was in Los Angeles.

After the first Jews settled in Ventura County, their friends and relatives followed.

Ralph Moses' family fled Berlin in 1938, just a few months before Kristallnacht, when Jewish businesses were ransacked and many Jews killed. Moses, a retired optometrist in Port Hueneme, said Nazi storm troopers blocked anyone from entering his father's shoe and slipper store. Alarmed at this, Moses' uncle, George Zander, hurriedly brought the family to Ventura County, where he owned a store.

Moses was 10 when he came to Ventura, a sunny land of citrus groves and sandy beaches, far from the Old World civilization and persecution by Germany. He and his brother couldn't speak English. The family lived in New Jerusalem before renting a house on Santa Rosa Street for $35 a month. His father was a tailor who went to work in Zander's clothing store.

"From a 10-year-old perspective it was certainly a culture shock," said the 74-year-old Moses, who contributed photos to the exhibit. "But you adapt very readily. People took to me and my brothers."

Being Germans, the Moses family were considered "enemy aliens" during World War II, and a Ventura police officer, Dewey Phillips, was assigned to visit them each week to make sure they weren't spying.

"He got very friendly with my grandmother," Moses said. "He was right out of central casting. He wore a derby and would come over and have cookies and coffee. It was odd to be considered enemy aliens, because we felt we were the first victims of Hitler."

Temple Beth Torah was founded in Ventura in 1938. There are now five Jewish congregations in Ventura County and more than 53,000 Jews, according to the Jewish Federations of Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

Moses said the new exhibit will give local Jews a sense of pride.

"A lot of [present-day] Jews didn't realize there were Jewish families living here in the 19th century," he said. "This new generation is more intensely Jewish. They are doctors and lawyers, and we were all merchants."

Another part of the exhibit, which ends May 26, is a series of lectures on Judaism. Rabbi John Sherwood of Oxnard will deliver a talk titled "Everything You Wanted to Know About Judaism But Were Afraid to Ask" at 7 p.m. April 11.

"I was pleased that the Ventura County Jewish community has taken the opportunity to share its contributions with the people with whom we live," Sherwood said. "I believe that the lecture series will provide people of all faiths an excellent opportunity for growth, both intellectually and spiritually."

Other lectures include "Jews of Nazi-Occupied Europe Who Settled in the Ventura Area" and "Mozel Tov! Exploring the Jewish Wedding."

Boydstun, who has curated other local Jewish exhibits, hopes people will gain a deeper appreciation of local Jewish culture from the exhibit.

"It's a wonderful thing to know one's roots, no matter what your roots are," she said. "It doesn't matter if you are Jewish, Catholic or Buddhist."

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