In the Name of Sean Ferguson

One Berel Bienstock, a leading European Yiddish stage actor, had rather limited spoken English abilities. As long as his lip movements approximated the printed dialogue on the screen, Bienstock was not too concerned with diction, and so he was confident he’d soon land a job in the "flickers."

Sure enough, his famous name preceded him and when he arrived at Ellis Island, he was met by his new agent, who, before putting Bienstock on a train to Los Angeles, urged him to Americanize his name.

The suggestion made sense to Bienstock, and all the way across the country — for six days — he kept selecting likely names and discarding them, until he finally picked one.

After checking into a hotel, he immediately went to see a movie producer, armed with a scrapbook loaded with newspaper articles and favorable reviews from Europe. A secretary ushered him in to the producer, who abruptly asked, "What’s your name?"

Bienstock’s mind went blank. — to save his life he couldn’t remember the American name he’d chosen. There remained only one thing — to make an honest confession.

"Schoen fergessen," ("I’ve forgotten") he said.

And a new star was born when the mogul wrote down the actor’s name: Sean Ferguson.

Accidental or not, more than anything, the history of Jews and Jewish life in the American West, from the Rockies to the Pacific, plus west Texas and the Dakotas — is about seizing the opportunity to reinvent yourself.

Sometimes, as the "Jewish Life in the American West: Generation to Generation" exhibition at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage reminds us, it meant changing your name (although many didn’t; Jewish surnames can still be seen on fading storefronts in such towns as Las Vegas, N.M. and memorialized in such places as Ehrenberg, Mayer, Seligman and Solomonsville, Ariz.; Bieber, Hamburg and Newman, Calif.; Falks, Idaho; Sutro, Nev.; Roseburg, Ore.; and Marcus, Wash.).

Sometimes it meant changing your place of birth (the upwardly mobile quickly understood it was far more fashionable to be from Germany instead of Poland, even down to their tombstone inscriptions). Usually it meant changing your occupation. And on rare occasion, you changed your religion, as did local land baron Isaac Lankershim, in his case becoming a farbrente (fiery) Baptist Protestant, although retaining his ties with Jews throughout his life and, on his deathbed, asking his friend, Los Angeles Jewish pioneer Harris Newmark, to recite the "Shema" with him.

Significantly, unlike most other times in our people’s past, Jews came West because they wanted to, and once they finally got here — in the early days, after long and often treacherous trips via the Isthmus of Panama route, around the Horn, or over land — little stood in the way of realizing their full potential. Their sense of exploration and discovery, their adventurous spirits, their exuberance and adaptability, and the welcome they received, for the most part, from their non-Jewish neighbors, who appreciated their education, facility with languages, business skills and civic participation, make the Western Jewish experience unique in the annals of Jewish history.

Not only was there a government-mandated freedom of religion, but also a relaxed attitude toward differences, since everyone, with the exception of Native Americans, was from somewhere else. Despite some notable shortcomings (the treatment by Anglos of Native Americans and Chinese immigrants), a new era was brought about, arising initially out of the pressing need to work together and utilize everyone’s talents in civilizing the wilderness.

Admittedly, they did not come here primarily to be Jewish. But no matter where they found themselves — from the most isolated mining camp to the larger settlements they continued to maintain their heritage, at times at great personal sacrifice. The difficulties of observing Jewish traditions such as Shabbat and the dietary laws far beyond the known Jewish world — and with less than a minyan — should not be underestimated.

What is remarkable, is that though they were on their own, tiny in numbers, they organized Hebrew benevolent societies throughout the West, initially to provide for Jewish burial and to give charity and comfort not only to fellow Jews, but to non-Jews as well. They also recognized their obligations to those they left back home, and elsewhere. As early as the 1850s, for example, the Jews of Los Angeles sent funds to support poor and aged Jews in Palestine. Many of these groups evolved into synagogues and organizations still serving us today.

Just as they did in other areas of their lives, the Jewish pioneers improvised. They were, even when traditional, less tradition-bound, more flexible, and more interconnected with their fellow settlers than older Jewish groups back East.

The founders were diverse as well, both native and foreign-born Jews, of Sephardic, French, British, Polish and Germanic backgrounds, self-reliant, independent and not shy about expressing their preferences. Some lived in agricultural communities, others contributed to the building of world-class cities. And, as today, many chose not to affiliate with Jewish institutions.

San Francisco Jews, never to be outdone as trendsetters, created the "that’s the synagogue I don’t go to" phenomenon in 1850 when they came together one April evening to organize the West’s first synagogue. They left that night as members of one of two congregations that ended up being founded: Congregation Sherith Israel, for those who wanted to follow the Orthodox Minhag Polen, and Congregation Emanu-El, for the faithful of the Orthodox Minhag Ashkenaz. Both are thriving Reform congregations today.

Despite their religious and cultural differences, though, no matter where or how the factions davened, they began another tradition that continues to be honored by Jewish Westerners in our own time.

Why are Western Jewish communities different than all other Jewish communities? Because here, we talk to each other. The fabled Jewish ability to divide three opinions between two people hasn’t changed. But perhaps nowhere else are individuals representing very different religious and ideological perspectives so willing to sit and discuss the issues. There is not always agreement, but there is usually respectful discussion and an ongoing, productive search for common ground.

Nevertheless, the challenges remain. While, in one of the largest internal migrations in Jewish history, a virtual tidal wave of Jewish population arrived in the West after World War II, population alone does not a Jewish community make. Jews are still dispersed over tremendous geographic distances, family constellations have changed and Jewish identification continues to erode, even as we attempt to develop new ways to stay connected to each other, just as circuit-riding rabbis reached out to far-flung Jews in an earlier period.

Some people, no matter where they live, still believe that Jewish civilization ends at the banks of the Hudson River. To them, "Jewish Life in the American West: Generation to Generation" is an oxymoron, and the fact that it was mounted by a Los Angeles museum named for "the Singing Cowboy" probably tells them all they feel they need to know.

But for the rest of us "pardners," "Jewish Life" at the Autry affords us a rare opportunity to renew our acquaintances with the likes of Levi Strauss, Josephine Marcus Earp, Bronco Billy (Max Aronson) Anderson, L.A. Chief of Police Emil Harris and so many other Western Jewish innovators who reinvented themselves and the places they grew to call home. It bids us not only not to forget — indeed to celebrate — the rich and colorful Jewish legacy in our own backyards, but also to get in touch with the Sean Ferguson in each of us.