When longtime friends Rachel Raskin-Zrihen, Shoshana Deutscher-Nurik and Rachel Rae Moncharsh-Lessem heard about the release of the book “Images of America: Napa Valley’s Jewish Heritage,” they were inspired to create a similar one for Solano County.
Since they reside in different Solano County cities (Vallejo, Benicia and Fairfield respectively) they split up the research work geographically.
Their journey from the initial spark of inspiration to the publication of 2014’s “Images of America: Jewish Community of Solano County” took approximately three years.
The initial enthusiasm that Lessem felt at the launch of the project was later tempered by publishing realities.
“Before I knew what the publishing parameters were, I had been so excited that I interviewed a bunch of people then ended up having to condense a lot of it,” Lessem said. “We had to follow Arcadia Publishing’s rules. They told us exactly how many words and how many pictures went on every single page. Every. Single. Page.”
Besides publishing logistics, another obstacle, for a variety of reasons, was actually uncovering local Jews from the reaches of history.
“Many Jews kept a low profile from the time of the gold rush. Some had escaped pogroms in Russia. In order to more easily assimilate, they frequently changed their names to ones that were less Jewish-sounding,” Lessem said. “There’s a joke about a guy who went through customs who only spoke Yiddish. They asked him what his name was and he didn’t understand so he replied. ‘shoyn fargesin’ (‘I already forgot’) in Yiddish. The immigration officer replied, ‘Sean Ferguson, welcome to America!’ ”
The book project required the authors to become history sleuths and they were sometimes blessed with serendipitous discoveries. One such find was a memorial board that Lessem came across in a closet in the Congregation B’nai Israel synagogue in Vallejo that was from the county’s first dedicated synagogue. Since it had the names of several long-dead congregants – some of whom were known in other contexts, but not their Jewish heritage – uncovering it was almost akin to finding the Rosetta Stone.
Chapters in “Images of America: Jewish Community of Solano County” include Pioneers, Buildings, Merchants, Big Shots, Artists and Athletes, Community, Celebrations, Military and Wartime, Troubles and Odds and Ends.
A few highlights:
Austrian immigrant Morris Milzner moved to Suisun City then to Vacaville around 1878. He owned the Morgenstern and Milzner General Store and was so active in the Vacaville community that it named not only a school, but a school district after him.
Sol Levy opened Vallejo’s first department store on Georgia Street in 1888 when he was 23 years old. Levee’s was a huge success, had the first escalator in town and the company lasted until the early 1980s. It is featured on the book’s cover.
The “alibi clock” was moved from San Francisco to Vallejo in 1932. The clock got its name after a labor radical used a photograph of himself with it as an alibi when he was accused of setting off a deadly bomb in San Francisco in 1916. Simon’s Jewelers owner Ralph Raphael and others helped restore it in 1984.
While there are historical touchstones throughout, the book also highlights the accomplishments of numerous contemporary locals of Jewish heritage, including:
• Marjorie “Marge” Block, who ran Napadashery in Fairfield for more than 40 years
• Lois Wolk, who was elected to the state Assembly in 2002 and the state Senate in 2008 representing all or part of Solano, Napa, Yolo, Sonoma, Contra Costa and Sacramento counties.
• Jeff Trager, a music promoter with more than 50 years in the entertainment business.
• Sabine Goerke-Shrode, a historian who founded the Solano History Exploration Center and wrote “Images of America: Fairfield.”
• Rich Freedman, a Vallejo Times-Herald columnist, reporter and editor since 1994.
There were some who chose not to be in the book as they have been victims of anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism isn’t against the religion, it’s against the Semitic people, that’s our nationality, our culture. It’s like how racists don’t hate African-Americans because they’re Baptists,” Lessem said. “Being Jewish is a culture, a matriarchal heritage. So if someone’s mother or grandmother was Jewish – even if they denounce the religion of Judaism and become a Catholic or Christian or Buddhist, according to Jewish law, you cannot rid yourself of your Jewish heritage.”
Lessem reflected on the sea change that happened with the local Jewish community when the Chabad of Solano County launched in 2009. Outreach was put on the front burner and they quickly established a presence with local Jews and with the larger community.
“We are a proud people and do a lot for the communities we live in and it’s not just under the guise of being a Jew, but just as people,” Lessem said.
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at [email protected].
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