OSU Libraries | OSU Home

April 2018

Captivating Penguins, Competent People, Charismatic Prose, and Critical Problems in "Penguins in the Desert"

"Penguins in the Desert" by Eric WagnerScience and narrative, research and anecdote, objectivity and passion, all brilliantly coalesce in Eric Wagner’s new book Penguins in the Desert. Wagner depicts some of the most pressing environmental and biological questions facing us today through the lens of the largest penguin colony in the world outside of Antarctica. His accessible and charismatic prose takes readers into the desert of Punta Tombo alongside renowned scientist Dee Boersma to study penguins and chronicle scientists in the field. Below he provides candid insight into the process of drafting a book as captivating as the penguins he studies.


Outtakes from Penguins in the Desert

I. 2008

When [my wife] El and I first visited Dee Boersma in her basement lair at the University of Washington to learn about the penguins of Punta Tombo, there was a moment midway through our chat when Dee fixed me with a look in the way she sometimes does.

“What are your goals for going to Argentina?” she asked. Or something to that effect. We were all sitting around a table in the middle of the lab.

“I want to write a book about it,” I said, flush with daring. To be completely honest, I did not know how true this was until I said it.

“Why?” Dee asked.

“I don’t know,” I confessed. “I just do.”

“Hmm,” Dee said. She leaned forward and rested on her elbows. “Will you finish your PhD if you go?”

Why stop being so unwisely forthcoming? “I… I can’t promise that,” I said.

“We’ll see,” Dee said, and sat back in her chair. She and I stared at each other for a few moments. It was hard for me to hold her gaze. It can be. El may have shifted a little. Who would win this staring contest? In the end I guess we both did, each in our own way.

II. 2010

Cute Penguin in Punta Tombo by Eric WagnerAfter El and I returned from Punta Tombo and while I was working on my PhD, I did a fair amount of freelance magazine writing. For reasons that are still unclear to me Dee tolerated this, but she was also befuddled. Who of sound mind and body, being presented with the opportunity to work with her, and on penguins no less, could possibly think about anything else? But I enjoyed the various stories I cobbled together. They gave me an opportunity to go other places and think about other things.

Once I was writing an article about another biologist I know who runs a citizen science program around dead seabirds. Like Dee, she is a powerful personality. I interviewed her at her home in Seattle, and when we finished with the formal talk, I sat at her kitchen table while she made tea. It was a mild Saturday, mid-morning—the essence of a weekend. One of her cats was twining around my leg and purring.

“So what do you want to do when you finish this thing?” Julia asked. “Thing” in this case was my doctorate. In a few months I would defend.

“I really want to write a book about Dee and Punta Tombo,” I said.

Julia chuckled. “Dee’s not going to like that,” she said. People often reacted this way when I told them I wanted to write a book about Dee and Punta Tombo. I think they could hardly believe Dee would allow anyone but herself to write about her penguins in any meaningful way. I knew she had misgivings about my project, but she had not (yet) expressly forbade me from pursuing it. In any case, I was prepared to live by one of her oft-deployed dictums: it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

“I think she’s basically okay with it,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” Julia said. “Well, if you do it, you should wait at least a couple of years. Right now you’re too close. You’ll need some distance.”

“Good advice,” I said. I did not intend to take it.

III. 2015

Penguins in Punta Tombo by Eric WagnerA few years passed. I finished my PhD in 2011. (“I knew you would,” Dee said.) El gave birth to our daughter in 2012. Other adventures and misadventures. Then I finally sat down to write a book about Dee and the penguins of Punta Tombo. I had my journals and sheaves of photographs and copies of the field notebooks and access to Dee’s entire body of work, and some rocks from Punta Tombo laid out on my desk along with a penguin bone or two. Over all of this presided a little plastic penguin figure I had found in a drug store. I hadn’t been to Punta Tombo for years, but I had a sensible plan for what I thought would be an act of painstaking reconstruction.

I opened my journals. They smelled like Punta Tombo. I paged through them. Their creases were still gritty with sand. I looked at the pictures. I could sense the wind and heat in and around the moments they captured, hear the penguins calling. I flipped through the field notebooks and remembered the pencil in my hand as I scribbled data while El called out chick measurements. I listened to the music we had listened to down at Punta Tombo and felt how I had felt. Sometimes I just sat at my desk, dizzy with nostalgia and longing.

IV. 2017

Last year, I was talking with a geography professor who also happens to be named Julia and is good at asking penetrating questions. She had one now. “Why is it,” she asked, “that when science writers write about scientists, the scientist usually ends up being either quirky or heroic?”

I felt immediately defensive. This was when I was just finishing up the penguin book. What had until then been a private, intimate process was about to become much more public, and I was struggling with feelings of authenticity, or its lack. Others of Dee’s students had spent more time at Punta Tombo than I had. They were better scientists than I was and knew more about penguins than I did. Certainly Dee knew a whole lot more about penguins than I did. Yet I was about to present myself as something of a penguin expert. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. And now here was Julia, asking, in effect, if I had caricaturized Dee. Rendered her inauthentically, in other words.

My mouth may have flapped open. I hemmed and hawed and said something about the ways we talk about science. Most of the scientific stories we tell today are quest narratives. There is a person, or a group of people, and there is some question or problem, and they are trying to solve it, or, if not solve it, at least learn a little more about it. The scientists are the subjects, they are the ones pushing the light into the darkness, and so they are the heroes. (If you want them to be something else, set them in opposition to one another—then one of them can be a villain.) Also, when I was in school, a common complaint about those massive introductory biology textbooks was the way they presented science as a steady march from discovery to discovery, with little of the wrong turns and mistakes and frustrations and everything else that makes it a human endeavor. I wanted to show the human side of what can be an opaque process, and that meant dwelling on its rough edges—the quirks.

Julia seemed satisfied with that answer.

Later, I thought more about Dee and what it is to render someone authentically, and the relationship between honesty and discretion. There were stories I could have told that would not have flattered her. There were stories I could have told that would not have flattered me. I chose not to tell them for various reasons. Nobody is perfect. Certainly Dee is not. Certainly I am not. Punta Tombo is a place of imperfect beasts. But there is the urgency to this environmental moment, and it is focused on these penguins of Punta Tombo the way a magnifying glass focuses the sun. Dee has watched the colony decline by 40% in the thirty-five years she has done research there. She has watched the penguins suffer from the effects of climate change and poor fisheries management and relentless development pressures. To work as hard as she has for so long in such circumstances strikes me as heroic. Dee is also one of the most charismatic people I have ever met, and her charisma expresses itself in amusing ways at times. So yes, in my telling, she is both quirky and heroic. Can’t this also be true?

El in Punta Tombo by Eric WagnerV. 2018

Now I have been asked to write this short piece about what it was like to want to write about Dee and the penguins of Punta Tombo, and I realize it is too soon to say. Best to wait a couple of years. I need some distance.

The 411 (or is it the 420?) on Cannabis Cultivation

Grass Roots by Nick JohnsonAs many people on the West Coast celebrate the de facto marijuana holiday, 420, today, the OSU Press celebrates the six-month release of Nick Johnson’s Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West. In its storied history as a countercultural icon, weed has traditionally been associated with a hippie lifestyle, and more recently with the hipster movement; so it might come as a surprise that the current growth and cultivation of the cannabis plant is incredibly damaging to the environment. In Grass Roots, Johnson’s intoxicating prose takes readers on a trip through the history of cannabis, outlining the environmental degradation that came about thanks to federal marijuana prohibition and highlighting the current efforts to make the marijuana industry more sustainable. To ignite your appetites, below is an excerpt from the book’s introduction, “Grass is Not Greener.”


Introduction: Grass is Not Greener

Full Pipes, Empty Streams

It would be a tall order to find someone more passionate about his local environment than Anthony Silvaggio. Even though it’s a Saturday afternoon in late July, the fiery PhD sits in his office at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, launching salvos of facts about the local marijuana industry. Silvaggio is a sociologist who studies cannabis farming as part of HSU’s Interdisciplinary Institute for Marijuana Research. He explains that the cannabis plant has been the lifeblood of northern California’s economy, and a hallmark of its culture, for at least the past twenty years. “We wear this on our shoulders,” he says. “This is a badge that we wear. Humboldt County, since the early eighties, has been the place for the best marijuana in the world.”

But soon after Silvaggio arrived in the 1990s, he began to notice some troubling things about the industry, in particular its effects on the region’s true lifeblood—its watersheds. Those watersheds, he says, were first hammered by decades of logging, which silted up rivers and streams and decimated fish populations. Then, just as the environment was showing some signs of recovery, California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, and cultivation of the cash crop blew up on an industrial scale. “At one time it was small mom-and-pop stuff—twenty or thirty plants, no problem. But now it’s hundreds and thousands of plants,” Silvaggio said, visibly agitated. “It’s horrible for the environment. We have an impaired ecosystem here, from over one hundred years of horrible federal and state land management policies…And now we have industrial agriculture on the marijuana plantations.”

In other parts of the country, describing local pot farms as “plantations” might be a tad exaggerated, but not where Silvaggio is from. California’s Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties are collectively referred to as the Emerald Triangle, the de facto weed-growing capital of the United States. Here—in stark contrast to the rest of the nation—if you don’t grow, trim, or sell weed, or supply the cannabis industry, people wonder what you’re up to.

The area, however, does not need cannabis to live up to its emerald nickname. From the air, the region appears a stunning deep green, and on the ground, one can easily disappear into the brambles, get lost, and never be seen again. Thick forests cloak the winding paths of the principal rivers—the Eel, Klamath, Mad, and Trinity. The northern California forests are some of the most ecologically diverse in the nation, home to more than twenty different species of conifers alone, as well as what botanists call “relic” plants—plants that have been extinct in other parts of the nation for more than a million years…

Cannabis, a sun-loving, wind-pollinated annual that thrives in open landscapes, is not native to the region and finds no natural niche within these dense forests. But it does have a long and storied relationship with humans, who came to this landscape in record numbers beginning in the mid-twentieth century. They felled trees to make room for homesteads and towns, and clear-cut the old-growth forests to support the nation’s postwar construction boom. These activities effectively prepared the landscape for the introduction of the psychoactive herb, first brought by homesteading hippies in the 1960s and 1970s. As Silvaggio notes, these first couple generations of growers had little impact on the local ecology, but today satellite images show these forests pockmarked with unnatural clearings cut out just for cannabis…

In sum, the watersheds of the Eel and other rivers in northern California are on life support, and cannabis growers are helping pull the plug. Of course, cannabis farmers are not the only guilty party here—industrial logging and other farming activity pose similar threats to salmon—and growers are operating in a legal environment that is as unclear and uniquely hostile as it is profitable. Unlike other farmers in the region, most weed growers try not to talk too much about their crop—cultivation of even one cannabis plant is a federal felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Others will tell you that their plants are legal, destined for medical marijuana patients or for the state’s recreational market, which voters approved in 2016 and is just beginning to take shape as this book is being published. But in reality, only a fraction—it is impossible to tell how much—of their product will be used by California patients or buyers in legitimate dispensaries. The rest is funneled into the nation’s massive black market in drug cannabis, an industry with an estimated value that varies considerably but is rarely reported to be under $10 billion.

As if outdoor cannabis cultivation wasn’t putting enough stress on local watersheds, the region’s cash crop is helping to strangle the Eel River in another, far subtler way—indoor cultivation. Powered by a symphony of fossil-fuel fixtures such as high-intensity lights, air conditioners, and generators, today’s indoor cannabis growing began during a crackdown on outdoor growing during the 1980s and evolved into a sophisticated botanical art. Growers found that they could hybridize different varieties of the plant to emphasize certain desirable attributes, such as greater potency, a shorter growth habit or particular taste or smell, or even a distinct kind of high.

The indoor revolution turned American cannabis into some of the most highly regarded weed in the world, but plugging in to produce a premium pot crop had its own environmental consequences. In 2012, a study published in the Journal of Energy Policy found that indoor cannabis production accounted for 3 percent of California’s total electrical usage and pumped as much CO2 into the atmosphere as three million American cars. This is but a drop in the ocean of CO2 currently released into the atmosphere due to human activity, but it also represents data from just one state in a nation with hundreds of thousands of indoor cannabis grows. More importantly, since that report was published, Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, and California have all legalized—and in many ways encouraged—the indoor production of cannabis with barely a second thought.

Home is Where...?

In Dionisia Morales’s debut essay collection, Homing Instincts, she contemplates the particularly relevant, and hard to define, meaning of home. As issues of migration and social integration play out on national and international scales, Morales provides a personal lens through which readers can appreciate that at one time or another we have all been in the process of arriving. In today’s blog post, Morales offers a brief excerpt from her opening essay, “The Newcomers,” and articulates some of the questions and ideas that were the catalyst for Homing Instincts.


The Newcomers

I set out for Oregon like many of the first immigrants to the West, lured by the prospect of a new beginning. Until that point, I had lived mostly in cities in the eastern United States and had no reason to believe that the geography of my life would be defined by anything other than high-rise buildings and the anonymous press of crowds. But a month-long wilderness experience in the Colorado Rockies when I was twenty-eight presented a new landscape of possibilities. I had arrived in stiff leather boots, making me a conspicuous novice on the trip, and the thirty days were a taxing blur of hauling, river fording, glissading, and orienteering. But each evening, stomping my feet against the cold, I witnessed the urgent illumination of alpenglow that stretched the last of the day’s light in saturated pinks and yellows across the snowcapped peaks. I didn’t know it then, but in those moments my internal compass started to drift west. (15)

Homing Instincts by Dionisia MoralesIs home based on where we live or the people we love? Is it connected to our culture or our language? Do we think of home in terms of the things we have always done or things we have planned? Does our sense of home stay constant or change with the scenes of our lives?

I grew up in Manhattan, and even though I’ve lived in other places nearly as long as I lived there, I still consider myself a New Yorker. Fifteen years ago, my husband and I moved to Corvallis, Oregon, a college town with a population just over fifty thousand. When I tell people where I’m originally from, they smile and say something like, “Well, that must have been a transition.” It was, and still is. They often ask if I miss things like big concerts, museums, the theater, and fancy restaurants. But I don’t. I didn’t grow up with those things because my family couldn’t afford them. After a decade and a half in Corvallis, often what I miss most about New York City is the feeling of anonymity—the chance to get lost in a crowd of strangers with no sense of obligation or expectation. It’s not that I know everyone in Corvallis, but odds are that every person I meet in the supermarket or on the hiking trail knows someone who knows someone I know. Having so few degrees of separation demands a social mindfulness and creates a sense of community. On one hand, that’s part of what I have come to love living in a small town, and yet it is in direct conflict with why I look forward to going back and visiting New York. Before I leave on those trips, I tell people how much I’m looking forward to going home. And then I say the same thing the days leading up to my flight back west.

Over the years, this bi-coastal identity crisis has defined me as much as any connection to a specific place. “Home” has become a fluid idea, a balancing act between the different parts of my personality. My choice to move from one North American coast to another is trivial compared to the journeys millions of people are taking today, migrating around the world for social, economic, and political reasons. Their stories can seem far away when we see them broadcast on the news, and yet we have all been newcomers at some point—whether to a new office or school or neighborhood. Collecting the essays for this book was a reminder that we are all in the process of arriving and that our stories of home are personal and universal, familiar and changing, tangible and inexplicably beyond our reach.

Understanding the Unique Identity of the Jewish Community in Oregon

As Jews around the world celebrate Passover this week to commemorate their liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt, and with Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 12, the OSU Press would like to recognize the impact the Jewish community has had in the Pacific Northwest, and Oregon specifically. OSU Press author Ellen Eisenberg has spent her career working to research and recognize the oftentimes marginalized account of Jewish history in America. Her two most recent books Embracing a Western Identity: Jewish Oregonians 1849-1950 and The Jewish Oregon Story: 1950-2010 explore the ways Jews in the Pacific Northwest have symbiotically adapted to create a unique Jewish community in Oregon. Below is an except from Eisenberg’s “Introduction” to her first volume, Embracing a Western Identity, that articulates her initial interest in understanding the unique identity of the Jewish community in Oregon.



Like many western Jews, I am a transplant from the East. After a childhood in suburban Washington, DC, college in Minnesota, and graduate school in Philadelphia, I moved to Salem, Oregon in 1990. At the time, I had no intention of doing research on Oregon Jews—my dissertation focused on Jewish agricultural communities in New Jersey, and I was interested in comparative research on similar settlements in Argentina. Yet within a few years, I found myself increasingly intrigued by the Jewish history of my newly adopted state and region.

To be sure, shifting my research westward had practical benefits. Moving to Oregon with an infant in arms and having another child four years later provided a strong incentive to find projects that could be supported without prolonged trips away from home. Yet along with such pragmatic concerns, I was intrigued by a Jewish community that, while certainly not completely foreign, was noticeably different from those I had known back east. Part of this difference was simply a reflection of social differences between regions. I quickly learned that some Oregonians wear jeans and Birkenstocks (with socks) to synagogue services, just as they wear them to restaurants, meetings, and the theater.

Embracing a Western Identity: Jewish Oregonians 1849-1950Yet some differences seemed deeper. At a temple board retreat a few years after I arrived, all participants were asked to present a brief “Jewish autobiography.” I was surprised to learn that, of about a dozen participants, the rabbi and I were the only two in the room who were born Jewish and married to partners who were also born Jewish. I had grown up in a Conservative congregation where it seemed virtually all my peers shared a background roughly similar to mine—two Jewish parents from New York or some other eastern city and grandparents (possibly great-grandparents) who had immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. In Salem, the stories were far more diverse—converts, children of converts, children and grandchildren of immigrants who had settled in Colorado or Idaho or California rather than New York—as well as descendants of families who had been in America longer and come from a variety of places other than Eastern Europe.

Teaching immigration history at Willamette University and participating in the American Ethnic Studies program, I learned that the kinds of East/West differences I was observing were not confined to Jewish ethnic identity. European American ethnicities in general seemed blurrier in the West. Growing up in the East in the 1960s and 1970s, “ethnicity” had included many categories of European Americans; as kids, we were aware of one another’s ethnic past. It was not a major issue—there were no ethnic gangs in my suburban neighborhood—but there was an awareness of roots. Many families identified as Jewish or Italian or Irish or German American, and, although there were exceptions, most seemed to identify with just one of these identities. There was a set of ideas associated with each of these labels that included how many children the family was likely to have and what kinds of foods they were likely to eat. By the time we were in grade school we could easily sort surnames into the most common ethnic categories. The Goldsteins? Obviously, Jewish. The O’Shaughnessys? Clearly Irish. The D’Ambrosios? Italian. There were a few more recent Asian and Latino immigrant families, but in such small numbers that they didn’t seem to constitute a group, so conversations about ethnicity were far more likely to focus on European categories. And in suburban Washington, DC, in the 1960s and 1970s, the language of race tended to employ only two categories: black and white.

In contrast, I found that my (mostly) West Coast students have trouble thinking about ethnicity as a category they can apply to European Americans. When I talk with them about immigration, they think of Asians and Latinos, not Europeans. When I ask them about their family histories, the majority of those of European American origin are unable to point to one ethnic identity and instead present a laundry list—“my mom’s family is Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, and French; my dad’s mom is Irish and his dad’s family is Scottish, German, and Russian.” Students in Willamette’s Jewish Student Union present “Jewish autobiographies” not unlike those I encountered at the board retreat—few were born to two Jewish parents and raised Jewishly. Far more come from families with diverse ancestry and a mix of traditions.

Not only do my western students of European descent not identify with a particular ethnic group, they also have little ability to recognize European ethnicity. When I talk in my American Jewish history class about a film or television character who, to me, seems obviously Jewish, I learn that a number of my students completely miss the identifiers. And, because they don’t speak the “language” of European ethnic identity, they frequently mistake non-Jewish New Yorkers for Jews. For years, my friend and colleague, Bill Smaldone—whose name is obviously identifiable to most easterners of my generation as Italian American—often has been misidentified by many of our students (and more than a few colleagues) as Jewish, based on his New York accent. They make the same mistake with the character George Costanza from Seinfeld (and Kramer and even Elaine, despite the shiksappeal episode).

In this, of course, students are reflecting not only a lack of familiarity with European American markers of ethnicity, but also a popular culture that has strongly identified Jews with New York—so much so that, for many of my students, to be a New Yorker is to be Jewish (at least if one is white). As Hasia Diner explains in her essay “American West, New York Jewish,” New York has been depicted as “the essence of what it means to be Jewish in America.” And New York is often juxtaposed in American culture with the West, identified as “that which has long been essentially America.” Diner argues that films such as Blazing Saddles (1974) and The Frisco Kid (1979) play on the contrast between that which is Jewish and “not quite America” and the “real” America that is the West. Thus, Jews—especially East European ones—are, quite literally (and often comedically) “out of place” in the American West, particularly the stereotypical, historic frontier West.

These patterns of ethnic understanding in popular culture mirror scholarship on ethnicity and the West. Over the last several decades, there has been a proliferation of work on western ethnicity and diversity in the wake of the New Western History. Yet in this scholarship, “ethnicity” and “diversity” nearly always denote non-European identities, and European immigrants have generally been neglected in western history. With the exception of Los Angeles, where a scholarship focusing on the interplay among a wide variety of groups including Latinos, Asian Americans, Jews, and other European Americans has emerged in the past several decades, much of the literature on ethnicity in the West focuses on non-Europeans, with Jews and other European immigrants simply categorized as “white.”

Such thinking is reinforced by scholarship on American Jewish history, which has focused heavily on New York as the mother lode of all that is Jewish in America. Reflecting the dominant place of New York Jewry in terms of community demographics, historians have often equated New York with American Jewry. Even locally produced western histories portray communities as a pale shadow of the “true” New York Jewish experience. Thus, community histories frequently compare “Jewish” neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, the Fillmore in San Francisco, South Portland, and Seattle’s Central District to the iconic Lower East Side. In The Jews of Oregon, Steven Lowenstein describes South Portland’s community as “largely self-contained,” “a separate community,” and explicitly links it to the Lower East Side of New York. Oral histories focusing on South Portland in the 1920s and 1930s describe a strong Jewish atmosphere, with frequent comparisons to the Lower East Side, and even some, however metaphorical, to a shtetl.

Despite the explicit or implicit connections in these descriptions to the landscape of the Lower East Side, Jewish communities in the region were profoundly shaped by the western experience, beginning with the distinctive migration pattern that brought Jews to the West. Whereas millions of Jews migrated directly from Europe to eastern ports, including New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia; or immediately transmigrated to inland industrial centers such as Chicago, those who settled in the West arrived gradually and in far smaller numbers. This meant that, particularly before the turn of the century, even the largest western Jewish communities remained quite modest. As late as 1915, the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society of America reported that over 80 percent of immigrant Jews were bound for northern and central Atlantic states, and less than 1 percent for the West. Of those, only a fraction came to the Northwest. Those who came to Oregon were making a conscious choice to move outside the normal paths of Jewish life and into the American hinterland. They were attracted by opportunities that were shaped, in turn, by the distinctive environment, commercial prospects, and racial landscape of the region. The process of self-selection among migrants, combined with the particular opportunities and challenges of the region that they chose, shaped their experiences. They neither recreated the Lower East Side nor seamlessly blended into the local white landscape. Rather, they reflected both the Jewish and western forces that shaped them.

The Jewish Oregon Story: 1950-2010What began as curiosity about my new community and my students’ perceptions has led, over two decades, to a deep appreciation of the complex factors that have shaped Jewish history in the West, and, specifically, in Oregon. Along with my fellow historians of the Jewish experience in the American West, I have worked to break free of generalizations based on the eastern metropolitan experience that have ruled American Jewish history. Critical studies of Jewish life in the western states have delineated important points of contrast with eastern Jewry, such as the continued dominance of Jews of German descent into the twentieth century; the relative mildness of anti-Semitism; the declining Jewish percentage of the total western population at a time when the Jewish population share in the East was increasing rapidly; and the small numbers of East European migrants to the West and their correspondingly more modest impact on political and cultural developments. These contrasts have led historians to argue that concepts as basic as the customary periodization of American Jewish history do not apply to the American West. The challenges of the frontier, the particular mix of people who settled here, and the ethos they developed, along with the selective migration of Jews to this remote state have all contributed to the distinctive characteristics of Oregon Jewry. Yet Jewish Oregonians were also strongly shaped by the broader western and American Jewish communities of which they were a part.

In discussing regional history, American Jewish historians have asked whether, for example, southern Jews have historically been more similar to other southerners or to non-southern Jews. In recent years, historians Mark Bauman and Marc Lee Raphael have come down on the side of the latter, arguing that, whatever regionalisms were embraced by southern Jews, “to a remarkable degree . . .their experiences were far more similar to those of Jews in similar environments elsewhere in America than they were to those of white Protestants in the South.” Part of this was due to the fact that, however well accepted and acculturated they were, there were some aspects of southern life that seemed incompatible with Jewish culture—indeed, “Southern Jewry” has been seen by some as a term that is “oxymoronic.” Yet, as Ava F. Kahn, William Toll, and I have argued in Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America’s Edge, Jews found western civic culture and identity far more compatible with their Jewish identity than appears to have been the case in the South.

Embracing a Western Identity: Jewish Oregonians 1849-1950 enters this discussion of regional identity by focusing closely on the Jewish community of Oregon. The aim is to place Oregon Jewish history in the larger contexts of western and American Jewish histories through a series of essays, each focused on a particular theme, institution, or issue, to explore both the echoes of and the departures from the broader experience of Jews in the West, and in the United States.

Member of AAUP