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October 15th, 2015

  While not all Oregonians, nor all Oregonian Jews, wear jeans and  Birkenstocks with socks, there is a certain flavor of life in Oregon that can’t be found anywhere else. It takes a certain kind of personality to wear jeans and Birkenstocks with socks to synagogue services, someone who is very comfortable with who she is. Our identity is how we perceive ourselves. This perception grows and changes over time, influenced by our life experiences. It is with this identity that we relate to others within social groups and how we come to find connections. Traditionally, the Lower East Side of New York is considered to be the “authentic” American Jewish experience, however that certainly doesn’t make it the only experience. Embracing a Western Identity by Ellen Eisenberg explores Jewish Oregonian history starting with pioneers in the mid-nineteenth century to Portlanders of the mid-twentieth century. In an excerpt from the introduction to her book, Eisenberg writes about how growing up on the east coast helped foster her interest in understanding the differences between the eastern and western American Jewish identity.


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                  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.

            Yet 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.

 

October 8th, 2015

 

 Wild in the Willamette is the essential guide to nature in the Willamette Valley. Dedicated to the memory of Gail Achterman, Wild in the Willamette shares Achterman’s love for the outdoors and her desire for people to explore the area around them. Collected history and essays written by local authors are available to those who wish to travel from the comfort of their own home, while ideas for outdoor adventures friendly to all ages can be enjoyed as well. This week Jessica McDonald joins us with a sneak peek providing the inspiration behind Wild in the Willamette and how it came to be.


 


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The Wild in the Willamette Backstory:

 

            Four years in the making, Wild in the Willamette was coaxed into being by a small group of friends of Gail Achterman in her memory. When Achterman, a natural resources lawyer and founder of the Natural Resources Institute at Oregon State University, died of pancreatic cancer in January 2012, she left unfulfilled a dream of creating an outdoor recreation guide to the Willamette Valley that would motivate people to get out and learn to love the land the way she did. Her friends Karyle Butcher and Trish Daniels had soon assembled a small steering committee to produce the book. Jessica McDonald of Greenbelt Land Trust, another member of the committee, recalls that the group “pretty quickly realized that we were in over our heads as volunteers.” Butcher, former head of OSU’s Valley Library and OSU Press, set about raising funds while McDonald, along with Trish and Kent Daniels, and Charles Goodrich and Kathleen Dean Moore of the Spring Creek Project for Nature, Ideas, and the Written Word, started to make lists of potential writers and outings based on watershed council recommendations. They soon hired environmental editor Lorraine Anderson to manage the project and writer Abby Metzger to assist her.

 

            OSU Press had recently published Wild in the City, an outdoor recreation guide to Portland, and the steering committee embraced it as a model. Wild in the City is an unusual hybrid, both guidebook and literary compendium, and Wild in the Willamette aimed to be the same. Drawing on the talents of professional writers and artists in the valley as well as an adventurous group of nature lovers who volunteered to spend the summer of 2013 going on assigned outings and writing them up, the book began to come together. By fall 2013, Metzger was nipping at people’s heels to turn in their submissions and consent forms while Anderson set about giving the write-ups a consistent voice and format. Both women checked facts on the ground, between them hiking every trail in the book, some more than once. Monica Drost, who had contributed a couple of paddle trip write-ups with an accompanying map, fell back on her degree in geography from OSU as she took on the huge task of mapping every outing.

           

            In its monthly meetings, the steering committee watched the book materialize. Moments of jubilation came when Metzger created a Facebook page for the book, more than thirty locals answered a call to contribute to the book, Meyer Memorial Trust awarded a sizable grant to support the work, OSU Press offered a contract, the manuscript was submitted and accepted, Steve Connell sent samples of his design for the book, and the OSU Press Fall 2015 catalog showcased the book.

 

            Managing editor Anderson, a California native who moved to the Willamette Valley in 2005, had been a lifelong hiker and welcomed the opportunity to get to know her adopted homeland better. (She replied “Heck, yes!” when asked if she was interested in working on the project.) She calls working on the book “a deep education in place” and comments that “I have ended up simply awed by the variety of natural landscapes accessible to the public within a two-hour radius of Corvallis.” Most rewarding for her was setting out to find and provide clear directions to some destinations that were hard to get to or to find information on, like Abiqua Falls east of Silverton, Shelter Falls on the Middle Santiam River, and Crabtree Valley, an almost mythic place that’s home to 600-to-900-year old Douglas-firs, western hemlocks, and western red cedars. These treks involve long drives on a tangle of logging roads, which had to be navigable in Anderson’s Dodge Neon to make it into the book. Volunteer Jess Beauchemin submitted a write-up of a hike to Tumble Creek above Detroit Lake, but when Anderson drove the narrow logging road toward the trailhead, clinging to the side of a heart-stoppingly precipitous slope, she reached a washout in the road that had been patched with crushed rock and said “Nope! Not in the book!”

 

            After going back to recheck some of the hiking directions and finding conditions on the ground changed, Anderson says she has realized that “Wild in the Willamette is a snapshot of how one particular people related to one particular place at one particular time.” Just like the petroglyphs left by native peoples at Cascadia Cave or the ruts in the ground left by the settlers’ wagon roads, the book is an artifact of an age. Making it drew a small group of people closer to their place on earth, and the hope is that it will serve as an example for others to do the same in other places on earth. And that it will serve to motivate people, especially those with children, to spend more time outdoors appreciating the amazing gift of natural beauty offered by the mid-Willamette Valley. “I look forward to the reader picking up Wild in the Willamette and taking one small trip to walk a new trail. It might be three miles or thirty from their front door, but each and every step into nature brings a greater appreciation of this place we call home.”

 

Wild in the Willamette will be released in November 2015. All proceeds from the publication will be directed to Greenbelt Land Trust, a conservation organization working on protecting the mid-Valley’s natural areas, rivers, wildlife, and trails. More info: www.greenbeltlandtrust.org.

October 1st, 2015

 

            Inspired by his own experience with a racially biased trial that changed his life, Max G. Geier undertook an academic study of a 1943 murder trial involving racial, gender, and class issues. The Color of Night: Race, Railroaders, and Murder in the Wartime West presents Geier’s research of the murder of Martha James and the subsequent execution of Robert E. Lee Folkes who had been found guilty for her murder. Today Geier tells us the story of his 2005 jury summons and how the trial influenced him to write this book of murder, mystery, and railroad history in Oregon.


 

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Writing About The Color of Night

Max G. Geier

11 August 2015

 

            The idea for this book began in summer 2005, when I was called to serve as a juror for a seemingly insignificant trial in Benton County, Oregon. It is no exaggeration to say that experience, not my first as a juror, changed my life. My role as a juror took me into legal territory beyond my experience, and I learned some unpleasant truths about my neighbors who served with me. Each juror revealed something of themselves and how their perceptions of a racialized “other” colored their notions of what was just and fair. I came away with the idea that a careful study of a jury trial involving jurors who were of different races and backgrounds than the defendant might help me understand, as a historian, how people from rural and urban backgrounds compared in their responses to racialized arguments and identities in the mid-20th century.

            Jury duty was a responsibility I initially put off, asking for extensions earlier in the academic year, preferring to serve during the summer to avoid inconveniencing students, most of whom were the first in their families to attend college. Many were already in their mid-to-late 20s, often working several jobs to pay their way, with rich life experiences already behind them, but virtually none had ever served on a jury. Whenever we discussed famous American court cases, I encouraged them to accept their civic responsibility when the call came, if only to better understand how our court system functions. I had no illusions about the process, having previously served as a juror (including once as jury foreman) on two other cases that went to trial, including one in Los Angeles involving rape and attempted murder. In summer 2005, however, the court called me to serve on a relatively innocuous case, or so it seemed at the time. It was, on the surface, a simple case of drunk driving. As the case progressed, however, we learned there was more at stake: the prosecutor layered on several additional charges that would have dramatically increased the penalties, including jail time, that the young Black man on trial would have faced for an unwise decision that, thankfully, had harmed no one. My fellow jurors were all White men and White women who were mostly at least two decades older than the defendant.

            At trial, a White judge presided while the White prosecutor called witnesses—most memorably a White police officer who admitted he stopped the car only because “I recognized his face”. The other singularly notable witness was a young White woman—the defendant’s girlfriend—who was also in the car during the traffic stop. The White defense lawyer essentially conceded the basic facts of the matter before the trial even began. The events in question all happened within a one-block radius in a portion of the city where the streets follow broad curves typical of suburban tracts built in the late 60s and early 70s. The defendant and his girlfriend were at a party at her house on one side of that block, across the back fence from his mom’s house on the other side of the block. They left the party together and headed, in his girlfriend’s car, to his mom’s house. It was a short drive on the quiet, well-lit, broad residential streets of their childhood homes. Their route required two left turns heading counter-clockwise around the block to reach his mother’s driveway. The defendant asked his girlfriend if he could drive, and she agreed. Driving cautiously, the defendant rounded the first corner and accelerated to about 20 mph (according to police testimony). As he approached the second corner, he passed a stopped police car. Recognizing the defendant’s face, the officer testified, he switched on his flashing lights and followed. The defendant completed his second left turn and headed toward his mother’s driveway before he noticed the police car with lights flashing behind him (according to his own testimony and his girlfriend’s testimony). The police officer testified the defendant quickly accelerated to 25 mph, whereas the girlfriend and the defendant both denied he accelerated and testified he actually was slowing down as they approached his mom’s dr