Written and photographed by Amanda Leiserowitz
Amanda: The first thing I wanted to talk to you about was how long it took you to write this book [Between the Redwoods and the Bay] because you began researching the Jewish history of Santa Cruz in 1976, while you were in university. What was so engaging about the topic that you decided to continue researching it until this book was published in 2017?
George: That’s a very good question. I was in a class with David Baile – he’s now with UC Davis, the Jewish Studies department – I took a class called Modern Jewish History. He required us to do a term paper, and we could choose any topic we wanted. It just so happened that one of my non-Jewish classmates had taken me to the Meder Street Cemetery. We went down there and I was just amazed. There was this Jewish cemetery, right near campus, and it had graves dating back to the 1870s. So it kinda clicked. I wanted to write a short paper about the Jewish pioneers to Santa Cruz.
I went to the Santa Cruz Public Library and there was nothing in [the] card catalogues, and the reference librarians knew nothing about [the Jewish pioneers]. So I went back to the cemetery and I wrote down all of the names of the graves from before 1900. I approached my professor and said I wanted to write my paper on that, and he said, “That’s a great idea.” So that’s how it started.
Fast forward, I transferred to UC Berkeley as a history major, and I took a senior thesis class – History 101. The topic I chose was Race and Ethnicity. You had to do primary research and write a paper so I said, “Oh, I’ll expand on my original topic from when I did that term paper.” There was the Jitney Bus, which you could take from McHenry library to Berkeley library and back, free for students, so I figured I could go back to Santa Cruz, see my old friends, and do [primary] research in the library, and interview people. This was the 1970s, so there were people who still had businesses on Pacific Avenue who were born in the 1880s; [it] seems kind of strange, but there were people whose families had come to Santa Cruz around 1800 that were still alive. That’s what prompted me in the early years to do my research.
I went back to Santa Cruz after the earthquake with my family. The archivist at the Octagon Museum said to me, “No one has written about this topic since you wrote about it in ‘78” – when I had my thesis published in the Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly. She said “Your thesis only went up to 1930, would you be interested in taking that up to the present day?” [Then] I applied for and got one of the History Forum awards. I didn’t know where it was going to take me. But then in the next fifteen, twenty years, I started researching the topic again and it ended up in the book.
A: You mentioned that when you began researching, there wasn’t a lot of information for you to find readily, so it sounds like you were very much building the archive rather than going through the archive of Jewish people in Santa Cruz. Did that pose a lot of challenges, or was there anything in particular that took a long time to overcome? Like finding out who to talk to?
G: This was before an internet or computers, so my only resource was McHenry Library. They had the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Santa Cruz Call, and a couple other newspapers that had existed for a short time around 1900 to 1920. I literally spent hours just going through the microfilm, looking for the names to match the graves. When I found them, I hand-wrote down the articles – or you could actually photocopy them, but they were not very good copies back then, they were hard to read. I made a system where I put the different family names together in a folder and then had a tape recorder. [Then], I went to the synagogue, and I looked around the synagogue and talked to some of the people there, and asked who would be good people to interview.
So I interviewed a few – went to a few people’s homes and business, and got to be friendly with two senior businesspeople on Pacific. One of them was Hyman Abrams, whose family owned a men’s clothing store – which is actually one of the only buildings that didn’t collapse during the Loma Prieta earthquake – and he and his sister, Eve Abrams. Their father started the business in the 1880s. They were very nice and talked to me, and I met other people. […] Then someone told about the Judah Magnes Museum, which was on Russell Street in Berkeley – it’s no longer there. I went and there were some scrapbooks of some of the Jews who had moved from Santa Cruz to Berkeley. I was always interested in doing detective work, so this allowed me to do research on a topic that no one knew about which I found exciting. […] And now with the internet, from your computer at home, you can look at the Santa Cruz Sentinel from the 1870s to the present, and you can just put in a name, and you can see every article written [about them]. So when I was writing my book, of course a lot of articles that I had bypassed were easily retrieved, and I was fortunate to have all the resources [and library databases] online, and ancestry.com.
A: I can imagine, that’s much easier than going and transcribing these articles by hand.
G: Yeah, it’s gotta sound antiquated right?
When I saw the cemetery for the first time […] it was just a really peaceful place and I basically thought [about] how sad it is that people don’t know anything about these people, who were pioneers of the Jewish community and obviously had some social and community standing – they have these large monuments erected toward them. I think it might have stemmed from my mother being a Holocaust survivor from Germany. As a child, I always heard about relatives who had been murdered by the Nazis, and I always wanted to find out more about them, to pass down their stories to my children. I kind of juxtaposed that to these people who were in the Jewish Cemetery [in Santa Cruz], and no one knew who they were or even cared about them, so I made it my mission to document them so their stories wouldn’t be lost forever.
A: I think a lot of people, and especially Jews, are interested in memory, and preserving memory.
G: Yeah, that’s very true. One of the real benefits of doing this research is that I got to become friends with a lot of the people who provided the photographs and stories in my book. I’ve given some [primary sources] to the [Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History], but my idea is to give more of my primary documents to the museum curator and talk to her about having an exhibit about the Jewish Community in Santa Cruz. […] I’ve had a close relationship with the [MAH]. They have this thing called the History Forum, and they have an award once a year. Part of the deal to publish my book – they would publish it but I had to raise all of the funds to actually publish it. I always call it my labor of love because it’s obviously not a best selling topic, I just did it because I felt that it was something I could do for future Santa Cruz Jews, just so they knew from whence they came.
A: I think it’s really great to have a resource like this book, which is so full of pictures and information. I think that the pictures are one of the most fascinating things, aside from the personal stories, because it’s really cool to see the faces of these people from so long ago. […] Are there photographs or scenes which really stick out to you, that maybe when you came across them were really significant?
G: One thing was that it’s not particularly Jewish, but it was really interesting to the audience at the temple when I did my presentation – I had the same scene on Pacific Avenue in downtown starting in the 1860s to the 1920s and you could see how it started with dirt streets with no transportation, to in the 1860s and by 1875 tracks for street cars started to appear, and all during this time there were Jewish businesses on Front Street and Pacific. […] It just seemed like the history of the street also showed the history of the Jewish community, because they were always a lot of business people who were Jewish on the street and some of them existed for close to 100 years. There was the Bernheim Hall – it was the first theater in Santa Cruz, and it attracted the whole community to events. They had opera singers from the time and [other performers]. And it was owned by a Jewish family, [they owned] the department store, and upstairs was this theater. It showed to me how the Jewish Community was integrated into the general community, they had started the community with everybody else in the 1850s and they were all pretty much accepted – there wasn’t blatant antisemitism. The Jews had the Christian community come to their events, like used to have a Purim Ball every year, in the 1870s and 80s, in the Jewish community, and it was open to the gentile community. Everyone worked together to establish Santa Cruz and so I think looking at Pacific Avenue, the pictures there, that really interested me.
A: It’s really cool to see places that are really familiar to me become totally unfamiliar.
G: My friend Frank Commanday was on the staff of the Leviathan in 1978, as a photographer. He was the first person who really took pictures of the cemetery for an article and the picture [on page 16 of my book] is of Amy Steen’s grave, who was the first person buried at the cemetery in 1877. [Now] the temple cemetery committee decided that due to vandalism, it would make more sense to take some of these graves down and encase them in cement so they couldn’t be stolen. […] Amy’s Steen’s grave was vandalized, it was actually removed from the cemetery by someone and a year later was left at the cemetery gate. It’s a little conflicting as a historian to see it no longer standing… your generation will never see how some of these graves actually looked.
The current book I’m writing is about the history of the Meder Street Cemetery. That was actually originally Mr. Meder’s family cemetery, and if you visit there and look at the back of the cemetery, there’s a raised plot and that’s his original cemetery. And when the Jewish community was looking for a burial place, he was friends with some of the Jewish people, he was Mormon, and if you google mormonism and Jews, they’ve always had a special affinity towards each other, and he said that he would give part of his land to the Jewish community for the nominal sum of a hundred dollars, so they bought the cemetery land and started their own cemetery with him in the background, you know. I find that interesting too, so what I decided to do was trace the history of his family and talk to the descendants of Mr. Meder, and then also find out how the Jewish cemetery came into existence, then write a walking tour of some of the graves.
Evergreen Cemetery has it – I got the idea because they have a walking tour of some of their graves. So when I was with Bruce [Thompson], I did a little cemetery tour, he said, “Did you know there’s a Nobel Prize winner buried over here?” And I said no. And so I added him to my tour. And there were some other people on the tour – one person said his four year old daughter died about twenty years ago on Hanukkah, so her gravestone has a Hanukkiah on it, and in Hebrew, a phrase from a Hanukkah song. I tried to choose graves that have interesting historical significance from the 1800s, or ones from present day that had compelling stories. So I asked [the families] to write something for me, and include a picture of their family member, so that’s how the book’s going to be. These families are thinking, “This is something I can do to memorialize my loved one”.
A: It seems like a good way to heal, and share the things of that person’s life with the world.
G: Yeah, so they’re not defined by their tragedy of how they died. And some of the people had written poetry, and some of the people had been featured in the Sentinel, and there’s culinary experts and I’m putting in their Jewish recipes, trying to make it a little interesting.
Luckily the Jewish population of Santa Cruz was never more than fifty families until the university, so that’s one of the reasons it was easier to focus on and to chart. Even the Jewish cemetery is a confined topic, I’m just focusing on this one piece of land. I’m not covering every grave, obviously. I also got the idea that – my cousin who was an actress is buried in Hollywood Forever, and they have a book, a walking guide to the graves there. It had the idea. It would be nice so when people go to the cemetery, they know who some of these people are. To me it was something that I thought was worthy of future study.
A: Was it difficult to stay engaged [over such a long time], motivated, interested in all the things you were researching or was it more intrinsically motivating?
G: I’d say it was more intrinsically motivating. […] I just felt that I was doing something I could look back on and be proud of…we all want to make a contribution to society in some way to be remembered, and so perhaps I’ll be remembered as the chronicler of Santa Cruz Jewery.
A: I think you’ve got a good shot!
G: I do think it’s important, for all communities, to know about their history, and what you were saying about Jews and memory, the importance of memory, and that’s why […] a woman who from the temple she told me about the quote that I used in my dedication – “Judaism does not command us to believe, it commands us to remember. We sanctify the present by remembering the past.” That really struck a chord with me. And that’s basically why I did all this research and am continuing to do it.
A: Thank you very much for your time today!