The American Wild West: The Third Golden Age for Jewry

We have been around as the Jewish People for 3,500 years.

There have been good times and bad times.

There have been times of wealth and times of poverty.

There have been times in our own land and times in exile.

Two of our better times have come to be known as Golden Ages — times when almost everything went right for our people.

In return, we gave great gifts to the world and communities in which we lived.


The Golden Age of King Solomon: 950c B.C.E.

King David, King Solomon’s father, laid the groundwork for our First Golden Age. David united all of our ancestors in our Holy Land, ex­tended and solidified the borders of Greater Israel.

Solomon succeeded David as our king. He brought glory and world status to Israel.

Our First Holy Temple arose.

International and local commerce flourished.

It was a time of great creativity, most notably our Biblical Psalms, said to be written mostly by King David himself — recited to this day by Jews and Christians throughout half the world.

Unfortunately, the First Golden Age ended with Solomon’s death.

The nation split into two separate countries — Israel in the north and Judah in the south — ten tribes in the North and two tribes in the South.

The Assyrians eventually conquered Israel (8th century B.C.E.) and the Babylonians conquered Judah (6th century B.C.E.), sending exiles into what we now call Iraq.


The Golden Age of Spain: 1200-1300 C.E.

The largest concentration of Jews was settled in Spain during this period.

It was also a high point for Spanish Islam in terms of literature, medi­cine, poetry, mathematics, and philosophy.

We were welcomed into these higher realms of civilization and flourished ourselves.

From this time came the beginning of Jewish philosophy, great Jewish poets, and even the beginning of Jewish mysticism.

We were trained as doctors in Islamic medical schools and as math­ematicians in their universities.

We, in turn, created schools of navigation that trained sailors to extend the boundaries of trade and discovery.

As Christianity slowly pushed Islam out of the Spanish Penin­sula, we held important positions in the newer Christian gov­ernments — financial and economic advisors to the King and Queen.

This Second Golden Age eventually ended in a great Jewish tragedy with the advent of the Inquisition and the Expulsion of Jews in 1492.


The Golden Age of the Wild West: 1849-1899

The more one studies the fifty years known as the period of the American Wild West, the more one must conclude that this, too, was the Third Golden Age for its Jewish participants.

It was a time when we were free to do the best we could, using our intelligence, creativity, hard work ethic, and Jewish Values.

During this period we found our­selves in a totally free, capitalistic society.

We flourished as merchants at all levels: importers, distribu­tors, wholesalers and retailers.

The groundwork of our modern thriving mar­ket system was created by Jewish merchants in cities, towns, and villages throughout the West.

We came with merchandise, in wagons and ships. We brought anything we thought would sell in this vast new territory that had literally nothing with which to start.

No government agency told us what was needed, or how much to bring.

Each Jewish merchant brought products he knew, or prod­ucts he had a connection to obtain.

If we arrived in a new town with the “right stuff,” we were often an instant success.

If others arrived with similar, wanted merchandise, it was open competition.

Whoever had the best prices, the best quality, the best service, and kept the best records usually succeeded the most.

The others went back East and loaded up with something else.

We expanded quickly into retailers, wholesalers, and commodity brokers — sometimes all three at the same time.

Much of what we sold was exchanged for the farmer’s crops or the ranchers hides or wool.

We then found ourselves marketing these commodi­ties to establishments in the larger cities.

Retailers’ stores became retail chains as new towns were settled.

We became bankers as our profits grew and as people trusted us to hold their extra gold and silver.


Other Jews had a chance to enter fields never considered in Europe and not normally open in Eastern America.

We became sheriffs, police chiefs, and U.S. Marshals.

There were many, many Jewish mayors and members of the states’ legislatures.

California had an early Jewish Governor and an important early Supreme Court Judge.

There was even one Jewish Indian Chief as well as two govern­ment appointed Chiefs of Indians.

We ran theaters, saloons, gambling houses, and houses of ill-repute. We owned ranches, mines, and factories.

Everything was open to us, and, in general, we did well.

We were often the first in a town to create an organization—usually a Jewish Benevolent Society.

We helped found the local civic charity organizations and hospitals.

Fraternal lodges were often started by the town’s Jews — the Masonic Lodge and the International Order of Odd Fellows were the two most popu­lar — and a strong force in socializing and civilizing the people of so many ethnic backgrounds.

B’nai B’rith Lodges came toward the end of the nineteenth century.

As a result, in the West, many towns are named after Jews, streets are named after Jews, schools and parks are named after Jews.

We left our mark and the mark was “Excellence.”

Those first fifty years were truly a Golden Age for Jews that were part of the “Great Adventure.”

We are living well today due to the successes of our early Jewish Pioneers.

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from Why the Jews Were So Successful in the Wild West…And How to Tell Their Stories, by David W. Epstein, Isaac Nathan Publishing, 2007.