Arts & Culture

California is Burning – So What Else is New?

Frances Dinkelspiel, author of Towers of Gold, is guest blogging this week as one of Jewcy‘s Lit Klatsch bloggers.  Her book is a biography of her great great grandfather, a Jewish immigrant who became one of the West Coast’s most … Read More

By / November 17, 2008

Frances Dinkelspiel, author of Towers of Gold, is guest blogging this week as one of Jewcy‘s Lit Klatsch bloggers.  Her book is a biography of her great great grandfather, a Jewish immigrant who became one of the West Coast’s most influential financiers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

While it is the middle of November and temperatures on the East Coast drop to a chilly 35 degrees at night, California is blazing. Wind-whipped wildfires are raging in the hills and valleys of southern California, burning mobile homes, mansions, hospitals and business parks along the way. More than 700 structures now lay in charred, smoking heaps on the ground.

This is nothing new for California. From the time of its admission to the United States in 1850, conquering nature has always been one of California’s challenges. In its early years, the state’s sheer distance from the population centers of the U.S. made getting here a feat of physical daring. It could take a clipper ship a year to navigate around the Horn. Wagon trains moved just as slowly as they creaked their way from St. Louis, across the alkaline plains of Utah, and up the forbidding slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Inevitably, settlers died along the way,

But the trip was worth the effort, for California has always been a place of promise. Lured by the glint of gold, men came and then stayed to reinvent themselves. Women came to find husbands, and a more socially liberating society.

For Jews, California offered a place free of the discrimination and anti-Semitism so common in central Europe. By 1860, there were about 10,000 Jews in California, with most clustered in the state’s only true city, San Francisco. From the start, these Jews were an integral part of society, serving as city council members and teachers, merchants and traders. California was still so undeveloped and so consumed in its pursuit of wealth that society was wide open. While discrimination against the Chinese was fierce, Jews basked in new-found freedoms. Unlike their co-religionists on the East Coast, California Jews did not have to fight their way into an existing social structure

I am a fifth generation Californian, a descendant of a man who came from Bavaria in 1859. He settled in Los Angeles when it was more Mexican pueblo than American city, when Spanish was the primary language and more people spoke French than English. His name was Isaias Hellman and he, like countless others before him, had come to California to reinvent himself.

Hellman started Los Angeles’ first successful bank and prospered more than any of his ancestors could have ever dreamed: by the time of his death in 1920, he was president of Wells Fargo Bank and 16 other financial institutions and controlled hundreds of millions in capital. I have just written about my great-great grandfather’s life in a new biography called Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California.

Hellman, like many Californians, had to battle natural disasters to prosper. In the winter of 1860-1861, California had record rainfalls. It started to rain in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, and didn’t stop for months. The state’s huge central valley became a lake, 250 miles long. The new governor, Leland Stanford, returned to his Sacramento home after his inauguration by rowboat – and climbed into a second-story window.

Hellman was a clerk in his cousins’ dry good store at that time, and the relentless rain forced the normally staid Los Angeles River to breach its banks. Hellman and his cousins rushed to the store to salvage any goods they could. They had to fight against a waist-high wall of surging water and barely had time to retrieve anything before the adobe walls started to crumble around them.

That year of rain was followed by two years of merciless drought, a calamity that wiped out southern California’s cattle business. And 46 years later, in 1906, Hellman lived through San Francisco’s calamitous earthquake and fire. He was in his downtown office at the Wells Fargo Bank when fire officials burst in and urged him to evacuate. The fire that consumed San Francisco for three days literally stopped across the street from Hellman’s home on Franklin.

I was not so lucky. In 1991, I lost my home in an urban wildfire that destroyed 2,800 houses in Oakland and Berkeley and killed 25 people. My husband and I were across the Bay when the fire broke out, so we didn’t have to flee for our lives. But we lost everything, including a beloved cat.

California is now the country’s most populous state. Most Californians live in denial of the threat of earthquakes, floods, and fires. But the natural disasters come with regularity. People suffer – and then they rebuild. They fall – and then rise up again. The possibility or reinvention is an integral part of California’s history. It is as embraced today as it was in the 1850s.

Frances Dinkelspiel, author of Towers of Gold, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and she’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.