1853 – Jewish Cemetery from Gold Rush

Posted on July 12, 2009


Years ago, Robert “Bob” Levinson wrote a book about Jews in the California Gold Rush.  Bob Levinson was, among other things, the Cantor of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga CA, until a car crash ended his life.  Bob was about 40.  We created an AZA chapter in his memory.  We also took an interest in Bob’s work and set out to find some of the cemeteries he wrote about.

I don’t remember ever reading Bob’s book.  I picked it up from my parent’s house over the weekend.  My son and I had just returned from the Sierras and on our way we stopped at the Gold Rush era Jewish cemetery in Sonora.

I expected to find the cemetery overgrown with weeds as it was when our AZA group first found it in the early 80s.  It was actually in nearly perfect condition, which is great, though I think part of me wanted to see it in need of care so that I could come to the rescue with a collection of hoes and rakes.  Given that the temperature in Sonora in July can hover around 100 degrees, I got over it pretty quickly.

There is a sign just inside the entrance (which is locked) that indicates the oldest known Jewish Gold Rush cemetery plot in that part of the Sierras–dated 1853.  Somebody in 1853, in a remote mountain foothills town, carved a tombstone almost entirely in Hebrew.

I cannot imagine what it took for some of these Jewish pioneers to leave their homes in Europe or on the East Coast of the young United States and travel boat (generally) all the way around the tip of South America. The journey took months, if all went well. Since Levi’s had yet to be invented, I’m fairly certain that nobody showed up in a pair of jeans and a CK tshirt, so the odds are they stood out.

I’m interested to learn more about their stories. How they had the resources to create and maintain the basic facilities of Jewish life. How, with few women and fewer Jewish women, they created families.

During one of our trips to a Jewish cemetery in what was, I believe, the very small town of Jackson, there were signs that a developer planned to build directly on the cemetery site. I don’t know what every happened.

I am hopeful that today’s Jewish community will take an interest in those who took the first steps of Jewish life here in CA. Those early settlers made it easier for those of us who followed in CA, especially in places like San Francisco where they helped build the early infrastructure and commerce.

If you are ever passing through places such as Sonora, Grass Valley, Napa, Oroville, Nevada City, jackson, Marysville, Mokelumme Hill, El Dorado County…find the historic cemetery and stop by. Make sure that it is being cared for. If not, give me a call. Maybe we can get the old Bob Levinson AZA gang back together for a road trip.