The idea of Jews living in the Wild West is not a new thing but filmmaker Amanda Kinsey explores the history in Jews of the Wild West.
Before there was Blazing Saddles with the Jewish-coded Jim the Waco Kid and before there was The Frisco Kid, there were actual Jews living in the Wild West. Or the American frontier, if you will. This is what’s so fascinating about watching this film. There’s so much history that not even I–a student of history–knew. Jewish Pride author and Holocaust educator Ben M. Freeman is one of the film’s commentators and if not for him, there’s a good bet that I wouldn’t have known about the film as early as I did. Freeman serves as an advisor along with Rabbi Joseph R. Black and Fred S. Vallo Sr.
The Great Train Robbery was the first American Western upon its 1903 release. It’s hard to think of the history of cinema without the impact of this film in particular. The birth of Warner Bros. is because of this film! Broncho Billy Anderson–who has Chicago ties–has four different roles in the film but on top of this, he’s also on a US stamp and is the first celebrity cowboy. If you’re ever in Hollywood, you can walk by his star on the Walk of Fame. Visiting Oklahoma? Make sure to check out the Western Heritage Museum. Like the majority of studio moguls in the next few decades to come, the cowboy is a Jewish immigrant and was born Max Aronson.
How many of us are familiar with the Western Jewish pioneers? I’m not just talking about stars like Broncho Billy Anderson. When you think of the Wild West, it’s very easy to think of saloons, shootouts, and the Gold Rush. There’s more! Some of the biggest names in American history played a role in the American frontier. Before it became the city that it is today, San Francisco became a home for a number of Jewish merchants seeking a better life. If not for Jacob Davis sharing an idea with fabric provider Levi Strauss, we might not have blue jeans today! Because of Jesse Shwayder and his brothers, we’re able to travel anywhere we want with a Samsonite suitcase!
There would not be any museums with the Guggenheim name on it if not for their success in California and Colorado. Before ever becoming the Israeli prime minister, a young Golda Meir spent some time growing up in Denver. These years would prove to be important because it’s where she was exposed to Zionism, literature, women’s rights, and more.
There are other names that you probably might not know. For instance, Jewish immigrant Solomon Bibo was a non-Native American tribal leader in New Mexico. A Sephardic painter and photographer, Solomon Carvalho, explored multiple then-territories with John C. Frémont. What you might not know about him is that many famous images of the Old West are based on his work. Much like Anderson is a motion picture pioneer, Carvalho is a travel photography pioneer. And then you have the legendary lawman and gambler, Wyatt Earp. What I did not know about him is that his wife was also a Jewish actress, Josephine Marcus Earp. The O.K. Corral fight probably doesn’t happen without her. Anyway, he’s buried alongside his wife in a Jewish cemetery.
Antisemitism in the Old West is nothing like it was in New York at the time. It was a source for better opportunities and that is why it was so appealing for many Jews. The pogroms in Europe were getting worse and at least two million Jews started making their way to America. It’s not like the State of Israel was an option back then, what with the gatekeeping and all. New York City could only provide so much but over 100,000 Jews had already made their way out west by 1912. If you traveled back in time, it would be hard to find a town that didn’t have a Jewish mayor!
If you’ve ever had even the slightest curiosity about Jewish history in America, Jews of the Wild West is a compelling addition to Jewish cinema. It’s also a great example of a non-Jewish filmmaker being an ally to the Jewish community as the film offers us a way to preserve our own history.
DIRECTOR: Amanda Kinsey
FEATURING: Ben M. Freeman, Rabbi Joseph R. Black, Scott Gerber, Ann Kirschner, Lynn Downey, William Korn, Annie Polland, Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, Robert Shlaer, Fred S. Vallo Sr., Shayai Lucero, Norman Provizer, Ed Robinson, Richard Robinson, Albert Dinner, Jeanne E. Abrams, Nancy Oswald, Stacia Deutsch, Bernard A. Goldberg, Gail Klapper, Emma Cohen, Dana Cohen, Richard Issacs, Bess Issacs, Jessica Herzstein
Jews of the Wild West holds its Midwest premiere during the 2022 JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival. Grade: 4/5
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