I have a curiosity with respect to knowing whether someone is Jewish or not. I freely admit that in my free time I have played “Guess Who’s the Jew” online, and when traveling, I can’t resist a round of Jewish geography when I meet a fellow Jew. I beam at the thought of kinship with Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johannson, and feel personal shame for Bernie Madoff’s betrayal. And if you were to ask me, I can make a compelling case that Abraham Lincoln was definitely a member of the tribe.
A couple of weeks ago, my family and I traveled out west for our summer vacation. We began our journey in Rapids City, South Dakota, touring Mount Rushmore and hiking through the Black Hills. We then continued into Wyoming, driving across the state and ending up in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. We became enraptured by the spirit and the scenery of Big Sky Country. Mountains, waterfalls, canyons, bison herds, sagebrush, and geysers filled our landscape. We were awed by the majesty of the natural beauty surrounding us.
At this point you may be wondering how my family vacation has anything to do with my penchant for discovering that someone unsuspecting is Jewish. Included in our out-West itinerary was a stop off in Deadwood, South Dakota. Deadwood began in the 1870’s when George Armstrong Custer, a colonel in the Civil War, led an expedition into the surrounding hills and discovered gold. This finding gave rise to the town that soon became infiltrated with gambling, brothels, and saloons. It earned a reputation for being lawless, with a rough and rowdy character, and infamous for the murder of Wild Bill Hickock. Today the town looks strikingly similar to how it did over one hundred years ago, because the whole town has been declared a National Historic Landmark and therefore preserved.
When we arrived in Deadwood, which could just as easily be mistaken for a Hollywood set of a western film, we stopped at The Midnight Star for lunch. The Midnight Start is a western saloon owned by Kevin Costner and decorated with memorabilia from the movie “Dances with Wolves”, which starred Kevin Costner and was about the Lakota Indians who previously inhabited this part of South Dakota.
I think because it seemed so unlikely, while waiting for our food to arrive, I thought to myself, “I wonder whether any Jews have ever lived in Deadwood?” In this age of smart phones, the answer was only one click away. Much to my surprise, within an instant, I had struck gold! One simple Google search connected me to articles entitled, “The Hebrews in the Hills of Old Deadwood” and “Deadwood, South Dakota and the Jews”. Not only did Jews live in Deadwood in the 1870’s, they practically owned the place. One of the articles talked about a historical marker (“Jewish American Pioneers and Deadwood” that had been installed at the corner of Wall and Main Street, just a block from where we were eating.
We raced through our lunch to go off to learn more about our Jewish Pioneer ancestry. When we arrived at the marker, here is what we learned: Jacob Goldberg owned the grocery store; Sol Star co-owned Star & Bullock Hardware, set up the Deadwood Flouring Mill along with fellow Jewish pioneers Ben Baer and Harris Franklin, served as the first Mayor of Deadwood and set up the town’s first fire department; The Franklin Inn’s major investor was Harris Franklin, nee Finkelstein, and his son Nathan became Deadwood’s second Mayor; and Paul Rewman, a Jewish man of British descent, established the first telephone system in Deadwood, which also happened to be the first phone system in the state of South Dakota. Out of the 78 buildings on Main Street at the time, 20 of them were built or had businesses in them that were owned by Jews. And although there wasn’t a synagogue, these Jewish pioneers did have a torah, and they met for services in private homes. Jews were an integral part of this western town, to the point that they earned a historical marker describing their contributions.
When I googled “ Jews and Deadwood” I really didn’t expect to find anything. My image of Jews from the 1870’s didn’t comport with my image of the people who founded this gold rush town. When I learned otherwise, I was delighted. I got a rush of collective pride. And that’s why I find this small game of mine compelling. You just never know what you’ll find!