Saturday, January 14, 2023

NYJFF ’23: Jews of the Old West

What name could be more synonymous with the Western Frontier experience than that of Levi Strauss? So, Jews definitely played an important role in the Old West. Case closed—but wait, there’s even more. Amanda Kinsey documents American Jewish life on the Frontier in Jews of the Old West, which screens tomorrow during the 2023 New York Jewish Film Festival.

It makes sense that people who would travel across an ocean in lousy steerage conditions to reach America would keep going west in search of a better life. Obviously, many immigrants settled in Northeastern communities like the Lower Eastside, but a fair number also settled out west, particularly in San Francisco, Denver, and Texas. Of course, maintaining traditions and religious observances was a challenge on the Frontier, but anti-Semitism was much less prevalent (because most hardscrabble settlers just didn’t have the time).

Many Jews of the Old West became quite notable, like Wyatt Earp’s wife, who eventually buried the famous lawman in a Jewish cemetery (even though he never adopted her faith, at least as far as we know). Some Jewish immigrants started enduring businesses, like Straus and the founders of Samsonite luggage. Plus, Denver in the early 1900s was home to a true icon, Golda Meir, during her precocious childhood years. In fact, Jewish Coloradans were instrumental in establishing the Denver stockyards, which remain to this day a major livestock hub.

Fittingly, Kinsey revisits daguerreotypist Solomon Nunes Carvalho’s expedition chronicled at length in a previous NYJFF-selected film, Steve Rivo’s
Carvalho’s Journey. In many ways, Jews of the Old West is like Rivo’s film and another past NYJFF selection, Jonathan Gruber’s Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray. All three films challenge persistent Jewish stereotypes, while simultaneously celebrating Jewish culture and heritage.

There are a lot of great stories in Kinsey’s doc. It’s not just about heads of state and captains of industry. It also has ranchers, cowboys, and outlaws, including Broncho Billy Anderson, the star
The Great Train Robbery of 1903. This doc collects some fascinating American history and Americana, so it would be a perfect fit for a PBS showcase like American Experience. Highly recommended for young viewers and Western fans, Jews of the Old West screens tomorrow (1/15) as part of this year’s NYJFF.