Ellen Eisenberg Selected for Jews of Oregon Historic Sequel

Ellen Eisenberg photo by Sura Rubenstein

Ellen Eisenberg, whose interests span everything from Jewish gauchos to Japanese internment, is excited about her newest project: writing about Oregon’s Jewish community from the 1950s on.

Eisenberg, the Dwight and Margaret Lear professor of American history at Willamette University, has just been selected to write what could be called “the sequel” or a companion to Steve Lowenstein’s landmark book, The Jews of Oregon: 1850-1950. “I greatly value Steve’s work, and I use it a lot in my own work,” she says, pointing to a well-marked copy on her desk at the Salem campus. But whereas Lowenstein’s work, published in 1988, had a sharp focus on Oregon, Eisenberg wants to make stronger connections linking developments in Oregon to a regional and national context.

“I want to look at how regional or national trends in the American Jewish community were experienced by Oregon Jews, and how broader western and Oregon developments shaped the community,” she says. Of course she’ll keep a focus on the Oregon Jewish community and local trends. The general scope and themes of the book are clear: There’s been a lot of change in both the Jewish community and the world since 1950, including everything from economics to migration patterns to the roles of women.

Eisenberg has already explored many of the topics she expects to cover in the course of researching various journal articles, speeches and several books, including as a co-author of Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America’s Edge, published in 2009, and a forthcoming book, tentatively titled Oregon’s Jews, to be published by Oregon State University Press, slated for the end of 2014. The final chapter of Oregon’s Jews focuses on the post-World War II period, and, as she noted in her proposal for the new book, “I would be able to move seamlessly from my current project to this one.”

“We are really lucky to have a historian of Ellen’s caliber take on this project,” says Judy Margles, executive director of the Oregon Jewish Museum and a member of the selection committee. “The changes in the Jewish community since 1950 are extraordinary – and Ellen can give us a deeper understanding of how the West Coast Jewish experience is exemplified in the history of the Jews of Oregon.”

This newest initiative in capturing Oregon Jewish history owes a tremendous debt to Rabbi Joshua Stampfer, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Neveh Shalom. Stampfer had encouraged Lowenstein to write the earlier book, and he organized a committee to see to it that recent history also got its due.
“I was inspired by Steve Lowenstein’s book,” Rabbi Stampfer says. “He did a superb job of placing before us an understanding of the early history of our community.”

Stampfer, who came to Portland in 1953, believes the tremendous changes in the community since the 1950s – many of which he witnessed and in some cases helped effect – also need to be documented. “Especially right now,” he adds, “when we can still talk to many of the people involved and get their stories.”

Stampfer’s committee interviewed prospective writers and decided on Eisenberg. The next steps will be to decide on a publisher and to raise the approximately $50,000 needed for the first phase of the project. “Ellen has done a lot of excellent work already,” Stampfer says. “I’m really looking forward to this project.” Eisenberg, who moved to Oregon in 1990, has been a participant as well as a chronicler of recent Oregon Jewish history.

After receiving her doctorate in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, she and her husband, Ami Korsunsky, moved to Salem, where they quickly became involved with Temple Beth Sholom. Salem is where they raised their two sons, Alex, now 23, and Ben, who is graduating from South Salem High School this spring. The couple met in Israel when Eisenberg was taking some time off from her studies. Korsunsky – whose grandfather had been one of the Jewish gauchos in Argentina that Eisenberg later wrote about – had made aliyah by himself at the age of 16. Today he teaches second grade in a Spanish immersion program at Salem’s Grant Elementary School. Eisenberg couldn’t visit Oregon before taking the Willamette post because she was pregnant with her first son, but her parents – who had spent a year in Salem – assured her that it was a lovely place. Her father, Meyer “Mike” Eisenberg, had been a law clerk for William M. McCallister, chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, from 1959-67.

Eisenberg gained a connection with Oregon Jewish history long before her arrival from her father’s time in Oregon. Her father was among the group of young Jewish lawyers whom Gus Solomon, then the chief of the U.S. District Court in Oregon, would send out to interview at major Portland law firms – many of which then did not hire Jewish lawyers. However, her parents returned to the East Coast, where her father worked for the federal government. A native “East Coaster,” Eisenberg immediately noted differences between the Oregon Jewish community and those on the East Coast. This wasn’t just the greater informality of the West versus the East, but also differences in the immigration stories, the influence of the older “German” immigrants, the ethnic landscape and other areas.

“Communities in the East Coast were overwhelmed by the Eastern European immigration,” she says. On the West Coast and in Oregon, the migration was slower because of time and expense, and the “established” Jewish community, generally German-Jewish, was not overwhelmed in the same way. Many immigrants who came to Oregon and other West Coast states had already learned English and were merchants – perhaps peddlers, but still merchants. “There weren’t the class tensions out West that there were back East,” Eisenberg says. And in terms of “the ethnic landscape”: On the East Coast there was more concern about Italian immigration; in the West, it was Chinese and Japanese immigration. “Jews out West were accepted as part of the white community,” she says.

Eisenberg adds that there’s been a growing interest in regional Jewish history, particularly in the West and the South. “For a long time, American Jewish history was bounded by the Hudson River,” she says, referring to the New York/East Coast focus. She expects to concentrate on the new project during her sabbatical, scheduled for the 2014-2015 school year. She wants the book to have a broad appeal: “I like to write books so that people enjoy reading them.”

She’s also looking forward, as she puts it, to “a new project and a new era.” Eisenberg, who is a fan of crossword puzzles, is especially looking forward to doing more research in, for her, unexplored territory. “I like,” she says, “putting the puzzle together.”

For more information, or to make a contribution to the project, contact Rabbi Joshua Stampfer at 503-246-8831.

Sura Rubenstein is a Portland freelance writer.