Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California

My favorite part of this biography by Hellman’s great-great-granddaughter Frances Dinkelspiel came on page 181.

It describes how affluent German Jews in the San Francisco Bay Area reacted with ambivalent feelings to the arrival of Russian Jewish immigrants.

Why were the German Jews so opposed to the immigration of people who were facing slaughter by the czar’s army? Some historians believe they were more afraid than anything else…

With time, empathy accompanied disdain. Numerous groups set up programs to help the new immigrants find work and housing and ease the transition to a new country. In 1894, Rabbi Voorsanger suggested that the women of the temple form Emanu-el Sisterhood for Personal Service, modeled after the sisterhood set up by the women of Temple Emanu-el in New York. The group formed a settlement house south of Market, sewed for the immigrants, taught English, offered vocational classes, and helped them find jobs. In the first year, the sisterhood helped more than 1,350 immgrants and secured jobs for 234 people.

Within a few years, womanhood for wealthy ladies no longer meant lunches and visiting days, but charity work. Many of the richest women in San Francisco turned their attention to the poor.

This is much healthier for both parties (giver and taker) than having government do all this work. Charity is best handled by private individuals. It gives the rich something to do that is more meaningful than the mere pursuit of fun and it helps the poor to be accountable to private individuals rather than a faceless government bureaucracy. It teaches the poor gratitude and prevents them from believing that handouts are their right.

If there was no government welfare, people would have to band together and form strong communities to withstand life’s vicissitudes.

Here’s a product description of this new book from Isaias Hellman, a Jewish immigrant, arrived in California in 1859 with very little money in his pocket and his brother Herman by his side. By the time he died, he had effectively transformed Los Angeles into the modern metropolis we see today. In Frances Dinkelspiel’s groundbreaking history, the early days of California are seen through the life of a man who started out as a simple store owner only to become California’s premier money-man of the late 19th and early 20th century. Growing up as a young immigrant, Hellman quickly learned the use to which "capital" could be put, founding LA’s Farmers and Merchants Bank, that city’s first successful bank, and transforming Wells Fargo into one of the West’s biggest financial institutions. He invested money with Henry Huntington to build trolley lines, lent Edward Doheney the funds that led him to discover California’s huge oil reserves, and assisted Harrison Gary Otis in acquiring full ownership of the Los Angeles Times. Hellman led the building of Los Angeles’ first synagogue, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, helped start the University of Southern California and served as Regent of the University of California. His influence, however, was not limited to Los Angeles. He controlled the California wine industry for almost twenty years and, after San Francisco’s devastating 1906 earthquake and fire, calmed the financial markets there in order to help that great city rise from the ashes. With all of these accomplishments, Isaias Hellman almost single-handedly brought California into modernity. Ripe with great historical events that filled the early days of California such as the Gold Rush and the San Francisco earthquake, Towers of Gold brings to life the transformation of California from a frontier society whose economy was driven by the barter of hides and exchange of gold dust into a vibrant state with the strongest economy in the nation.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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