Arts & Culture

Tacoma’s Jewish history unveiled with new book and exhibit

A Star of David stained glass window from the former Jewish temple in downtown Tacoma is now part of an exhibit on Jewish history at Tacoma Historical Society.
A Star of David stained glass window from the former Jewish temple in downtown Tacoma is now part of an exhibit on Jewish history at Tacoma Historical Society. rponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

Where concrete garages now stand was Gross Bros. Mercantile. On the Pacific Plaza block was Marquis Levin, watchmaker. The site of the Luzon building — now a parking lot — held Sam Loeb’s Milwaukee Saloon, run by a beer maker who challenged Seattle breweries to a price war and won. All Tacoma Jewish businesses in the 1880s, all gone. But now, thanks to a new book and exhibit by Deborah Freedman of the Tacoma Historical Society, their story has been rediscovered.

“There was a really large Jewish community in Tacoma, and nothing was written about them,” says Freedman, a Tacoma author and historian. “It’s all about Seattle.”

Or it was all about non-Jewish Tacoma.

But Freedman, who began her research 20 years ago identifying cemetery headstones for Temple Beth El, has uncovered a history of Jewish migration, entrepreneurship and community that has become a book, an exhibit and a calendar of events this fall. “Tacoma’s Dry Goods and Wet Goods,” published by the Tacoma Historical Society, sees a debut of sorts this week at the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies conference in Seattle. But Freedman has also curated the stories into a small but fascinating exhibit at the Tacoma Historical Society building — right next door to where Solomon Rogers had a tailoring business in 1889.

Both exhibit and book are arranged in themed clusters that parallel Tacoma’s greater history. From the earliest Jewish migrants settling in Steilacoom then moving to Old Town, to investors in the railroad, to the gradual establishment of Jewish businesses along Pacific Avenue and eventually the building of the first temple at South 10th and I streets, “Dry Goods and Wet Goods” follows this micro-community as it grows along with Tacoma. The Gross brothers not only opened a fabric and clothing store, but began Tacoma’s first kindergarten, inspired by a trip home to Germany and free for low-income families. They installed the town’s first weather equipment atop their four-story neo-Gothic building, replacing San Francisco weather forecasts with Tacoma ones that they then broadcast around the country to market the area’s mild climate.

And amid the horror building toward the Tacoma Method — the expulsion from Tacoma of about 200 Chinese people — they welcomed the Chinese freely into their store.

Freedman, hampered by the fact that most Jewish families either died out or moved after the banking crisis of 1893, has done an impressive detective job via genealogy, town directories, newspaper ads (she read every edition of every paper from 1870-1900) and the census. Hardly any living relatives survive. There aren’t even temple records — those were buried in the cornerstone for the second temple on North Fourth and J streets, since torn down.

So the exhibit is heavy on photo reproductions and text. But in the “Wet Goods” section is a marvelous look at the Jewish brewers who grew hops in the Puyallup valley, started their own beer companies and ran saloons. There are glasses, beer trays and even a rare ceramic Milwaukee Brewing stein. Freedman also has women’s stories, including an 1878 prayer book and the attendance cards for a three-day Christmas bazaar that raised one-third of the money to build the synagogue.

And in the street window is a Star of David stained-glass window, all that’s left of the second temple, glowing in the afternoon light.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Tacoma’s Dry Goods and Wet Goods: 19th-century Jewish Pioneers

What: Book ($20) and exhibit by Deborah Freedman.

Where: Tacoma Historical Society, 919 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.

When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and by appointment through Nov. 26.

Admission: Free.

Events: 2 p.m. Sept. 10 “Forgotten Places: 253 Day Walking Tour,” beginning at Frost Park, South Ninth Street and Pacific Avenue; 7 p.m. Sept. 15 “Forgotten Faces: Tacoma’s Jewish Pioneers” author presentation at King’s Books, 218 St. Helens Ave.; 7 p.m. Oct. 10, author presentation at Wheelock Student Center, University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner St.; noon Oct. 25 author presentation at Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave.; 7 p.m. Nov. 9 author presentation at University Place Historical Society, 3715 Bridgeport Way W., University Place.

Information: 253-472-3738, tacomahistory.org.

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