Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Jewish Life in Western Washington during the Depression

by Eunice How

The 24th Avenue Market, at 2401 Yesler Way, was a hub for Seattle's sephardic community. This picture, from 1941, shows the vibrant community that was sustained during the Depression, through synagogues and small Jewish-owned businesses. From left, owner Sam and Isaac Maimon, Rachel Habib, and Al Azose. (Image courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections.)

The financial crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression and social unrest impacted diverse communities in particular ways. For Jewish people in particular, the American Great Depression was combined with anti-Jewish pogroms and political cultures in Europe. By looking at The Jewish Transcript, Washington State Jewish Historical Society’s “The Way We Were” oral histories from the University of Washington’s Jewish Archives, and Nathan Krems’ papers, we can discern a great deal about Jewish life in Western Washington during this time. In particular, the Jewish community in Western Washington during the Great Depression relaxed religious boundaries out of financial necessity, while synagogues, family, and friendships became more important. As well, philanthropy, both for other Jews in the area and around the world, grew even though the community faced threats of anti-Semitism.

The Jewish community in Depression-era Seattle centered on the synagogues, which encompassed Jews of different cultures and regions of the world. The synagogues of the time included the Ashkenazic Bikur Cholim, the Sephardic Bikur Cholim, Ezra Bessroth, Herzl, Temple De Hirsch and Talmund Torah. In addition, the B’nai B’rith was the prominent social group for Jewish people. The Bikur Cholim was in a very traditional temple, designed with a separate balcony for women. The attendees at the Sephardic Bikur Cholim were from either Turkey or Rhodes. In general, around the 1920s to the 1950s, boys were more invested in synagogue life than girls. The Ezra Bessaroth’s congregation was mainly Sephardic Jews from Greece. Herzl’s Rabbi Shapiro was the called the holiest man in Seattle, and led the Conservative congregation. The Temple De Hirsch catered to both Reform members and more traditional believers.[1]

The front page of The Jewish Transcript from November 7, 1930, one of the newspapers that created a sense of Jewish community in the Pacific Northwest during the Depression years.

During the 1930s, synagogues in Seattle had religious, educational, and social functions, and catered to all ages, starting with a Sunday school for children. Herzl started a Sunday school, where the younger generation learnt music and Hebrew, among other subjects. There was another Herzl Synagogue in Seattle, and at the Shabbat services, tea and cookies were served. Ina Willner, a Seattle inhabitant, noted that “…this was the depression, so free cookies were a very important event.”[2] Temple De Hirsch also had a Sunday school. Again, at the Talmund Torah, most boys and some girls attended the strict school to learn Hebrew. The religious classes, sponsored by Bikur Cholim and Herzl Congregation, started in November of 1930.[3] This synagogue was where the Seattle Jewish community gathered to socialize, and people congregated at bazaars, dinners, games, dances, and wedding receptions.[4]

Education was about more than learning, but created an atmosphere of cultural richness and provided a seedbed for friendships and marriages. Many of the children of Jewish families in Seattle were educated at Horace Mann Elementary, a mostly Jewish school. Children also attended Washington and Rainier schools from kindergarten through eigth grade, and moved on to Garfield High School. Schoolchildren favored the Yesler Branch Library as an after-school hangout. They adored the librarian there, Miss Sonja Winnerblad. On Saturday mornings, after synagogue, children would rush to the library to hear her tell stories. The older children would meet at the library also, but for homework and socializing. “There were a lot of kids that met at the library, that got engaged, and married as a result of that meeting,” Murray Guterson, another Seattle inhabitant of the time, recalls.[5] Boys also enjoyed the Boy Scout program in the basement and football games on the building’s grounds. For immigrant parents, the library held naturalization and English classes.

Key institutions, such as drugstores and community centers not only brought Jewish kids in contact with children of other ethnicities but provided a diverse leisure space and free health services. At the Yesler Fire Station, boys from the ages of ten to fourteen had the opportunity to take boxing lessons. The Jewish adolescents were joined by children from other ethnic groups—the Italians, Greeks, and Irish. The firefighters at the station joined the boys’ enthusiasm for the sport, betting on winners of practice fights. Watching movies at the Madrona Garden Theater was another favorite pastime. Many enjoyed hanging out at Goldsmith’s Drugstore, drinking soda from a fountain and flirting on summer weekends, in addition to reading magazines and playing pinball. Another popular gathering place was the Jewish Community Center, which offered many programs, such as Bluebirds, Campfire Girls, Girl Scouts, and summer adventure camps. Two Jewish doctors and a dentist offered free services in the Center. In addition, children performed plays there and young adults attended meetings. Once again, many adolescents met their future spouses at these meetings.[6]

Religious services provided a method of community building for Seattle's Jewish community. Balcony view of Rabbi Solomon Wohlgelernter presiding over service at Bikur Cholim, Seattle, ca. 1938. (Courtesy of University of Washington Library, Digital Collections.)

The Jewish food market in Depression-era Seattle consisted of mostly Jewish family–owned businesses that catered to a variety of needs, including young and poor people, and sometimes even clients who spoke other languages. The vibrant Jewish life in Seattle also included “mom-and-pop” food shops and stores. Behor Condiotti specialized in crafting treats from Turkey, which was especially comforting for the Sephardic community, and Sam’s Bakery and the Brenner Bakery were two popular Jewish-owned Seattle businesses. The city also was home to a successful Kosher meat market, including Ziegman’s and American Kosher Meats. The 24th Avenue Market provided for Sephardics, carrying the traditional staples of anchovies and salt fish from the island of Rhodes. Sometimes, the stores even became centers of community life: at the Economy Grocery, Sephardic men gathered around the potbellied stove to discuss politics and economics.

Jewish-owned businesses often provided community relief and assistance. During the Depression, the owner of Economy Grocery, Albert Uziel, employed young people. In addition, the department stores in town had good business from loyal customers. The Jewish Welfare Society (later known as the Jewish Family Service) signed vouchers for needy people, and, for example, they would redeem their vouchers to the Thrifty Departments Store for shoes. At the Mount Baker Variety Store, the owner knew how to conduct business in Italian, Chinese, Yiddish, and Russian with his diverse customers. Other successful stores were Masin’s Dry Goods, Willner’s department store, Selig’s Linen Shop, and Grinspan’s.[7]

One particular instance of Jewish-owned businessed providing Depression relief is the example of the Brenner Bakery, run by the Brenner Family. The Brenner family was from Austria, and Abe Brenner started the Brenner Bakery in Seattle after his family emigrated. During the Depression, he took in his brother Louie, who had eight children and was unemployed in Washington, DC. Louis worked in the bakery and sent money home. Abe Brenner baked pumpernickel, bagels, and challah, among other goods. The Brenner brothers, Itsy and Joe, gave away bread when poor people came and asked for it. “The was a lot of people in 1929, after the stock market crashed, that didn’t have jobs and they would be nice people, just begging, but you’d get rid of your stale bread,” the brothers said.[8] The two have worked in the bakery starting with high school. They attended the Talmund Torah. Their father, Abe, belonged to Bikur Cholim.

Abe Brenner, the founder of Brenner's Bakery, near his store in Yesler Way. (Courtesy of University of Washington Library, Digital Collections.)

The relief works of local businesses were not, however, the only security Seattle’s Jewish community had to depend on. The Jewish inhabitants of Seattle were quite philanthropic in the Depression era, with a successful fund that was recognized throughout the US. Right before the stock market crash of 1929, the Seattle Jewish Fund gained national attention for its achievements. In its first year of the Fund’s existence, the City of Seattle had contributed its largest funds at the time to national Jewish organizations. More than six hundred Seattle subscribers enthusiastically supported the Fund. The donors were pleased with the Fund, as 100% of their donations went towards the benefactors.[9]

In addition, the better-off inhabitants of Seattle contributed to the Jewish Welfare Society, the oldest Jewish organization in the city, and provided much financial relief to those hit hard by the economic crisis, such as homeless men. 1930 was one of the most difficult years for this organization, due to the Depression. That year, men moved from city to city in search of jobs, and their families desperately needed help. The President of the group called on readers of the Jewish Transcript to, if they were not in need, become a member of the Society. This act denoted the spirit of the tight-knit community. The Community Fund actually increased $25,000 from 1929 to 1930. However, a letter campaign for new members was unsuccessful and the Orphan Fund had to be halted. In addition, as a result of unemployment, the number of homeless men in Seattle increased. The Society experienced an increase in applicants for funds, so they had to cut down the amount of relief available for each individual. During the winter, the Park Board provided special short-term employment to the men.[10]

However, not every Seattleite suffered from the Depression: two young Jewish men were able to effectively buy over a department store. A couple of enterprising young men, Adolph Weinstein, of Seattle, and Milton Margulis, of Portland, successful purchased Cheasty’s, “Seattle’s finest men’s store.” The elder friends of the duo were pleasantly surprised at their wisdom and straightforwardness in completing this transaction. This was ones of the largest sales in both volume and attendance in this history of the Northwest., and it was significant of the resources that some Jewish men in the Northwest had to draw on, even in times of hardship.[11]

One way that the Jewish community tried to deal with the Depression was by merging two synagogues of different orientations. At the end of 1920, Rabbi Solomon Asoze was part of the attempts to merge Ezra Bessaroth and Sephardic Bikur Cholim, a move meant to save money by avoiding the building of a new synagogue. The Rabbi Solomon Azose, who was born in Turkey, moved to Seattle to work at Bikur Cholim, the Sephardic synagogue. His training, such as slaughtering kosher animals and performing circumcision following Jewish rules, was valued in the city. The merge was thought to be the best for both communities.[12]

The joining of Ezra Bessaroth and Sephardic Bikur Cholim was unsuccessful and resulted in the building of a new temple, which was difficult due to the economic crisis of the time. The community decided to build a new synagogue on 20th Street. “It was during the 30s. We had to scrape. Boy, it was tough. It was so hard,” Leo, son of Rabbi Solomon Asoze, recalls of the Depression-era project.[13] Leo and the treasurer of the synagogue solicited donations door-to-door. People gave whatever they had—50 cents, dollars, quarters. Every Sunday, the duo would work half a day and collect $50–100. Once, they came close to losing the building, and after, bonds were offered to members of the community to raise funds. Leo didn’t buy one—he was broke in 1930—but a lot of people bought bonds those days. Paul Caraco, a rich man, paid a lot of money to save the property, as did Harry Policar.[14]

During the economic hardships of the 1930s, family became more important to Seattle’s Jewish Community, as did hard work. During the Depression, Leo Asoze first held a job at a grocery and struggled to provide for his family. He worked for his brother in the White Kosher Market starting in 1930, selling groceries and vegetables on 30th St. and East Cherry St., later adding butchering services to his workload. Leo toiled long days in the store, from seven in morning to seven at night. His errands included picking chickens, helping out in the meat counter, like grinding hamburger, and delivering. The twelve-hourhour workday lasted for 5 days a week with a half day on Sunday, and Leo earned $15 a week. During those hard times, he was only able to partner with his brother-in-law for two years in the store. He recollected, “there wasn’t enough for two families. It was very, very hard,” and described the butcher business as a “killer.”[15]

Friendships, mingling with business associations, also became more important during the Depression. Leo switched jobs to work in the jewelry business when it opened up again in 1935, and suffered setbacks before eventually making more money, but working more hours, than the grocery job. He was hired to work for a friend in November 1935. Then the business slowed down and his hours were reduced to two hours a day. As he told his boss, Mr. Milton, “…I can’t work on two hours a day. My family demands food. I had a wife and three children and a mother to support. I just couldn’t live on two hours per day. I just had to have some work.”[16] So Leo took additional work with another store run by Dick Andres. When the other worker quit, Leo was offered a better job and quit Milton’s business. They crafted Alaska jewelry, which was Leo’s specialty. “Boy, I was hungry for work,” he recalled.[17] The first week he made $22, which was more than he had earned before. During this time he also kept working around the area to earn more income. He eventually worked from 6 am to 6 pm, went to eat dinner at home, and went back work until 9 or 10, then finally returned home. He worked two or three years like this, which was “some experience” he said.[18]

As in the Jewish community in Seattle, Jews in other parts of the state were willing to sacrifice in a time of economic crisis for the religious community. Jerry Robinson was a Jewish inhabitant who lived in a Western Washington community that also built a new synagogue in the time during the Depression. Jerry’s father was one of the earliest Jews in Centralia. He ran a clothing business with a brother in Portland. The Robinson family attended the High Holyday Services in Olympia. Jerry’s father was the one charged with gathering materials for building the new synagogue, or shul. He traveled to Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, and Olympia seeking donations and funds. When the temple was dedicated on 1930, it was $12,000 in debt. However, the shul was soon paid off, quite a feat considering this was during the time of the Depression. [19] The fact that both communities were able to raise the funds for new synagogues during the Depression shows how much Jewish communities valued their synagogues as sites of worship and community centers.

During the Depression, the Jewish religious community in Seattle continued to be very tight-knit, and even had ties between different faith traditions. The Sephardic Bessaroth had close ties with Ashkenazic Bikur Cholim. The synagogue also had very good relationship with Herzl: the Bessaroth congregation would go to Herzl and pray, but only before Herzl turned Conservative. Their only contact with the Reform community was through B’nai B’rith meetings. Leo believes every member of the Sephardic community belonged to B’nai B’rith.[20] Sometimes, building new synagogues sponsored relationships between Jews and Christians. The religious community of Centralia grew closer when Christians helped the Jews build the synagogue and the Centralia Jews merged temporarily with the Aberdeen B’nai B’rith. They contributed financially, morally, and physically with volunteer labor and donated produce and money. The Jewish community was really appreciative. The Centralia Jewish community had a shared B’nai B’rith building located in Aberdeen, and many of the Jews from the area belonged to it.[21]

However, the example of religious tolerance in Centralia was not always the case. Due to the growth of anti-Semitism, Jews in Western Washington often faced threats and fear in addition to general economic hardship. Jerry attended Western Washington State University, and after graduation in 1933, the job market was small because he was so young and had no family to support. He was first employed at Karl’s Shoe Stores before he was hired as a teacher. The Silver Shirts, a large American fascist organization founded in 1933, bought shoes from Karl’s and clothing from a store near from Karl’s. “To show you how intelligent they were,” remembers Jerry, “they were out telling everybody that Jews were responsible for all the ills in the United States and all over the world, economically and otherwise, and they bought their shoes from us in the shoe stores and their shirts from Mr. Shanedling across the street.” [22]

Anti-Semitism also worked to intimidate the Jewish community in Seattle. Jerry Robinson experienced other forms of anti-Semitism—the Ku Klux Klan, and discrimination in the workplace—during his life in Western Washington. In addition to the Silver Shirts, the KKK quite active in Lewis County, and tended to target white religious minorities as well as African Americans. They put on a performance one night, and Robinson sneaked in to watch it. In school in Elma, one superintendent treated Robinson negatively because of his heritage. Robinson disliked the superior, who issued strict rules, including regulations about appropriate clothing. When Robinson broke his arm, he had to get special compensation from the administrator to wear clothing to accommodate his injury. When the superintendent left, Robinson was immediately promoted to a school administrator. In Elma, Robinson was one of two Jews living there, the other being his uncle, who was mayor of the town. [23]

The Jewish community sometimes fought back against anti-Semitism as shown in the case of a college student’s submission to The Jewish Transcript. Harry Pruzan provides some insight on university students’ response to the rise of fascism in his paper “As Hitlerism Appears to a University Student,” which was received and edited by Nathan Krems, the editor of The Jewish Transcript. Pruzan had never been mistreated because of his religion. He first presented a hypothetical situation where President Roosevelt acts like Adolf Hitler and carries out racist laws in America. It made the anti-Semitism in Germany seem extremely close to home, as he addressed the reader directly with such phrases as “Suppose you realized that you were to be regarded by society as an outcast—a dog.”[24]

He then continued to argue that Hitler was a skillful organizer, and provided an outline of Hitler’s background and philosophies. Interestingly enough, Hitler had some Jewish blood himself! Pruzan went on by pointing out Hitler’s flaws. For example, he called the dictator illogical because he contradicted himself by calling Jews both communists and capitalists. By persecuting the Jewish intellectuals, such as Einstein, and the patriotic Jewish soldiers who died for their country, “….ambitious rulers are proposing to make an enlightened people lurch back into the Dark Ages.”[25] Pruzan then offered his solutions to free the German people of Hitlerism, suggesting a boycott of German goods. In general, the university student was against Hitler’s policies and regimes. He called Germany “sick” and said, “Hitler is doing more harm to Germany than to those oppressed,” citing psychological and financial losses, among other negative effects.[26]

Seattle Jews also fought back through financially supporting persecuted Jews in Russia. In Seattle, Jewish groups like B’nai B’rith organized around the “People’s Tool Campaign,” an action aiding declassified Jews in Russia. As of January 31, 1930, fifteen thousand Jews were reported to be “suffering from the barest of necessities” in Seattle.[27] Businesses closed in the thousands, and schools were shut down. The prices of staples like food, clothing, and shelter skyrocketed and became unaffordable. Yet Jews shared their relative wealth with their fellow Jews in Russia. The campaign was created by prominent Jews throughout the world, in order to provide the million declassified Russian Jews with the means to rise beyond unemployment. They were quite successful in fundraising, holding events like a benefit concert showcasing Seattle performers.[28] An article in the Jewish Transcript urged readers that they “must not become apathetic and stand by while our co-religionists are being persecuted, attacked and their homes burned,” reporting that in 1930, Palestine, Poland, and Romania were hit the hardest by anti-Semitism.[29]

Unfortunately, unemployed Jewish men were discriminated against in the workforce because of religion, and Jewish organizations took action to solve this problem. “The employment agencies do not even want to waste their time in considering a Jewish applicant.” This injustice against Jews was exposed to the public by non-Jewish organizations, in addition to six national Jewish organizations who met at a conference to address this problem.[30]

Four primary sources from the Depression era reveal that the Jewish community in Western Washington dealt with the economic crisis and rise of anti-Semitism and fascism by loosening religious boundaries due to lack of funds, while the significance of synagogues, family, and friendships increased. Also, even though anti-Semitism threatened the community, philanthropy for Jews close to home and abroad, grew. Further research in this area might include questions about the role of women in the community during the Depression, and specifically how children responded to the changes of the time. 

 Copyright (c) 2009, Eunice How
HSTAA 353 Spring 2009

[1] Washington State Jewish Historical Society, The Way We Were : Our Village in Seattle,  Memories of Jackson Street, Yesler Way and Cherry Street from the 1920s to the 1950s (Seattle: Washington State Jewish Historical Society, 2003).

[2] The Way We Were, p. 9.

[3] “The Talmund Torah Religious Classes Commence Sunday,” The Jewish Transcript, November 7, 1930, p. 1.

[4]The Way We Were, p. 13.

[5] The Way We Were, p. 20.

[6]The Way We Were, p. 21–51.

[7]The Way We Were, p. 31–46.

[8] Itsey Brenner, Joe Brenner, and Adina Russak, “Oral history interview with Itsey and Joe Brenner,” September 7, 1988. Jewish Archives, Accession 3934-001, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Divison.

[9]“Success of Seattle Jewish Fund Now Nationally Known,” The Jewish Transcript, April 12, 1929, p. 1.

[10]“Jewish Welfare Society Marks Year of Fine Effort,” The Jewish Transcript, November 7, 1930, p. 1.

[11] “Solving a Difficult Financial Problem,” The Jewish Transcript, November 14, 1930, p. 8.

[12] Leo Azose and Howard Droker, “Oral History Interview with Leo Azose,” March 31, 1982, Accession 3286-001, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Divison.

[13] Azose, p. 38.

[14] Azose, p. 39.

[15] Azose, p. 32.

[16] Azose, p. 33.

[17] Azose, p. 33.

[18] Azose, p. 39.

[19] Jerome Benjamin Robinson and Kelly McGrew, “Oral History Interview with Jerry Robinson,” December 15, 1991, Accession 4161-001, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Divison.

[20] Robinson, p. 47.

[21] Robinson, p. 7.

[22] Robinson, p. 9.

[23] Robinson, p. 15–17.

[24] Harry Pruzan, “As Hitlerism Appears to a University Student,” n.d., Nathan Krems Papers, Accession 2145-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Box 2, Folder 35.

[25] Pruzan, p. 7.

[26] Pruzan, p. 9.

[27] “Death Awaits Declassed Jews in Soviet Russia,” The Jewish Transcript, January 31, 1930, p. 3.

[28] “Death Awaits Declassed Jews in Soviet Russia,” The Jewish Transcript, January 31, 1930, p. 3.

[29] “A Monotony of Pogroms,” The Jewish Transcript, August 15, 1939, p. 4.

[30] “Unemployment,” The Jewish Transcript, December 12, 1930, p. 4.