The Jewish Immigrant Who Helped Build California

This review made its first appearance in the June 2010 issue of the (Jewish Federation of Collier County) Federation Star.

Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, by Frances Dinkelspiel . St. Martin’s Griffin. 376 pages. $16.99 (pprbk)

In the middle of the 19th century, the German confederation of 36 independent states was in chaos. Many hundreds of thousands fled Bavaria and neighboring entities. Among those seeking new lives were members of the sizeable Jewish community, whose rights had been seriously curtailed. In a 30-year period, 20,000 Bavarian Jews migrated to other parts of Europe and to the United States. Isaias Hellmann (hereafter Hellman) and his brother Herman were teenagers when they made their way to California, following the lure – along with thousands of other adventurers – of the Gold Rush.   

In 1859, the brothers arrived in Los Angeles, then a small frontier town dwarfed in importance by the burgeoning city that San Francisco had become. In 1865, Isaias Hellman bought his own store, a general purpose dry goods establishment that benefitted from Hellman’s networking with other Jewish merchants already flourishing in California.

Steadily, Hellman’s business grew, as did his wealth and reputation. In 1868, he opened the second official bank in Los Angeles – Hellman, Temple & Company. Soon after, Hellman was involved not only in making loans but in land development and in planning how to “market the idea of southern California.” By the time he was 28, Isaias Hellman had achieved a net worth equal to 1 million dollars today.

These are only the first steps in the carefully researched biography prepared by Frances Dinkelspiel, Hellman’s great-great granddaughter and an award-winning journalist, who was astounded when, in 1999, she came upon the enormous collection of Hellman material at the California Historical Society in downtown San Francisco. She had known from bits and pieces of family stories that the Hellmans had been an important family, but now she discovered that Isaias was a catalytic force in the making of California – a visionary builder, financier and power broker who went far beyond his youthful banking experience in Los Angeles to build three major western financial institutions: the Farmers and Merchants Bank (in Los Angeles), the Nevada Bank (in San Francisco) and the eventually continental banking giant Wells Fargo. Isaias was also a leader in several other key industries outside of banking.

Dinkelspiel’s narration is thoroughly engaging and largely convincing. Though it would be hard to exaggerate her forebear’s importance, she probably does. Still, Isaias Hellman’s place at the center of California’s transition from a frontier society to a modern, forward-looking state is undeniable. The author traces that slice of California history with style and assurance.

 Hellman kept in touch with his Jewish roots and identity. He was instrumental in the founding of several important Jewish synagogues. He generously supported other Jewish institutions, including the (then) newly formed American Jewish Committee when, during the pre-WWI pogroms in Russia, the organization sought assistance for Russian Jews.

When Isaias Hellman died in 1920 at the age of 77, the Pacific Coast that had given him opportunity lost a powerhouse who had transformed it. He left a fortune that would be reckoned at 2 billion or more today. But that’s only a drop in the ocean of what he helped to build.

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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