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

Frances Dinken­spiel
  • Review
By – January 3, 2012

A sur­pris­ing­ly large num­ber of Jews who emi­grat­ed from the Bavar­i­an town of Reck­endorf, Ger­many, were very suc­cess­ful in Amer­i­ca. Even they remarked on the num­ber who had made good — at least nine skin­ny shy boys who left with but a few dol­lars in their pock­ets had become mil­lion­aires in Cal­i­for­nia.” In lat­er years, they start­ed to refer to them­selves as the Reck­endorf aristocracy.”

One of them was Isa­ias Hell­man, and this book by his great-great-grand­daugh­ter details how Hell­man made it to the top. His was a com­bi­na­tion of intel­li­gence, dar­ing, and per­cep­tion set dur­ing a time when Cal­i­for­nia was raw, but ripe with pos­si­bil­i­ties. Dinken­spiel begins with the con­quest of the land from Mex­i­co in 1848, the dis­cov­ery of gold near Sacra­men­to and the influx of prospec­tors from around the world. They had to be sup­plied, and here is where the Jew­ish immi­grants gained their foothold. Speak­ing Ger­man or Yid­dish with a smat­ter­ing of Eng­lish, and with lit­tle mon­ey, Hell­man learned about get­ting goods on cred­it and method­i­cal­ly built a busi­ness empire that ranged from stores to banks and many busi­ness­es, includ­ing trol­leys, oil, and wine. He played a large role in the devel­op­ment of San Fran­cis­co, Los Ange­les, and indeed — Cal­i­for­nia itself. This bookadds to our under­stand­ing of Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry, espe­cial­ly of the West, but there is also enough of the per­son­al to make it enjoy­able, as well as inter­est­ing, reading.

Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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