Portland has a colorful past, with varied influences from multiple ethnic groups and cultures shaping the city over the years. One group I hadn't seen covered much from that angle is the Jewish community. How did they make it to Portland? What role did they play in the city? What struggles and triumphs did they have? Polina Olsen helps to answer some of those questions in her book Stories From Jewish Portland. Olsen writes a column called "Looking Back" for the Jewish Review, and here she has a chance to take that material and expand on it in book format.
Contents: Part 1 - An Immigration Story: Early Jews Home on the Range; Coming to America; Archives of the Industrial Removal Office Reveal Forgotten History; A 1940s Social Worker's World; Soviet Jews Move to Portland Part 2 - The Neighborhood Gang: Grandpa Was a Wastepaper Picker; Esther Chernichowsky - A Memoir; Harold Saltzman - A Memior; Nina Weinstein - A Memoir; A Settlement House Worker Shines; Local Stories from a Foreign War; Girlfriends Meet Up for Sorority Reunion; Old South Portlanders Kibbitz After All These Years Part 3 - Our Institutions: A Short History of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland; A Short History of Portland Synagogues; The 1930s - May You Live in Interesting Times; The Jewish Review's Early Years; Celebrating Twenty-five Years with Chabad; White Aryan Resistance Case Galvanized the Community; NCJW Archives Chapter History; Seniors Clap Hands to Yoga; Mah Jongg - The Tiles that Bind Appendix 1 - Map of Old South Portland; Appendix II - Portland Population Statistics; Appendix III - Glossary; Bibliography; Index; About the Author
Stories From Jewish Portland is not a large book (157 pages), and it's by no means exhaustive when it comes to Portland's Jewish influence. A number of topics are covered, many of which could probably be expanded into a book on its own. But Stories provides a good overview of how Jewish immigrants made it to Portland, where they settled in the city, what types of businesses they ran, and how their culture added to Portland's colorful cultural tapestry. If you have any sense or understanding of Portland's history, this fills in some areas that, quite honestly, I had completely overlooked. Stories also touches on the multiple views within the Jewish community itself when it comes to various issues. An example would be the 1985 effort by Chabad of Oregon to place a giant menorah in Pioneer Square, a public area in the middle of Portland often referred to as Portland's Living Room. Some thought this was an excellent idea, as a yearly Christmas tree is also placed there every year. But others thought this was a violation of the separation of church and state, and strongly opposed it. It was surprising to see that the opposition came from groups such as the American Jewish Committee, the Oregon Board of Rabbis, and the Anti-Defamation league of B'nai B'rith. As with society as a whole, the "simple" actions can evoke a range of opinions and responses, and not always the ones you thought you'd get.
Stories From Jewish Portland would probably appeal most to those with an appreciation of Portland's history, as well as those in Portland who are part of the Jewish community. At a number of points, I wished that Olsen had gone into more depth on various topics, such as the community reaction on World War II and Germany's role in the Holocaust. It's touched on in the book, but it could have been a book unto itself. Still, Stories is a good resource to get one's feet wet when it comes to understanding the Jewish influence in Portland. From there, you can launch into your own investigations.