Jewish Settlers in Iowa

Many ethnic groups settled in Iowa to farm its rich land, but not everyone who came wanted to be a farmer. Beginning in 1848 Jewish settlers moved to the new towns being built along Iowa's rivers. In communities along the Mississippi, Des Moines, Iowa and Missouri Rivers, many Jewish settlers sold shoes, clothes, food and supplies or worked as teachers, doctors, and lawyers.

Almost all the Jews who moved to Iowa before 1900 were emigrants from Germany. They left Germany because of anti-Semitism, and they hoped to be able to practice their Jewish religion and customs in peace in the United States. Most of these early Jewish immigrants were middle class business people. They wanted to preserve their special Jewish heritage, but they also participated in the other cultural activities and politics of their towns.

In 1858, for example, Moses Bloom opened a clothing store in Iowa City, where it quickly became a successful business. Signs on his "One Price Clothing House" in 1864 advertised "Furnishing Hats and Goods, Clothing and Tailoring Merchant." Bloom served as mayor of Iowa City for two years and later was elected to the state legislature. Another Jewish family became well-known merchants, first in Keokuk and later in Des Moines. Lytton, Samuel and Marcus Younkers started Younkers Department Stores in 1856 in Keokuk.

New Jewish Immigrants

By 1878 about 1,000 Jews had settled in Iowa. During the late 1800s the number of Jews in Iowa increased to 3,000. Some of these new Iowans had been born here, but many had immigrated from cities in the eastern United States or Europe.

In the early 1900s many more Jews arrived in Iowa, but their customs and histories were different from the German Jews who had settled here earlier. Most of these "new" Jewish immigrants were from eastern Europe, especially Russia. They spoke the Yiddish language and practiced a stricter form of religion than the earlier Jewish settlers. The new arrivals wanted to maintain their language and customs, rather than become "Americanized."

There were many differences between the first German Jews and the later Russian Jews who moved to Iowa. But both groups tried to work together to preserve their Jewish heritage. They organized many social groups— including men's clubs, youth groups, women's societies and political organizations— all to help people from Jewish backgrounds get together for fun. Members of the groups also helped one another adjust to their new American homes.

Rising Population

By 1916 the Jewish population of the state had risen from 3,000 to 9,000. Many of the European Jews fleeing Russia in the early 1900s wanted to settle in eastern U.S. cities. New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, however, were overcrowded with European immigrants. In order to relieve these cities and to help the new Jewish immigrants find work, several programs helped them settle in the Midwest. The Galveston Project brought immigrant Joseph Braverman to Texas and then helped him travel from there to a new job in Davenport. Later, Braverman journeyed to Iowa City where he established the Agudas Acheim Synagogue.


Between 1905 and 1923, another program helped 1,000 Jews living in eastern cities to find work in Iowa towns. One man who came to Iowa through this program wrote back to the people who had helped him. "I tank you very much for sending me hear as I worked my self up purty good. I am runing a shoe shop of my owne and keep employed two more men. I can youse one more. If you have a good shoemaker send him down here and I wil try my best for him. I will try and pay him back what you al done for me." Because this man was still learning English, his spelling was not perfect.

Visiting Each Other

As many as 500 to 1,000 Jews were also settled on Iowa farms between 1905 and 1920. Most Jewish immigrants, however, still moved to towns and cities. Not every small town had a synagogue or rabbi to perform religious ceremonies. So for important religious holidays, Jewish businessmen in small towns would close up their shops, pack their families into wagons, trains or cars and travel to the larger cities. Jewish families in Waterloo, Davenport, Des Moines and Sioux City would welcome their small-town relatives and friends for the Rosh Hashanah or Passover holidays.

During the warmer months, Jewish families living in small towns also visited each other on the weekends. Visiting helped keep alive their special Jewish beliefs and social activities. "We would wait for the spring thaw and for the mud to dry," said one woman about her childhood Saturdays, "and then we would start going from town to town to see everyone again."

Adapted from original article written by Jean Florman, The Goldfinch 12, No. 4 (April 1991). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa

 

 


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