So, you know the term “Jewish Geography?” It’s when you mention a city or town, and are asked, “Oh, do you know Tsippy Weinberg? She lives just outside of Scarsdale!” Or when you start linking people by the Six Degrees of Kevin (TREYF) Bacon. “My sister-in-law’s dog groomer’s uncle went to Yale too! You and I are practically related!” Well, Don Harrison’s book, 77 Miles of Jewish Stories takes this to a whole new, very enchanting level. Traveling along Interstate 8, Don introduces us to many of San Diego’s Jewish icons as well as some other folks whom we wish we knew after learning their stories.
This very clever mode of organization invites the reader to ride along the highway, exit by exit, and listen in on several sweet, funny, and personal tales of entrepreneurs, social activists, gunslingers, Torah chocham, naturalists, a mikvah lady, restauranteurs and so many others. In reading each chapter, one common thread runs throughout this tapestry of these Jewish lives: a sense of purpose, duty and desire to make a difference and behave with chesed while engaging in tikkun olam. And as Harrison proves to his readers, there is a Jewish story everywhere.
Some of the interviewees are known to us through their philanthropy. If you’re a San Diegan you certainly know names like Qualcomm, Jacobs and Viterbi. Other big machars who altered the skyline and landscape include Jewish sports visionaries like Robert Breitbard, who made a home for the Western Hockey League and International Sports Arena in what was known in the mid-1960s as the Midway-Frontier section of San Diego. Today the Valley View Casino Center resides on this site, and to its credit, hatched the San Diego Gulls hockey team, the San Diego Rockets basketball team, and in 1971 hosted the NBA’s 21st Annual All Star Game featuring such greats as Kareem Addul Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) Wilt Chamberlain, and Oscar Robinson among others. My own knowledge of organized sports is severely limited, and I was delighted and surprised to learn that the idea for the Super Bowl, a face-off between the National Football League and the American Football League, came from Jewish San Diego Chargers’ coach, Sid Gillman, who appealed to Pete Rozelle, the then-NFL Commissioner.
Harrison’s travelogue includes tales of mavericks, trailblazers and vigilantes, if you will. There truly is something for everyone, even a Western shootout on the order of the OK Corral! San Diego’s first Jewish settler, Louis Rose, arrived from Neuhaus-an-der-Oste, Germany. In 1869 Rose founded a 30-block area of Point Loma known as Roseville. This entrepreneur arrived in the Golden State in 1850 hoping to find fortunes. His pioneering spirit led Rose to pursue many businesses including a butcher shop, a tannery, a hotel, a saloon and a general store. Additionally, he also provided for a Jewish cemetery as well as a building where Jews observed the High Holy Days. To honor Rose, the administration of Old Town San Diego Historic Park placed a mezuzah on the doorpost of the auxiliary room of the Robinson-Rose House.
There are so many other heroic and fascinating individuals described in Harrison’s book, and each one is deserving of recognition. Indeed, in a phone interview, Harrison told me that he has spent roughly two years researching and writing this incredible collection. With the help of his daughter Sandi and his grandson, Shor, the editor of the San Diego Jewish World provides a richly informative and highly entertaining history of Jews in San Diego along the I-8 corridor. The road trip is charming and engaging and really demonstrates that whether it’s an alpaca ranch, a recycling center, or the Pacific Crest Trail, there is, indeed, a Jewish story everywhere.