The Right Coast

December 27, 2004
A Fargo Forum
By Maimon Schwarzschild

Scott Johnson, one of the wonderful Powerline bloggers, was born in Fargo, North Dakota. His family belonged to Temple Beth-El, where my father was the rabbi for several years in the 1950s: as Scott says, he and I were at nursery school together there, on the Temple premises in fact.

(After law school, Scott clerked for Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Myron Bright, another member of Temple Beth El, Fargo.)

How did Jews come to be in Fargo, North Dakota -- not exactly an American (or Ottoman) metropolis? In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most Jewish immigrants to the New World landed in New York, or other US ports. But many also embarked on British ships whose destination was Montreal. A Jewish "lower east side" developed in Montreal. (Saul Bellow was born there, and describes the neighbourhood vividly, and grimly, in his novel Herzog.) But it was Canadian policy to encourage Jewish immigrants to settle in midwestern Canada rather than in the eastern cities. So a large Jewish community developed in Winnipeg, Manitoba. By the turn of the twentieth century, Winnipeg was known as "Red Winnipeg" in Canadian politics, largely because of the Yiddish-speaking socialist movement there. It's no accident that the forerunner of today's left-wing third party in Canada, the New Democratic Party, was founded in Winnipeg.

Manitoba -- and Canada -- were poorer than the US in those years, and many Jewish settlers crossed the border into North Dakota. Hence the surprisingly large Jewish community, at mid-century, in Fargo.

One of the founders of the Fargo synagogue was Max Goldberg: he drifted into North Dakota, probably illegally, from Canada in the early years of the twentieth century, and made a fortune as a grain dealer. Here is an oral history interview with him: very evocative of a now-vanished, Depression-era world of business people in the upper midwest.

And here is an interview about Temple Beth El, with Goldberg's grandson Robert Feder.

My parents had a happy few years in Fargo, an unlikely place (you might otherwise think) for a Londoner like my mother and an emigrant from Berlin like my father. Perhaps they anticipated that Fargo would someday produce great bloggers: not just Powerline, but also another Fargo native: James Lileks.