Seated in the center of the picture is an older man with a full white beard, wearing a small, black, brimless hat and dark three-piece suit. An almost symmetrical pose from head to feet, each hand rests upon a knee—only the fingers vary slightly in position. Behind him on his left is a younger man similarly attired with his jacket buttoned and a traditional tie; no hat is visible. Grouped around the two men are four well-dressed women with their hair neatly styled. Two are standing and two are seated, and one seems to be about the same age as the man in the center. Although the styles of their clothes vary in detail, all of the women have on long-sleeved, floor-length dresses with tight waists. Lockets are visible on three of the women. Heavy drapes fill the background. Slight smiles are barely discernible on most of the people in this formal photograph. Who are they, where are they, and why was it taken? Dated 1904, the caption tells us that this is a portrait of a Jewish family and that the photographer was Louis Block.
The settlement of Jewish families in the St. Louis area is a complex narrative, spanning two centuries and crisscrossing continents and oceans. Although it is recorded that Myer Michaels, a Jewish fur trader, came to the St. Louis area as early as 1785, it was not until the Louisiana Purchase that the ban against non-Catholics was lifted in the small village. The Phillipsons from Philadelphia were the first Jewish family to settle in the St. Louis area, opening a dry goods business. In 1800, the population was about 1,500 and most were French Creoles. By 1809 there was a land sale agreement between a Phillipson and Meriwether Lewis. Members of the Phillipson family quickly became engaged in a variety of enterprises—one petitioned to build a courthouse.
Poor farmland in New England and the opening of the western territories encouraged some Jewish families to move west, but it was not until the mid-1830s that the community was large enough to establish a synagogue. Most of the early wave of Jewish families were from Germany. But by 1907, St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in America with a population of 600,000, including 40,000 Jews. Spurred by tyrannical anti-Semitic governments in Eastern Europe, the last two decades of the 19th and the first two of the 20th century brought more than 2 million Jews to America; 50,000 settled in St. Louis, and many came from Russia.
As with many other ethnic immigrant groups, integration and assimilation were complex—differences in language, customs, and dress made the new arrivals “outsiders.” Jews suffered persecution in this country and were not allowed to vote in some states until the late 19th century. President Ulysses S. Grant wanted to expel Jews from some southern states. Resorts and neighborhoods often had signs or by laws saying “restricted,” meaning no Jews or blacks. Colleges and universities had quotas limiting the number of Jewish students. Each new wave also brought changes within the existing Jewish community. Later in the 20th century, efforts to help resettle those escaping World War II and the Nazi death camps brought into focus bias and discrimination in the United States when governmental immigration policy turned away a boatload of more than 900 European refugees on the ship the St. Louis. Even though the passengers had valid visas to Cuba, the boat was turned away and forced to return to Europe—most of the people were then killed in Hitler’s death camps. Although nowadays in America there is less bias and prejudice with fewer instances of quotas against those who are Jewish, discrimination still filters into many aspects of everyday life.