Donald H. Harrison
JULIAN, Calif.— Not many people in this mountain town know Rob Levi, but
they certainly know about his great-grandpappy, Adolph Levi.
Just mentioning that he was the great-grandson of Adolph earned Rob a free
sarsaparilla soda the other day from Miner's Diner proprietors Tom and Janet
The Kendalls had reason to know the name well. Every day that they go to work,
they pass Adolph Levi's name on a plaque that is attached to the outside front
wall of their business. Under an image of a miner panning gold, the
blue-and-gold plaque says "Levi-Marks Store 1886."
Placed by the Julian Historical Society, the plaque goes on to explain: "This
brick building, first in the back-country, was built using 100,000 bricks from
Ike Levi's Julian kiln for Adolph Levi, Austrian emigrant, and his partner
Joseph Marks, native Mississippian. Dissolution of the
partnership made Marks the sole owner of the new building. Except for a lease
to Rudy Levi and Jake Noah, Marks housed his Julian Mercantile here until he
retired in 1921. This remaining example of several early Julian brick
buildings has housed a valuable community service without interruption for
more than 100 years."
Over the years, the much photographed building has been known by many names,
including Marks & Levi, Noah's Ark, Julian Mercantile and the Julian
Drugstore, before being given its present name.
Adolph, Ike and Rudy Levi were among five brothers who immigrated to the
United States from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Rob Levi told Mable Carlson,
the 83-year-old curator of Julian's Pioneer Museum. They spoke together while
standing near the museum's historic mural, which includes a representation of
the Marks & Levi sign.
Ike, the first brother to arrive in Julian, was given the honorary title
of "judge," but the merchant was perhaps best known for
setting a speed record with a team of horses between Julian and San
Diego, Rob related.
Asked by a gentleman to get him "to the steamer on time," Ike left
Julian at 6 a.m. one June morning in 1885 and arrived at 3 p.m. that day at
the docks in San Diego. Given that he stopped for 90 minutes to refresh his
horses, Ike's time over the mountainous 60-mile route was officially recorded
by the San Diego Sun at 7 1/2 hours.
With cars today having motors of several hundred horsepower, that may not seem
that fast, but try matching Rob's great-great uncle Ikeąs record with a team
According to Rob, great-grandfather Adolph arrived in Julian in 1881, when he
was 23. He obtained an interest in the Julian Saw Mill, then bought out J. N.
Powell's grocery business. Next, he started the A. Levi & Co. Store and
Livery Stable with Joseph Marks, with whom he formed a partnership in 1884.
Partners Levi and Marks decided to build the 40x75-foot brick building after
finding themselves too cramped in the A. Levi & Co. store. On election day
the first store must have been even more crowded, because it served as a
Curator Carlson wondered why Adolph and Joseph dissolved their partnership so
soon after putting up the historic brick building.
Rob, a gregarious publisher of neighborhood maps, explained that Joseph Marks
originally had owned a ranch in nearby Oak Grove, while Adolph Levi owned the
store in the Julian business district. Back in Europe, Adolph had experience
running a ranch, so the two Jewish partners decided to arrange a switch.
Adolph would take over the ranch and his partner would take over
Meanwhile, the Levi brothers (including Simon Levi, a founder of Congregation
Beth Israel in San Diego and a proprietor of Klauber and Levi) received
news that a sister back in Europe was engaged to be married.
"Someone had to go to the wedding and no one wanted to go— it was such
a long trip," the great-grandson recounted. "So they drew straws and
Adolph got the short one. It was a six-month trip, and while he was at the
wedding, in his sister's wedding party there was a lady whom he met and he
ended up almost immediately— six weeks later— marrying her, and that was
my great-grandmother, Eleanora."
By the time the couple arrived at the ranch, she was pregnant. Speaking no
English and also unable to communicate with the ranch hands who spoke Spanish,
Eleanora grew increasingly uncomfortable at the ranch— particularly when
Adolph would leave her for days at a time to go to San Diego to buy supplies
from his brother.
So right after the brick store opened in Julian, Adolph and his bride moved to
San Diego, settling across from the present-day Santa Fe railroad station.
* * *
Julian was named for Mike Julian, a Confederate veteran from Georgia who,
along with cousin Drue Bailey, purchased large tracts of agricultural property
near Volcan Mountain. When gold was discovered in 1869 in the vicinity of
their ranch, a town sprung up, attracting as many as 4,000 miners, merchants
By the time Ike Levi arrived and opened what he called The San Francisco
Store, the Gold Rush was almost over, although hopeful miners continued to
stake claims throughout the region and still do to this day.
Following in the tradition of many Jews in the western United States, the Levi
brothers did not come to California to mine the gold but instead to sell
merchandise to the people who did. In that regard, they were like the famous
Levi family of San Francisco that developed blue jeans and who are of no known
relation to the Levis of San Diego County (although they pronounce
their name the same).
Julian's population got so big that, at one time, its residents thought of
contesting San Diegans for the honor of hosting the seat of county government.
Carlson, the Pioneer Museum curator, said that according to legend the only
reason San Diego won was that some enterprising San Diegans
came up to Julian, bought drinks for everyone and got the miners so drunk that
they all forgot how they were supposed to vote.
Carlson doesnąt vouch for that story, and in truth such legends are now part
of the tourist-attracting mystique of Julian. The town plays on its Wild West
past by reenacting gunfights every weekend at the store next door to Miner's
Julian is a town with no traffic signals amid its antique and curio shops,
country restaurants and souvenir shops. Whereas Jewish merchants were common
in the town's early history, today leaders of the Chamber of Commerce can
think of no local merchant who is Jewish. On the other hand, Jewish customers
are very much on the minds of Julian's merchants— a historic role
reversal of sorts.
At Julian Bell, Book and Candle Shoppe, for example, non-Jewish proprietors
Andy Hastings and Frank Pease make it a point to stock a fairly wide selection
of menorahs in their adjoining Christmas Store, and candle maker Pease is
developing a line of decorative candles with Magen Davids and other Judaic
Stocking menorahs "started purely by accident with us going to a gift
show in Los Angeles," Hastings recalled.
"We walked by the distributors and I said I don't know anything about
what I want to get into, but I would like to have something for Chanukah. So
they sat down with me and we talked for maybe an hour and I placed an order
for menorahs, Chanukah candles and things like that, and over the years it has
evolved. Today we have a wide variety of menorahs, not only the traditional
ones, but some more modern. When I see something that appeals to me, that is
usually what I buy."
Pease said Jewish customers are surprised and pleased to find the display
"in this mountain town." Some of them keep coming back, including
"two ladies from Palm Springs; every time they want a gift of a menorah,
they come right up here."
The store stocks other Judaica, including a platter imprinted with a recipe
for latkes. Pease keeps behind the counter a book called Celebrations: The
Book of Jewish Festivals that he says he consults whenever a non-Jewish
customer comes in looking for a present for a Jewish friend.
* * *
Besides Jewish tourists, Julian also has a growing number of Jewish residents,
among them Marge and Joe Rubenson, who come up for weekends from their home in
the Pt. Loma section of San Diego, and Shari Winicki, who lives in the Julian
The Rubenson home had a surprise for Rob Levi when he accompanied me there
recently. Marge is an accomplished ceramicist in whose studio hang the
photographs of her talented husband Joe, a retired engineer. Prominent among
the photos was one of the building that great-grandpa Adolph Levi had built.
Photographer and descendant readily posed for me beside Joe's photo.
When the Rubensons had lived in Northern California, they owned a weekend
place in the redwoods outside Santa Cruz. When business caused them to move to
Washington, D.C., they found a weekend place in Gettysburg, Penn. When
retirement brought them to San Diego County, they were happy to explore
Julian, where their son, Dr. David Rubenson, a cardiologist, already had a
"We all have two sides to us," Marge commented. "I'm extremely
gregarious. I love people. I am very involved in our home activities in San
But a weekend place, such as their apple and pear tree-studded spread in
Julian, "recharges my batteries and gives us time as husband and wife to
together — a romantic getaway."
Marge teaches ceramics in San Diego, keeping her quite busy. "When I am
here, I am much freer," she said. "I have more time to explore a
particular form or theme or whatever, and I also have the ability living in an
art community— which Julian is— to collaborate with other artists"
"Living here," said her photographer husband, talking in the idioms
of his profession, "I am exposed to a lot of things that I might not be
otherwise. For example, I developed a love for the desert (a short drive from
Julian). I am a real desert rat, and I do a lot of photography out there. And
mountains have always been the source of joy wherever I live."
I asked the Rubensons to enlarge upon their Jewish lives in Julian. Marge said
that they didn't particularly practice Judaism in Julian, but it turned out
she meant that in a formal "go to synagogue" sense — which would
be quite difficult, given that there are no synagogues in Julian.
However, the doorposts of the Rubenson home bear mezuzot, they have hosted
several Shabbatons for Congregation Beth Israel, to which they belong, and
they even once transformed their apple and pear farm into a "model
kibbutz" at which fifth and sixth grade students picked fruit, sorted it
and then distributed it to needy people at St. Vincent de Paul Village in San
Farming is hard work, the children learned. Earning money from agriculture is
difficult, almost impossible, except for large corporate farmers, Joe
"After 18 years of looking after this orchard with the help of local
people, I have come to the great truth about the difference between the
American farmer and a pigeon," he quipped. "A pigeon can still make
a deposit on a John Deere [tractor]."
The Rubensons were joined on their enclosed patio for Thai tea by Sandra
Dijkstra, a literary agent who lives during the week in Del
Mar, and her husband, Bram, a Netherlands-born professor of literature and
student of art. I asked the group if, before acquiring weekend places in
Julian, they had worried about possibly encountering anti-Semitism so far from
"It flashed through my mind, but I figured I could handle it," Joe
"I donąt observe any anti-Semitism in this community," Marge
commented. "I do observe disagreement about the size of land; there is a
tremendous furor about how large a lot should be. Should we have 20 acres, 40
acres or 80 acres? The growth issue is the predominant issue because what we
have here is a jewel— it really is. The people here don't want what Poway
has, or what is happening in Ramona."
"We met the Rubensons very quickly, so we were very lucky," said
Sandra, the Jewish half of the Dijkstra couple. "There was a Jewish
Sandra commented that she and Bram "donąt have children and it would be
interesting to know of a family who has a Jewish child and how that child
would be treated in school. This is by and large a WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon
Protestant) community, but it also is a California community. That makes a
difference. ... Californians tend to be more tolerant of differences, yet
there is still that question. I think that there are people here who would
never have seen a Jew nor would know what a Jew looks like."
"I think people who come here fall in love with it, and stay here,"
commented Marge. "I hadnąt thought much about the Jewish community in
Julian. We use this place as a retreat; it serves our needs beautifully and we
share it, but when you raised the point, I began to think of all the
people I know in Julian who are Jewish. We have a core group much larger than
I dreamt it was."
Bram, whose recently-published American Expressionism: Art and Social
Change, 1920-1950 deals extensively with Jewish artists and reformers,
suggested that in moving to places like Julian, where residents seem to reach
out to each other, some Jews may be expressing a yearning for the close-knit
Jewish communities of the immigrant generation.
"I think that where Jews are focused here is on the arts, and where you
find the community spirit is in preserving Volcan Mountain, and preserving the
beauty of Julian and building a library," Marge said. "These kinds
of community projects don't have a Jewish label on them, but they do express
One member of the Jewish community who lives full-time in Julian and who is
"very bright" is Richie Caputo, who serves on Julian's planning
committee, Marge noted.
Winicki, another full-time resident, moved to Julian about three and a half
years ago from Leucadia, where she had lived for 22 years. She had been a
founding member of Temple
Solel in Encinitas.
During a telephone interview, Winicki described Julian as a "music, art
and literary community— a wonderful place for intriguing people." Her
own project is her home, Heart Rock Cottage, in and around which she has
incorporated her collections of rocks and sea glass.
Winicki purchased her home after Joe Fisch and Joyce Axelrod, active members
of the San Diego Jewish community, subdivided some of their property and sold
her a one-acre lot. "Beautiful areas like Laguna Beach or Carmel or
Julian tend to draw artistic types, including Jews," Winicki said.
Occasionally, Winicki drives down the winding mountain road to Ramona to
attend services at Congregation
Etz Chaim, a small Reform congregation that meets in people's homes or at
"We also gather for seders, dinners and so on," she said. "Jews