Shari Rabin is the author of Jews on the Fron­tier: Reli­gion and Mobil­i­ty in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca (NYU Press). She is blog­ging here this week as part of JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

While writ­ing my book about Jews in the era of west­ward expan­sion, I found myself get­ting asked (a lot) about the Gene Wilder comedic west­ern The Frisco Kid. Although there are count­less cin­e­mat­ic depic­tions — and his­tor­i­cal accounts — of Jew­ish life on the Low­er East Side, appar­ent­ly the rest of the coun­try has to resign itself to this 1979 box office flop, which tells the sto­ry of a Pol­ish rab­bi trav­el­ing west­ward to San Fran­cis­co in 1850. Recent­ly, some twen­ty years after I last saw it, I sat down to con­front my subject’s most famous treatment.

Let me begin by say­ing that I do not rec­om­mend watch­ing The Frisco Kid if you’re look­ing for good enter­tain­ment. Best known as the Gene Wilder west­ern that is not Mel Brooks’ Blaz­ing Sad­dles, it boasts a Rot­ten Toma­toes score of 53% and a sto­ry that is light on plot devel­op­ment and heavy on gim­micky eth­nic stereo­types. At one point Wilder’s migrant rab­bi, Avram Belin­sky, mis­takes the Amish for fel­low Jews (he address­es them in Yid­dish), and at anoth­er he teach­es a group of Native Amer­i­cans the horah. I have found no doc­u­men­tary evi­dence of such occur­rences, and, indeed, The Frisco Kid does not make for great his­to­ry either, although it does touch on a num­ber of impor­tant themes.

There was no con­gre­ga­tion in San Fran­cis­co in 1850, although there had been Jew­ish wor­ship orga­nized in the city the year before. The major­i­ty of Jew­ish immi­grants in this peri­od were from Ger­man-speak­ing lands, but there was also a Pol­ish, Yid­dish-speak­ing con­tin­gent. The first two con­gre­ga­tions in San Fran­cis­co were found­ed at the same time, in 1851, to accom­mo­date both com­mu­ni­ties. Emanuel was the Ger­man” syn­a­gogue and Sherith Israel the Pol­ish” — nowhere in the city, how­ev­er, was there a Beis Yis­roel, the name of Belinsky’s con­gre­ga­tion in the movie.

It was, in fact, very chal­leng­ing for fron­tier con­gre­ga­tions to pro­cure rab­bis. The first rab­bi didn’t come to Amer­i­ca until 1840 and for much of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry the vast major­i­ty of con­gre­ga­tions were served by haz­an­im, non-rab­binic func­tionar­ies who could lead wor­ship and pro­vide oth­er Jew­ish ser­vices. It was not unheard of for con­gre­ga­tions to bring these men from Europe, as Belin­sky is sum­moned from his yeshi­va in the film, but more often they would adver­tise in the Amer­i­can Jew­ish press and hire some­one who was already in the Unit­ed States. The first rab­bi in San Fran­cis­co was Julius Eck­man, a Pol­ish immi­grant who had pre­vi­ous­ly served con­gre­ga­tions in Mobile, New Orleans, and Charleston before com­ing to town in 1854.

The fron­tier could be a dif­fi­cult place for any­one, includ­ing, if not espe­cial­ly, for Jews. Avram is conned, robbed, and threat­ened at var­i­ous points in the film, and while his expe­ri­ences were extreme, many Jews did wor­ry about the uncer­tain­ty and dan­ger of Amer­i­can life. Upon his emi­gra­tion to Amer­i­ca, Jew­ish migrant Solomon Roth’s father wrote him a let­ter filled with advice, includ­ing Do not trust a stranger; and cer­tain­ly, do not con­fide in him, par­tic­u­lar­ly if he flat­ters you.” Although they were pro­tect­ed from the worst by their white­ness, Jews nev­er­the­less got in fist­fights, encoun­tered con-men and, in at least one case, died by falling off of a horse. The fron­tier was not for the faint of heart. It was also, for the most part, not for the Sab­bath obser­vant. Avram’s com­mit­ment to the Sab­bath is a major plot device in The Frisco Kid—he won’t ride on Shabbes — and while that seems to have been the norm among rab­bis and haz­an­im, most ordi­nary Jews bowed to eco­nom­ic pres­sures to work on Saturdays.

About 49 min­utes into the film Avram, accom­pa­nied by his new friend, Har­ri­son Ford’s non-Jew­ish bank rob­ber Tom­my, beholds a scenic vista and a fron­tier town in rapid suc­ces­sion. He exclaims, I think we found the Gar­den of Eden!…What a won­der­ful place Amer­i­ca is!” Dan­ger­ous though it could be, Amer­i­can Jews did inter­act and forge friend­ships with a wide range of Amer­i­cans on the road and they reg­u­lar­ly expressed their awe of and appre­ci­a­tion for their new coun­try. In 1852 the pres­i­dent of San Francisco’s Con­gre­ga­tion Emanu-El wrote, How thank­ful ought we to be to the God of our fore­fa­thers who has watched over and guard­ed our peo­ple through the wan­der­ings of eigh­teen hun­dred years and has made us the hum­ble instru­ments of plant­i­ng the cher­ished faith of our fathers upon the shores of the Pacif­ic.” The Frisco Kid may not do a great job of enter­tain­ing or of doc­u­ment­ing the his­tor­i­cal past, but it does suc­ceed in cap­tur­ing this sense of won­der and opti­mism, a strain of pop­u­lar Amer­i­can Jew­ish thought which was as allur­ing in 1979 as it had been in 1852.

Shari Rabin is the author of Jews on the Fron­tier: Reli­gion and Mobil­i­ty in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca (NYU Press, 2017). She is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Stud­ies and Direc­tor of the Pearlstine/​Lipov Cen­ter for South­ern Jew­ish Cul­ture at the Col­lege of Charleston. She is a his­to­ri­an of Amer­i­can reli­gions and mod­ern Judaism, spe­cial­iz­ing in the nine­teenth century.