This article appeared in the WESTERN STATES JEWISH HISTORICAL QUARTERLY (April 1974, Volume VI, Number 3, pp. 177 – 187), published by the Southern California Jewish Historical Society. The original article is replete with references and footnotes.


by Rudolf Glanz

The stream of people drawn to California by the discovery of gold awakened hopes for economic growth in the Sandwich Islands. This expectation was bolstered by the consolidation of the Pacific maritime traffic and the creation of new shipping lines. A Honolulu newspaper, in assessing the steamer line from Panama to Oregon, noted in 1848: “… the success of these steamers will be great, a vast population will be suddenly thrown into California; the demand for Hawaiian produce will be greatly increased.” Soon there was a shortage of food as a result of the exportation, the “scarcity of flour and breadstuff on those islands, created by the demand in the California market…”

The human conditions in the island kingdom were basically different from those of California where the population included a new stream of migrants. Natives on the islands were soon prohibited from emigrating to California in order to maintain enough hands for producing goods for export. This is noteworthy since the California gold findings were verified so much earlier in the Sandwich Islands than in the Eastern United States. On July 1, 1848, it was reported in Honolulu that;

The Matilda brings additional news from California, respecting the gold-fever, or rather the solid gold. It is no exaggeration to report that the energy of the entire population of California is now directed to the collection of gold on the banks of the Sacramento River. The towns of San Francisco and Monterey are nearly deserted.

The press, both Californian and Polynesian, featured regular columns headed: “From the Sandwich Islands” and “News from California.” The islands saw a considerable number of California pioneers, who came in the winter for vacations, and also apparently in connection with mercantile reconnaissance. This personal acquaintance with the Sandwich Islands also applied to many Jewish individuals. Hyam Joseph sent a letter with a business order to San Francisco on February 3, 1853, and Abraham Watters undertook a trip to the islands in 1857. With the start of increased travel from Australia to California, passenger lists of ships entering Honolulu included Jews. An L. Cohen and Isaac Wormser are just two names noted in the Honolulu press of the 1850s.

Jews from throughout the world were attracted to California and in most cases they tried it there before they came to the islands. The picture of island conditions as viewed from California was the decisive factor for Jewish settlement.

The first report on the islands by a Jew appeared in a Jewish paper in Germany in 1865. A Jewish officer on the English ship Marmion wrote:

The ship was destined for Hong Kong…… and was to stop at Honolulu and Oahu in the Sandwich Islands. On the 8th of April (1865) we left San Francisco and arrived after a good trip of thirteen days in Honolulu, a city…… dominated by King Kameamea, III, whose crown is guaranteed by England, France and the United States. Thee islands are a real paradise and would probably have become a spoil of a European power long since if one had not envied the other. The King is a handsome, stately man and had attended the University of Paris. He is usually dressed in the uniform of a French general. The Queen, Emma, who recently had gone by English steamer to Great Britain, is of a really captivating appearance. Indeed the whole human racial type is beautiful in general, tall grown and of a peaceful character but also very lazy because everything grows to them into the hand. Honolulu itself is a big rendezvous for the American south sea whalers and sometimes 180 ships lie here.

There was at least one Jew who played a prominent role in the political history of the islands. He was Paul Neumann, descendant of a German Jewish family. His checkered career under the last king of the islands, Kalakaua, brought him to the post of attorney general. He became one of the royal advisors and later the king’s personal friend, giving “faithful service to King Kalakaua and Queen Lilinokalanani.” In 1887, a San Franciscan visiting in Honolulu, wrote that “The Hon. Paul Neumann, well known in our community and a prince of good fellows, leads in the law and is private attorney to the king.”

In San Francisco, from which Neumann had come to Honolulu, there was much talk about his poker-friendship with Kalakaua as well as about the poor financial situation of the king. The inimitable San Francisco reporter, I. N. Choynski, wrote one of his satirical pieces on the king and his friend.

The king of the Sandwiched Isles, Mr. Kalicoe, who failed five years ago and was rated mechullah (bankrupt), because he paid more attention to his gold embroidered breeches than he did to his leper colony….has paid the fifth installment of his individual indebtedness…… there is a balance due to his creditors of forty percent, which his excellency and administrators (they were appointed in order to keep him from losing his kingdom in a game of poker with his attorney general, Paul Neumann) promise to pay as soon as his Shemship lays anything by in the distant future…

The rapid increase of the California population as a result of the gold rush changed the economic conditions on the islands only in that a market was opened for their agricultural products. However, the return from the sale of these products was not enough to expand the buying power of the native population to create a market for imported goods. Thus the early business efforts of Jewish merchants on the islands were slow and tentative. The first Jewish mercantile establishment was a San Francisco firm which opened a branch in Honolulu. As with many other Jewish families of merchants in California, it was a large family which could well afford to staff the branch of the firm in the islands with a partner, while other family members remained in San Francisco. Subsequently other Jewish firms in California did the same thing.

A. S. Grinbaum is to be regarded as the first founder of a firm of this kind. He arrived in Honolulu in 1856 and remained there seven years. Due to his business success he was able to have one of his nephews, Morris Louisson, settle there permanently. Together with another nephew, Morris S. Grinbaum, he founded the firm of M. S. Grinbaum and Company. This firm was numbered among the most important export and import firms on the islands. It was also active in the development of the sugar industry, operating both plantations and sugar mills. Hirsch Rayman came to the islands in the early 1860s and established a successful business. But after five years he returned to Posen. Another firm founded in the 1860s was that of the Hyman Brothers. There were five brothers, one of whom was Henry W. Hyman, born in Prussia in 1842.

… for a time he lived in Portland, Oregon. Later he moved to the Hawaiian Islands, where he engaged in a mercantile business. He never really established a residence in the islands, but called San Francisco his home. Here he maintained offices connected with his business. Associated with him were his brothers and with their united efforts and shrewdness, the business developed to huge proportions.

The business advertisement of the firm in the late 1880s read as follows:

Hyman Bros., Importers of General Merchandise and Commission Merchants, No. 58 Queen Street, Honolulu…. 206 Front Street, San Francisco. Particular attention given to filling orders, and to the sale of Consignments of Rice, Sugar, Coffee and other Island Produce.

The firm of M. Phillips and Company was founded in 1867 by Michael Phillips of San Francisco, who owned an importing and jobbing firm there. The Honolulu branch of the firm was headed by Phillips’ brother-in-law, Mark Green. The Phillips Company was mainly active in the export of sugar, rice and coffee. One of their advertisements read : “M. Phillips & Co., No. 10 Kaahumanu Street, Honolulu. Importers and Commission Merchants, San Francisco Office No. 11 Battery Street.”

The Grinbaum, Hyman and Phillips firms were the outstanding Jewish-owned companies prior to the annexation of the islands by the United States in 1898. But we know that even before this event a number of other Jews had built a life for themselves on the islands. For example: Max Edmund Grobman, born in 1860 in San Francisco, son of Mark Grobman, is called “Pioneer Dentist.” “The Portland Herald of June 6th (1870), chronicles the death, at Honolulu, of Leopold Wolff, formerly of Portland, and who was a lawyer…… Mr. Wolff divided his estate between a sister in St. Louis and the Portland Hebrew Society.” N. S. Sachs Dry Goods Company was one of the firms founded later. Sachs established his business in 1883 on Fort Street in Honolulu, and for nineteen years occupied the store where he began as a merchant. In 1898 he incorporated his business.

Some Californians who never lived in the islands were reported as having important business interests there. One example was Lewis Meyerstein, a San Bernardino businessman and banker, who had investments in enterprises at Honolulu.

In the Sandwich Islands Jewish social life was integrated with that of the Germans, as is evident from the following 1870 notice: “German Club…… President, M. Louisson; Vice President, E. Furstenau; Secretary and Treasurer, E. Loewenberg.” Thus in Honolulu, as in the United States, there was a social grouping which united Jews with Germans. A German traveler regarded this living together of Jews with other peoples as a shining beacon:

There are only a few Jews here, but they enjoy complete freedom and live in good accord with the people of the dominant religions. I myself witnessed Protestant clergymen attending a noble Jewish wedding as guests in Honolulu. Surely a beautiful example for anti-Semitic leaders.

The Odd Fellows had been established in the Sandwich Islands in 1846, and many Jewish names can be seen in their membership rosters. The report of a picnic held on April 25, 1885 in Waikiki, by the Excelsior Lodge, noted among others, the presence of the “following brethren with their lady guests:” L. Adler, I. S. Ginsbergh and M. Louisson.

In 1893, Queen Liliokalani was deposed and the monarchy was overthrown. Following the annexation by the United States in 1898 there was a strong impetus to business and new Jewish settlers arrived. Later a reverse occurred, with many people returning to the mainland. Rabbi Coffee, writing in 1902, observed that,

Today only those of our people reside there who have deep-rooted interests in that country. All who may be termed the transient class have departed, and in point of number there are but a few more there today than years ago.
It was estimated that there were 100 Jews in Honolulu in 1902, and about forty others scattered about at various locations on the islands.

The manifestations of religious life among the Jews on the islands were, in the beginning, of the same sporadic character as in other sparsely settled points of the Far West. In 1902, it was noted that, “No services were held, no communal bonds were formed. Their Judaism consisted in closing the places of business on Holidays, and in most cases, of ordering the matzoth for the Passover.” The first Jewish wedding in the islands occurred in 1879.

The Hawaiian Gazette brings to us the following description: Tuesday: the 22nd of July [1879], in the presence of a numerous society of invited guests belonging to the elite of Honolulu in the house of the uncle of the bride, Mr. Louisson, Esq., in Honolulu, the wedding of Mr. I. Hyman of the firm of Hyman Bros. of this city with Miss B. Frankel, niece of Mr. and Mrs. Louisson took place. Everything imaginable or available for money had been done for the pleasure of the company. The stately and elegant home of Mr. Louisson was arranged with great taste and lavishness. Outside the main building a tent was set up and adorned with green plants, tropical flowers and the flags of the United State, Hawaii and the German Empire, the porch and the tent were splendidly illuminated by Chinese lanterns and tastefully decorated. In the tent itself, for the comfort of the guests who numbered 200, an excellent meal was served.

Exactly at 8 o’clock, the fixed time, bride and bridegroom entered the hall where the guests were assembled and also Mr. Peck, a Jew and friend of the families sent by a Jewish rabbi at San Francisco to perform the wedding ceremony in accord with the Jewish rite, which he did in the Hebrew language reciting from a book. It is important to note that Mr. Peck, before he functioned as substitute for the rabbi at San Francisco, used the precaution of procuring for himself the authoritative power of Hawaiian law which permitted and legalized the ceremony. Thus not only the holiness of the Jewish religion but the civil law of this kingdom was secured at the same time to make the bond of marriage a rightful one, and to serve as a precedent for all future cases.

A Hawaiian musical band, under Mr. Berger as the conductor, was present and occupied a pavilion which had been built specially for them…… We will not forget to mention that in the room next to the hall the elegant and precious presents for the happy couple lay spread. They consisted in a nearly infinite selection of silverware and valuable things. These presents proved the esteem which the bride as well as the bridegroom enjoyed in this city. All went on in the most pleasant and happiest way and all people present will long remember the first Jewish wedding which occurred in the Hawaiian Islands.

The first Jewish funerals in the Sandwich Islands also took place in 1879. An anonymous correspondent wrote to the Jewish Messenger of New York on December 22, that

Mr. S. L. Lewis…… died on Saturday, November 29th [1879]…… funeral…… the following day with Jewish rites, Mr. C. J. Fishel, of the firm of Mellis and Fishel, opening the services by reading a prayer…… Deceased carne here about fourteen years ago and has resided here ever since.

Mrs. Rebecca Green, wife of Mr. Mark Green, of the firm of Phillips and Company, [died] on the 8th [of December, 1879]. Mr. J. Hyman opened the services…… The deceased was born in San Francisco, Cal., and was the daughter of Mr. I. Salomon, a wealthy merchant. Her body will be sent to San Francisco for interment.

Another early and noteworthy Jewish event was the wedding of the first Jewess born in the islands. “In May 1889, Mr. [Jacob] Moritz was married to Lahela Louisson, who was born in Honolulu… An early circumcision was reported in the American Jewish press, the circumciser having made the trip from San Francisco for the occasion. “The Reverend Abraham Galland, the oldest and most successful mohel on this coast, sailed for Honolulu this week to bring one of Kalakaua’s youngest subjects into the fold of Abraham.”

Just before the turn of the century there was an effort to create a permanent Jewish organization. A report describing the beginnings of these efforts indicated that the planned organization would follow known models.

It has been decided to call the Israelites of this city together for the purpose of forming a permanent organization, and a request has been forwarded to Rev. M. S. Levy [of Congregation Beth Israel, San Francisco] to send us the rules and regulations of the different religious and benevolent institutions of San Francisco, that they may materially assist in giving the information to frame a constitution and by-laws.

But it was to be two years before the actual organization took place. In the fall of 1901 it was reported that,

The First Hebrew Congregation of Honolulu was formally organized at a meeting of some thirty of the Jewish residents of the city in Progress Hall Sunday afternoon, October 27. The constitution and by-laws were read and adopted and it was decided to make immediate application for corporate papers. S. Ehrlich, presided and Lionel Mathews acted as secretary. The election of officers at a subsequent meeting resulted as follows: President, S. Ehrlich, of the Pacific Import Co.; Vice-president, Fred Stern; Treasurer, Flo Peck, of the Peck Draying Co.; Secretary, J. Harmon Levi, of the New York Book Supply Co.

Rabbi Rudolph Coffee visited the islands in 1902, in order to officiate at the marriage of his aunt Celia to Abraham Gartenberg. It was the fourth Jewish wedding on the archipelago. Mr. Elias Peck, who had officiated at the first Jewish marriage in 1879 was, in 1902, the oldest Jew in Hawaii in length of residence. From him and from Mr. S. Ehrlich, also a long time resident, Coffee gained an insight into the Jewish historical background of the islands. He was told that the formation of a congregation the year before was possible only because of the influx of Jewish people from the mainland after annexation (1898). Prior to that title, most of the Jewish population consisted of unmarried men, who did little to further Jewish life. While Coffee was in Hawaii, he officiated at the consecration of the Jewish cemetery, land for which had been purchased by the congregation.

Regular High Holy Day services continued every year and were marked by an impressive feature which remained in the memory of its participants – the use of a Torah scroll owned by the Hawaiian royal dynasty. “The scroll of the Law that was used during the recent [1905] holiday services at Honolulu, is the property of Prince David, who inherited it from Kalakaua, the last king of the Sandwich Islands.”

In the years before World War I, the growing importance of the islands as a military base brought Jewish members of the American armed force in numbers which created an entirely new picture for the Jewish community there.

There are so many Jews in the military and naval forces now stationed in the Hawaiian Islands that they formed an organization known as the Hebrew Military Association of the Hawaiian Territory. But though it is mostly military, civilians are not excluded and there are a good many of our people now residing at Honolulu. The first service held by the new organization was a public Seder service held at the Odd Fellows’ Hall last Pesach [April 21, 1913] which was numerously attended and was a great success in every way.

This was not the first attempt of forming a Hebrew Congregation over there. While Mr. Lionel Mathews…… was residing at Honolulu, he held services every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and was even successful at one time in organizing the First Hebrew Congregation of Honolulu, which raised sufficient funds to purchase a Jewish cemetery. But of recent years since retail storekeeping has been almost completely monopolized by Japanese and Chinese, most of the Jewish inhabitants have left. Now, however, with the influx of the Jewish soldiers a fresh impetus is given to Judaism in the islands.

The new organization starts out with a membership of sixty. But as it is estimated that there are 350 Jews in the various branches of the Army and Navy there, besides the civilians engaged in various occupations on the different islands, the number should rapidly increase. They plan not only to erect a synagogue in the future but also a home for the Jewish soldiers and sailors, and an auditorium where lectures and debates will be held, to establish a library and generally to work for the social, moral and intellectual uplift of members of our faith in the islands, whether as permanent or temporary residents.

Of the High Holy Days that year, 1913, the following was reported:

The Honolulu Sunday Advertiser of October 12, gives an account of the celebration of the recent Holy Days by the Military Hebrew Institute of Honolulu. A feature of unusual interest was the Sefer Torah which was used at the services. It was the only one known on the island and was presented by a wandering Jew as a token of appreciation to King Kalakaua. It later passed into the possession of Princess Kalanianaole, now residing at Los Angeles, Cal., and when she was cabled to she promptly consented to its use by the Jewish residents. At the services on Yom Kippur, in addition to about 100 civilians there were also present 175 from the regiments quartered at Schofield Barracks. The services were very impressive and were participated in by a very devout congregation.