Enjoyable, informative ‘Jews of the Wild West’ opened at MSJE
By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN
After more than a decade as an award-winning writer and producer for NBC News in New York, Amanda Kinsey decided, as Horace Greeley might have suggested to her: “Go West, young woman!” Kinsey, a fourth-generation photojournalist had already won five Emmy Awards, several Edward Murrow Awards for TV news and a Gracie Allen Award in which work by women about women is honored.
But in 2013, she founded Electric Yolk Media, a company intended to fuel her desire to do more work as an independent filmmaker and, just four years later in 2017, after the birth of her second child, she heeded that call to return with her family to the ancestral home of one of her grandmothers: Denver. Kinsey, who is not Jewish, also had a connection to great-grandparents in Butte Montana, so she felt somewhat at home in the rugged environment of the West.
About a year later, in 2018, she began research on untold stories of the Wild West and decided to concentrate on a number of stories she discovered, all with a very Jewish thread at the University of Denver’s Beck Archive of Jewish History. She was fascinated and knew this was a group of stories that had never been covered before.
“I was just blow away by the quality of that archive, the depth of material, the variation of people’s experiences and their stories,” she told the CCJN in an exclusive phone interview.
The search for similar tales led her to discover more stories in Texas, California and New Mexico. In many cases, Kinsey found out there were documentaries for specific states or cities. “But there has never been a documentary that connected the dots of their being part of the larger Jewish migration experience and I thought it was just a really fascinating, important story,” Kinsey explained.
This chapter-based, 90-minute documentary got its New Orleans premiere on Thursday night, September 15, at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, 818 Howard Avenue at 6:00 p.m. The film will be shown again on Saturday, September 17, at 5:30 p.m. The cost is $15 per person and $10 for museum members.
Several well-known figures such as denim manufacturer Levi Strauss and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir are featured in the film, but the larger portion of the film is taken up by lesser-known Jewish individuals who put their stamp on Western life and made a name for themselves like Robert Lazar Miller, an immigrant from Lithuania who became a cattleman and was a major leader in the formation of the Denver stockyards. Or take Louis Dinner, a Ukrainian immigrant who helped transform Greeley, Colorado into a major cattle feeding center.
Miller and Dinner were just two examples of the thousands of Jews who fled pogroms and antisemitism to find lives in the American West as cowboys, prospectors and trailblazers. Along the way, they brought their Jewish heritage with them, sometimes erecting synagogues for worship and becoming trailblazers in a number of processes, the film states.
“Jewish pioneers left a lasting legacy of resilience, entrepreneurship and community in the American West,” Kinsey continued.
“Unfortunately, these stories are too often marginalized and few people are familiar with the outstanding contributions of these gutsy immigrants. My goal is to amplify their stories, preserve a rarely told chapter of Jewish history and, in doing so, help tell a positive story of immigration,” she explained.
As someone who is not Jewish, I see producing and directing this film as an act of allyship and central piece of my personal and professional social justice work.”
So far, the film has been receiving plaudits on the Jewish film circuit. Profits from the film’s release will be donated to the Rose Community Foundation, an organization that supports the Jewish community in the Greater Denver area.
Kinsey spoke to the audience after the film on Sept. 15 via a Zoom session and answered questions from the audience.