Honored gentile

A Nevada author contributes to revival of the lost history of Jews in the West

Former Catholic priest John Marschall has become an authority on Jews in Nevada.

Former Catholic priest John Marschall has become an authority on Jews in Nevada.

Photo By David Robert

John Marschall recalls his frustration when he was forced by book editors to bring his book on Nevada Jews to a conclusion. He was both angry and relieved.

“I was getting angry at the manuscript, but I felt an obligation to give the Jewish people a voice,” Marschall said.

The book Jews in Nevada, published Feb. 28 by the University of Nevada Press, illuminates the lost history of the Jewish people and their relationship to the shaping of Nevada from 1850 to present day. Prior to Jews in Nevada, few people realized the impact that the Jewish people had on Nevada’s development—from cofounders of towns, to the true inventor of Levi jeans, to gangsters in Las Vegas. This book has been praised by historians for covering the full spectrum of Nevada Jewish history.

Marschall began the project 30 years ago. With a doctorate in religious history and constitutional law and experience as a minister, Marschall had the credentials for his intended work—a book covering the relationship between religion and politics in Nevada, using a small religious group as the cornerstone.

“I didn’t know anything about Nevada so I decided to take a small religious group and use them as a stalking horse to explore archives, and the group I chose was the Jews, thinking they would be the smallest group,” Marschall said.

Marschall found that there was little mention of Jews in Nevada in the national histories of Judaism in the United States, so he began a small bibliographical study. Marschall started his research at the Jewish cemeteries, like the Reno Hebrew Cemetery established by David Lachman in 1877. He walked among headstones with 3-by-5 index cards, taking notes and putting together dates. He then started tracking down obituaries, and step by step, he began piecing together stories.

Just as Marschall’s research began to gain momentum, he was asked by Joe Crowley, then president of the University of Nevada, Reno, to join the faculty. For the next 15 years, Marschall was involved in the administration. Marschall’s field of interest caught the attention of others, and he was asked to write an article on his findings. It was published in 1984.

“It was published in a book, and at that point I became, unrealistically, the ‘quote’ expert on Nevada Jewish history … but it was not a comprehensive piece of work,” Marschall said.

As his research reached the public eye, Marschall began receiving calls inquiring if he was doing any more research. He was asked to give a talk at the Spaghetti Bowl, owned by a Jewish banker by the name of Sid Stern. His talk was given to about 200 people, some of whom were from southern Nevada.

“After the talk, a physician approached me and asked, ‘Do you ever intend to take this research south?’ and I said, ‘I really don’t know,’ and he said, ‘Well if you do, be sure to wear a bulletproof vest,’ “ Marschall said.

Marschall didn’t know exactly what that meant, but he was sure it had something to do with Jewish gangsters.

Marschall continued his research after receiving a sabbatical from UNR. He used his time to make contacts and conduct interviews. The idea of a book was not farfetched, but if he was to write a book, he would have to extend his sabbatical into retirement.

“I figured if I was ever going to write this thing, I would have to retire, and I was getting old anyway, so I retired and put together a manuscript of about 700 pages,” Marschall said.

When he pitched the manuscript to the University Press, editors there cut the book’s length. It then took four years for the book to go to press (the University Press is noted for such lengthy delays) so Marschall continued to try and solve the many mysteries and dead ends that arose during his research. Marschall continued to search, write and rewrite until someone at the University Press gave him some advice.

“Someone at the press wisely said, ‘Stop doing research, put a bow around it and give it to us,’ so I did and it took four years to get published,” Marschall said.

There were pieces of the story Marschall could not wrap up, and his passion prevented him from closing the door on his research.

“I would spend too much time working on clues and ending up in a blind alley,” he said.

In the course of his work, Marschall interviewed more than 100 people and looked through many archives.

He connected with many Jewish residents in the Reno area, such as Rabbi Myra Soifer, who has been with Reno’s Temple Sinai since 1984. She enjoyed working with Marschall on his research and welcomed Marschall to speak at her synagogue.

“John has spoken many times at Temple Sinai on a variety topics concerning Jewish history,” Soifer said. “He has been the expert on Nevada Jewish history for decades.”

Soifer is not the only person pleased with Marschall’s work. Nevada State Archives administrator and historian Guy Louis Rocha shared an appreciation for Marschall’s work. Rocha has known Marschall for more than 30 years, and he’s very pleased that Marschall has completed Jews in Nevada.

“Before he wrote this book, you could put Nevada Jewish history into a thimble,” Rocha said. “What this book has done is impress upon the people that a very integral part of Nevada was shaped by Jewish people.”

Jews in Nevada is a life’s work for Marschall. At the age of 74, Marschall can add author to a long list of titles including priest, professor and doctor. The research and the people he encountered is Marschall’s passion.

“I am a gentile, and I’ve been welcomed and asked by a number of Jewish organizations to speak over the years, and I found a sense of trust,” Marschall said. “This book is not about a religion, it’s about a people.”

Jews in Nevada is available at Sundance Bookstore and the ASUN Bookstore.