Born in Boyle Heights, a Los Angeles neighborhood, Harriet Rochlin grew up attached to its foods, languages, and multicultural social clime. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Hispanic America at the University of California, Berkeley, married, had four children, and became a freelance journalist. In the early 1960s, excited by the emerging ethnic history movement, she launched a quest for Jewish roots in the Spanish, Mexican and American West. Her pursuit has reaped 26 articles; 114 speeches; the landmark illustrated social history from Houghton Mifflin, Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West (co-authored with Fred Rochlin); and two Western Jewish collections -- one historical, the other photographic -- both at UCLA Charles Young Library, Special Collections.
Neither I, nor my parents, thought of ourselves as pioneers, or even as westerners. My mother and father were Jews who came to Los Angeles in the early 1920s in search of business opportunities and a mild climate. Sentinel Avenue, the street I lived on throughout my childhood was almost entirely Jewish, as were the stores on Wabash Avenue, the nearby commercial street.
After fifty years devoted to researching and writing about Jewish life in the newly American West, I’m still asked what attracted me to Western Jewish history. I always loved to read, and as soon as I could hold a pencil, write. On several occasions, my sixth grade teacher asked me to show the principal stories I’d written about members of my family. Thereafter I wrote what I was assigned and anything that came to mind.
In the mid-1960s, when I was in my early forties, the ethnic history movement emerged and gradually spread nationwide. Its aim was to add to the nation’s ethnic groups and women to the national record. The evening I heard a speaker cite the names, occupations, and accomplishments of Jews who pioneered in the Far West in the nineteenth century, I was hooked. I began to research and write articles; all were accepted, mostly by Jewish or western periodicals.
To probe deeper, she created a fictional trilogy: The Reformer's Apprentice: A Novel of Old San Francisco ("Rochlin is a superb interpreter of Jewish types and Jewish activities in the West...but best of all the juices of life flow in every man and woman." C.L. Sonnichsen, Journal of Arizona History); The First Lady of Dos Cacahuates ("The author serves up enough period charm, crackling storytelling and priceless details to satisfy devotees of both wild west lore and Jewish history." Publishers Weekly); and On Her Way Home ("Rochlin offers a fascinating tale of the Old West from a Jewish perspective that is not often found in books, while her expertise in early Arizona life will appeal to all western aficionados." Booklist-American Library Association).
In 2011, Harriet completed The Rochlin Guide, the first current and comprehensive guide to 37 Western Jewish historical societies, museums and archives founded in the last fifty years.
She is currently completing A Mixed Chorus: Jewish Women in the American West, 1849 to 1924, a documentary, social, pictorial history.