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Heym on the Range

Bonanza creator David Dortort, who died in September, drew inspiration from his family’s immigrant story

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Michael Landon as Little Joe, Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright, and Dan Blocker as Hoss in Bonanza. (Getty Images)
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Some years ago, when I first visited Sikluv Mlyn, a Wild West theme park in the Czech Republic, I was startled by the music piped in to the lobby of my hotel. It was the unmistakable theme song from the iconic TV show Bonanza–sung in Czech.

Bonanza, which ran from 1959 to 1973, recounted the adventures of the tight-knit Cartwright clan—the patriarch Ben, his three sons Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe—and the goings-on at their sprawling Ponderosa ranch. Syndicated to dozens of countries and dubbed into languages ranging from German to Japanese, it was one of the most popular and widely watched television shows of all time and has had a tremendous impact in honing the image of the American West around the world.

But few viewers realize how deeply rooted the show was in, well, Yiddishkeit (and not just because two of the stars—Lorne Greene as Ben and Michael Landon as Little Joe—were Jewish).

Bonanza was the brainchild of David Dortort, a pioneering television writer and producer who died in September at the age of 93. The Brooklyn-born son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Dortort had a lifelong commitment to Jewish causes; among other things, he and his wife Rose, who died in 2007, endowed cultural programs at the American Jewish University and Hillel at UCLA.

I discussed the Jewish underpinnings of Bonanza with Dortort during a lengthy interview at his home in Los Angeles in December 2004, as part of my ongoing research on the American West in the European imagination.

Bonanza’s story lines, he told me, centered on relationships rather than good guy-bad guy gunplay and stressed the values of love, respect, and family ties. He had employed these values, he said, to create a mythic world along the lines of the Arthurian legends, with the Ponderosa a sort of American Camelot and Ben Cartwright a King Arthur figure.

He named the Cartwright patriarch Ben after his own father, a yeshiva bokher who immigrated to the United States at 15 and became an insurance broker in Brooklyn. It wasn’t just a name that the two shared. “Essentially the values that I put into Bonanza are Jewish values that I learned in my home, from my father,” he told me. “One of the great things about the United States is that it’s probably the only country in the history of the world that can be described as a Judaic-Christian civilization. Where else did the Jewish people have the freedom they have in this country and enjoy the opportunities?”

Toward the end of our talk, Dortort shifted the conversation away from Bonanza. He told me a family story that shed light on how his own relationship to myth—and to the West—may have been shaped in part by the exploits of his Uncle Harry, a ne’er-do-well in the Old Country who wound up fighting alongside Pancho Villa in Mexico and battling anti-Semites on a California ranch.

In Dortort’s telling, Harry, his father’s younger brother, left Galicia in about 1916; he made his way to Hamburg and got a job on a ship. Soon, Dortort said, “he finds himself off the coast of Mexico and at a port called Tampico, on the Caribbean, and he hears about a fantastic guy in the interior, deep in the Sierra Madre, called Pancho Villa.”

Harry “jumps ship and makes his way into the Sierra Madre somehow to join Pancho Villa. He fights with Villa against the government of Mexico, and they became very close.” Harry, Dortort said, “was a tough little character. He was known as Pancho Villa’s Jew.”

According to Dortort, Harry was with Pancho Villa in March 1916 when Villa carried out a bloody raid on a U.S. Army garrison at Columbus, New Mexico. Soon after, Harry followed Villa’s advice and fled to Texas—specifically to San Antonio, where there was a Jewish community. There, Dortort recounted, Harry spied a woman on the porch of a house, brushing her long, black hair. “He knows this is a Jewish section of town, so he calls up to her in Yiddish, ‘Are you a Jew?’ And she looks down and says, ‘Yes, but who are you and what do you want to know for?’ He looks up and says, ‘Do you want to get married?’ And she hesitated a moment and said, ‘OK!’ ”

Harry and his bride headed west to California, where they operated a citrus ranch near Pomona. By 1920 or 1921, Harry had become so successful that he arranged for his brother Ben to bring his family out to California from Brooklyn.

Dortort was only 4 or 5 years old. “It was beautiful,” he recalled. “No smog in those days, the mountains were clear, and there was snow on them; southern California was like paradise.”

Nearly 40 years later, he created Bonanza.

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Chana Batya says:

Dan Blocker, who played Hoss, was Jewish as well.

Sharon Blumberg says:

Yes, Chana… Dan Blocker was also Jewish…. three out of the four main characters where Jewish, nice to hear the back story came from a Jewish writer, too.

J Carpenter says:

—and as I recall, the cook on the Ponderosa was Chinese

Hop Sing, who was really the only stereotypical character.

Dan Blocker was not Jewish. He was a Free Methodist.

ELLIS JAYUS says:

Hop Sing was probably a refugee from Shanghai, converted to Judaism and took the name Chayim Yankel. The theory is that he learned the art of kitchen magic from his adopted Bubbe, Fruma Sara (or was it Esther Leah or even Esther HaMalka). You never heard of Hop Sing serving Chop Suey or Moo Shu Beef or even Chow Mein. Nope, it was always soups and stews. It would not have been prudent in 1959 to have Jewish sounding names for the hired help, even though the stars could be named Ben(jamin), Adam, Jo(seph) and Soos!

lainie friedman says:

What a sweet story! I grew up in Southwest New Mexico,in a tiny town(called Lordsburg), sixty miles norhwest of Columbus, where Pancho Villa made his famous raid.

I loved Bonanza and named my Girl Scout group the Ponderosa, and also taught them
(mostly latina friends) Hava Nagila for a merit badge.

Thanks for the lovely article.
Lainie friedman

HollyMartins says:

A beautiful Story!

The David Dortort Archive is held at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles, California. For more information please contact: Marva Felchlin, Director, Autry Library at mfelchlin@theautry.org
Ms. Gruber was a Visiting Scholar at the Autry in 2004.

A note about Lorne Greene who was born in Canada. He became every Canadian Jew’s hero and we all watched his program every week. He stood for the Canadian Jew who “made it” in Hollywood. The same is true for William Shatner who was born in Montreal.

Mr Mel says:

Hop Sing did not become Chaim Yankel but was known as Moishe Pippick,

This might be a good time to point out that Michael Landon’s real name was Eugene Orowitz.

Gibson Block says:

The way you positioned the story you made it sound as if Bonanza was part of the Zionist plot to control America.

In the end, however, there was no Yiddishkeit in Bonanaza. It had Family Values. The same thing Dan Quayle became famous for endorsing.

PS: Michael Landon had a Jewish father (Eli Orowitz) but from what I read did not identify himself as being Jewish. Just like Paul Newman wasn’t Jewish. Or Ted Sorensen who just died this week and whose middle name was Chaikin.

lbgrrl says:

Michael Landon did indeed identify himself as being Jewish. He discusses the problems that he had growing up in a town where there were not many Jews. He is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles.

Ellen Peck says:

What a great story. Bonanza was one of my favorite shows growing up in the 70′s

California Gal says:

Gibson Block: Paul Newman grew up in “Jewish” Cleveland, his father owned a successful sporting goods store. He may not have identified with his Judaism later in life, but he definitely was a MOT, old time Clevelanders know that for sure.

No one has mentioned Pernell Roberts, who played Adam and who also was Jewish.

Tim Carter says:

The horses were also of Jewish descent.

I wonder, taking a look at some of those Indians. . .

What a great tribute to home and family that comes from the Jewish culture.

It is interesting as well, that in every instance where religion is brought up, it’s Christianity.

Texas Girl says:

Pernell Roberts wasn’t Jewish and neither was Dan Blocker.

Lorne Greene was the son of Russian immigrants who settled in Canada. He WAS Jewish.

Michael Landon’s father (Eli Orowitz) was Jewish, his mother was Irish Catholic. Technically, he was NOT Jewish since the Jewish faith is passed down from the mother. However, he DID identify himself as Jewish when force to pin down a religion. Otherwise, he did believe in God, but not so much organized religion. His children were raised in 3 different faiths. He is buried at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery, which is NOT strictly a Jewish cemetery, but there are many famous Jews buried there.

Hello Shalom I love the Poeple of Israel and Bonanza was one of my favorite shows growing up in the 70’s, and about Lorne Greene who was born in Canada. perhpas my wife is descending from Greene Family coming to Mexico Fron Ireland. My wife her name is Mirella Greene Garcia, and her granddad coming from Ireland Family and some move from New York to California, exactly in the Ponderosa, a great valley. wauaa… if you would like to write some letter to us you can do in arcos oriente 298, col.jardines del sur, cp 16050,23 DF Mexico City my name is milton marchena and my wife mirella greene. thanks a greetings
bye

Elizabeth says:

Great story. I loved “Bonanza” and all the characters and the story lines. My only chagrin in this story is Uncle Harry’s adventure with
Pancho Villa. My mother’s family were hidden Spanish Jews, they were white and land owners. Pancho Villa hated the white land owners
he accused them of taking Indian land. Pancho Villa and his gang
kidnapped my grandfather and murdered him. My grandmother and her children never saw him again.Villa was a butcher and I’m sorry that
uncle Harry was dubbed, ” Villa’s Jew ”
Land grants were given by the King of Spain, to certain Governers
and Conquistadores and much of the land was was settled by Spanish Jews who were expelled from Spain. I just wish uncle Harry had known
about Jewish history in Mexico. Now days most of the tv programing is violence……….I sure miss “Bonanza” and the Cartwrights.

M. Brukhes says:

My favorite episode of “Bonanza” is the one where Hop Sing greets a visiting Lubavitsh shliach on the Ponderosa, speaking to him in fluent Yiddish. The shliach, amazed, asks Ben Cartwright where he found a Chinese servant who spoke such beautiful mame loshn. Ben responds, “Sha, shtil: he thinks we’re teaching him English!” And so forth….

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Heym on the Range

Bonanza creator David Dortort, who died in September, drew inspiration from his family’s immigrant story

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