CALIFORNIA DREAMING – Now at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present

Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

From Levi’s blue jeans to the Sutro Baths, Gump’s to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the story of the Bay Area’s Jewish community is the story of the region itself. The first exhibition of its kind, California Dreaming explores Jewish life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the present and demonstrates how it is informed by the pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit of the many Jews who came out West in the booming decades that began with the Gold Rush.

The exhibition features a documentary video offering an array of contemporary stories of Jewish migration to the Bay Area created by award-winning independent filmmaker Pam Rorke Levy, as well as a commissioned series of photographs by local artist and cultural historian Rachel Schreiber that reveals the untold stories of the Jewish community from past to present. The exhibition is a dynamic narrative of events brought to life through hundreds of photographs, documents, ephemera, audio, and video that illuminates the development of the Bay Area Jewish community and illustrates how it has taken on its independent, inventive, and aspirational character over time. Visitors are invited to add their stories and submit photographs to an ever-evolving community photo wall that can be browsed online through the Museum’s website or in the gallery.
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Seder at Emanu-el Sisterhood house, 1917
Photo, Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at The Bancroft Library

“We are thrilled to be examining the community in this way for the first time,” says Museum Director Connie Wolf. “Contemporary Jewish life in the Bay Area is unique, but why? What made it what it is today? No one has ever explored that question. Our search has revealed fascinating stories of pioneering spirit, invention, reinvention, assimilation, generosity, and activism. These give us a wonderful starting point. We look forward to the many stories that the community will add to this evolving exhibition over its yearlong life. Together we will truly come to understand the history of who we are.”

A Character Study of Jewish Life in the Bay Area

At the heart of California Dreaming is a richly visual narrative that reveals that despite its stunning diversity and significant historical changes, the Bay Area Jewish community has taken on a character all its own due to several major factors: a willingness to navigate the complex balance of invention/re-invention of institutions and rituals to continuously reflect the ever-changing community; a can-do Western spirit that gave Jews the confidence to create their own destiny and become part of the fabric of the city of San Francisco from the very beginning; a lack of physical, social, and economic ghettoization, resulting in an acceptance of Jews as a confident group of citizens among their neighbors that did not always exist in other American cities; and a yearning for greater justice for all of humankind, inspired by their California experience, and reflecting a sense of optimism that a newer and fairer society could be built.

The narrative asks visitors to consider how the past and present is linked. “We’re presenting this history in a new way, through a series of questions to engage visitors in thinking about their own role in creating and sustaining community,” says Wolf. “This will be a graphic, fun, interactive history with a strong contemporary voice. It’s an invitation to examine the past from new and personal perspectives.”

Five important areas of consideration are explored through the stories of notable figures, important institutions, and community milestones, and are illustrated with a lively mix of hundreds of historical photographs, audio recordings, video, articles, maps, original objects, and more.

House of Love and Prayer, San Francisco, 1971.
Photo, Moshe Yitzchak Kussoy

The first section of the exhibition, “What does it mean to be first?,” explores the reasons for Jewish immigration to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, the creation of a functioning community almost overnight, and subsequent forays into new religious, cultural, and economic territory. In this section the exhibition looks in depth at the founding of San Francisco’s two first synagogues —Congregation Emanu-El and Sherith Israel in 1850 — along with 160 years of religious reinvention, including the minting of the first Jewish woman rabbi in Rachel “Ray” Frank known as “The Girl Rabbi of the Golden West,” and the explosion of alternative Jewish practices associated with The House of Love and Prayer in the 1960s, the Aquarian Minyan in the 1970s, and the more recent combination of tradition and innovation in the hipster-orthodox Mission Minyan. The idea of “first” also applies to the Bay Area’s innovations in Jewish educational organizations—including in recent years the creation of, an animated Torah commentary, and Kevah, which seeds Jewish study groups in people’s homes — as well as the country’s first Jewish Film Festival; the influential Jewish Music Festival; and the Judah L. Magnes Museum and Contemporary Jewish Museum. Together these advancements demonstrate that Bay Area Jews have remained true to the pioneering spirit of their ancestors.

The second area, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” (a quote from the Talmud), explores the Bay Area Jewish community’s longstanding commitment to civil rights, equality, and philanthropy. Here the exhibition looks at the community’s creation of charities to care for the needy, including Mt. Zion Hospital and the Hebrew and Eureka benevolent societies, and an early promise from the first generation of Jewish leaders to make an impact on the health of the larger community, including Jewish mayor Adolph Sutro’s creation of the Sutro Baths. In recent generations the Jewish community became an important part of the numerous movements including free speech, civil, women’s, and gay and lesbian rights. This generosity of spirit manifested itself in the community’s embrace of refugees from Europe after World War II, as well as the “refuseniks” who fled the Soviet Union starting in 1979.

EMILE PISSIS. Sherith Israel West Window.
Moses Presenting the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel at Yosemite,1905.
Photo, Larry Rosenberg

Section three, “Does a Jew who is a leader become a Jewish leader?,” looks at Jewish ideas about community-building and intellectual and professional success, entrepreneurship, and how they manifested themselves in civic, political, and business life — from the founding of the first companies in San Francisco to the growth of Silicon Valley. What is the connection, for instance, between the drive of immigrant Levi Strauss to create a new kind of company, and his family’s commitment over eight generations to continuously support Jewish and civic life in the Bay Area? How did Selina Solomons’ Jewish upbringing influence her to open the Votes for Women Club in downtown San Francisco, which helped bring the vote to California women? And what prompted the Irish-Jewish immigrant Albert Bender to support Chinese and Japanese artists, creating a local market for Asian art and a public acknowledgment of a still marginal community?

Next, “Is there a there there?” explores how the Jewish community maintained its coherence without a traditional neighborhood structure, and its unprecedented integration into the larger culture. Despite the vibrancy of the Fillmore neighborhood in the first few decades of the twentieth century, which echoed the concentration of Jewish shops and synagogues in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the story of Bay Area Jewish life today is one of integrity in the midst of Christmas parties, continuing suburban sprawl, and a low percentage of synagogue affiliation.

Finally, “What is a promised land?” looks at the metaphor of San Francisco as a new Eden. In this section, the focus is on the Jewish community’s relationship with the land, from David Lubin’s Biblically-inspired International Institute of Agriculture and the socialist community of Petaluma chicken farmers, to new organizations like Wilderness Torah and Urban Adamah. Zionism, an important political and religious movement, is also examined from the perspective of one of history’s most secure and settled Jewish communities.

SF Jewish family picnicking in the Redwoods
Photo, The Sophie and Theodore Lilienthal Papers

Two significant elements have been commissioned for the exhibition to add further dimension to the story of Jewish life in the Bay Area. Award-winning independent filmmaker Pam Rorke Levy looks at the diversity and make up of the community today, offering an engaging portrait of several modern day migrants and descendants of migrants, through interviews, family photos and more. New York transplant Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, discusses the differences between Jews on the coasts as he reminisces about marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. and serving as a rabbi for troops stationed at the Presidio. Rabbi Moshe Trager, a moyel recently moved from Philadelphia, discusses his thoughts on San Francisco’s current circumcision debate. And local historian and author Frances Dinkelspiel, descended from Gold Rush pioneers, discusses alternative Judaism. These stories and more will be viewable in a small theater within the exhibition.

Bay Area artist and historian Rachel Schreiber was commissioned by the Museum to create a new work in conversation with the various stories told in the exhibition. The result is “Site Reading,” which builds on Schreiber’s longstanding commitment to labor history and activism. In this project, Schreiber retells the stories of individuals whose lives exist on the periphery of history, pairing each narrative with a contemporary photograph marking the location where the story occurred. Schreiber offers these interventions as a way to celebrate the accomplishments of those who have shaped the Bay Area as a place of progressive attitudes and social change. A photo of a Petaluma farm leads to a story about Jewish chicken farmers in Sonoma County. A photo of Manzinar prompts the story of the Jewish woman who chose to stay with her husband, a Japanese man, and their son, when they were interned there during World War II.

Engaging the Community in Telling the Story

California Dreaming offers visitors several opportunities to interact and contribute their stories to the exhibition. The first is an ongoing community-wide photo call, which invites the Bay Area community to submit photographs that illustrate what it means to be Jewish in the Bay Area, in all its diversity and complexity. All photos submitted will be on display in the gallery as well as online through the Museum’s website and dedicated flickr page. Visitors are invited to participate by uploading their images to:

Whether at home or in the gallery, visitors to California Dreaming can share their own stories through the Museum’s e-postcard project, “Greetings from California!” Offering an array of templates based on popular original card designs from the Gold Rush to the present, visitors can write their story on the back and send the card out as an e-postcard to friends and family.

“There is such a rich history of Jewish innovators, philanthropists, and civic leaders in the Bay Area,” says Jeffrey Farber, Chief Executive Officer of the Koret Foundation. “Koret is very proud to be a part of this story and pleased to be a leading supporter of this exhibition.”

RABBI MAYER HIRSCH – with barrels of Sacramental Kosher wine during prohibition.
Photo, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at The Bancroft Library

“The California dream has attracted a diversity of people over the ages that span all ethnic, religious and national identities. The dream is also as varied and multidimensional as the people it has attracted,” says Matthew K. Berler, President, Chief Executive Officer & Portfolio Manager of Osterweis Capital Management. “Osterweis Capital Management is pleased to support this exhibition for its celebration of the visions and aspirations that have created the California that we live in today. The pioneering Jews of the 19th and 20th centuries were motivated by the opportunity to both improve their own circumstances as well as to create a more just and open society. These twin aspirations have affected broader life in the Bay Area and helped to build the foundation for Bay Area civic life as we know it today.”


The Sentinel’s own editor Sean Martinfield is interviewed by David Perry on Comcast. Catch the Action!
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