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American Jerusalem: Documentary spotlights Jewish history in San Francisco


Sutro Baths, Wells Fargo, Stern Grove… What these San Francisco icons have in common is they were all founded or developed by Jews.  Jewish people have been living in San Francisco since the beginning of this great city, and that’s the topic of a new documentary called American Jerusalem.

Jews were drawn to the city by the same thing that drew everyone else: gold. But when they arrived, they found something more -- an opportunity to reinvent themselves. 

The documentary’s director, Marc Shaffer, says he was drawn to the story because it’s really an American tale, one that actually transcends the Jewish experience. “It spoke to anybody who's come to this country as an immigrant, and had to figure out who they were going to be here," he says.

Many of the first Jews to arrive in San Francisco were from Poland or Bavaria. They were fleeing hate laws and humiliating restrictions. For example, in 1800s Bavaria, Jews weren’t allowed to farm or join guilds. They were kept from holding public office, attending schools and universities. They were kept separate, made to live in the ghettos.

In American Jerusalem, historian Marc Dollinger remarks, "Throughout most of Jewish history, if you asked Jews who they were, their response would be 'Jewish'.  Because 'Jewish' trumps Russian or Polish or French or German.  But in San Francisco, Jews quickly become San Franciscans. They become its chief cheerleaders and advocates, and they are very, very proud of their city."

There was no established aristocracy in San Francisco; the main status symbol was race. Shaffer says that in this new place, "Jews were accepted as white, and able to compete alongside other whites for success.  That was a brand new experience for them."

Jews took their newfound social acceptance and ran with it. They started banks and dry goods stores, they ran for public office. But this ability to assimilate came with a fear – Jews never wanted to become the “other” again. So when San Francisco suffered a long economic depression in the 1870’s, Jews faced a tough choice. Working- class whites were taking out their frustrations on the city’s already underpaid Chinese workers.

In 1877, this anti-Chinese sentiment culminated in riots. The Jews didn’t join in, but they sided with their race. "Jews were white," says Shaffer.  "So they became beneficiaries of prejudice, rather than victims of it, for the first time."
Shaffer says that, in a way, Jews may have started identifying more with being white than being Jewish. "I was surprised to learn that the early Jews who came to San Francisco were not tied to tradition," he says. "They were open about transforming who they thought of themselves as being."

For Shaffer, this brought up another question: what made those Jews Jewish?

"If I start celebrating Christian holidays and eating pork and shellfish and all the rest, what is it that makes me Jewish now?” he asks. “I struggle with that question some, but it’s a good struggle."

There’s never been a Jewish ghetto or even really a Jewish neighborhood in San Francisco. But you can find markers of Jewish integration and success all over the city.

Shaffer cites Julius Kahn playground, Levi’s Plaza, and the San Francisco Zoo as places that can be traced to some of those early Jewish immigrants. Then there are the more recently built sites  honoring Jewish culture in the city: the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and more than a dozen synagogues around town.

Coming to San Francisco shaped those early Jews. They found new possibilities of identity, choice and freedom, and they used that freedom to help shape the great city we have today.

"There’s a kind of Jewish legacy,” says Shaffer. “When you go visit places, you can see this history, or hear this history."

You just need to know where to look for it.

The film American Jerusalem  is airing on KQED public television beginning Thursday April 24, 2014 at 9pm. Click here for additional show times and information.  

This story originally aired on December 2, 2013.