Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - July 19, 2013

The promised land by the Bay

Documentary depicts the bright new life many European Jews found in Gold Rush San Francisco

by Rebecca Wallace

San Francisco in 1858 was truly a city on the edge. There was no transcontinental railroad yet, no easy way from East Coast to West, unless you thought that 40 days' travel by land and sea, complete with dodging alligators in the Panama jungle, sounded like fun. So on the rare days when steamer ships arrived in San Francisco Bay with supplies, the city celebrated.

In the fall of 1858, Steamer Day fell on Yom Kippur. In many cities, in many centuries, that would mean the Jews would just miss out. But San Francisco looked at the long-awaited Steamer Day and decided to postpone it. The Daily Alta California newspaper wrote, "The Jewish portion of the citizens of California constitutes a very important element of our inhabitants."

This sounds surprising, but it's there in black and white: The broadsheet page is shown in the new documentary film "American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco."

On screen, Stanford University historian Richard White reacts. "That is one of the most astonishing things you can ever imagine about 19th-century California. I don't know any place else in the United States where that would have taken place."

But San Francisco was special. The documentary, which will be shown in Palo Alto on Aug. 3 as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, shows that the City by the Bay was the promised land for many 19th-century Jews. After fleeing racism and persecution in Europe, many came West and were treated like everyone else for the first time.

The Gold Rush turned San Francisco from a village into a hot spot seemingly overnight. In the early 1850s, its population shot from 800 to 36,000 in four years, according to the film. A city that grew so swiftly didn't get the chance to have a dominant faith or established social set. So the Jews blended in; they were newcomers like so many others.

"That's a unique set of circumstances that Jews benefit from," said Marc Shaffer, who wrote and directed the film. "For the first time in their experiences, they become insiders and not outsiders. They're defined as just another white group."

Interestingly, some of the limitations that had weighed on Jews in Europe now worked to their advantage. Many had been humble peddlers because of limitations on what professions they could hold. In the Gold Rush, few miners actually struck it rich hunting for gold flakes and gold dust. Others, several of them Jews, quickly realized that selling goods to the hopefuls heading for the diggings was a smarter way to earn a living.

"They started out selling goods in their backpacks, and then they opened dry-goods stores, and then they opened chains of dry-goods stores," Frances Dinkelspiel, a journalist and descendant of California Jewish pioneers, said in the film.

The documentary profiles several of these pioneers who made it big. There's Levi Strauss, of course, and Isaias Hellman, Dinkelspiel's great-great grandfather. Hellman came to California from Bavaria and opened a dry-goods store before moving into banking. He later merged his bank with Wells Fargo.

A major focus is Adolph Sutro, a German immigrant who made a name for himself in mining in a new way, by building the Sutro Tunnel in the Comstock Lode. He also helped fuel San Francisco's growth out to the Pacific by becoming a major landowner on the western side of the city and developing public gardens and the Sutro Baths swimming complex there. He was the first Jewish mayor of a major American city, elected to lead San Francisco in 1894.

As Jews prospered, they built grand synagogues of the kind that were rarely possible in Europe. They also continued to blend in. A portion of the film deals with the more secular Judaism often practiced by people like Sutro in San Francisco, where fewer Jews went to temple and some even had Christmas trees. This different way of being Jewish was less religious and more cultural, but the community was still there. Even if San Francisco's Jews didn't always pray together, they shared traditional values such as charity, founding numerous aid societies. Many were active in raising money and rebuilding the city after the 1906 earthquake.

Shaffer can relate to this different way of being Jewish. A longtime documentary filmmaker whose films have aired on PBS' "Frontline" and other programs, he grew up secular in Berkeley. "We never went to temple," he said. "But we were very highly identified as Jews. ... I have embraced this question of what it means to be Jewish. From a personal standpoint, making this movie was very appealing to me. It allowed me to explore those questions."

Executive producer Jackie Krentzman also found a personal connection to the film, which surprised her, as she'd grown up in an observant home in Cleveland. But researching the movie with Shaffer proved to be a revelation.

"The story of how the San Francisco Jewish community redefined what it meant to be Jewish resonated for me," she said in a press release. "I realized that being Jewish means much more than belonging to a synagogue, talking loudly and loving kugel. ... It means that many of the values I hold are not just personal values, but Jewish values. It means I can define for myself what being Jewish means."

The film is not all rosy. It's a human story, flaws and all. In the 1800s, though many San Francisco Jews had escaped persecution elsewhere and now worked to aid the poor, they often didn't aid the city's Chinese residents, who also fell prey to racism when economic times were hard. Jews may not have joined in the anti-Chinese riots of 1877, but many were just as guilty of bigotry, the film states. Some Jews may have joined in the racism in hopes of keeping themselves from becoming the scapegoats, White said.

"These are upsetting, disturbing things that we have to face," author Fred Rosenbaum said in the film.

Many of the prominent Jews, most of whom had come from German-speaking countries, also were less than welcoming to the later waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, the film states. These new immigrants were more religious, more traditionally dressed, less interested in blending in. Often, established American Jews were embarrassed by them, though some did provide financial assistance and social programs for their brethren.

Shaffer sees this phenomenon as something that happens across many ethnic groups, the way people can come into a new country "and shut the door behind them."

"That came as a shock, but also as a storytelling gift," he said. After all, he's a documentarian, interested in telling the truth and seeing all sides of a tale.

In that vein, Shaffer even found something positive in a 19th-century Levi Strauss ad that boasted of its clothing being "manufactured by white labor." The ad wasn't positive, but the modern-day company's reaction was when Shaffer asked if he could use the ad in his film.

"It really speaks highly of Levi Strauss (& Co.) that they without hesitation released it to us," Shaffer said. "They said, 'We have to be transparent about our history.'"

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