Nuts, crooks and judges enliven S.F. Jewish whos who

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Free-associate: Think San Francisco. Think fascinating characters. Think Jewish.

If you came up with Alice B. Toklas, Isaac Stern and Herb Caen, you're on the right track. Over the last 100 years, colorful Jews have left their mark on virtually every facet of life here.

When local historians and authors were asked to pontificate on the subject of outstanding Jewish personalities over the past century, they came up with a cast of lesser-known characters who have spiced up life in the city — on both sides of the law.

Perhaps following in the addled footsteps of Joshua Abraham "Emperor" Norton — a famous late 19th-century eccentric who walked the city in a faded blue uniform spouting edicts about saving the world — some of the best-known Jewish figures have lived life on the edge.

For instance there was boxer Abe Attell.

This early 20th-century featherweight champion, whose brothers Caesar and Monte were also top pugilists, lost only 19 of the 171 bouts he fought. According to Jerry Flamm, a native San Franciscan and the author of "Hometown San Francisco; Sunny Jim, Phat Willie and Dave," Attell is "still often rated as the greatest fighter of all time, pound for pound."

Unfortunately, after retiring from the ring Attell became infamous for his links with high-rolling East Coast gamblers, including Arnold Rothstein. In 1919, Attell was indicted on conspiracy charges for his alleged involvement in the Chicago Black Sox World Series baseball scandal.

All the Black Sox players were banned from baseball after the team lost under suspicious circumstances. While charges against Attell were dismissed because of insufficient evidence, negative publicity sparked by the scandal continued to haunt him.

Another memorable character of dubious moral fiber was turn-of-the-century politico Abraham Ruef. Flamm says Ruef, like Emperor Norton, "is difficult to ignore in any listing of prominent Jews in the history of the city."

They called Ruef "little boss," and according to Flamm, he used the Union Labor Party to rule city government. Ruef had what Flamm terms "a puppet mayor" in former bandleader Eugene Schmitz, through whom he was able to "weave a net of graft and corruption."

Ruef was convicted of graft in 1907. Because of earthquake damage to the county courthouse, the trial was held at Congregation Sherith-Israel.

But lest one think Flamm remembers only the crooks, he also cites several prestigious law-abiding local Jews, including Stephen Breyer, a Lowell High School graduate who now serves on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Scholar Moses Rischin, a San Francisco State University history professor and director of the Western Jewish History Center in Berkeley, points to notable legislator Florence Prag Kahn, the first Jewish congresswoman.

"She was a tough cookie," says Rischin.

Kahn was elected to Congress in 1924, served for 12 years, and was Franklin D Roosevelt's first Republican dinner guest at the White House. Other names that come up when discussing Jewish politicos? Dianne Feinstein was the first female mayor of San Francisco and the first female senator from California. Marin's own Barbara Boxer is the other state senator.

Historian Irena Narell details the lives of standout local Jews in her 1981 book "Our City: The Jews of San Francisco."

The Bay Area author traces prominent families with such familiar high-society surnames as de Young, Haas, Lilienthal, Sloss, Fleischacker and Sutro. She writes about those who labored not only in industry, but also in the arts and sciences.

Albert Michelson, who attended San Francisco Boys' High before teaching physics at the University of Chicago, set the stage for Albert Einstein's discovery of relativity, writes Narell. In 1907, he became the first American to win a Nobel prize for his work in astrophysics.

Chasing the sagas of illustrious Bay Area Jews is as easy as hopping on BART, says Flamm, who notes that Adrien J. Falk, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District's first president, was yet another local "Jew-made-good."