Havdallah and History dives into lives of Gold Rush-era Jews

Step back in time to visit San Jose's Jewish community of the 1850s.

Congregation Beth David of Saratoga will sponsor "Havdallah and History at Kelley Park" tomorrow evening at the San Jose Historical Museum.

The event is the brainchild of Rabbi Leslie Alexander, program director at Beth David. She and other organizers are hoping to attract hundreds.

Calling the event "a great community effort," Alexander said, "The Jewish community of the San Jose area has matured and is proudly displaying their history."

The museum features a re-creation of turn-of-the-century San Jose, including three restored Victorian homes and the 120-year-old Coyote Post Office.

Designed as a hands-on living history affair, "Havdallah and History" will offer activities such as taffy-pulling, making bookmarks with a Jewish emblem — using tools of the 1800s at the local print shop — crafting havdallah candles, wax rubbings and challah covers using materials of the times.

The blacksmith shop will have a metal and horseshoe display. Glass-blowers and spinners will demonstrate techniques of the times.

One of the highlights of the evening will be a 7 p.m. community havdallah service led by synagogue members, beneath the historic electric tower in the town square.

Visitors of all ages are encouraged to wear period dress of the mid-1800s.

Docents from the museum and from Beth David will work collaboratively at each historical building. Synagogue docents will provide a Jewish perspective of life in the 1800s in the Santa Clara Valley.

At the fire station, visitors can listen to stories about some of the area's original firefighters, many of whom were Jewish. The stables and barn area will feature pictures of the early founders of San Jose's Congregation Emanu-El — men who also made saddles and carriages.

Other buildings depicting early Jewish history include the bank, the doctor's office, a hotel, a fruit barn and trolley barn.

Three residences will be open for inspection; in one of the homes is a kitchen displaying materials used for Passover in the 1800s. Docents will describe women's roles during that time.

In conjunction with the exhibit, Beth David congregant Donna Frankel will teach Jewish and California dancing to period music. Staff from the Judah L. Magnes Museum will show a film on the Gold Rush Jews, and sports activities and parlor games will be held.

Jewish theater troupe members will tell of Jews' involvement in the U.S. Civil War.

The museum gift store will feature Jewish books from the era. Desserts and other food of the Gold Rush days will be available.

Synagogue member Stephen Kinsey of San Jose provided much of the historical material for the event. He wrote his master's thesis in 1973 on the Jews of San Jose.

"I found a minutes book [from temple meetings] on top of an old furnace at Temple Emanu-El," he said. "I gathered names and visited the cemetery and newspapers in the area." Kinsey further researched his findings in the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley.

Co-chairing the synagogue's docents are Margie Pomerantz and Kinsey's wife, Lynne. The museum has "wanted to expand their history into other areas," Lynne Kinsey said. "Now they have the opportunity."

The program is funded in part by a grant from the Koret Synagogue Initiative.