Jewish roots, ferries inspire history buff

His efforts to improve ferry service between Tiburon and San Francisco were honored recently when the Blue & Gold Fleet's commuter ferry was renamed the M/V Zelinsky. His daughter Miriam, 14, broke a bottle of champagne over the ferry bow in a public ceremony attended by Tiburon's mayor, Harry Matthews, and many others.

Zelinsky, a Belvedere resident who owns and manages Main Street Properties in Tiburon, is a history buff whose roots are firmly planted in California soil.

He wrote a detailed piece recalling his family's colorful history, entitled "My Great Grandfathers," published by the Western States Jewish History Association. And he is writing a book called "I Remember Grandfather," chronicling his family background and the early history of Jews during the Gold Rush.

His great-great-grandfather, Abraham Galland, left Poland in the mid-1800s as a young man lured by Gold Rush fever. However, Abraham and his brother, Joseph, did not make their fortunes in gold mining, but rather as merchants in such north-central California towns as Shasta, Red Bluff and Weaverville.

"Jews played a very important part in early California history," Zelinsky says. "They came to California maybe to strike it rich in the gold fields. When they found it was a tough life they went into selling goods to the miners."

His grandfather, Eddie Galland, was one of the founding members of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, where Zelinsky celebrated his bar mitzvah and is still a member. His wife, Laleh, serves on the synagogue's board of directors.

"My grandfather always observed the Jewish holidays," says Zelinsky, who has two children and four grandchildren. "It's carrying on a tradition. On my bar mitzvah my grandfather gave me a watch that his father gave him when he was bar mitzvahed."

A former member of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's adult committee, Zelinsky contributes his time and money to numerous organizations, including the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

"My parents were very giving and I feel it's important," he says.

Zelinsky is also campaigning vigorously to save and restore two historic ships: the Wapama, one of the world's last wooden steam schooners, which is docked in Sausalito; and the Vicar of Bray, a 122-foot brigantine that sailed between England and San Francisco during the Gold Rush, and is now lying in the Falkland Islands.

His love of the sea and desire to preserve historic ships go back to his days as a merchant marine seaman during World War II.

"I like navigating. I like the feel of the boat. It's a good, healthy sport," Zelinsky says.

Zelinsky has written a book about Sacramento riverboats, "Up River — When Red Bluff Was the Head of Navigation." In addition, he is vice chairman of the National Maritime Historical Society in New York and an active member of the National Maritime Museum Association in San Francisco.

As for his drive to improve ferry service from San Francisco to Tiburon and the recent ceremony in his honor, "I'm very flattered," he says. Less traffic on the highway and more parking spaces are two of the advantages to improved ferry service.

His interest in Judaism, genealogy and preserving old ships are all rooted in his fascination with history, he says.

"If we don't preserve history it'll fade away."