1900-era Jews found Garden of Eden in S.F.

A well-known Reform rabbi in San Francisco called for a renewed respect for "Orthodox traditions" and religious institutions, and castigated Bay Area Jews for celebrating Christmas and intermarrying.

The rabbi, long known for his progressive thinking, also lambasted the insanity of the city's housing crunch, saying that "the rapacity of the landlords of San Francisco has made the rents so high that decent, modest living in the city has been made well-nigh impossible."

Saying that San Francisco had fallen prey to evil influences, the rabbi went as far as suggesting that parents might consider raising their children elsewhere.

He also said Jews should stop attending prize fights and slumming parties.

Slumming parties? Prize fights?

They were popular features of Bay Area lifewhen former Congregation Emanu-El Rabbi Martin Meyer wrote his treatise in 1910. And apart from the slumming parties and prize fights, much of the late rabbi's concerns seem applicable as the new century approaches.

At the turn of the last century, San Francisco was still in its youth. The city, barely 50 years old, stood at the geographical and cultural fringe of the United States. A bawdy port town, its landscape was dominated by a colorful collection of immigrant entrepreneurs and established business elite.

The city's population at the time hovered around 342,000, of which roughly 25,000 were Jews. Jewish life here was dominated by synagogues, primarily Temples Emanu-El and Sherith Israel (both Reform) and Ohabai Shalome and Beth Israel (Traditional).

The rest of the region consisted of a much smaller Jewish contingency, although Temple Sinai in Oakland was among the largest in the Bay Area.

Interestingly, both Judah L. Magnes, who helped establish a Jewish legacy in Oakland (and has a Berkeley Jewish museum named in his honor), and Gertrude Stein, who famously declared of Oakland that "there's no there, there," were both in Sinai's Sunday school program.

The East Bay's first Orthodox synagogue, Beth Jacob Congregation, served immigrant and first-generation families in West Oakland, which was once home to a Jewish neighborhood.

In 1900, San Francisco was relatively undeveloped. A vast portion was unpaved. Horses and buggies vied for space with trolley cars on Market Street, which still had wooden sidewalks. The area west of Divisadero Street was nothing but sand, extending out to Ocean Beach. And the pioneer spirit of the Gold Rush still held sway over the city.

"San Francisco was a city of accents at the turn of the century," said John Rothmann, a local historian and descendant of pioneer Jews. "People came here to forget who they were. It was really a wide-open land of opportunities, and if you were a Jew, this was the place to be."

In fact, the vast array of economic opportunities and low rate of anti-Semitism made the City a "Garden of Eden," for many Jews, according to Fred Rosenbaum, the executive director of Lehrhaus Judaica.

"It's important to remember that many young men and women living in San Francisco in 1900 were the first American-born members of their generation. There was an eagerness to shed the ways of the Old Country. Consequently, there was a very high rate of assimilation."

Assimilation might have been more widespread 100 years ago because of the paucity of Jewish cultural activities, according to Rosenbaum, whose book "The Architects of Reform" traces the history of Emanu-El and contains excerpts from Mayer's writing.

Jewish philanthropic, health and welfare organizations existed, including Mount Zion Hospital, the Eureka Benevolent Society (forerunner to Jewish Family and Children's Services), and the Hebrew Home for the Aged and Disabled. But there were few specifically Jewish events that weren't linked to synagogues.

"If you weren't religious or didn't attend synagogue — and about 80 percent of the Jewish population didn't — there were no other outlets. There was nothing like the Jewish Film Festival, or the Jewish community centers or the Traveling Jewish Theatre. So assimilation was perhaps equally as prevalent back then."

Also playing a factor in the high rate of assimilation was the relatively low rate of anti-Semitism, according to Rosenbaum. When it existed, it came mostly from within.

"In 1900, there was a really thick social barrier that Jews of Western European ancestry placed between themselves and Jews of Eastern European descent," Rosenbaum said. "To be sure, there was a philanthropic bent to the established Western Jewry of the city, but it was a kind of noblesse oblige. It was rather condescending."

Alarmed by the influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century, Emanu-El Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger feared that the area south of Market Street would become another "Lower East Side reeking pesthole," according to an excerpt from his writing in Rosenbaum's book.

Voorsanger was concerned that the immigrants, who represented about a fifth of the city's population at the time, constituted "an invasion from the East that threatens to undo the work of two generations of American Jews," he wrote at the time.

One Russian immigrant, who moved to the city in 1906, offered a first-hand perspective on the class schisms present then.

"We scared the hell out of the German Jews," 98-year-old Samuel Stern said two weeks before his death on Sunday. "They thought we were all a bunch of communists and that we'd give them a bad name.

"Well, they didn't have to worry about that," said the long-time violinist and resident of the city's Jewish Home, "because they owned the whole damn town."

While internal anti-Semitism may have been widespread, it also strengthened the neighborhood bonds among the immigrants.

"Back in the old days, up until before World War I, everybody went to the market on Saturday night," said Stern, who lived on McAllister Street. "That's where you met your friends and neighbors. It was a wild place, and you bumped into everybody.

"That's where all the butchers were, and all the delis," Stern recalled. "You couldn't help but come home covered with chicken feathers."

Stern, who attended Beth Israel at the corner of Geary and Fillmore (later the home of the infamous People's Temple), said that Yiddish was the most common language of the time, unless the adults wanted to keep a secret from the children.

"Then, they spoke in Russian," Stern said.

Stern, who was already an accomplished violinist before he was 10, said that his prowess was a result of the times. "There weren't any distractions back then. No radios, no TVs. And only the high-class drugstores had phones. So you worked or studied and didn't complain. That's the way it was back then."

McAllister Street in the first decade of the century was filled with the scents of kosher meats cooking, cheese, kasha and herring, according to the late Lilian Cherney, who lived in the city almost a century.

Cherney recalled in a 1979 interview with the Judah L. Magnes Museum's Western Jewish History Center that the Jewish immigrant community was "poor, but honest and frum [observant]. Also, everybody lent a helping hand. If, for example, your husband was out of work, what did you do?

"Well, two or three Jewish women would go door-to-door and ask if people could spare a dime, or a nickel," Cherney said. "There was a clannishness back then. Everybody helped each other. If your children outgrew their clothes, you donated them to a neighbor."

But if the Jewish communities in the Bay Area were tighter-knit 100 years ago than they are today, they were also more insular. Conversely, part of the enduring fabric of the Jewish community at the new millennium is its diversity, according to Rosenbaum.

Today, San Francisco's Jews number about 49,500 out of a total population of nearly 724,000, according to the 1990 U.S. Census and American Jewish Yearbook estimates from 1998. That's about 6.8 percent, while 100 years ago, Jews represented 7.3 percent of San Francisco's total population.

"I think that the Jewish community in the year 2000 is absolutely stronger today than it was 100 years ago, precisely because there's more representation. Women, disabled people, gays and recent emigres all have a voice in the community," Rosenbaum said. "That clearly wasn't the case back then.

"And because it has found ways to re-invent itself and broaden its constituency, I think the Jewish community will thrive way beyond the year 2000."