Plenty of Jewish there in Oakland, too

Thanks to one of Oakland’s most famous Jewish residents, a Day-Glo flag emblazoned with the word “There” flutters over downtown.

If historian Fred Rosenbaum has said it once, he’s said it a thousand times: Author Gertrude Stein’s famed (and typically repetitive) utterance, “There is no there there,” is not a slam on the other city by the Bay.

“That’s another mistake in Oakland history. Those words are ripped out of context,” said Rosenbaum, who is currently working with author and fellow historian Stephen Mark Dobbs on a comprehensive history of San Francisco’s Jews from the Gold Rush to the present.

Stein grew up on a bucolic, 10-acre scrap of land when there actually were fruit trees out on Fruitvale. Returning after a 40-year absence in 1936, she found her pastoral childhood home transformed into an urban housing project.

“She missed the whole idyllic setting. When she said ‘there’s no there there,’ it meant everything she remembered as a girl was no longer there, in that sense,” explains Rosenbaum, the director of Lehrhaus Judaica.

Amazingly enough, Stein shared a Hebrew school class with one of Oakland’s other famous Jewish alums — Rabbi Judah L. Magnes, the founder of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a passionate advocate of reconciliation between Jews and Arabs and, of course, the namesake for the Berkeley museum.

And, amazingly enough, Stein and Magnes’ teacher at Reform Temple Sinai was Rachel Frank, the first female rabbi in America.

“People don’t realize the innovation in Oakland,” said Rosenbaum.

“People think Oakland is just some sleepy place without anything distinctive.”

Certainly the mental image of Stein opining that “A rose is a rose is a rose” in front of a packed Hebrew class as Magnes and Frank looked on crushes the notion Oakland has no distinction.

Yet, from the earliest days of city history, Oakland’s Jewish past unfolded in a manner highly similar to other American cities — you could even call Oakland a template of Jewish urban history.

One of Oakland’s very first successful Jewish settlers was Samuel Hirschberg, who arrived in the town in 1852, when Oakland sported about 1,000 residents. True to the archetype, he ran a dry-goods store.

In an era when — as Rosenbaum notes — most of Oakland’s permanent settlements were wooden shacks often consumed in flames after a careless moment in a world lit by fire, Hirschberg made a statement by erecting a two-story brick building on Broadway and Third in 1862.

Hirschberg also greased the right wheels, and pushed to get Oakland’s first paved streets.

And, as in most cities, the first Jewish gentry of Oakland were department store owners and executives (Rosenbaum notes that San Francisco’s Jewish gentry were “industrial titans”). The most colorfully named Oakland clothier was “Moneyback” Smith, who, understandably, offered you your money back if your pants weren’t up to snuff.

It was men like Smith who were the movers and shakers at Sinai, built in 1870. When the synagogue’s current building was erected in 1913, the neighborhood was one of Oakland’s most fashionable. Now it’s known as Broadway Auto Row.

Like Conservative Beth Abraham and Orthodox Beth Jacob, Sinai has roots reaching well back into the 19th century. And all three synagogues trace their membership back into the one area of Oakland that could have been called a Jewish neighborhood.

If you’re an A’s, Raiders or Warriors fan, you’ve probably driven over it, in fact. Much of the neighborhood was razed to make way for Highway 24 (it’s right before the big curve when the 24 merges with 880).

“It was a true Jewish neighborhood unlike any we have now. It probably never really exceeded a couple of thousand Jews, but they had kosher butchers there, kosher restaurants,” said Rosenbaum of the Eastern European neighborhood.

“It’s the flatlands, and, even today, you see what looks like a lot of rundown Victorians. It was somewhat fashionable in the late 19th century, but by the 1930s and 1940s it became a black and Hispanic area.

“Not much of it exists now.”


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Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.