San Franciscos embedded Jewish history

In this week’s cover story, Professor Stephen Dobbs reveals that San Francisco was named by an American Jew in honor of an Italian Catholic saint after being wrested away from Mexico.

This has, after all, always been a unique city. And it has always housed a unique Jewish community.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, San Francisco is not the overtly Jewish place a New Yorker or Los Angelino might be accustomed to.

Black-coated Chassids are not common sights wandering the streets here. Restaurants offering gefilte fish or kreplach do not sprout up with Pico and Fairfax regularity. And if you wish to purchase a yarmulke, you won’t be able to walk out of the store and price it at the place across the street.

But a Jewish community is more than just a ready supply of kosher pizza joints and the certainty that someone will be shouting Hebrew into a cell phone in close proximity. San Francisco’s Jewish history is woven into the city’s past and present; it’s there, even if you aren’t buffeted by it as you walk down the avenue.

San Francisco always has been perceived as a place for new beginnings, and European Jews flourished here without the bevy of anti-Semitic rules and regulations designed to keep them down. Jewish dry-goods merchants enabled the gold miners. Jewish businessmen based global economic empires in the City by the Bay (names like Haas, Zellerbach and Levi Strauss still ring a bell).

Jews helped to found San Francisco musical, dance and theater companies. They donated land and money to local colleges.

And Jewish philanthropists and social crusaders improved the quality of life for all San Franciscans. Not many people know much about Adolph Sutro other than he has a gargantuan TV tower named after him. But, as Dobbs noted in our cover story, the pioneering engineer was San Francisco’s first Jewish mayor, and a champion of progressive causes. After he constructed the famed Sutro Baths in the 1890s, he even built his own trolley line so working-class bathers wouldn’t have to pay transfer fees.

Jews helped build and shape this city, whether they were industrial titans who lived in big, Victorian mansions on Nob Hill you can still tour or they were plumbers and grocers and activists living in Fillmore flats that met the wrecking ball decades ago.

Successful Jewish businessmen and developers helped to transform a bustling town into a city. Regular Jewish folks helped transform that city into San Francisco.


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