Zen and the art of Jewish wedding anniversaries

We’re going where? I ask incredulously, when my Jewish parents announce they want to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary at the San Francisco Zen Center. Do I have to wear yoga pants?

Have I missed all signs of their newfound interest in Buddhism? They haven’t mentioned any desire of attaining enlightenment. I haven’t noticed yoga mats or books of Zen philosophy in their home.

Turns out it’s the building itself they want to commune with. To see what memories may spill forth. To go back in time and perhaps remember by being there and showing us — their children and grandchild — the place where they had been in love half a century ago.

It was the early 1950s when my parents met and were married at the Emanu-El Residence Club, a home for Jewish working girls. The 1923 Julia Morgan-designed building still stands at 300 Page St., but now it’s the home of the San Francisco Zen Center.

We stand outside on red brick steps, on a bright, sunny San Francisco Saturday, my parents’ golden wedding anniversary. Oma and Opa’s wedding place, my daughter broadcasts for all meditating Buddhists to hear. She’s seen old home-movies of my parents’ younger selves, their glasses raised in a toast: L’chaim!

It’s a landmark building responsible for many Jewish unions. My parents’ wedding — officiated by the much-beloved Rabbi Saul White of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom (my mother had taught Sunday school at the temple) — was one of many that took place in the building over the years.

I suppose it was the 1950s’ equivalent of JDate. It’s where the single Jewish girls were. My father knew this; his cousin had been a resident there eight years earlier. He stopped by periodically, on his trips from the Penngrove chicken ranch where he worked to his cello lesson at San Francisco’s Conservatory of Music, to check out the new bevy of eligible girls.

One of them was my mother, whose migration west from England to Chicago brought her to San Francisco, where she spotted a sign on Kearny Street about the Emanu-El Residence Club. One phone call and an interview later, she had a room for $50 a month, including meals. Still friends today with her roommate, their memories include the boys that would come to visit, the smooching corners and “den mother” Mary Michels, who set curfews for the 70 girls in her care. Reminds me of my college dorm with stricter rules and a lot more Judaism.

Like much of San Francisco’s ample Jewish past, the place my mother describes no longer exists except in the memories of those who once lived there. Today, the serenity of meditating Buddhists replaces the laughter and liveliness of the 70 former inhabitants; the percussion of high-heels no longer echoes on the stairs. We peek in the sitting room — now the meditation room — and there’s a large gong where couches once stood, and mats and cushions on the floor. No smooching here.

I try to imagine the girls who once roamed these rooms, as we serve ourselves soup and salad and homemade breads amid Buddhists in their comfortable clothing. My mother, five decades earlier, celebrated erev Shabbat in this very dining room, and remembers the servicemen from the Korean War who were guests on Jewish holidays.

My parents are comfortable here, familiar and at home despite their unfamiliarity with Buddhism. After all these years, my father knows exactly which path to follow to find the restroom. I’m sure both my parents are remembering the paths that brought them together.

A Buddha statue now sits in the courtyard garden. I’m trying, but failing, to find any connection to the building’s Jewish past. No plaque in sight — no “history of our building” photos on the wall. But then I see them, right behind me, enormous pinkish-rose (how feminine!) Stars of David encircled and positioned every few feet in the wrought iron balconies’ railings. Look at those, I point. How could anyone miss them? They’re Jewish stars! my daughter exclaims.

I picture the former residents, sunning themselves on the balcony, sharing news of their dates and their jobs, leaning on the railing, an arm perhaps draped over one of those many stars. A testament to what once was there and for whom this home was originally built.

Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at [email protected].