Berkeley Bayit celebrates 25th anniversary

At first, the photos don’t look so different from any old set of college party-shots many of us keep safely squared away in an old shoebox.

There’s the guy who always pulled out the guitar and played “American Pie.” There’s the guy who looks like he just woke up (but he always looked like that) flipping a burger. And there’s the ubiquitous Red Plastic Cups of Shame, mainstay drinking vessels at any college party (or backcountry wedding).

There’s also the guy saying a brachah over the candles at a Friday night Shabbat dinner. Um, how’d that get in there?

But that’s par for the course at Berkeley Bayit, a nearly century-old Julia Morgan-designed brown shingled domicile nestled away in the leafy hills. U.C. Berkeley’s Jewish co-op is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month with a party for residents and alums.

So, yeah, there’s the Led Zeppelin posters and bike racks and all-nighters you’d have in any college communal environment, but there are also elaborate Shabbat events, holiday parties and kosher living.

“It’s kind of like a kibbutz. You have a work wheel so everyone takes turns cooking and doing their own cleaning,” said “Bayitnik” Sylvia Star-Lack, who graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1992 and lived two years at the co-op.

“I learned to cook in that house. I had to cook for 11 people once or twice a week. And we owned the service: It was up to us what kind of Friday night service we wanted.”

The house (and that’s what “bayit” means in Hebrew) came into being in 1980, when half a dozen Jewish parents bought the old residence in the hills, hidden away on a side street a stone’s throw from Memorial Stadium. About a dozen Jewish students have lived there every year since. The current residents interview their prospective future roomies for the two to 10 openings every year — and there are always perhaps three times as many applicants as spots.

“It was an interview process, but it was pretty informal,” said Athalaia Markowitz, a senior who has been living in the house since the summer of 2004.

Berkeley Bayit’s residents are, more often than not, not only Jews but involved in Jewish activities on campus.

“I lived with non-Jews for two years, and it was interesting, but I kind of wanted to find out more what it was like to live with people that had the same dietary restrictions as I did,” said Markowitz. She also wanted to save money, and the campus’ Jewish co-op is, notably, a bargain.

In a college town where stucco shanties go for many hundreds of dollars a month or more, the rooms at the bayit range from $350 to $575. Those prices are comparable to a large co-op, but Berkeley Bayit is far smaller and more intimate.

And there’s a more-than-decent chance that the person you groggily wait behind to brush your teeth in the morning may be bound for prominence. Alums feature Professor Marc Dollinger of San Francisco State University and Rabbi Greg Wolfe of Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis. Sadly, the Bayitniks’ ranks also include Marla Bennett, the graduate who was killed in a 2002 terrorist bombing.

From time to time, former Bayitniks are sure to pull from shoeboxes those photos of those years — now destined to be lifelong memories.

“There was this time when someone put regular dishwashing soap in the dishwasher, and the bubbles were flying everywhere. There was a fantastic ‘soap fight,'” recalled Star-Lack with a laugh. “It was great.”

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.