Magnes exhibit highlights 150 years of Jewish activism

In 1859, a local newspaper ran a story about a “mass meeting of Israelites of San Francisco,” one of the largest public gatherings of its time, to protest the abduction of Edgardo Mortara.

Mortara was an Italian Jewish boy who was converted to Christianity by the family maid, and then kidnapped by the Vatican. The case shocked Jews around the world, and the fact that some 3,000 Jews in San Francisco gathered en masse to protest — 1,000 more than at a similar protest in New York — is one of the earliest examples of Jewish activism in California.

An article about that gathering from the Daily Alta California is among the items in “If Not Now, When? 150 Years of California Jewish Activism,” an exhibit that is on view at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley until May 14.

The exhibit spans from the Gold Rush Era to the present, with newspaper clippings, photographs, books, political fliers, buttons and signs, and even a Passover haggadah, all showing how California’s Jews have been active in a number of causes since they first arrived here in the 19th century.

The exhibit — curated by Ava F. Kahn, a historian of American Jewish life — is divided into three parts, based on the famous saying by Rabbi Hillel in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

“If I Am Not for Myself, Who Will Be For Me?” examines how Jews were involved in Jewish causes, from protesting the Mortara case to helping fellow Jews in Jerusalem to speaking out against the atrocities of World War II.

The second part, “If I Am Only for Myself, What Am I?”, shows how Jews threw themselves into the other social causes around them, such as the women’s movement and immigrant rights. It focuses on Jewish female activists, such as the first Jewish congresswoman, Florence Prag Kahn.

The third section of the exhibit, “If Not Now, When?” looks at how in the last few decades, activism has shown how Jewish identity has shifted, with Jews protesting outside the Russian consulate for the release of Jews in the Soviet Union, and how some strongly identified Jews began to question Israel’s maintaining control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Other artifacts from the first section include an article about a “monster mass meeting” of Jews protesting against pogroms in Europe, and a sign from a store in Los Angeles, circa 1942, announcing it is closing early to “cooperate with the mass demonstrations against Hitler’s atrocities.”

Kahn noted that the Jewish community of Los Angeles was much more vocal about what was happening to European Jewry during the Holocaust than its Bay Area counterpart.

The last section features the effort of the Soviet Jewry movement and the more radical Jewish student activism happening at U.C. Berkeley (a short documentary on this topic is continuously shown). It also includes the origins of such Bay Area institutions as the Magnes Museum and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the first Jewish film festival in the world.

“If Not Now, When? 150 Years of California Jewish Activism” will be on display until May 14 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell St., Berkeley. Information:

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."