Historian leads sentimental journey into S.F.s Jewish past

Like Jack Kerouac, Vivian Solomon grew up “On the Road.” Only Solomon’s “road” had nothing to do with rambling about the nation with beatniks in jalopies, but life in San Francisco’s Jewish Siberia.

“The Road” was the plain but fitting moniker applied to San Bruno Avenue, the main drag of one of the City’s bygone Jewish neighborhoods. The area is remote even now, and was infinitely more so in the pre-war days; in fact, it was a three-trolley trip. Solomon has noted in at least one oral history that she and other Jewish women on the Road were so far removed from central San Francisco, many wondered if they’d ever find a husband (well, she did).

Solomon was one of more than a dozen of San Francisco’s living fonts of history present at a luncheon last month organized by the Judah L. Magnes Museum’s Western Jewish History Center and Irving Rabin, and held at the Concordia-Argonaut.

Historian Fred Rosenbaum had planned on delivering one of a series of lectures leading up to the printing of his work covering the history of Bay Area Jews from the Gold Rush to the declaration of the State of Israel. But instead, Rosenbaum gracefully took a back seat to his audience members, all of whom were in their 70s, 80s, or even 90s, and allowed them to share their recollections of growing up Jewish in San Francisco.

Many of the attendees studied under Rabbi David Stolper, a man described by Rosenbaum as “the greatest Jewish educator in San Francisco,” who ran six Hebrew schools up until his death in 1947. He also oversaw Kol Yakov, a synagogue entirely operated by children. As a result, dozens and dozens of young San Franciscans drafted into World War II ably led Jewish services in every corner of the globe. Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum recalled putting Stolper’s teaching to the test as a 16-year-old, bused over to local military bases to lead services there (and, later, as a chaplain in Korea).

“We went to public school, delivered the newspapers, ran to cheder at four in the afternoon and stayed in Hebrew school until late. That was our day and we didn’t have time to get in trouble,” recalled Dan Goldberg, who, like Teitelbaum, attended Stolper’s Central Hebrew School seven days a week.

“We first came here in 1927; I was 12 years old. And in public school, we saw black people. I was shocked, and I told my mother. She went to the principal and he told us he should be ashamed of ourselves. This is America! And we were ashamed of ourselves.”

Talk of division in the community between the German- and Austrian-born Jewish gentry and the blue-collar Eastern Europeans has caused something of a division between Rosenbaum and fellow historian Frances Dinkelspiel.

While Dinkelspiel emphasized the charitable contributions of the city’s wealthiest Jews toward institutions meant to aid poor Jews, Rosenbaum felt this doesn’t explain away some very real condescension and animosity.

Jews at Congregation Emanu-El “were encouraging Eastern European Jews not to come out here [to San Francisco]. Leading Jews wanted to buy Baja California from the Mexican government and resettle the Eastern European Jews there,” noted Rosenbaum.

Irving Rabin, recently returned from Baja, glanced out the window at the petulant and never-ceasing rain and added that it’s a shame they didn’t.

Rosenbaum noted that attempts to discourage Eastern European Jews from coming out West may have been successful.

“Demographically, there were fewer Eastern European Jews here than in any other city our size. There were 100,000 in Chicago and Philadelphia and 1 million in New York. Here there were only 10,000 by 1914. Los Angeles, which was much smaller than us as a city and as a Jewish community, took in 50,000 living in Boyle Heights by 1927.”

Stolper, himself a Lithuanian, didn’t mind hitting up the city’s Jewish elites for fund-raising. But he did so with clenched teeth.

The many Stolper students present focused on their admiration for the man they feel did more for Bay Area Jewish education than anyone else. But that’s not all they remembered.

“This may sound trivial, but I think it’s important. I remember playing a kind of baseball in the [Hebrew school] building. There was a courtyard and we invented our own rules. Everyone wanted to play that. It was part of our culture; we were not a one-dimensional culture. And we had to define a home run,” recalled Jack Goldberg.

And at this Teitelbaum, who was directed by Stolper into the rabbinate, could only laugh good and hard.

“What about ‘off-the-wall?'” he shouted, clearly recalling a 60-year-old dispute over a double or a home run. “What about ‘off-the-wall?'”

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.