Rabbi’s book takes readers on magical Jewish history tour

The highlights of Edward Zerin’s walking tour of Jewish San Francisco no longer exist.

On a recent chilly morning, the retired rabbi walked north on Fillmore Street, pointing out blocks of invisible history.

“See the McDonalds? That used to be Koblick’s Bookstore,” he said. And next to it? Schubert’s Bakery, he added. Nearby was the famous Langendorf’s Bakery. One block over was the Practical Hat and Umbrella Works.

The 86-year-old walked past a Starbucks and Sushi Boom II and said, “All of this used to be Jewish stores.”

Zerin documents the history of San Francisco Jews in his new, mostly photographic book, “Jewish San Francisco.”

Along Fillmore, between McAllister and Post, the community thrived. After the 1906 earthquake, “the displaced Jews south of Market Street flocked to the Fillmore District and established a flourishing Jewish community,” Zerin wrote.

“Jewish San Francisco” tells the city’s Jewish history through 200 black and white photographs, the oldest from 1848. Zerin scoured the archives at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, hunted around Bay Area public libraries, borrowed photographs from personal collections and even traveled to the University of Colorado to get his hands on some pictures.

“I think it’s an easy introduction to the history of Jewish life in San Francisco for both Jews and non-Jews,” said Seymour Fromer, director emeritus of the Magnes Museum, who helped Zerin as he researched the book.

Zerin has white hair, dark eyebrows and a slightly crooked smile. He was a congregational rabbi for 28 years, has worked as a translator for the National Yiddish Book Center and has taught at several universities.

He lived in Los Angeles for 30 years prior to moving to San Francisco in 2004. Shortly after the move, he began to explore the Jewish aspect of his new home. A photographer, historian and generally curious man, Zerin explored the city on foot and by bus.

“I like to walk where my people have walked,” he said.

He started to tell friends and family about what he had learned. He was excited. So when they asked him, “Why not write a book?,” he took their question seriously. He was already the author of eight books. Why not one more?

“I got to know the treasures of this city and how Jews contributed magnificently,” he said.

The most unique quality of San Francisco’s Jewish community, he said, is that the Jews were pioneers among pioneers. They were equals from their beginnings by the bay.

Zerin can see the dome of Congregation Sherith Israel from the 10th floor of his condominium near Japantown. The synagogue is one of only two Jewish buildings Zerin knows of that survived the 1906 earthquake. The other was called Ohabei Shalome Synagogue, a flax-colored building with ornate columns that’s now a Japanese retirement community at the corner of Bush and Laguna streets.

The building was constructed in 1892 as an alternative to Congregation Emanu-El, Zerin said. Sort of like a Conservative synagogue, but before the modern Conservative movement took off.

“He would get ideas in the middle of the night and I’d find him sitting on the computer in the wee hours,” said Jill Kneeter-Zerin, the rabbi’s wife.

Though “Jewish San Francisco” is written, edited, published and ready to become your new coffee table centerpiece, Zerin is not done digging into the city’s Jewish history.

As he talked about a historical building on Fillmore Street, a shop owner overheard him and struck up a conversation. The urban archaeologists, separated by two generations, spoke for about 15 minutes about the unique history of neighborhoods.

Matt Harput, 29, owns Harput’s Market and invited Zerin to come back the following week to look at old photographs he found in the shop’s attic.

“How’s that for falling into the matzah ball soup?” Zerin joked.

That anecdote’s not in the book. Maybe it’ll make it into Volume Two.

“Jewish San Francisco” by Edward Zerin (128 pages, Arcadia Publishing, $19.99).

Edward Zerin will sign copies of “Jewish San Francisco” at 2:15 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5 for Jewish BookFest at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. Zerin also will speak 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16 at Book Passage, 1 Ferry Plaza, S.F.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.