Museum opens amid sunlight, grandeur

As if on cue, the midday sun lit up the pointed summit of the Contemporary Jewish Museum like a spotlight, pointing the way to San Francisco’s youngest cultural landmark.

“It’s like a jewel,” said museum volunteer Helen Romain of the glittering blue cube that seems as if it’s dangling on the museum’s corner.

The museum’s promise as a precious treasure shared by the Bay Area Jewish community and the wider San Francisco cultural scene was apparent on a June 8 opening day that drew throngs of the celebrating and the curious.

Excitement over the building’s completion, in the works since even before the selection of architect Daniel Libeskind in 1998, enticed 4,500 people to venture inside throughout a postcard-perfect Sunday. Passing through the museum’s handsome brick façade into a carefully renovated 1907 electrical substation, visitors were greeted by the slanted white wall that dominates the lobby, with four glowing, stylized Hebrew letters set into its face.

“They stand for four ways of interpreting the Torah,” explained volunteer docent Rabbi Ed Zerin. “Metaphorically, it symbolizes the multiplicity of ways of interpreting the Jewish tradition. There are so many points of view.”

Take San Franciscan Krystin Rubin, who joked that her favorite feature of the facility was compostable trash liners in the restrooms ( the museum has a comprehensive recycling and composting program).

Or Sandra Vernelle of Richmond, who said she was familiar with the Christian Bible but had few reference points for contextualizing Jewish scripture — until she discovered the museum’s symbolic references to the Torah. “Now,” she said, “I can put it together.”

David Sauberman came some 35 miles from Martinez, just “to be with Yiddishkeit.”

Seeing so many wonders on display — Matthew Ritchie’s hallucinatory digital projections, Libeskind’s sleek geometry, even the broad, European-style outdoor plaza facing Yerba Buena Gardens — many visitors expressed a sense of awed pride in the museum’s ambitious endeavor.

“It’s a good time to be Jewish in San Francisco,” said S.F. resident Noa Turgeman. Observing the museum’s packed galleries, she added, “I’m proud that it’s so crowded.”

For Irina Mikityansky of San Francisco, it wasn’t just the crush of spectators that gave her a feeling of collective accomplishment, but the provocative work featured in “In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis,” from Marc Chagall’s “The Creation of Man” to Ritchie’s “Day One.”

“There are so many different styles,” she said. “I’m proud to belong to such a talented community.”

Visitor Jane Blatteis compared the space to the Museum of the African Diaspora, the SFMOMA and even the Exploratorium. “It’s so interactive,” said the San Francisco resident, who was enjoying the cozy atmosphere of a children’s reading corner, decorated with images by illustrator William Steig, where toddlers in beanbag chairs read picture books by the creator of Shrek.

Echoed Mikityanksy: “It’s unique … you can feel your Jewish roots.”

Paradoxically, what most prominently situates the CJM in the context of existing Jewish monuments is its design: Libeskind’s trademark zigs and zags, his acute angles and precariously pitched walls bring to mind the Jewish Museum of Berlin, where slashed windows and dead ends intentionally create unease in contemplation of the Holocaust.

Here, though, patrons were eager to inhabit the museum’s bright, asymmetrical spaces, whether or not they contemplated the abstract symbolism at work. “It has a grandness to it,” said San Francisco native Karen Heisler, “but it’s easy to feel at home.”

Museum opens with huge party