Jews of the Fillmore : Exhibit honors a once-thriving S.F. Jewish neighborhood

Related story: Fillmore exhibit is three years in the making


Subtle reminders of a once-vibrant Jewish neighborhood are all that remain on Fillmore Street.

Engraved cement slabs in front of low-income housing mark the spot where Waxman’s Bakery once sold warm, fresh rye bread, and where Langendorf’s Bakery once made fat loaves of pumpernickel.

Today, the street’s shops and buildings remind visitors of the neighborhood’s black history and present — Teri’s Creation and Boutique, Pearlmisha Hair and Salon, the John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. It may be hard to believe, but before the Fillmore earned the moniker “Harlem of the West” and then became today’s Jazz Preservation District, the San Francisco neighborhood was once the epicenter of the city’s Jewish community.

The evidence is scarce. Many of the Jewish shops, synagogues and homes were razed by the city’s redevelopment initiatives that tore up the Geary-Fillmore corridor and demolished hundreds of Victorians, theaters and buildings in the 1950s and ’60s.

But in the early 20th century, it was Jewish life that boomed in the area.

Within a two-square-block area of what is now called the Western Addition (between Fillmore and Buchanan streets and McAllister Street and Golden Gate Avenue) there were two synagogues, three kosher restaurants, four Jewish bakeries, five kosher meat markets, three Jewish delicatessens and one Jewish liquor merchant.

Peter Fitzsimmons

Adam Hirschfelder

“Fillmore Street was the place to be. That’s where the action was,” recalled Arthur Becker, 97, whose parents emigrated from Russia to New York to Omaha, Neb., and finally to San Francisco. He grew up on Turk Street in the Fillmore and today lives in the Richmond District.

A new exhibit and neighborhood walking tour about the Fillmore Jews — created by the Judah L. Magnes Museum and Lehrhaus Judaica and funded by the Koret Foundation — debuts July 19 and runs through Oct. 20 at the Jazz Heritage Center at 1330 Fillmore St.

“Jews of the Fillmore” chronicles the Jewish influence on the Fillmore District from 1906 through the 1950s.

“We all have very fond memories of those days,” said Rabbi David Teitlebaum, 83, who grew up on Turk and Fillmore streets in the ’20s and ’30s.

“As difficult as things were generally, because it was the Depression, most of us didn’t feel deprived in any way. Somehow, we made it financially and socially and otherwise. It was a very closely knit Jewish community.

Local Yiddish actress Bassya Bibel in the 1920s. photos/courtesy: the jews of eastern european origin collection (wjhc 1976.007), judah l. magnes museum

Before the 1906 earthquake, Fillmore Street was a sleepy, not particularly Jewish neighborhood on the edge of the city. Much of the land to the west was sand dunes.

Because the Fillmore escaped the post-quake fire that ravaged large swaths of the city, it became a logical place for those looking to relocate and rebuild.

In contrast, the destruction wrought on the South of Market neighborhood — a gritty, low-rent area where most of San Francisco’s 5,000 Eastern European and Russian Jews lived — was immense

“South of the slot,” as it was known, was rife with kosher butcher shops, kosher bakeries and dairies before the 1906 earthquake, said Fred Rosenbaum, a historian who just finished writing a book about San Francisco’s Jewish history. Other Jews ran fruit markets, clothing shops and candy stores. The junk and scrap-iron dealers were Jewish, too. And on Saturdays, most of the Jewish-owned businesses closed for Shabbat.

But after the quake, their homes destroyed, Jews and others from “south of the slot” and other ravaged areas needed a new hub, and most landed in the Fillmore District.

“It soon became one of the busiest commercial thoroughfares,” said Rosenbaum, also the founding director of Lehrhaus Judaica, who co-curated the exhibit.

As the displaced Jews settled into the new neighborhood, Jewish institutions, shops and markets came with them: Koblick’s Books; Sosnick’s Market; Diller’s Strictly Kosher Restaurant; the Yiddish Cultural Center; and Congregations Keneseth Israel, Anshey Sfard and Beth Israel.

Rabbi Mayer Hirsch with barrels of sacramental kosher wine during Prohibition. photos/courtesy: the jews of eastern european origin collection (wjhc 1976.007), judah l. magnes museum

“I still have vivid memories of the wonderful smells of kosher, garlic-dill pickles and tomatoes in big barrels — that smell will never leave me,” said Irving Rabin, 79, who was just a child during the Fillmore’s Jewish heyday and often visited his grandmother there in her Webster Street home.

A number of the markets sold live chickens and had a shochet (kosher butcher) on the premises. The customer would select a chicken, which was taken into the back to be slaughtered, cleaned and wrapped in sheets of one of San Francisco’s five daily newspapers.

One resident, Jerry Flam, said in an oral history recorded in the 1970s by the Magnes Museum that the Jefferson Kosher Market “bulged with screeching chickens” and that “a cloud of features constantly filled the air.”

But the Fillmore was also ethnically diverse, and a number of Japanese, Hispanic, Hungarian and Italian restaurants and cafés also peppered the neighborhood.

“It wasn’t like the ghettos on the East Coast, which were usually very homogenous,” Rosenbaum said. “I would say San Francisco was the most diverse city in North America at that time, and the Fillmore may have been the most diverse neighborhood in the city.”

Judaism and Yiddishkeit flourished in the neighborhood. Yiddish theater troupes, bookstores and a cultural center sprouted on Fillmore and the streets nearby. Yiddish was frequently spoken at synagogue and on the streets. Yiddishists performed plays, published a weekly Yiddish newspaper and organized lectures by famous Yiddish writers.

Diller’s Kosher Butcher Shop and Delicatessen, 1179 McAllister St., with Harry Diller (owner), circa 1940. photos/courtesy: the jews of eastern european origin collection (wjhc 1976.007), judah l. magnes museum

“You had a whole spectrum of Jewish life, which was greater than the sum of its parts,” Rosenbaum said. “It all made for an intensive Jewish spirit and experience.”

The Central Hebrew School, on Buchanan and Grove streets, was a beacon of the neighborhood. The school, led by Rabbi David Stolper, created a community of proud young Jews. Many went on to become leaders in the Bay Area Jewish community, including Rabbi Teitlebaum, who presided over Redwood City’s Congregation Beth Jacob for 38 years.

Jewish children and teenagers — mostly boys, but some girls, too — went to the Hebrew school seven days a week.

“It was remarkable,” Teitlebaum said. “We went after school, then we went to the nearby synagogue on Friday nights, Saturday morning and Sunday morning. On Sunday morning, we’d come with our tallis and tefillin, and following services, we’d go into one of the larger halls and the Mother’s Club would serve us breakfast.

“Whenever there was a bar mitzvah, the family, in addition to the Kiddush, would supply bars of candy,” Teitlebaum added. “At the end of the service, we’d line up and our teacher would hand out the candy. It was a real highlight to get a bar of candy. I remember those things with great fondness.”

Cast of “The Blacksmith’s Daughter,” a production of the Jewish Literary and Dramatic Club, 1927. Pictured here are (clockwise from left) Irving Koenigsberg, Leon Waxman, Joseph Davidson, John Rosenblum, Morris Karp, Morris Adler, Joseph Esurin, Bassya Bibel, Sol Friedman, and Anna Rosen.

Much like the youth groups of today, the Central Hebrew School fostered deep ties among the area’s Jewish kids and teens.

In the school’s courtyard, they played a game called Off the Wall; at the Hayes Valley Recreation Center, they played basketball. They bought chocolate-covered marshmallow candies that came with the baseball cards of players from the old Pacific Coast League. And after attending services on Sunday morning, many young boys would spend the afternoon attending baseball doubleheaders at Seals Stadium about two miles away.

They started clubs — the Nathan Strauss Club (named in honor of the famed philanthropist) and the Louis Brandeis Club (named for the Jewish Supreme Court justice).

“We were all friends. We developed a real sense of community in a place that was safe, secure and very meaningful,” said Teitlebaum, who, even today, continues to have lunch once a month with fellow alumni of the Central Hebrew School.

The neighborhood’s three synagogues supported a range of Jewish practice.

Congregations Keneseth Israel (known as the Webster Street Shul) and Anshey Sfard (known as the Golden Gate Avenue Shul) drew mostly Orthodox Jews.

Beth Israel (known as the Geary Street Shul) was a more liberal congregation and the most visible symbol of traditional Judaism in the city for more than half a century, Rosenbaum wrote in his book, “Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area,” which will be published in the fall.

Beth Israel in ruins after the 1906 earthquake. photos/courtesy: the jews of eastern european origin collection (wjhc 1976.007), judah l. magnes museum

Beth Israel drew members from the neighborhood and other parts of the city. The synagogue, next door to the Fillmore Auditorium, was a brick and steel structure with an elaborate wood-carved bimah and stained glass windows.

Beth Israel, which eventually became affiliated with the Conservative movement, merged with Reform Congregation Judea in 1969 and relocated to Brotherhood Way as Congregation Beth Israel–Judea. Beth Israel’s original building in the Fillmore was torn down in 1989 after it was destroyed by a fire. Today a post office sits on the site.

While the neighborhood was known for its ethnic and religious diversity, it was also a popular destination for its entertainment. Seven movie theaters lined an eight-block stretch of Fillmore Street, hosting vaudeville acts, Yiddish and American theater, silent films and eventually movies with sound.

The neighborhood was also home to the Dreamland Auditorium (later called the Winterland Arena), the Ambassador Roller Skating Rink, and the Fillmore Street Chutes, an amusement park and a zoo that burned down in 1911.

Just after the earthquake, local merchants helped construct curving, metal arches adorned with lights over 14 intersections along a one-mile stretch of Fillmore Street.

“Picture a stream of lights at each intersection — a façade of lights. It was a tremendous sight,” Becker said.

While most of the proof of this historic time has long been torn down, two Victorians on Steiner Street remain pristine.

One is located at 1057 Steiner St. and is now called the Chateau Tivoli, an impeccably restored bed and breakfast.

But during the Fillmore’s Jewish era, the house first was the headquarters for the Emanu-El Sisterhood’s Residence for Single Jewish Women, where ladies encouraged acculturation of new Jewish immigrants from 1917 to 1923. In 1929, the building became the Yiddish Cultural Center, and for 30 years it provided secular Jewish activities, lectures and music for the neighborhood.

A few doors away, at 1043 Steiner St., is a lavender Victorian where the famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin spent his childhood.

The fervor of Jewish life in the Fillmore began to dissipate during World War II, and Jews soon began moving out as the neighborhood changed. Its Japanese residents were interned, and the black population of the area swelled with munitions and shipyard workers moving in from the South.

Shenson’s Kosher Meat Market

When the war ended, black workers lost their jobs, and because of social factors such as discrimination and unemployment, crime and poverty became more common in the area.

Meanwhile, as the city attempted urban renewal, it widened Geary Street into a boulevard and tore down a number of historic buildings and homes, making the neighborhood less charming and attractive.

From the ’50s and through the ’60s, most Jews moved to other parts of the city, especially the nearby Richmond District.

Though evidence of the Jews’ history in the Fillmore District is slim — save for a few cement slabs in a sidewalk tribute to jazz musicians and old buildings — Jewish institutions are in no way absent from the neighborhood.

Jewish Community High School of the Bay is only 10 blocks away from what was the Central Hebrew School (now a Korean cultural center).

Rhoda Goldman Plaza is just five blocks away from where Congregation Beth Israel once stood.

And the Sinai Memorial Chapel, the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and the under-construction UCSF Osher Building — clustered on Divisadero Street near Geary Boulevard — are just 10 blocks away from the once-popular Diller’s Strictly Kosher Restaurant, the same Dillers that today are known for their philanthropic efforts.

“Sometimes I’m sad these buildings don’t exist anymore,” Teitlebaum said. “But on the other hand, life moves on. And people move on with it. Neighborhoods have to accommodate the population that resides there.”



Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.