Author celebrates East Bays Jewish past and present

Frederick Isaac’s newly published book, “Jews of Oakland and Berkeley,” starts its tale in the 1860s. It ends last December.

Isaac deliberately wanted to bring his history of East Bay Jewish life as close as possible to the present day. “I intended the end to be now,” says writer, who lives in Oakland. “Because 15 years from now, this is going to be history.”

Isaac will sign copies of his book during an appearance at Berkeley Judaica store Afikomen on Aug. 30.

Diners in 1949 celebrate the 25th anniversary of Congregation Beth Israel, Berkeley’s first synagogue.

Isaac’s book — 127 pages of historical photos and extensive captions, with a short introduction — shows how Jews migrated to once-sleepy East Bay outposts and built a grand network of institutions.

There’s a shot from 1900 of the First Hebrew Congregation at 12th and Castro in Oakland. The elegant Victorian with Moorish accents housed the congregation that would later become Temple Sinai.

There’s a photo of the young Judah L. Magnes, looking dapper in his three-piece suit and watch fob, years before he became a leader of world Jewry (and namesake of the Berkeley Jewish museum).

And there’s a classic photo of the Jewish Federation’s Women’s Division, circa 1954: four Lauren Bacall look-alikes dressed in fur stoles, white gloves and hats right out of an Edith Head sketchbook.

Isaac’s photo survey of the East Bay goes through the development of traditional Jewish institutions in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, as well as offbeat staples like the Berkeley-based Jewish Music Festival and Noah’s Bagels (which started in Berkeley).

In many ways, the saga mirrors that of Jews across America — but in other ways, says the New York–born author, Jewish life in the East Bay is unique.

“It’s interesting how many things that are not synagogue- and federation-related have flourished here,” Isaac says. “The [Contra Costa Jewish Film Festival] and the music festival, for example. I have five pages on [U.C.] Berkeley.”

Those pages cover the campus Hillel and Lehrhaus Judaica (both housed in the same building), and influential U.C. professors like Bible scholar Robert Alter.

Researching and compiling the book came easily to Isaac, who earned a master’s in library science from the University of Pittsburgh. He is the former head librarian at the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, and currently serves as archivist of his synagogue, Temple Sinai in Oakland.

“I started with things I knew,” says Isaac, who did the bulk of his research at the Magnes Museum’s Western Jewish History Center. “I wanted several historical narratives that interwove. The first were the synagogues.”

East Bay synagogues that go way back include the 125-year-old Temple Sinai, Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham and Congregation Beth Israel, all of which figure prominently in the book.

So do well known institutions such as the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay, the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living and the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center.

But Isaac wanted to capture hidden Jewish stories of the East Bay. He includes photos of rare documents, monuments and out-of-the-way markers of a Jewish presence.

It’s all meant to give readers an appreciation for the history around them.

“People have never been told [the history of the Jewish East Bay],” he says. “And they’re too busy to care unless they are stopped and told. I hope the book gives people a better understanding and some real data about the community.”

Perhaps most striking about that East Bay Jewish community, according to Isaac, is the comity among the various interests. He says his book shows how East Bay Jews work together across denominational and ideological lines all the time.

Which is why Isaac chose as the last photo in his book a shot of the East Bay Board of Rabbis meeting last December. In the photo, 20 diverse rabbis sit together. All are smiling.

“The last shot is deliberate,” Isaac says. “In a lot of places you don’t get 20 rabbis. Getting that many to work together is very unusual.”

“Jews of Oakland and Berkeley”
by Frederick Isaac (127 pages, Arcadia Publishing, $21.99)

 Frederick Isaac will appear at 3 p.m. Aug. 30 at Afikomen, 3042 Claremont Ave., Berkeley. Information: (510) 655-1977 or


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.