From Gold Rush to gay rights: New book chronicles history of Jewish life in Bay Area

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He doesn’t look much like Indiana Jones. But when Fred Rosenbaum first leafed through the minutes of Congregation Sherith Israel’s board meetings dating back to the 1850s, he felt as if he had found the lost ark.

“That was like the Holy Grail of the local Jewish community,” says the author and historian. “When I opened the first volume, I saw the key. I saw the challenges of trying to run what was essentially a traditional congregation in this unprecedented environment of Northern California.”

Those minutes — 150 boxes of handwritten notes on ledger paper — constituted but a fraction of the documents Rosenbaum had been poring over. His objective was nothing less than to chronicle the entire history of Jews in the Bay Area, from Gold Rush to gay rights.

The result is Rosenbaum’s recently published magnum opus, “Cosmopolitans,” which so far has garnered an enthusiastic response. Last month the San Francisco Chronicle listed it as one of the most notable Bay Area books of 2009.

If ever there was someone tailor-made to write a book like “Cosmopolitans,” it’s Rosenbaum. Not only did he co-found Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica, he has written several other volumes about Bay Area Jewry, including a history of Congregation Emanu-El. He now lives in New York but spends much of his time in the Bay Area.

In its 480 pages, “Cosmopolitans” recounts more than just the broad brushstrokes of local Jewish history. Rosenbaum brings to life the big shots and nobodies, fat cats, socialists, entrepreneurs and lunatics who have made up the dramatis personae of Bay Area Jewry over the last 160 years.

The tale leads Jewish readers to draw one inescapable conclusion: We built this city.

“They came from everywhere,” Rosenbaum says of the Jews who flocked to the region, starting at the time of the Gold Rush. “They had this worldview and also this sophistication, a broadmindedness and concern for all people, [including] non-Jews. The mixing with the non-Jewish community was unprecedented.”

The success of billion-dollar Bay Area companies such as Levi Strauss, Wells Fargo Bank and the Gap — all founded by Jews — is fairly common knowledge. What’s no-so-common knowledge is the fact that Gumps, MJB Coffee and

I. Magnin also were founded by Jews.

Fred Rosenbaum

But the subtext of Rosenbaum’s history suggests this economic strength grew out of a deeper success story for Bay Area Jews.

Rosenbaum calls it Bay Area exceptionalism: certain factors unique to the region that opened the door to unprecedented Jewish prosperity, influence and innovation, at least on the West Coast.

“First, [San Francisco] is a port city,” he notes, “perpetually accepting new people in every generation. Only New York would compare in terms of ethnic diversity. Another theme is the relative lack of anti-Semitism. That doesn’t mean there was none, but compared to other regions, to say nothing of Europe, there’s been more than tolerance. The Jews have been admired by the larger society.”

Another factor: Compared to the great cities on the East Coast, San Francisco is relatively young. Jews were among the earliest pioneers to settle here. “They are present at the creation,” Rosenbaum says. “As the aristocracy developed, Jews were among the leaders.”

The Jewish aristocracy in the mid- to late 19th century included families with familiar names: Haas, Lillienthal and Hellman. Leaders included people such as Adolph Sutro, the San Francisco mayor, philanthropist and visionary city planner.

Not all Jewish leaders fell into the categories of business or politics. Oakland was the stomping ground of Rabbi Judah L. Magnes, one of the towering figures of late 19th-century Judaism. Rabbi Jacob Nieto, almost forgotten today, was Congregation Sherith Israel’s early advocate for social justice. Jews stood at the forefront of most social welfare issues, from prison reform to women’s suffrage.

Young women at the Emanu-El Sisterhood Residence

“Cosmopolitans” tells many heroic stories of now-forgotten Jewish visionaries. Among them are Harris Weinstock and his half-brother, David Lubin, who pioneered agricultural practices that helped turn California into the nation’s breadbasket.

The two established the California Fruit Growers Exchange, which streamlined production and lobbied for fair prices. Lubin later went global, establishing the International Institute of Agriculture in Rome, which sought to improve worldwide food problems long before there was a United Nations or Oxfam.

Rosenbaum also highlights the important roles Jewish women played in the religious and cultural life of the region. Rachel Frank, a San Francisco–born immigrant’s daughter, audited a rabbinical training program and went on to become an electrifying sermonizer, fostering reconciliation among rival streams of Judaism.

Writer Gertrude Stein, too, was an Oakland native, though she is the one who later famously said of her hometown, “There is no there there.”

Rosenbaum devotes many pages to local synagogue life. In the horse-and-buggy days, congregations usually hired European-born rabbis, as ordination was hard to come by in America at the time. But right away, congregations such as Emanu-El and Sherith Israel in San Francisco (both founded in 1851) and Temple Sinai in Oakland evolved a very American commitment to social action that typifies these and other local synagogues today.

David Lubin

The rabbis spoke out against government corruption, entrenched poverty, oppression of women and other roiling issues. Yet Emanu-El’s Dutch-born rabbi, Jacob Voorsanger, still saw California as the new Zion.

“Our holy land,” he wrote in 1896, “our promised land is this golden spot.”

Despite many points of Jewish pride, “Cosmopolitans” is no hagiography. Although Jews had an excellent social justice record in the 19th century, one exception would be what Rosenbaum calls the Jews’ “unfortunate silence regarding the persecution of the Chinese” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Jews were so well integrated,” he adds, “they took on the prejudices of their neighbors.”

Rosenbaum also writes about the curmudgeons and misfits who stirred up the Jewish community in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

One was Isadore Choinski, a San Francisco columnist syndicated in the national Jewish press. Typical of 19th century yellow journalism, his column routinely blasted local Jewish leaders, in language that today would have him answering libel charges in court. Or worse.

He called local kosher butchers “mean, miserable wretches,” and attacked Christianity, describing Jesus as “The Hanging One” and Christmas as the “anniversary of the birth of the little Joker.”

Sherith Israel on Post and Taylor Streets

Rosenbaum defends Choinski as “the great recorder of the times around him. Particularly in San Francisco he was known for the kind of razor-sharp attacks that journalists leveled on public figures.”

As for the Jewish misfits, none takes the cake like Joshua Norton, the failed commodities speculator who seemingly went mad and reinvented himself as the emperor of the United States. For decades, until his death in 1880, he was the city’s favorite street loon, always spotted meals in restaurants, which he paid for with his own hand-scrawled currency.

Just another day in San Francisco.

Researching his previous books about Bay Area Jews gave Rosenbaum “a leg up,” as he puts it. But he admits it was “a daunting task to write the entire history of the community.”

“The Emanu-El story, rich as it is, poses a big problem for the historian,” Rosenbaum says. “All the [board] minutes were destroyed in the [1906] fire. However, all the minutes are preserved for Sherith Israel. This project gave me an opportunity to go into them as a window into synagogue life in general.”

The Sherith Israel minutes are archived at Berkeley’s Western Jewish History Center. As the Judah L. Magnes Museum’s vast archive of materials related to Jews and the West, the center is the historian’s equivalent of a candy shop with unlimited free samples.

A young Rosalie Meyer Stern photos/courtesy of judah l. magnes museum

Launched in 1967 as a key part of the Magnes Museum’s mission, the center boasts 500 archival collections, which include personal papers, correspondence and photographs of individuals and families.

Some of the more notable collections include the Haas, Zellerbach and Lillienthal family archives, though WJHC archivist Lara Michels notes that materials from less prominent Bay Area Jews add much to the collection’s richness.

“I could not have written the book without [the WJHC],” Rosenbaum notes. “I would say it’s the leading regional Jewish history center in the country. I also knew my way around it.”

Michels came aboard at the tail end of Rosenbaum’s research. She has known Rosenbaum for years and enjoyed working with him on the book.

“When Fred came to this book he had a fairly good sense of the history he was writing,” she says. “He was able to know pretty quickly what was in the collections. There’s a saying: ‘No archives, no history.’ ”

Michels, who has a Ph.D. in history from Brandeis University, began working at the WJHC as a volunteer, becoming archivist in 2008. She has a personal stake in local Jewish history: Her grandfather, Rabbi Saul White, served as spiritual leader of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Shalom from the 1930s through the mid-1980s.

“This collection is broad and deep,” she says of the WJHC archives. “It tells the story of a regional population of Jews in a way no other collection does. Jews came at a time when California was open. There were not a lot of social barriers and they succeeded in a way they may not have in other places.”

The Lenchner family in Golden Gate Park after the 1906 earthquake

Among pioneering Bay Area Jews, the Haas and Koshland families typify that success. Both clans figure prominently in “Cosmopolitans.” However, Jim Koshland, 58, doesn’t need to read about them in a book. As the offspring of a Haas-Koshland marriage, he has lived the legacy, both in business and in Jewish community activism.

His great-uncle, Walter Haas, and grandfather, Dan Koshland, co-captained the successful Levi Strauss company (the two were first cousins, brothers-in-law and business partners). Both men inherited and then bequeathed to their descendents a measure of responsibility for the Jewish community.

“We had a real sense of giving back and a sense of pride that our family did a lot of things,” says Koshland, who serves as president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. “Not only do you give financially, you have to give time. Writing checks doesn’t take long, but being involved takes time and effort.”

Sometimes, with a wide world beckoning, Koshland wonders if the gravitational pull of the Bay Area is losing its hold on Jews.

Rosenbaum doesn’t seem worried. After 150 years of fires and earthquakes, wars, depressions and suburban sprawl, he thinks the nation’s third largest — and arguably most distinctive — Jewish population, is here to stay.

“Sometimes the Jews as a whole are termed the ‘ever-dying people,’ ” he says. “That is especially ironic for the Bay Area. When you think we’ve had one of the highest rates of intermarriage, yet our community has grown from 100,000 in 1945 to 450,000 today, I’m not worried. I have no doubt that we will continue as a source of refreshment and creativity.”

“Cosmopolitans” by Fred Rosenbaum (480 pages, University of California Press, $39.95)

Author talks in February

“Cosmopolitans” author Fred Rosenbaum will make a pair of Bay Area appearances next month.

He will speak at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 3, at Kehillah Hall at the Ziff Center of Stanford University, 565 Mayfield Ave., Palo Alto. The free event is sponsored by Hillel of Stanford. For information, call (650) 723-1602.

Rosembaum will also appear at 7 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City. For information, call (650) 378-2799.

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.