Event at Magnes to zero in on specific eras, untold stories in 150 years of local Jewish history

What do chicken ranchers, anti-Zionists and pot-smoking hippies have in common? At one time or another during the 20th century, sizeable contingents of Bay Area Jews fit each of those descriptions.

Their stories represent some of the threads in the complex fabric of Northern California Jewish history, the subject of an all-day Lehrhaus 360 learning event from Lehrhaus Judaica. “How We Got Here: Reflecting on the Past 150 Years” will take place Feb. 12 at Berkeley’s recently opened Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.

“We’ve been waiting a long time to do an event in conjunction with the Magnes,” said Rachel Biale, who is coordinating the event for Lehrhaus. It will “mark the rebirth of the Magnes and bring together what the Magnes does — which is to collect, preserve and display artifacts of Jewish life in the West — with a Lehrhaus conference,” she added.

Daguerreotype of Solomon Carvalho, circa 1850 photo/courtesy of library of congress

More than a dozen scholars, rabbis and activists will be on hand to serve as panelists or run workshops. The focus, according to Biale, will be on those aspects of local Jewish history that don’t always make it into the history books.

“There are certain chapters of the [history] that are well known,” she said. “The Gold Rush, the role of Jews in making San Francisco a bustling community. We wanted that to be touched on, but we felt we needed something newer that people haven’t thought about.”

With that in mind, set to lead one workshop is Brooklyn-based filmmaker Steve Rivo, currently completing a documentary about Solomon Carvalho, the most important Jewish photographer of the mid-19th century that no one ever heard of.

Carvalho (1815-1897) specialized in daguerreotypes, the cumbersome technology that preceded modern photography. An observant Sephardic Jew from Charleston, S.C., he left behind all the comforts of home to join John C. Fremont on an 1853 expedition to the West. Fremont hired Carvalho to take pictures.

Rivo’s film retraces the trip, borrowing from Carvalho’s account of the journey, which conveyed the challenges of keeping to a Jewish life while wandering the wilderness.

At one point, the members of the expedition dined on a decidedly unkosher porcupine, which Carvalho refused to eat, in part because of the “porc” in the creature’s name.

By all accounts he took exquisite images, but no one today can see them. Daguerreotypes, like Polaroids, are not reproducible, and, sadly, all but one of Carvalho’s photos burned up in a warehouse fire some years later.

“His big contribution to American history was lost,” Rivo said, adding, “The most important message is that we’ve always been here. Here’s a guy, born and bred American and also active in his Jewish community, who ended up on a trip like this with a great American explorer. It was kind of like being an astronaut.”

By the time of Carvalho’s trip, San Francisco was already a big city with a thriving Jewish community. Professor Mary Ann Irwin, who teaches California history at Diablo Valley College and several other Bay Area colleges, studies the history of that community, in particular the roles women played.

A seder service in 1917 organized by the Emanu-El Sisterhood in San Francisco photo/from “jews of the pacific coast” (1970)/ western jewish history center, judah l. magnes museum

Irwin will lead a workshop about the activism and charity of Jewish women in San Francisco. Her research shows that those women took the lead on helping the poor by founding Jewish benevolent societies.

In Germany, the birthplace of many pioneer Jews, men provided those services. But here, said Irwin, “The Protestant model was that women cared for the poor and the sick. So German Jewish women adopted this model and [founded] organizations of women’s charity.”

The region’s two largest synagogues, Congregations Emanu-El and Sherith Israel, both in San Francisco, served as home bases for much of that charity work — which continued on through the decades up to the present day. Bay Area Jewish community history overflows with good works and civic virtue.

But that’s not the entire story.

Another workshop at the Lehrhaus event will explore a little known corner of history: the local Jewish response to the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. Or, more accurately, the lack of response.

“Jewish organizations were very concerned about supporting all aspects of the war effort, and at the same time fighting prejudice in all its forms,” said workshop leader Ellen Eisenberg, a history professor in Oregon who wrote a book on the subject, “The First to Cry Down Injustice?” “You see stories [in the Jewish press] week after week, but they never mention the Japanese Americans. The words around the silence made clear this was an elephant in the room.”

The internment policy was developed in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, and congressional hearings included a cross-section of Americans, including many political leaders, most strongly in favor of the policy.

By the spring of 1942, more than 115,000 West Coast–based Japanese Americans — two-thirds of them American citizens — were rounded up and sent to detention camps.

The policy was wildly popular, said Eisenberg, with only a few voices decrying the racist decrees. But at least one of those voices was Jewish.

“The most prominent is Rabbi Irving Reichert from [San Francisco’s Congregation] Emanu-El,” Eisenberg said. “Pearl Harbor was on Sunday, and the next Friday he gave a sermon talking about how we Jews have suffered persecution for centuries,” and that Jews should not buy into any persecution of loyal Japanese Americans.

Reichert went on to found the Fair Play Committee, which fought a losing battle against the internment policy.

“In a context where [the policy] was enormously popular, the Jewish community was largely silent,” Eisenberg said. “They were really torn about it.  They did perceive the injustice, and there are places this slips out. Articles in [Jewish] papers criticize the idea of imprisoning whole ethnic groups. But there is a strong dedication to supporting Roosevelt. The principal focus is on supporting the war.”

The Feb. 12 event will begin with a tribute to Magnes co-founder Seymour Fromer, who died in 2009. A short documentary film about Fromer, directed by Bill Chayes, will be screened.

A keynote address from Lehrhaus founding director Fred Rosenbaum follows. He will touch on the strain of anti-Zionism that ran through much of the local Jewish community in the years leading up to the founding of modern Israel.

From there, three panel discussions take place, each covering a distinct era in local Jewish history: the Gold Rush era and beyond; the Great Depression and World War II; and the period from the turbulent 1960s to the present.

Attendees will be able to choose a variety of workshops, which cover topics such as the local struggle on behalf of Soviet Jews, and how the local Jewish press covered the news from the mid-1980s until today (led by former j. editor and publisher Marc Klein).

The event makes up only part one of Lehrhaus Judaica’s exploration of local Jewish history. A subsequent event, “Where We Are Heading: Voices from Our Community Imagining What’s Next,” will take place Feb. 26 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

Organizers hope that, taken together, the two daylong events will give attendees the clearest picture yet of the role Jews have played and will continue to play in building the West.

“There is a lot of awareness that we’ve been here since the beginning, and that Jews contributed immensely to the social and economic fabric of Bay Area society,” Biale said. “But there is not much awareness of the specific issues we will be covering.”  

“How We Got Here: Reflecting on the Past 150 Years,” 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 12 at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. $35. Pre-registration includes $10 discount and vegetarian lunch. (510) 845-6420 or www.lehrhaus.org.

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.