A story not everybody knows: Work begins on doc explaining Jewish impact on local history

Isaias W. Hellman would have been quite befuddled to find his stately manor overrun with lights, cameras and action.

Still, producer Jackie Krentzman could not have picked a more appropriate location than Oakland’s Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate to film a documentary about Bay Area Jewish history.

The historic 16,000-square-foot colonial looks like something out of “Gone With the Wind.” From 1906 until the early 1960s, it was the summer home of the Hellmans, one of the Bay Area’s prominent Jewish families when it came to philanthropy and business. Their patriarch was Isaias W. Hellman, who died in 1920 and whose legacy includes Wells Fargo  Bank.

Historian Kevin Starr (left) with producer Jackie Krentzman, director Marc Shaffer and co-producer Camille Servan-Schreiber, who are working on a film about Jews’ impact on Bay Area history. photo/cathleen maclearie

Preserved much as it was in the old days, the estate now belongs to the city of Oakland. For Krentzman and her crew, it provided the perfect backdrop to do interviews for her film, tentatively titled “American Jerusalem: The Jews and the Building of San Francisco.”

“Not everybody in [the Bay Area] knows this story,” said Krentzman, a Cleveland-born magazine writer and U.C. Berkeley journalism professor making her first pass at filmmaking. “The role of the Jews in the West is not a story told by historians. It’s been virtually ignored. I thought this is a crime. That was the impetus [for the film].”

Drawing on materials from the Western Jewish Americana Archives of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art And Life, as well as in-depth interviews with prominent local historians such as Ava Kahn and Lehrhaus Judaica co-founder Fred Rosenbaum, the film will be one of the first documentaries on the subject.

“There are plenty of books,” Kretzman said, “but there’s never been a high-production value film.” The film will be distributed to public televiosn, with KQED a target for airing the one-hour documentary sometime this fall, she added.

Meanwhile, she has a lot more filming to do. Already in the can are interviews with scholars such as Rosenbaum, Jewish Studies professor Marc Dollinger and Kevin Starr, former state librarian and the preeminent scholar on the history of California.

Starr, 71, showed up at the mansion on a recent, chilly morning, dressed immaculately with pink pocket-handkerchief and bow tie. His input is important because he can describe the environment in Gold Rush-era California, when ambitious young German Jews, such as Levi Strauss and Adolph Sutro, came west to make their fortune.

Kevin Starr prepares for filming. photo/cathleen maclearie

Sutro, who went on to become rich in the Comstock Load silver boom, and eventually became the maker of modern San Francisco, is the protagonist of the film.

And why wouldn’t he be, given he was the city’s first Jewish mayor and creator of the famed Sutro Baths?

“Sutro is the greatest real estate developer this city has ever seen,” Starr said on camera under questioning from director Marc Shaffer. “He was a one-man redevelopment agency. At one point, he owned one-twelfth of the San Francisco peninsula.”

Starr’s interview was conducted in the Dunsmuir Hellman parlor, replete with mahogany paneled walls and Mexican onyx fireplace.

While the camera rolled, Krentzman sat in the foyer, watching on a monitor. Whenever Starr said something especially eloquent, she silently pumped her fist in the air. Each pithy quote constituted one more piece of a complicated cinematic puzzle.

A big part of that puzzle will come when she and her crew head for Germany later this month to film scenes in Sutro’s hometown.

“It isn’t like we have a script right now,” Krentzman said. “We’re still researching. We have someone at [U.C. Berkeley’s] Bancroft Library looking for photos. A lot of this gets worked out in editing.”

There’s one more thing to work out: the budget. Though the Skirball Foundation, the Goldman Fund, the Koret Foundation, the Pritzker Foundation and Warren Hellman, who died Dec. 18, 2011, contributed substantially to the $1.2 million production budget, Krentzman is still working on closing a $400,000 shortfall.

She’s confident she’ll get there, she said, in part because she has never had a problem getting people excited about the project.

“It wasn’t just about one small [community of people] in one city,” she said of the film’s topic. “It had huge implications and [the story] wasn’t being told. Filmmakers love a story that’s never been told.”

Once she got producer Bonni Cohen on board about 18 months ago, Krentzman lined up backers and a crew, including Shaffer, who has been creating PBS films and network news programs for decades. Cohen founded Actual Films, an independent documentary film company based in San Francisco, which produced “The Rape of Europa” about the Third Reich’s theft and destruction of art.

Rather than end “American Jerusalem” with the 1906 earthquake and fire, the plan is to end this film with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which ran for nearly 10 months in 1915 and reintroduced a rebuilt San Francisco to the world.

It seemed to Krentzman like a more upbeat way to fade out the story of the Jewish impact on early Bay Area history.

And as Starr, who is Catholic, finished his interview by saying, “When it comes to culture, philanthropy and higher civic ambition, no other group played a greater role than the Jewish community,” Krentzman gave another silent fist pump.

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.