Then and Now: Oakland temple nurtured famous cultural leaders

Rabbi Judah L. Magnes photo/open source

Hebrew school is finished for the year, and it’s hard to know which of the thousands of liberated kids will become the world-renowned cultural leaders of the future. It would be hard, however, to beat the track record of Temple Sinai in Oakland, established in 1875 as the First Hebrew Congregation.

Under the tutelage of Rachel “Ray” Frank, considered the first (if nonordained) female rabbi, both modernist icon Gertrude Stein and Rabbi Judah L. Magnes learned their alef-bet. Stein, who moved to Paris and pushed aside Jewish rituals, focused on the Jewish obsession with language and conversation as she helped rewrite the use of English through her wit (“There is no there there”) and her novels (“The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas”).

Gertrude Stein, 1935 photo/carl van vechten

Magnes, on the other hand, changed his name from Julian to Judah before becoming a rabbi and co-founding the American Jewish Committee and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His Jewish creativity inspired Berkeley residents Seymour and Rebecca Fromer to name their new kind of Jewish museum after him in 1962, connecting the local Jewish experiments of the 19th century with those of the 20th.

This column is provided to j. by Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where stories of local Jewish life are explored in “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.”

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.