Time-tripping through San Francisco’s Jewish story

John Rothmann doesn’t need to ring the doorbell at the 130-year-old Haas-Lilienthal House. He has a key and can let himself in.

Unlike the 5,000 annual visitors who tour the exquisitely preserved, three-story Victorian mansion on San Francisco’s Franklin Street, Rothmann, 67, is family.

His forebears built the house and lived there. As a child he spent hours exploring its 24 rooms, playing with the electric train set in the attic and staring up at the austere oil portraits of his ancestors, the Jewish men and women who built San Francisco.

(Clockwise from top) Sutro Baths illustration 1896 (Wikipedia), remains of Eureka Benevolent Society (JFCS), Haas-Lilienthal House (Wikipedia), Beth Israel confirmation class 1920 (Courtesy Magnes), old Emanu-El edifice on Sutter (Wikipedia), Alice Haas-Samuel Lilienthal wedding (SF Heritage)

“This is a national treasure,” says Rothmann, standing in the downstairs ballroom, where his ancestors gathered for Christmas Eve dinner. A longtime radio talk show host, he has amassed a prolific knowledge of the Jewish history of his native city. “This is the only home you can go to [in order] to understand the Jewish roots of San Francisco.”

Did he say Christmas Eve dinner? The families that made up the city’s early German-Jewish elite — Haas, Lilienthal, Stern, Bransten and others — were proud Jews but equally proud Americans. And for them, nothing was more American than Christmas.

Though the house was donated to San Francisco Heritage in 1973, descendants of the original families still throw a Christmas party every year, tree and all. It’s a reminder of how a band of ambitious, visionary Jews started with nothing and ended up thriving in a city famed for its tolerance.

In many respects, Jews did indeed build San Francisco. First arriving with the Gold Rush in 1849, they came in successive waves of immigration, creating major businesses and civic institutions, serving in government, dominating philanthropy and putting their permanent mark on the culture of the city, from Levi Strauss & Co. to Stern Grove to Fleishhacker Pool.

Much of the city’s history went up in smoke in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Some that remains standing is hidden, transformed or in disrepair. Fortunately, plenty is intact and remarkably unchanged after more than a century.

It’s all there, awaiting discovery for the curious, whether out-of-town visitors interested in learning about the city’s Jewish past or locals who want to get in touch with the Jewish city that was.

The Haas-Lilienthal House was built on Franklin Street in 1886 and stayed in the family for generations. photo/sfheritage

Unlike the sprawling smogalopolis 450 miles to the south, San Francisco is relatively compact, at its northern end eight miles wide from bay to breakers. Exploring its Jewish history is quite doable on foot. All it takes is one free day, a good pair of shoes and two working legs that don’t mind hills. Having a knowledgeable guide to point out landmarks and recount tales of San Francisco’s Jewish glories, past and present, makes the trek even more rewarding.

“This was a community where people came to lose themselves,” says Rothmann, a fourth-generation San Franciscan who took this reporter on a recent walk through the city’s Jewish past. “You could come here with no identity and re-create yourself. This was a community in which you could assimilate. There wasn’t time to hate Jews.”

Historian and author Fred Rosenbaum, who also leads guided tours of the city, has studied for decades the German-born men and women who established Jewish San Francisco. The founding director of Lehrhaus Judaica, he literally wrote the book on that history in 2009 with “Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area.”

“They were not observant of the religion,” he notes, “but their Jewish background is related to great acts, not just philanthropic, but organizational work and volunteerism.”

At 450 Sutter St. stands a landmark 26-story building that today houses mostly medical offices. Built in 1926, it made the National Registry of Historic Places for its glittering art deco lobby and entranceway.

Bertha and William Haas visiting Venice in 1911 photo/sfheritage

A generation before the building’s construction, something else stood on the site: a splendid synagogue with two octagonal, gold-tipped spires visible from the Berkeley Hills 20 miles away.

This was Temple Emanu-El, a San Francisco Reform congregation founded in 1850 that only 16 years later had acquired such wealth and prominence it could afford the $200,000 construction cost of a new Sutter Street synagogue.

“Some considered this the most majestic building on the West Coast,” Rosenbaum says. “It was built like a gothic cathedral, with flying buttresses. When you think about that synagogue … founded by mostly young immigrants from Bavaria, in American history there are very few examples of how one group could have this emerging elite crystalize in such a short period.”

These were men like Levi Strauss, a Bavarian Jew who came to San Francisco in 1853, opened a dry goods business and eventually made a fortune with blue jeans. The Lilienthals, also Bavarian Jews, became S.F.-based wholesalers of whisky. William Haas founded a grocery business. The Hellmans went into banking. The Brandensteins (later changed to Bransten) founded MJB Coffee, the Zellerbachs a paper company. The Gerstles made it big in fisheries and the fur trade.

Most of them headquartered their businesses in downtown San Francisco, also home to the Emanu-El Sisterhood, the Eureka Benevolent Society (forerunner of today’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services), three Jewish newspapers and B’nai B’rith, with its library of 15,000 volumes.

All were wiped out in the earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906. The destruction even spread to a Jewish cemetery in Colma, where 800 tombstones toppled and the chapel was wrecked beyond repair.

“The devastation cannot be overstated,” Rosenbaum says. “The Jewish community turned virtually all of its attention to trying to rebuild and help people.”

Charles Haas, one of Bertha and William’s three children, with wife Fanny Stern and daughter Madeleine photo/sfheritage

The Sutter Street synagogue was rebuilt, but Rosenbaum says it was never the same. In the late 1920s, Emanu-El relocated to its present site on Lake Street on the edge of Presidio Heights.

The 1906 fire consumed every Jewish landmark east of Van Ness Avenue, which served as a kind of firebreak. That’s why Rothmann starts his tours of Jewish San Francisco at the Haas-Lilienthal House, one block west of Van Ness.

Built in 1886, the house survived with minimal damage, though one large wall crack was left unrepaired to remind residents and visitors what the city endured.

Originally, it was the home of William and Bertha Haas, both community machers. He was on the board of Wells Fargo, served as president of Mount Zion, the city’s first Jewish hospital, and was a generous donor to the progenitor of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. She was a director of the Emanu-El Sisterhood.

Together they had three children, who as adults lived within a few blocks of the Franklin Street mansion. Designed by Peter Schmidt, the house outshines other Victorians in the neighborhood: Queen Anne-style, with multiple gables and a 67-foot turreted tower looking out on the four winds.

Made of redwood and fir, the 11,500-square-foot interior evokes a “Downton Abbey” vibe. The dining room features brass fixtures, Italian marble and an oak coffered ceiling. The sitting room has a paneled bay window topped with stained glass. The furnishings are much as they were when the last family member, Alice Haas Lilienthal, lived there until her death in 1972.

Front parlor photo/wikimedia commons

The kitchen is a time machine, with antique fixtures, narrow tiled counters and a solid wooden table. Vintage MJB Coffee cans line the top of the oven.

A rotating staff of servants, hailing from as far away as Ireland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Sweden, France and China, assisted the residents in maintaining their upper-class ways. Many servants stayed for decades, the family sustaining them financially in retirement.

Rothmann points to out-of-the-way treasures he remembers from his childhood: a handmade dollhouse and doll collection in the kids’ room; the electric train set and tracks built in the 1930s; needlework pieces his aunts and great-aunts knitted ages ago; and a dark wooden Chinese chest-of-drawers Rothmann suspects may be the most valuable piece in the house.

Electric train room photo/dan pine

“I saw it in its heyday,” Rothmann says of the house. “It was like living in the 1920s.”

Sitting at the immense formal dining room table, Rothmann reminisces about his ancestors, some of whom were Zionists in the days before the creation of the State of Israel. Others were equally ardent anti-Zionists, a common sentiment among San Francisco’s Jewish elite. “After 1948,” he adds, “all became supporters of Israel.”

Rothmann clutches one of the only overtly Jewish objects in the house: a brass lamp he said was regularly lit on Shabbat.

“There’s no mezuzah,” says Rosenbaum of the house’s iconic representation of San Francisco Jewry. “Indeed, that reflected the very remarkable Jewish identity of these people. Almost all of them belonged to Emanu-El, but they only went twice a year, and often the men in the house missed even that.”

As the 19th century drew to a close, outside the quiet house a bustling city grew, its Jewish population growing along with it.

Heading down Van Ness toward Post one comes across the two-story building that from 1909 until last year housed the Concordia-Argonaut, the city’s oldest Jewish private club. In 2015 the club sold its building and relocated to the Presidio Golf Club.

Trekking over to Buchanan Street and walking north, one spies the dome of Congregation Sherith Israel, rising up like a Florentine wonder.

Earlier this year, Sherith Israel made the JTA Jewish news agency’s list of nine iconic sites that celebrate American Jewish history, the only one in Northern California.

John Rothmann in the Haas-Lilienthal dining room where he played as a child  photo/dan pine

Designed by French architect Albert Pissis, the 1905 beaux-arts structure on California Street replaced the previous Sherith Israel edifice at Post and Taylor. The new one withstood the quake and became one of the Jewish community’s most important hubs. City government and courts established temporary offices there during the fire recovery period.

The cavernous sanctuary is among the crown jewels of Jewish San Francisco. Stained-glass windows depicting Moses carrying the Ten Commandments down from Yosemite’s Half Dome reflect the sense that for San Francisco’s Jews, California was the new Promised Land.

“The building has always been a special place to me,” says Sherith Israel vice president Craig Etlin, who is happy to show visitors around. “The first time I walked into that building, I was mesmerized, awestruck.”

A real estate lawyer by trade, Etlin played a key role in Sherith Israel’s current $16 million seismic retrofit. All unreinforced masonry has been replaced, requiring workers to dig down to the building’s bones and install steel rebar and vinyl grouting.

“There’s nothing about this building that is simple,” Etlin adds. “I think the Jewish community at the turn of the last century built this so it would be here for generations to come. I’ve had the benefit of that. My kids have.”

Stepping out of Sherith Israel and following the sun westward, one traces the progress of San Francisco Jewish history. After the first wave of German and Prussian Jews in the mid-19th century came the Yiddish-speaking and decidedly poorer Eastern European Jews.

“This second major wave started around 1881,” Rothmann says, with many settling around McAllister and Fillmore streets, “and all of a sudden there was a thriving Jewish community with kosher butcher shops and synagogues.”

The sanctuary of Congregation Sherith Israel, a 1905 beaux-arts structure that survived the earthquake and fire

Those neighborhoods were not exclusively Jewish. Other ethnic groups crowded in, making for teeming street scenes not unlike New York’s Lower East Side.

“They had some very colorful neighborhoods,” says Rosenbaum of the Eastern European immigrants. “The first was called South of the Slot, off Market Street. It was a rough neighborhood, with horse stables and decrepit housing. What remains there today? Not much.”

Another neighborhood was called Out the Road, located in the Portola District around San Bruno Avenue and sporting saloons, boarding houses, migrant farm laborers, fishermen and sailors. Among the Irish, Scandinavians, Germans and Italians lived about 5,000 Jews, with their own kosher butchers, dairies and grocers.

But the blocks around the Fillmore-McAllister area were the most important, according to Rosenbaum, packed with businesses, Jewish and non.

“It was like an amusement park,” he says. “It was one of the entertainment centers, with eight movie theaters, a vaudeville, a skating rink, music halls and restaurants. It was anything but a ghetto. It was more like Coney Island than Hester Street.”

Adolph Sutro

As the city expanded westward, so did the Jews, into the Richmond District and beyond. Congregation Beth Sholom has been on the same 14th Avenue site since the 1930s. Rosenbaum notes its legendary rabbi who started at that time, Saul White, was an outspoken Zionist during a period when others, notably Emanu-El’s fiery Rabbi Irving Reichert, spoke out against forming a Jewish state. The two and their supporters often clashed in the pages of The Emanu-El, this publication’s precursor.

There were more Jewish immigration waves to come.

During and after World War II, Holocaust survivors and refugees, including those who had fled Germany to Shanghai, made their way to the United States, many to Northern California. They formed B’nai Emunah and Ner Tamid, both Conservative congregations in the Sunset District.

Their tragic journey is commemorated in the Holocaust Memorial at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, sculpted by artist George Segal and installed in 1984. The chilling tableau features a score of ghostly white figures sprawled on the ground, with one lone survivor clutching at barbed wire.

A massive influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and again in the 1990s caused a dramatic shift in the composition and culture of the city’s Jewish community. Only New York City took in more Russian-speaking immigrants.

Sutro Baths opened in 1896 on Ocean Beach below the Cliff House. photos/wikipedia

And more recently the wave of immigrants has come from Israel, tens of thousands moving to the Bay Area mainly to work in high-tech. Most have settled in and around Silicon Valley, but plenty live in the city, too.

Keep going to the city’s westernmost point and the trek through time ends at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, at the remains of the Sutro Baths. Opened in 1896, this magnificent indoor swimming facility was built by Mayor Adolph Sutro, another German Jewish immigrant who struck it rich and gave back to his city.

Fire destroyed the baths in 1966, and today only the foundation is left — an apt metaphor for the generations of Jewish arrivals to the city, who left foundations on which others have built.

As for future generations, Rothmann and Rosenbaum are leaving nothing to chance. The two men, along with Haas descendant Alice Russell-Shapiro, are leading a $4 million campaign to restore the Haas-Lilienthal House. Structural and electrical upgrades, exterior façade work, interior touch-up and repair of fixtures and furniture are all on the wish list.  Rothmann says the campaign is most of the way there.

Once restored, organizers hope the house will serve for generations as a reminder of the immeasurable Jewish contribution to the city by the bay.

“What was the basis of their Jewish expression?” Rosenbaum asks. “It was doing good works. That group, that German Jewish elite, was the most philanthropic group in the entire city, not only in terms of Jewish organizations, but the city as a whole. It stemmed from the sense that to be a Jew was to better the community in which you live.”

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.