Sue Barnett in Rosh Hanikra, northern Israel, on her confirmation trip in 1975.
Sue Barnett in Rosh Hanikra, northern Israel, on her confirmation trip in 1975.

A search for myself in our newly digitized archives kicks up the Jewish dust

Remember the olden days when we all used to Google ourselves and be amazed that we were on the internet? Well, I recently did the same with J.’s digital archives, and I was amazed to find myself there, too. My 15-year-old self.

I’m a born-and-raised San Franciscan with what I believe was an undistinguished history of Jewish involvement, starting in childhood and peaking somewhere around confirmation.

Your honors, let the record show that one “Sue Barnett” (that’s me) has in fact shown a lifelong pattern of engagement with the Jewish community, albeit spotty and fickle. May it please the court, I hereby present this abbreviated and annotated version of “This Is Your Life (and There’s No Denying It).”

My big debut in the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin on Dec. 5, 1975, announces the installation of officers for my B’nai B’rith Girls chapter. I had been elected as “historian” of San Francisco No. 1, which carried the prestige of being the first BBG chapter in the country. In reality, it was (if memory serves) also one of the Bay Area’s worst. Maybe the No. 1 worst.

What made it so? We had no popular girls. And without popular girls, we had no AZA boys hanging around us, either. Our numbers were small, several of us were on the dorky side, and we lost most competitions (B’nai B’rith Youth Organization was a very competitive arena, regularly pitting chapters against each other in spirit contests and the like). This is how I recall it. But I was an overthinking, overly self-aware teen, not one of those super-confident Jewish girls that seemed to come fully formed out of the suburbs.

Sue Barnett (left), in a fashionable-for-the-time dress, poses with roommates at the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization convention in 1977.
Sue Barnett (left), in a fashionable-for-the-time dress, poses with roommates at the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization convention in 1977.

In July 1977 I am being installed, once again, as chapter historian. Was it the only post available? Was I returning by popular demand? The article doesn’t say. In January 1978, I step up and become vice president, my last hurrah in BBG before graduating high school. Sadly, it also means the end of after-meeting trips to Zim’s for fries and hot fudge sundaes in parfait glasses.

There’s a pause in the archives for 10 years while I’m off getting a college education and working my first job. The exception is one blip in November 1982 when my name comes up in the “About Folks” column announcing I’ve been named editor of my college paper — 100% my mom sent that one in.


BROWSE THE ARCHIVES: jweekly.com/archives


I reappear more substantially in the archives circa 1987, now entrenched as the Jewish Bulletin’s copy editor and sometimes reporter. I can’t say I’m thrilled that my early writing — I’ll be generous and call it “uneven” — is now preserved for all the world to see. I might need to scrub the archives when I finally decide to get famous.

My first reported story begins thusly: “The greatest obstacle to Mideast peace lies within Israel’s own borders, according to Labor Knesset member Abba Eban, who was the featured speaker at the Israel Bonds Prime Minister’s Club dinner in San Francisco Sunday.”

Are you asleep yet? I think I am.

I interviewed the esteemed diplomat in his hotel suite before the speech, and my distinct memory of that night was how I was too nervous to scoot my tape recorder closer to Mr. Eban, and later when I listened to the playback, his voice was tinny and inaudible. Of course, my own voice asking questions came booming through.

Sue Barnett in the J. office looking through bound archival volumes. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Sue Barnett in the J. office looking through bound archival volumes. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

I haven’t thought about that small fiasco in a long time. See what fun memories crop up when you dig into your history? You should try it.

As I scroll through my articles, I’m heartened to see some growth. From a December 1990 interview at Square One Restaurant in San Francisco with romance novelist Judith Krantz, promoting her new book: “Wrapped in an oversized fur coat, her lightly frosted blonde hair swept up, and wearing a thick gold bangle bracelet inscribed with ‘Scruples,’ the diminutive, 96-pound writer clearly was enjoying this tour.”

And not that I’ve forgotten being in Israel during the first Gulf War in 1991, racing to the hotel’s “sealed room” as Scud rockets crashed down on Tel Aviv, but it’s still nice to have access to those stories again. Same with a series of articles in 1993 after a journalists’ trip to Tunisia where I sat in an interview with Yasir Arafat.

Things get pretty quiet, archive-wise, after 1994, which is when I leave the Jewish Bulletin for greener (ahem) pastures. I do go on to have two children, as evidenced by their birth announcements in 1995 and 1999. But otherwise I have no clue what I was doing during the nearly 20-year gap that followed, since there’s no Jewish public record of my activities.

And then, in 2011, my name pops up in the staff box once again. Over time it starts crawling up the masthead, until it gets all the way to managing editor and the present day.

Reviewing my life in this bubble, it looks like I’ve come full circle, starting in 1975 when, as San Francisco No. 1’s historian, I was responsible for writing and editing a newsletter about our chapter’s social events, fundraising and other important Jewish news.

This continuity could be purely coincidental. But maybe the connecting dots show that my path was predestined all along. And if that’s true, I guess I’m where I was meant to be.

Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is interim editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].