a black and white photo of Dianne Feinstein lighting a menorah
This undated photo of Dianne Feinstein lighting a menorah is one of many images of her accumulated in the J. archives over her long career in the public eye.

Feinstein’s Jewish story was part of her political legacy

Updated at 8:48 a.m. Oct. 3 with funeral details.

Hours after casting a morning roll call vote on the U.S. Senate floor last Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein died of natural causes in her Washington, D.C., home at 2 a.m. on Sept. 29. Feinstein, 90, had planned to complete the last of her six terms in the Senate and retire at the end of next year, capping off a political career that spanned more than five decades.

Her body was brought to San Francisco on Saturday and transported to Sinai Memorial Chapel. She will lie in state at San Francisco City Hall on Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., with a funeral service the following day at 1 p.m. on the steps of City Hall, followed by a private family burial in Colma.

Throughout her life in the public eye, including notably as the mayor of San Francisco, Feinstein ran openly as a Jew, spoke out against antisemitism and advocated for policies that support Israel. However, she rarely shared details of her Jewish story.

Feinstein was the oldest sitting U.S. senator and California’s longest-serving senator.  Elected in 1992 alongside Barbara Boxer, they became the first Jewish women to win seats in the Senate. Today 25 women are senators. Feinstein’s successor, Laphonza Butler, was sworn in on October 3.

On the news of Feinstein’s death, Boxer wrote to J., “We made history together and we proved having more women in politics was a real plus for our country. [Her] legacy lives on.”

Born Dianne Goldman in 1933 in San Francisco, Feinstein attended a Catholic girls school, “in accordance with her mother’s wishes,” according to the Jewish Women’s Archive. She was the first Jewish student to graduate from Convent of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic high school in San Francisco, according to the archive. She attended Sunday school at Congregation Emanu-El and later was confirmed.

“She chose to be Jewish,” said Boxer, 82, speaking to J. in March. She served alongside Feinstein in the Senate from 1993 to 2017. “That, to me, is extremely admirable. To go in that direction when you know … you’re going to face some prejudice for it. I find it to be very admirable.”

Indeed, Feinstein spoke about the antisemitism she faced early in her political career.

“Originally, when I first went into public office I received hate mail based on my religion, but since that time, and during my term as mayor, there’s been very little,” Feinstein said in 1990 while campaigning for governor of California, according to an article in the Jewish Bulletin (forerunner to J.).

“I’ve had graffiti on my home, Stars of David and religious and sexist slurs painted on the walkway, and I just go out and take them off,” Feinstein added, speaking at an Oakland event of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay Women’s Division.

According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Feinstein’s father, Leon Goldman, became chief of surgery at UCSF and the first Jew to attain the rank of full professor at the medical school. Her paternal grandfather, Sam Goldman, who emigrated from Poland, helped found three synagogues in California, including Berkeley’s Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel. Her mother, Betty Goldman, whose maiden name was Rosenburg, “had a more distant relationship with Judaism,” according to the Jewish Women’s Archive, which notes that members of Betty’s family attended a Russian Orthodox church.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks to the media in Washington, D.C., Sept. 27, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Zach Gibson-Getty Images)
Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks to the media in Washington, D.C., Sept. 27, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Zach Gibson-Getty Images)

Retired Superior Court Judge and longtime politician Quentin Kopp, who is 95, recalls meeting Feinstein in 1956 when she was just 22. Kopp had recently relocated from New York to San Francisco after finishing his tour in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.

“We were both single, and somebody told me about this Jewish girl who graduated Stanford and lived at Presidio Terrace,” Kopp, who serves on J.’s board, said in an interview. He called her and they made plans to meet for a first date. However, when Kopp met her at her childhood home, Feinstein backed out on their dinner plans, saying her mother was sick in bed. The two never arranged another date, though much later, starting in the early 1970s, they served together on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Months after the thwarted date, Feinstein reportedly eloped with Jack Berman, a Jewish lawyer who later became a Superior Court judge. They had a daughter, Katherine, Feinstein’s only child, and divorced a few years later.

On Monday, Kopp sent a condolence card to Katherine Feinstein, whom he knew well when she was a San Francisco County Superior Court judge.

“I wrote that her mother’s many extraordinary qualities of heart and mind will be acutely missed by all those Californians who knew her and whom she represented, and certainly by her own family,” Kopp said.

Feinstein married Canadian surgeon Bertram Feinstein in 1962. He was the director of Mount Zion Hospital’s neurological institute from 1971 to 1974 and co-director of the pain center from 1974 until his death in 1978.

In 1980, Feinstein married her third husband, Richard Blum, a successful investment banker and financial manager who died last year. They joined Congregation Sherith Israel in 1992, according to synagogue records, though it’s unknown when their membership ended. She was also a Hadassah life member.

Feinstein became mayor of San Francisco in November 1978 following the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. She was the city’s first Jewish mayor since Adolph Heinrich Joseph Sutro, who served from 1895 to 1897.

While mayor, Feinstein rejected a proposal to make San Francisco a sister city with Leningrad because, she said, the Soviet Union prevented Jewish emigration and had “repressive Soviet policies toward Jews,” according to a 1984 Jewish Bulletin article.

In 1984, she visited Europe’s oldest Jewish ghetto in Venice, Italy, during a trip with Hadassah.

“There you understand the need to speak up loudly and clearly against anti-Semitism, wherever it be. If we don’t, there will be more ghettos, there will be another Holocaust,” Feinstein said in a public address during her visit, according to the Bulletin article.

At the time, Feinstein had been working with a Board of Supervisors committee to create a Holocaust monument that would help educate the public. The monument, created by sculptor George Segal, was installed and dedicated outside San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in 1984.

During her run for governor in 1990, Feinstein told the Jewish Bulletin that if she were elected it “would be a very clear signal that people accept and are willing to vote for someone who is Jewish, and who is a woman. And I think if I win that acceptance, it bodes well for every minority.”

Susan Koret (right), San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Joseph Koret at the opening of Cassidy’s Western Outfitters on Market Street in 1981.
Susan Koret (left), San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Joseph Koret at the opening of Cassidy’s Western Outfitters on Market Street in 1981.

Feinstein lost the governor’s race to Pete Wilson. Two years later, she and Boxer were elected to the Senate.

Boxer today describes her own run as a longshot, coming from a small congressional district that represented Marin and Sonoma counties, while Feinstein was “very highly respected” and a well-known name in California politics. The fact that they were both Jewish, women and Democrats from the same area, Boxer said, could have pitted them against each other in the primaries. Instead, they campaigned together.

“She took my hand, literally, and we went around the state together. I think that just showed tremendous sisterhood,” Boxer said in March. “They called us Thelma and Louise.”

Once in office, she said they established a policy of “do no harm” to each other, despite holding different political philosophies. Boxer was more progressive, and Feinstein was “mainstream, moderate,” Boxer said. “But when it came to California, we were joined at the hip.”

One of the first issues they took up together after they were elected was calling on the federal government to stop selling military-grade weapons to Middle Eastern Arab countries, in an effort to protect Israel.

Feinstein visited Israel several times, first touring during her time as mayor in 1986.

“No Jew can come here without feeling a deep sense of pride in all that has been accomplished,” she said during that first visit. “Israel means that Jews will never again be sent to gas chambers. If my family had not left Eastern Europe when they did, I might well have been one of the victims instead of standing here.”

Anita Friedman, a longtime personal friend of Feinstein’s and the current executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, traveled with Feinstein on that trip.

“The Senator and I walked up the ramp together to Masada at sunrise which was very meaningful to us both, and we remained good friends,” Friedman said in an email to J. on Monday. Friedman noted that Feinstein was also a trusted ally, and the two worked together for decades on behalf of the Jewish community “and on behalf of everyone in our state and our country.”

Feinstein had been a staunch gun control advocate since the assassinations of Moscone and Milk in 1978. She is credited as the architect of the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons, a year after an attack at 101 California St. that killed eight. She ushered the bill through Congress in her second year in the Senate.

In 1997, after the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms granted the Israeli government permission to export a modified version of the Uzi and Galil military-style assault weapons to the United States, Feinstein publicly denounced the Israeli government’s role in arming Americans with assault weapons and wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to stop the transfer of arms.

“Each of us was sent here to solve problems,” Feinstein said in February this year, announcing her plans to retire at the end of 2024. “That’s what I’ve done for the last 30 years.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.