Jews who took part in the 1849 gold rush in San Francisco helped shape one of America's lesser known Jewish communities — that was at one point the second largest behind New York City.
Mention San Francisco and a myriad of associations are likely to come to mind: trolley cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, the 49ers, the Golden Gate Bridge. One thing probably not making it into anyone’s Top 10 list: the city’s Jewish legacy of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
That oversight should be rectified for those who watch American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco on WHYY-TV on April 12.
The hour-long documentary is the brainchild of Jackie Krentzman, a 52-year-old journalist entrepreneur. She spent three years raising the funding — $1 million, an unusually large number for a documentary that is reflected in the film’s historical and geographic scope — and building the team to delve into the forces that turned a remote bayside village of a few hundred in 1848 into a metropolis-in-the-making that boasted the largest Jewish population in the United States outside of New York City by 1870.
The growth was attributed first and foremost to the discovery of gold in the area in 1849, leading to the gold rush, which brought people from all over the world to seek their fortune. Among the hopeful masses of prospectors were a significant number of German Jews fleeing the restrictions of life in their homeland.
Krentzman’s crew journeyed to interview Monika Berthold-Hilpert, the curator of the Jewish Museum of Franconia, who provided a chillingly dispassionate translation of the numerous edicts enacted against the Jews by authorities throughout Germany. These included laws that forbade them from working in certain industries and towns, from farming for a living and from any offspring other than the eldest marrying or having children.
Small wonder, then, that the prospect of a trans-Atlantic crossing, followed by the choice of a six-month overland journey, a 13,000-mile clipper ship sail around Cape Horn or a 40-day trek through the pre-canal wilds of Panama didn’t daunt those first Jewish pioneers. Among the first wave of immigrants were Levi Strauss, who went on to found the eponymous clothing company; Isaias Hellman, who transformed Wells Fargo from a backwater bank to the gold standard of American banking; and Adolph Sutro, who made his fortune in the Comstock Lode rush in neighboring Nevada that fueled San Francisco’s growth after the 1849 gold rush dried up. Sutro went on to become the first Jewish mayor of an American city.
Krentzman was somewhat aware of the city’s Jewish history, but had never given it too much thought prior to being commissioned by the San Francisco Jewish Family and Children’s Services to write a book commemorating the agency’s 160th anniversary in 2010. “I had never made a film before in my life,” she said laughingly during a telephone interview. “I’m a magazine journalist!”
Krentzman soon discovered that while there were a number of books that explored the subject, there had never been a documentary that looked at the Jewish community’s contributions to San Francisco.
The appeal of the city to the thousands of Jews who trekked there — by 1870, more than 10 percent of the city’s population of 160,000 was Jewish — lay in the unlimited ways in which they could contribute. Strauss, Hellman and Sutro were just three of the most prominent examples of how San Francisco embraced its Jewish citizens.
A prime example of this is the 1858 postponement of Steamer Day. Because of the city’s remoteness at the time, virtually everything had to be shipped to the city. The cargo ships would arrive irregularly, according to weather and currents, and when they did, the whole city would shut down in a daylong celebration/unloading event. In 1858, one Steamer Day was set to occur on Yom Kippur. In an amazing show of respect and solidarity, the city delayed the celebrations — and the unloading of supplies — for a day to accommodate the Jewish population on its holiest day.
American Jerusalem shows that the city’s Jewish establishment did not always return the favor to other minorities. When there was civil unrest and racial hatred directed at Chinese immigrants during a period of high unemployment in the 1870s, American Jerusalem shows, the city’s Jews, who had experienced virtually no anti-Semitism, in some cases actually joined in the anti-Chinese sentiments. Krentzman says that part of the reason the Jews were reluctant to get involved was their concern that it wasn’t much of a leap to go from blaming the Chinese for societal ills to blaming them.
A decade later, the same issue reappeared, only in a more intimate fashion. As thousands of Eastern European Jews fled the oppression of their native countries for America, the city’s Jewish leaders, including the rabbi at the leading synagogue, called for blocking the new immigrants from settling in the city for fear their Old World ways would damage the standing they had built over the past decades. There was even an organized, ultimately futile, effort to purchase land and settle the new arrivals in Baja California, Mexico.
“The anti-Eastern European sentiment was particularly important,” Krentzman says, “because San Francisco was the most dominant German Jewish society in America. The agencies there would send people back to the East Coast with a train ticket!”
Ultimately, the Jewish aid societies helped settle and assimilate the new immigrants.
Krentzman says the success that those early Jewish settlers experienced in becoming an integral part of American society also led to a still-evolving balancing act between maintaining identity and assimilating. According to her, the city is a great example of the recent Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans — for worse and for better.
Yes, she says, the city has a high intermarriage rate and a low synagogue attendance rate, “but there are many ways to be Jewish here, like social justice groups and the Mission Minyan, where the techsters get together on a Friday night.” Whether panning for gold or beta-testing apps, it seems like every generation of prospectors needs to create a sense of community.
IF YOU GO
American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco
April 12 at 5 p.m.