When the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) opened on June 8, 2008, it created a physical landmark for San Francisco’s rich Jewish heritage, which is spread across numerous sites and hundreds of years. The inspiration for this remarkable building on the north side of Mission street near San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens is the Hebrew word l’chaim which means “to life.”
In the words of its chief architect, Daniel Libeskind, the symbolic Hebrew letters “chet” and “yud,” key letters in the word l’chaim “are literally the life source and the form of the museum.” He explains that “chet” is the anchor for the exhibition spaces and the “yud,” located on the pedestrian connector, gives a new identity to the southern façade of the building, the historic Jessie Street Power Substation. The 63,000-square-foot museum located at 736 Mission St. brings together tradition and innovation, past, present and future. More than 3,000 diamond-shaped blue steel panels blanket the building’s striking new extension.
Largely funded by Bay Area donors, the museum is only the latest evidence of a philanthropic tradition dating back to the Gold Rush and, in particular, a man named Levi Strauss. Strauss made a deal with Jacob Davis to patent, mass produce and distribute denim pants reinforced with rivets. Together they applied for patent #139,121 on May 23, 1873, considered to be the official “birthday” of blue jeans.
Descendents of Strauss, including the Stern, Haas and Goldman families, have left a rich legacy throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. This legacy of giving began in 1897 when Strauss endowed 28 scholarships at the University of California Berkeley. The tradition continues with Stern Grove, home to a free Sunday concert series every summer; the Haas School of Business, and Haas Pavilion at the University of California, Berkeley. A $15 million grant made in the spring of 2007 to the Presidio created 24 miles of new trails, six scenic overlooks and upgrade San Francisco’s only campground, Rob Hill. Joshua Abraham Norton figured prominently as a prosperous merchant during the Gold Rush as well. Treated like royalty, the self-proclaimed Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico issued proclamations ranging from the firing of all public officials to a call for religious unity. He also advocated for the levying of a $25 fine on anyone who referred to San Francisco as “Frisco,” and was a staunch advocate of a bridge spanning the bay.
Among the individuals and families who also figured prominently in the early development of San Francisco and whose influence is still felt here are Adolf Sutro, who at one point owned 12 percent of San Francisco, including the land surrounding the Cliff House; Max J. Brandenstein, founder of MJB Coffee in 1894; the Hellman family, long associated with Wells Fargo Bank; the Swigs, founders of the Fairmont hotel company; the Koshlands, whose ranks include an early associate of Levi Strauss & Co. and eminent bioscientist Daniel Koshland; and Zellerbach, of the eponymous Crown Zellerbach, paper packaging and forest products firm. The first Jewish American female to serve in Congress hailed from San Francisco: Florence Kahn in 1924. Political leaders also included Abe Ruef, an early “mover and shaker”; Harvey Milk, the “Mayor of Castro Street” and one of the city’s first openly gay leaders; and current U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. In the 60s rock impresario Bill Graham, born Wolfgang Grajonica, made The Fillmore the world capital of rock, featuring such groups as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Cyril Magnin, known as “Mr. San Francisco,” was the city’s first Chief of Protocol and founder of the Joseph Magnin retail stores.
Today the Bay Area is home to the third largest Jewish community in the United States. Visitors can enjoy a number of events and attractions. Among them are the Haas-Lilienthal House, 2007 Franklin St. The former residence of a grocer, the restored Victorian offers a glimpse of upper middle class Jewish American life in the 1800s. George Segal’s Holocaust Memorial is located on a bluff near the Legion of Honor.
The Holocaust Center of Northern California is located at 2245 Post Street. Dedicated to the education, documentation, research and remembrance of the Holocaust, the center was founded in 1977. Across the bay Berkeley’s Judah Magnes Museum is also the site of the Western Jewish History Center, the world’s largest repository of materials documenting the contribution of Jews to the life, experience and history of the American West up to the present.
Temples of note include the Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., one of the few public buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake, and Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., which has been singled out for architectural honors by the American Institute of Architects. Founded in 1977 Congregation Sha’ar Zahav is a progressive Reform synagogue for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual Jews. The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco offers a diverse lineup of events. One of San Francisco’s newest cultural institutions, the Kanbar Performing Arts Center, is the home of the San Francisco Girls Chorus.
Other notable events and performing arts groups are: the Jewish Film Festival, the Jewish Music Festival, Traveling Jewish Theatre and Israel Independence Day. Chabad of San Francisco joins with the San Francisco Giants every summer to sponsor Jewish Heritage Night and also the annual menorah lighting in Union Square. The holidays also include the irreverent Kung Pao Kosher Comedy.
Finance and fashion. Music and mining. Humor and hospitality. Temples and torts. The Jewish American influence on San Francisco is writ large across a landscape that has been transformed by ingenuity and invention. L’chaim!