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Editor's Report: The Jews of San Francisco: How Jews from Bavaria Germany Fleeing Persecution Landed in the City by the Bay

By RHONDA SPIVAK, August 30, 2015



I was in San  Francisco a year ago on a weekend in August where  there happened to be an earthquake  registering a magnitude of 6.1 that hit  nearby in Napa Valley during the middle of the night   causing significant damage. Although others in my hotel awoke to feel their beds shaking and witness hangers in their closets moving, I thankfully slept right through the whole thing. I learned of it only when I awoke in the morning and heard others in my hotel talking about it. Since earlier in the summer I had managed to be in Israel for most of the war with Hamas, I had had enough "excitement" for the summer.



While In San Francisco I became curious to learning about the origins of the Jewish community there, one of the largest Jewish communities in North America. (And it turns out that this history has become more interesting to me given the fact that I visited both Munich and Nuremberg in Bavaria Germany in the past couple of years).  That's because many of the thousands of Jews who first arrived in San Francisco following the James Marshall's discovery of gold in Northern California in 1848, came from Bavaria, Germany and other German speaking lands of central Europe where they were fleeing persecution.   Bavaria in the 1800's, was  a very Catholic society, where Jews were restricted to living in ghettos, were not allowed to attend universities, farm or join guilds or hold public office.    According to the Jewish encyclopedia of 1906 (, there was also a "Matrikel-Gesetz" (registration-law), in effect  that prevented Jews increasing in numbers. Whoever had no "Matrikel" (license) was not able to have a family-as the saying was "the path to the wedding-canopy led only over the coffin of one who had already been registered." All of this resulted in "one-half of the Jewish youth of Bavaria" emigrating to the United States.  According to this encyclopedia, it wasn't until 1872 that  Jews  received equal rights in Bavaria). 



In hindsight, it is easy to say that those impoverished Jewish adventurers who  made the long and difficult journey to San-Francisco from Bavaria after 1848, seeking a better life and an escape from persecution in , made very sound decisions.. Their emigration to the United States meant that their descendants would  be spared  being in Bavaria, as it later went on to become the birthplace of Adolf Hitler's Nazism  in the 1920's. (Indeed, Jews in Bavaria were among the first victims of the Nazi movement, which spread from Munich and Nuremberg. Dachau in Bavaria became the first concentration camp built by the Nazis and many Jews from Germany and other countries in Europe perished there. Almost all of the 1,000 Bavarian Jews who survived the Holocaust were saved because they were married to Germans or were born of mixed marriages.



In addition to Bavaria and the Prussian province of Posen (seized from Poland in 1793), Jews arrived in San Francisco from England or the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and a few were Sephardim from the West Indies or the American South. Like everyone else who arrived in San Francisco following the gold rush, they were looking for riches and a way to reinvent themselves. 



When the first Jews arrived, San Francisco was a fast growing city brand new city. In 1848 prior to the discovery of gold, San Francisco was a remote little village, with only approximately 500 non-Indians living there. But by 1850 it had a population of 30,000. Many Jews who arrived to San Francisco from rural Germany had been peddlers, which was one of the few occupations open to them. But in the gateway boom town that was San Francisco they were able to become successful merchants, they started banks and dry goods stores, and they ran for public office. 



One example of a Bavarian German Jew who rose to fame was Levi Strauss, who in 1853 in San Francisco founded  Levi Strauss & Co the first company to manufacture blue jeans.



What was most unique about San Francisco was that it became a place where Jews were able to find social acceptance more easily than other cities, since when they arrived there was no   established aristocracy. Jews, who were accepted as Whites, were thus able to integrate into the fabric of society. A relatively recent documentary " American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco", a co-production of Actual Films and Switchback Films, outlines how Jews were able to integrate and become San Franciscan "insiders".  The website of American Jerusalem has a "Summary" of the documentary which says:



"In San Francisco they [Jews] found their Promised Land. In the middle of the 19th century, San Francisco’s infrastructure and institutions were not yet built. Therefore, and in stark contrast to cities elsewhere in America, where Jews had to fit into an existing power structure, many Jewish pioneers built those institutions, becoming prominent merchants, politicians, and civic leaders.


By 1870 the city was a thriving metropolis of 150,000, of which more than 10% were Jews—the largest Jewish population outside of New York City."(



The "Summary" continues by concluding that,


"During the Gold Rush, San Francisco accepted Jews as just another part of white society, and as a result Jews integrated into and had a greater impact on the building and defining of this city than anywhere else in America, or the world.  For the first time in American Jewish history, the ultimate outsiders, the Jews, became insiders."




In San Francisco "Antisemitism was less noticeable than in many other parts of America, and Jew, were "rarely perceived as interlopers", according to the website of the Jewish Virtual Library 



One other defining feature of the early Jewish Jews who came to San Francisco was that they were not wed to tradition. As Warren Hellman, great-grandson of the California banker Isaias Hellman told Moment Magazine of the early Jewish pioneers to San Francisco “They knew they were coming to a place where there were no synagogues—and no rabbis,” As the article concludes, like their " fellow free-spirited non-Jewish" immigrants, " gold, not God, was foremost on their minds."



The early Jewish pioneers of San Francisco, who were faced with unlimited opportunity and access, shed their traditional ways and opened themselves up to innovation and change when it came to their Jewish identity. This fact is likely one of the reasons that the Jewish community of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish community to this day is unlike other Jewish communities in the United States. As stated in the summary of the website for the documentary American Jerusalem.(, today the San Francisco Jewish community is on the whole "more diverse, secular, and open, with a lower rate of synagogue attendance and a higher rate of intermarriage" 



Given that the religious bent of the frontier Jewish pioneers of San Francisco was liberal, it is no surprise that the two earliest synagogues, Emanu-El and Sherith Israel, both formed in the first week of April 1851, over time came to embrace Reform Judaism.



Another interesting feature of the San Francisco Jewish community is that although Jews have integrated and found success throughout the city, there has never been an area that historically there has never been a really Jewish neighborhood of San Francisco. 



In American Jerusalem, historian Marc Dollinger remarks, "Throughout most of Jewish history, if you asked Jews who they were, their response would be 'Jewish'.  Because 'Jewish' trumps Russian or Polish or French or German.  But in San Francisco, Jews quickly become San Franciscans. They become its chief cheerleaders and advocates, and they are very, very proud of their city."



There was no established aristocracy in San Francisco; the main status symbol was race. Shaffer says that in this new place, "Jews were accepted as white, and able to compete alongside other whites for success.  That was a brand new experience for them."



 San Francisco’s infrastructure and institutions were not yet built. Therefore, and in stark contrast to cities elsewhere in America, where Jews had to fit into an existing power structure, many Jewish pioneers built those institutions, becoming prominent merchants, politicians, and civic leaders.



By 1870 the city was a thriving metropolis of 150,000, of which more than 10% were Jews—the largest Jewish population outside of New York City.  By day Jewish and non-Jewish businessmen cut backroom deals; by night they would occasionally socialize with one another. 



American Jerusalem begins in Germany, in the Nuremberg State Archives, which houses documents that severely restricted the Jews, and in the countryside of Bavaria, where 150 years ago the Jews were impoverished, second-class citizens denied basic rights. It follows them through the jungles of Panama by boat and on foot, to their arrival in Gold Rush San Francisco. Using archival photos, re-creations, and animation, American Jerusalem traces how when given the opportunity, these pioneering Jews built upon their skills as peddlers, one of the few occupations open to them in their native Germany and one that was poorly valued, to become powerful merchants in San Francisco as well as civic leaders and philanthropists.

(For those wishing to visit Jewish San Francisco, in addition to numerous synagogues and the the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, there is a Contemporary Jewish Museum. )

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.