Exploring Jewish San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Well beyond the iconic Fisherman’s Wharf, the past, the present and the future of Jewish life all are evident in San Francisco, a city that boasts everything from an outstanding contemporary Jewish museum to beautiful historic synagogues to a neighborhood deli known as Moishe’s Pippic, a name that gives the nod to the humble belly button.

Here’s a report on some of the many attractions the city has to offer visitors wanting to learn more about its Jewish roots.


The past

Myles Wynn, a young man pressed into duty as a tour guide on a recent sunny Tuesday, leads a visitor into a small chapel at Temple Emanu-el. “I was married here,” he says with quiet pride. Then, this: “Are you a ‘Star Trek’ fan?” Unfazed by the odd segue, the visitor answers affirmatively. “Look at this,” says Wynn. There, gracing a stained-glass window, is a rendering of the Vulcan salute.

“Leonard Nimoy, who is Jewish, told Gene Roddenberry that he based the Vulcan salute on this blessing used by the High Priests,” Wynn continues. The blessing, performed with both hands and thumbs touching, represents the Hebrew letter Shin. The story goes that as a boy, Nimoy saw the blessing performed at an Orthodox synagogue and he clearly liked the look of it. Wynn beams.

Founded in 1851, Temple Emanu-el has six rabbis and serves 2,600 families. Dedicated in 1926, the current building is an example of Levantine architecture based on a Byzantine-Roman tradition. The central dome over the main sanctuary rises 150 feet above street level. Many esteemed individuals have spoken under that dome, among them Golda Meir, Abba Eban, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Elie Weisel, Maya Angelou and Dr. Cornel West.

Temple Emanu-el is at 2 Lake Street. Free tours are offered from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. (For more information, see www.emanuelsf.org or call 415-751-2535.) Congregation Sherith Israel, at 2266 California Street, shares the same Gold Rush roots as Emanu-el and has an equally impressive history. (See www.sherithisrael.org/)

Sculptor George Segal created the moving Holocaust Memorial, located on the edge of the continent near the Legion of Honor (an art museum) in Lincoln Park at 34th Avenue and Clement Street. Titled “The Holocaust,” the memorial consists of a single standing figure looking out to sea through a barbed wire fence. Behind the figure are statues of 10 emaciated women, men and children, all sprawled on the ground. Dedicated Nov. 7, 1984, the memorial contains a plaque that reads: “In Remembrance Is the Secret of Redemption.”

The Judah L. Magnes Museum, at 2911 Russell Street in nearby Berkeley, holds more than 8,000 examples of ceremonial and decorative art, including metalwork, textiles, costumes, and jewelry. Said to be the largest history center relating to the Jews in the American West, the Magnes Museum focuses on the Jewish experience through its collections, original exhibitions and programs. The museum also offers opportunities for research, though some of the archives are currently being moved. (For more information, see www.magnes.org or call 510-549-6950.)

The present

At the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco, Julie Seltzer, 34, is completing a Torah scroll as part of the exhibition “As It Is Written: Project 304,805.” (The figure refers to the number of letters in the Torah.) The museum’s scribe in residence, Seltzer is one of about 10 professionally trained female soferets (scribes) in the world. On a video that is part of the exhibition, Seltzer says, “Sometimes, I’m involved in the story and sometimes, I’m not – I’m just writing, which is very meditative.”

Seltzer has been working at the museum since October, but was absent a few days in December due to an injured hand. In addition to Seltzer’s work table, the exhibition includes displays on the rules for completing a Torah scroll, information on the composition of the ink used, antique Torah cases from India that date back to 1830 and 1891, respectively, and some 18th Century Torah finials from Morocco.

On the first floor of the museum, an 8-year-old girl searches with her mother for paintings bathed in moonlight. “That’s seven,” she says. “No, wait – I see another one, and another. That’s nine.” The two are visiting “There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak,” a retrospective of Maurice Sendak’s work that closed on Jan. 19. “Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf” opened Feb. 11 and runs through June 8. Artist Linda Ellia invited artists and the public to respond to the text of Adolph Hitler’s book, and the creative efforts will be on display.

The beautiful Yud Gallery, studded with 36 diamond-shaped skylights, holds a brown couch (complete with orange pillows) from the 1950s where visitors may sit and listen to numbers from Jewish American music history. ” ‘Jews on Vinyl’ is one of our most popular exhibits,” says Jen Morris, director of marketing and communications. “We are a non-collecting museum, so our shows are always rotating, but the demand to keep this one is high.”

A small treasure in the museum is a display titled “Being Jewish: A Bay Area Portrait,” a photo collage that also includes various present-day artifacts, including a denim yarmulke. In the gift shop, you can buy a T-shirt that reads “Yo Semite.” The national park with a similar name is just a couple of hours away. The Caf é on the Square offers food that is more than a cut above typical museum caf é fare, including house-smoked wild salmon salad.

Founded in 1984, the museum opened in June 2008 at its current location, which originally was an electrical power substation that has been re-imagined by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. Architectural tours are offered daily.

Located at 736 Mission Street, the museum is open Friday through Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed on Wednesdays and open from 1 to 8 p.m. on Thursdays. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students and people over 65. After 5 p.m. on Thursday, admission is $5. Special tours are available throughout the week. For more information, see www.thecjm.org or call 415-655-7800.

Founded in 1978, the award-winning Jewish Theater San Francisco will present the West Coast premiere of “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” by Josh Kornbluth from April 8 through May 16. The company is based at 470 Florida Street. For ticket information, see www.tjt-sf.org or call 415-292-1233.

Hungry? Check out the house-made chopped liver at Moishe’s Pippic, 425 Hayes Street. Owner Joe Sattler has decorated his deli with Chicago memorabilia. “I did that to be different,” says Sattler. “There are 3,400 restaurants in San Francisco, and to be successful I knew I had to dream up something different.” Other options include Tel Aviv Kosher Meats Deli at 2495 Irving Street and Sabra Grill at 419 Grant Avenue.

The future

“The Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life is the first of its kind in the nation,” says Angela Engel at the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco. “The campus includes a JCC, Jewish family residences and a children’s center. It’s nothing short of revolutionary.”

The Campus opened in September in Palo Alto, about 35 minutes south of San Francisco in what is known as the South Peninsula. The founding and construction of the campus began in 2001 with a collaboration among the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center (now the Oshman Family JCC) in Palo Alto, the Jewish Home in San Francisco, the Jewish Community Federation and local community leaders. For more information, see www.taubekoretcampus.org or call 650-223-8656.