December 12, 2018

California Jews

Mounted in the west wall of San Francisco’s Sherith Israel is a 45-foot-by-30-foot stained-and-painted glass window of Moses delivering the Ten Commandments. Off to Moses’ right stand the Israelite flag-bearers, holding blue-and-white and red-and-white banners. The 1904 construction of Sherith Israel’s dramatic window, a survivor of the great 1906 earthquake, brought Moses and Mosaic law west.

This stunning window graced the cover of the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage’s brochure announcing a one-day symposium last month, “California Jews: Generation to Generation,”which examined many of California Jewry’s permutations in this latest of promised lands, from Gold Rush days to Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer’s senatorial campaigns.

Jewish trailblazers followed the gold in 1848, overland from the East Coast, by sea and land via Panama and Nicaragua, and around Tierra del Fuego. They brought mercantile skills and entrepreneurial flair, setting up shop next to gold claims and bordellos. Often Jewish merchants were effectively the first public officials in a town, using their literacy and avid desire for public order and stability to record land and mining claims. The occasional Jew in Gold Country soon found his fellows — there were initially few women — and memorable but short-lived congregations. By 1880, San Francisco housed the second-largest Jewish community in the United States.

Symposium leaders Ava F. Kahn and Marc Dollinger, whose book “California Jews” will be published next year, brought together scholars studying diverse areas of California Jewish life: synagogue architecture, the film industry, Berkeley counterculture and local community history. The symposium was convened to aid Autry curators in preparation of the February 2002 exhibit, “Jewish Life in the American West: Generation to Generation.” Supported in part by Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, the Maurice Amado Foundation, the Wells Fargo Foundation, the Plum Foundation and the Jewish Community Foundation, this exhibit will highlight the Autry’s efforts to display the contributions of the many different groups and individuals who built the West.

Of notable local interest were both Felicia Herman and Amy Hill Shevitz. The former laid to rest the canard that Jews in the early film industry were completely estranged from the Jewish community; the latter used the history of Venice’s Jewish community to illustrate how Jews use and response to their physical environment, in this case beach and ocean.

As part of the programming leading up to the exhibit, the Autry presents on Sat., June 30, a radio drama, “Mitzvah on the Mesa,” the story of Solomon Bibo, a European-born refugee from Prussian anti-Semitism who married into the Acoma tribe in New Mexico.

Sherith Israel’s striking window illuminates the wonders of Jews in California and the West. Two flags, two colors call forth Jewish loyalty: the banner of tradition and the flag of the United States. Moses the teacher descended in the desert, but descended to live where ever Jews built their homes. Some homes, like California, have been particularly pleasant and welcoming.

For more information on the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage, call (323) 667-2000 or go to