Californians feel proud of the state’s identity as a place where people can remake themselves, a haven for freethinkers who don’t care about a person’s past. But a new documentary, American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco, puts a twist on that stereotype, asking what happens when persecuted outsiders find a place where they can thrive as insiders.
The film, which will debut this spring, was conceived and produced by Berkeley resident Jackie Krentzman and directed by Oaklander Marc Shaffer. It portrays early San Francisco as a blank slate with no pre-existing infrastructure—and therefore little anti-Semitism. Jews settled in and quickly got to work creating this pop-up city. “There was no established power structure in San Francisco,” says Shaffer. “The playing field was particularly level when they arrived.”
Shaffer, whose impressive credits include work for PBS (including Frontline) and the National Geographic Channel—he’s received three Emmy nominations—notes that many of San Francisco’s early Jews were astonished at the opportunities they found here. As marginalized outsiders in Europe, they were undervalued and their jobs reflected their low status. “They were not allowed to farm or own land outside their home,” he says, “so they turned to peddling, selling things.”
Ironically, those were the very skills a fledgling American community needed. And although few new Californians made it rich finding gold, many found wealth in selling the materials needed to hunt it down: pickaxes, pans and mules. “[Jews] were treated better than they had been in millennia,” says Shaffer. And, in San Francisco, race mattered more than religion, meaning that no barrier prevented European Jews from climbing the ladder to success, or from stepping off as captains of industry.
Key figures in American Jerusalem include Levi Strauss, whose blue jeans empire began as a dry goods business, and Adolph Sutro, elected as San Francisco’s first Jewish mayor in 1894. Interviews for the film were shot at Oakland’s Dunsmuir House, once the residence of the influential West Coast financier Isaias Hellman. Krentzman, who raised $850,000 for the project ($250,000 is still needed for post-production work) also took the crew to Germany to shoot relevant segments.
For both Krentzman and Shaffer, the film’s topic resonates personally. “I was raised in a traditional Jewish household in Ohio, and basically the one way to do it was, you go to temple,” says Krentzman. Moving to the Bay Area, she found there were “a million ways to connect with being Jewish. There were no real Jewish neighborhoods, the opposite of my experience, which I found refreshing.” There’s a reason for the difference, she points out. Pioneering Jews had no way to keep kosher on the six-month voyage to San Francisco, and in the fledgling city there was no rabbinical authority and rarely 10 Jewish men to create a minyan, the quorum needed for public prayer. So these early Jews in San Francisco had to find another way to express their Judaism. “They created a broader tent of what it means to be Jewish,” she says.
Shaffer tells a similar story. “As a secular Jew, I’m often reflecting on what makes me a Jew. I don’t speak Hebrew, I don’t read Torah, I never bar mitzvah’d,” he says. “It was powerful to learn that in this window of time in history, people were breaking out of rigid traditional roles—whether Catholic, Presbyterian or Jewish. It was a period of rich transition from prescribed identities and practices to free-thinking and invention.”
To make a contribution toward American Jerusalem: 510-524-7499.
For more information and to view a trailer: www.americanjerusalem.com.