Film chronicles California Jewish pioneers

'American Jerusalem' aims to give voice to West Coast pioneers who built Jewish community in San Francisco that remains unique in modern day

VIDEO – Jews were amongst the earliest European pioneers to settle on the West Coast of the United States during the 1850s. How they transformed a sleepy backwater into the Jewel of the Pacific – and how San Francisco changed them in its turn – is the theme of a new documentary called "American Jerusalem."


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The film is "the story of a chance encounter between an ancient people and a newborn city, and how the two would come to shape one another's destinies."


San Francisco sprang to life in the gold rush of the 1840s and 1850s. A once-small village was deluged with fortune-seekers from all over the world.


Jews came to this land of opportunity from Bavaria to escape poverty and discrimination. Barred from other professions, many of them were traders and peddlers.


In California, Jews didn't stand out as an ethnic group like they did in Europe. They soon realized that selling goods to miners could be more lucrative than panning for gold itself.


With no anti-Semitic laws holding them back, their businesses flourished.


According to "American Jerusalem" executive producer Jackie Krentzman, "Jews were among those who built San Francisco. There weren't the barriers here, so from the very beginning Jews were insiders in San Francisco."


They constructed a magnificent new synagogue in 1866, Temple Emanu-el.


"That temple said: We have arrived and we are part of that city, and we shall always remain so, a major part, a leading part of it," says historian and author Fred Rosenbaum.


Evolution of Reform Judaism

But many of the pioneers didn't worship at synagogue. Instead, the diversity and secularism of San Francisco allowed them to redefine what it meant to be Jewish.


"San Francisco represents very much the evolution of Reform Judaism," says Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Temple Emanu-el. "They might have given up Orthodoxy, they might have given up a sense of traditional practice, but there was an audacious sense of how you practice Judaism in a new way, whilst still retaining a sense of tradition.”


The documentary profiles some Jews who embraced new identities, like Lob Strauss, a Bavarian dry goods salesman who took American citizenship and changed his first name… Levi Strauss went on to spearhead the success of the world’s best-selling brand of jeans.


Financier Isaias Hellman made a vast fortune at Wells Fargo, now a global bank. His philanthropy helped San Francisco recover after the devastating 1906 earthquake.


Jews' enduring love for their West Coast home, which welcomed and accepted them in return, is reflected in the documentary's title, "American Jerusalem."


"There are many pioneer descendants in the Bay Area now, they've stayed, and they told us that in the 1800s during the Passover Seder, when you say 'next year in Jerusalem,' instead their forebears would say 'next year in San Francisco.' So they knew they had something good here," says executive producer Krentzman.


From the De Young Museum of Art to the Haas School of Business at the University of California, many Bay Area buildings still bear the name of those early pioneers.


A large part of the funding for the documentary came from their descendants, members of the nearly half a million strong local Jewish community. They also provided many of the archive images, bringing this story of hope and prosperity to life.


American Jewish history has tended to focus on East Coast Jewry. "American Jerusalem" aims to flesh out that historical record by giving voice to the West Coast pioneers who built a Jewish community that remains unique in the modern day.



פרסום ראשון: 12.10.13, 08:15
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