Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: “There's No City Like San Francisco”

When Earl Raab found that he would have to leave his Maine farm and become an urban dweller once again, he needed little time to reflect before deciding that of all the cities he knew, San Francisco was the one in which he wanted to live. In this article—one of COMMENTARY’s series of portraits of American Jewish communities—Mr, Raab reports on the quality and nature of Jewish life in the Golden Gate city.

_____________

 

“There is no city like San Francisco,” the Jews of the Golden Gate say with some conviction. But they say it in two different ways. Some say it happily, with an expansive smile. Others say it drily, and sadly shake their heads. As is usually the case in such matters, both are probably right.

The almost universal experience of any visitor to San Francisco is nostalgia-at-firstsight. This is normally the kind of reaction reserved for small villages tucked away on some by-road in a farming country with an ancient pitcher pump in the square, an ambling populace of about five hundred, an atmosphere of more or less live-witted serenity—and a single national origin and cultural heredity. San Francisco’s population is three quarters of a million. It is the commercial and banking center of the West. It is a polyglot city that has been heavily infiltrated by a dozen nationalities. Withal, there is no mistaking its village air of friendly order and homogeneity.

There is the pitcher pump, deliberately, in the form of the rheumatic old cable cars. There is the serenity, in good measure: side walks that are wide and fit the people loosely; greens and flower banks, and little flower vends on every third corner; streets that dip and bob like a merry carnival coaster; and a population that rushes only when it has some place to go.

Of course San Francisco considers itself a sophisticated and gaily flavored town (“Bagdad on the Bay”), but there are few physical evidences of upstart vulgarity and self-conscious bohemianism such as mark many modern American metropolises. Thomas Mann (in concert with others) has called San Francisco the most continental city in the country.

San Francisco is a genteel city. San Francisco is a poised city. San Francisco knows where it’s been and where it’s going.

Confronted with it, what East-weary mortal can resist nostalgia?

And what Jew will not sigh just a little longer than the rest?

_____________

 

There are fifty-five thousand Jews in San Francisco, and not even the historic traces of a ghetto. There is a Jewish community that has been called, with reason, the wealthiest, per capita, in the country. There is at the same time a startling poverty of anti-Semitic tradition. San Francisco, for cities of its size, is the nation’s “white spot” of anti-Jewish prejudice.

In near-top-level social and country clubs there is Jewish membership and even charter membership. Gentlemen’s agreements are quite uncommon in its quality residential sections, old or new. In filling public and quasi-public posts, there seems to be no trace of a policy of exclusion or “quota” or even discriminatory hesitation. At times Jewish citizens have concurrently held the presidencies of the Chamber of Commerce, the Community Chest, the Board of Education, Art, Fire, and Harbor Commissions, and many other appointive and elective posts; it is a situation that cannot be duplicated in any other city with a 6 per cent Jewish concentration.

Of course, “anti-Semitism” is not a word without meaning in San Francisco. The Jewish Survey and B’nai B’rith Community Committee handles anti-defamation matters, and across its desk every day the usual reports pass in light but steady flow. An employment agency whose cards are marked parenthetically “No J’s,” or “Blonds only.” Private cooperative housing ventures that won’t include Jews. A sidewalk altercation where someone turns out to be not only a “damned —“ but a “damned Jewish —.”

Under the impact of Hitler, a Nazi Bund was formed in the city, and a “Friends of Germany.” In the large Italian population there was a backwash of admiration for Mussolini’s Fascism. While these organizations have disappeared without even an underground trace, the people that joined them, it must be assumed, are still around. So are upwards of a hundred thousand newcomers from the Midwest and the South who came to the city to work and live during the last war.

There is, then, a steady incidence of employment discrimination and of petty uglinesses, but they are relatively infrequent and without pervasive quality; a pattern more of scattered anti-Semitism than of any policies, regulations, or encased habit. Professional anti-Semitism has never been a paying proposition in San Francisco. Efforts in that direction have always been short-lived. The tip-off is that the latrine-wall type of anti-Semitic literature that has turned up in San Francisco has been date-lined Chicago and Los Angeles, and mailed in.

So far as the city and its institutions are concerned, the Jew is a first-class citizen. It may well be that he can live in San Francisco with a greater degree of personal dignity than in any other large city in the country.

_____________

 

The attractive face of San Francisco, and the attractive status of the Jewish community within it, have common causes. The histories of the city and of its Jewish community have developed together along a shared course.

In 1848, of course, San Francisco was a mule-stop. When gold was cried and the West exploded, and San Francisco became the center of new wealth and of wealth-seekers, Jews were there with the first wave. They were, in the main, immigrants from Germany, although there were many from England, France, and Alsace-Lorraine. The second surge of Jewish pioneers in the early 50’s contained some East Europeans. They came the hard ways, the only ways, across the hazardous continent or over the Isthmus. During the High Holy Days of 1849, services were held in a tent on the old Embarcadero near the waterfront.

While the mass of the forty-niners went scrabbling into the hills for gold, there were surer fortunes to be made in the city. One Jewish immigrant landed with his baggage in ’49 and immediately invested a hundred dollars in stationery, which he sold in front of a hotel at 500 per cent profit. After a short interlude of playing a piano in a honky-tonk for an ounce of gold and a “grab” (literally a handful) of silver, he bought a store and began buying up trunks from gold speculators anxious to get into the hills. Selling these again, he made five or six thousands in seven or eight weeks. Soon, dozens of boxlike little stores were set up by his fellow Jews along the sprawling streets, heaped with hard-to-get clothing and merchandise shipped by friends and relatives in the East.

Other Jews played a part in the creation of the financial institutions on which San Francisco’s economy was to rest. They turned banker, money broker, exchange dealer. Names like Davidson, Priest, Dyer, Glazier, and Wormser were identified with the giant financial transactions that became necessary with Europe and with the East. The London, Paris, and American bank was founded by the Lazards. The Seligmans helped create the Anglo-American bank. The directorates of a half-dozen other mushrooming banks bore Jewish names. Jews became leading realty brokers, founders of engineering enterprises, and manipulators of the grain exchange. They were in on the ground floor of a speculative venture that swelled to fantastic and permanent proportions, and they made fantastic and permanent fortunes in the process. They also helped construct the basic economy of the new community of San Francisco. One of the differences between a “Shylock” and a “financial genius” is, after all, the size of his enterprise.

Further than that, some of these Jewish immigrants had brought with them uncommon strains of culture and education and qualities of leadership, and many of them plunged immediately into civic life. Samuel Marx was made United States Appraiser of the Port of San Francisco in 1851 and Joseph Shannon was County Treasurer in the same year. In 1852, Elkan Heydenfeldt and Isaac Cardozo were members of the state legislature, and Heydenfeldt was also Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court from 1852 to 1857.

The San Francisco Herald in 1851 struck the note of respect that was to be characteristic in generations to follow: “The Israelites constitute a numerous and intelligent class of our citizens and conduct themselves with great propriety and decorum. They are industrious and enterprising and make worthy members of our community.”

From the beginning, the Jews were conspicuous for their sense of community. The first two welfare organizations in San Francisco were set up by Jews. In 1850 the Eureka Benevolent Society was organized to help the needy, and it still exists as the Jewish Family Service. As the little clothing stands turned into large department stores, and the money counters into financial empires, the Jews—feeling an understandable kinship with the city—began to make large financial contributions to the general community life.

This tradition, as well as the tradition of civic participation, has persisted until today. A startling number of the pools, parks, libraries, museums, and halls that are available to the public at large, bear familiar Jewish names, aside from the many institutions that are administered under Jewish agency auspices but are non-sectarian in character (such as the very new and splendiferous Maimonides Hospital for chronic ailments, which serves a specific community need). Even the more private support of the cultural institutions of the city by the Jews has been too frequent to escape public attention—the music critic of the Chronicle recently reported that he had been informed that about 40 per cent of the deficit of the San Francisco symphony orchestra is written off by three Jewish families.

_____________

 

The fact is that the Jews in San Francisco have never been cast in the role of “intruder.” This was historically impossible. There was no aristocracy in California in 1849. There was only a rag-tail gang of money-hungry pioneers, of heterogeneous origins, welded together into a “frontier brotherhood” community. As the “first families” became incrusted, they became incrusted necessarily in amalgam with the “first families” of the Jewish community.

The Jews aside, San Francisco has maintained a degree of tolerance for minority groups that has not obtained in other cities along the coast. (Notoriously: Los Angeles.) One is prompted to speculate on the reasons for this, not only partially to explain the relationship between San Francisco and its Jewish community, but also to explain something of the nature of the Jewish community itself.

San Francisco boomed in 1849 and it has not had a really serious boom since. It was built on California gold and Nevada silver, and settled down as a financial and commercial center. It has never changed its basic character. The recent great industrial eruptions in the West—with their accompanying invasions of “barbarian hordes” from the East and the Midwest and the South, and their extensions of eastern power and influence—which have boomed and burst cities like Los Angeles and Oakland, in the main by-passed San Francisco, and were reflected only in its increased prosperity as a financial center. Indeed, San Francisco is physically not capable of much expansion along industrial or population lines. It is a compact city, bounded on three sides by water, and on the other by a number of small communities jealous of their identity. It has been estimated that, just by virtue of physical limitations, San Francisco’s top population would be around a million. As a matter of fact, the artificial surge in population which San Francisco experienced as a result of wartime activity has in large part already been dissipated. (At the end of the recent census, policemen and firemen were dispatched by frantic city officials to ring doorbells in an attempt to find untallied citizens and bring the census figure somewhere near the special 1945 figure. But, alas, almost a hundred thousand estimated people had flown the coop.

San Francisco is thus a middle-class, white-collar city. (It has the highest average percentage of office-building occupancy and the greatest telephone density in the country.) It is also a city whose top social and economic layers have remained fairly well preserved. As a result it has a conservative cast, with accompanying overtones of unblurred tradition and general noblesse oblige. (To be sure, it has also had a rather violent labor history—notably the general strike of 1934. But since San Francisco is not, like Detroit, a city of industries with a large industrial working class, its labor history has had surprisingly little effect upon the “tone” of living.)

All this has worked, of course, to preserve undisturbed the status of the Jew in the community. It has also worked to preserve the internal structure and character of the Jewish community itself. The Jewish population has increased, along with the general population, not by spectacular leaps, but by normal accretion. And the Jews attracted to San Francisco have generally been those who would not tend to disrupt the community’s basic character. There have never been in San Francisco, for instance, the job opportunities that would encourage a mass influx of Eastern Europeans of the first generation. (The garment industry is small-sized with about an 8 per cent concentration of Jewish workers. There is no other Jewish “proletariat” to speak of.)

_____________

 

There are many who claim, however, that the favorable position of the Jew in San Francisco is not just a derivative of the history and nature of the city, but also of the “historical position” and “astute leadership” of the old Jewish families who have maintained their identity and influence over several generations. This claim certainly has some truth. On the other hand, it is also true that out of this “historical position” and “astute leadership” by the older Jewish families there has developed a deep-rooted set of conflicts and a Jewish community on the verge of schism.

This schism is not so notable for its actual violence or disruptive effect, or for the number of people involved, as it is for its symptomatic quality and its implications for American Jewry in general. The history of the conflict is not just a petty scrap for power (which it sometimes has all the earmarks of being), or a local fight for “democracy,” or an ideological dispute on this or that specific; but it seems ultimately a reflection of sharp differences in approaching the fundamental problems of Jewish identity in America.

It is only recently that San Francisco has seen the dramatic enactment of this conflict. But there have long been people who felt privately or semi-privately that the Jewish community was “moribund,” that Jewish life as such was “marginal,” that the organs of Jewish expression in the city were muffled and misdirected, that Jewish community organizations were not representative, that leadership needed changing.

When these critics talk about the “leadership,” they know exactly whom they mean: certain members of the old and influential families who have firmly held their rein on community organizational life, and particularly on such agencies as the Survey Committee which long served as the de facto public relations body for the Jewish community. But when they talk about “autocracy,” they are not always clear as to exactly why, if the dissidents were in large number, no remedial action was ever effectively attempted. The explanations run variously that: the leadership was entrenched; the leadership had the money and the facilities; the atmosphere was “such as to smother” any creative activity; the body of the community was mired in a long tradition of uninterest in Jewish matters; they themselves had developed no effective leadership. Always, however, for a full explanation, it seemed necessary to add a mysterious ingredient, sometimes referred to as the San Francisco “x” factor. (Someone postulated that if a half dozen Jews of similar background, Jewish intensity, and ideology, were settled three in Los Angeles and three in San Francisco, they would be found to be very different groups in outlook and activity after five years.)

The fact is that it took nothing less than the catalysts of Hitler and the State of Israel to bring the latent elements to a boil.

_____________

 

In 1943, when the extraordinary horrors of Nazi genocide in Eastern Europe reached a publicity peak, mass meetings were conducted everywhere in this country. In San Francisco, preliminary deliberations stretched over two months. A modest conference was at first suggested and it became clear that the “traditional leadership” as such was reluctant to sponsor a mass political meeting of an obtrusively Jewish nature that had no precedent in the city’s history. A provisional committee was formed and a call was sent out for representatives. A reported fifty-three organizations responded. A prominent section of the traditional leadership, including the Survey Committee, refused to participate, personally or organizationally. On June 17, 1943, at the Civic Auditorium, more than ten thousand people packed the hall to hear Thomas Mann, Eddie Cantor, and others.

Shortly afterwards, two prominent Russian Jews, Solomon Michoels and Itzik Feffer (the latter has since been “liquidated”), were sent to this country by the Soviet Union, then our “staunch ally,” to “bind up the American Jews into one anti-fascist bloc in common with the Russian Jews.” They were received by public dignitaries and by Jewish communities at large meetings throughout the nation. Again, and with the Soviet stigma lending them added conviction, the “traditional leadership” declined to lend support to a mass San Francisco reception. Under the same sponsorship as the previous meeting, the Civic Auditorium was again filled to capacity on August 31, this time for the two Russians.

The impact of these successes, and the emergence of some earnest young men of leadership caliber, led to a round of discussions and conferences on the possibility of reconstituting organizational life in the community. A United Council was formed by the “new coalition” of organizations to provide some channel for “representative community expression.” This left the community in deep breach. A number of dismayed individuals immediately pressed for a compromise between the two camps. Several of the United Council groups were thrown into turmoil and there ensued a brief period of labyrinthine political activity out of which the United Council emerged an abortion. One of their larger groups had seceded; conciliation was the apparent order of the day, the United Council was ditched, and the compromise Association of Jewish Organizations (AJO) was formed, in full convention, to include all the elements of the community.

But, lo and legerdemain, when the smoke cleared, the AJO was revealed as an organ of traditional policy and of traditional leadership, and the cries of “aristocracy” and “no representation” were undiminished in vigor.

There is a lot of political over-the-fencing about if and why and how the AJO is “un democratic by constitution and intent.” (Example: Should the Welfare Fund have representation, as it now does, for every one hundred twenty-five members, giving it a balance of power, although there is no voting constituency and the delegates are appointed “from the top”; if not, what about the people who would not otherwise be represented and, “Where would you get a hall big enough to hold a vote of the Fund membership anyway?”)

And there is some question of how the “opposition,” claiming to represent the “popular” sentiment, having been a coalition of fifty-three separate groups, and having pulled in audiences of ten thousand people at the occasion of their mass meetings, could not exercise enough control in open convention to scotch the “undemocratic” provisions of the AJO in the first place. Answers of “sinister influence,” “inequality of leadership,” discouragement at the demise of the United Council, probably must be supplemented by some consideration of the San Francisco “x” factor.

But the central fact was that against the first major attempt to unseat them, the Old Guard firmly maintained their role as the community leadership.

_____________

 

In 1948 a picket line was set up in front of the British consulate to protest the British refusal to allow refugees to debark in Palestine. The Survey Committee promptly dispatched a letter of apology to the consulate, disavowing the demonstration. A representative of the irate picketers wrote a letter to the public press, disavowing the apology.

In the fall of 1949, several “Where Do You Stand” and “You Are Not in Exile” anti-Zionist advertisements were paid for by the American Council for Judaism and were run in the press.’The Survey Committee tried to dissuade the Council from this step, offering to publish, in lieu of the ads, a brief statement of policy under the name of the Survey Committee. The Council, however, felt that their ads should run, which they did. The Survey Committee published its own statement, anyway, “in the interests of Jewish public relations in San Francisco.” This statement embodied an attack on Ben Gurion and the late Daniel Frisch for remarks that they had made concerning the responsibilities of American Jews to Israel.

This incident again brought to a boil those people who felt that the Survey Committee was: (1) in effect, acting as the public voice for the entire community, (2) in this capacity misrepresenting the community to itself and to the world at large. (The Survey Committee calls itself “the duly organized and recognized agency for public relations in the community.”)

Out of this latest occurrence, delegates from forty-odd organizations in the community elected a working committee of about a dozen to discuss again the problem of community organizational life. This committee is currently functioning, although not in what might be called a violently activist atmosphere. (Remember the “x” factor.) Recently, in support of its claim of being neutral in ideological questions, the Survey Committee made a balancing statement about the disruptive character of the Council ads, but this has not had any visible ameliorative effects.

_____________

 

Whatever the various merits or demerits of the contending parties in the present situation, partisan polemic should not be allowed to obscure the Jewish concern of the Old Guard. The leadership, as such, has an earnest sense of its patrician responsibilities to the Jewish community, in which it has great pride. It wears with firm dignity the mantle of authority that has been handed down and feels that, as against “outsiders” and “newcomers,” it understands the traditions and peculiar necessities of the local scene.

To say, as many do, that its component members are fearful of anti-Semitism, is to say merely that they are Jews. To say that out of this fearfulness they would not be averse to a withering away of the Jewish community as such, is simply untrue: they have spent too much time, money, and sincerity on the preservation of that community. To say that they subscribe to the “craven” theory that “Jews out of sight are Jews out of mind” is untenable: they have not followed the logic of that pattern. The Bernsteins reported of the Richmond Jews (COMMENTARY, December 1949) that “they hardly ever ran for public office, and frowned on other Jews who did. They just didn’t think a Jew should put himself forward.” In San Francisco they do run for office, and they do put themselves forward prominently as citizens of the city.

“The leadership,” one of its spokesmen says (and rather piqued about having to say it), “has never acted out of fear or truckling. Quite on the contrary, it has always shown particular courage of conviction in following a line of thought. . . .” That line of thought is really a kind of political philosophy for special groups in an American community: they should not unnecessarily duplicate civic functions, nor intrude on the community with their internal problems, nor, for their own sake, engage in public relations activities which will unnecessarily offend the general community.

Of course, the leadership’s definition of “good public relations” has always been shaded by their general political complexion, which is naturally conservative and often strongly Republican. “Mass meetings and mass pressure,” they insist, “can serve no useful function in San Francisco, and can only militate against the group that uses them.”

The leadership points to its successful technique in handling anti-Semitic incidents as a blueprint for proper public relations behavior: “Once we have the facts, we contact the offender in man-to-man fashion—the American way. We explain the danger of prejudice, the unfairness of indicting a whole group, the harm it can do to a free American society.”

Several years ago a local radio station was broadcasting the program of a well-known anti-Semite. There was a movement afoot to prevail on all the Jewish clients of the station to cancel their advertising. The Survey Committee quelled this movement, and instead called on the proprietor of the radio station who, after discussion, canceled the contract.

“I’m canceling this program,” the station owner said, “because you came to me in a decent way and presented a decent argument. Had you moved in by threatening my business, I’d have fought you all the way.”

When a bus driver used offensive language, the Committee called quietly on the personnel manager; when the temples were smeared with Columbian slogans, and the culprit’s membership in a local church was traced by a private detective, they approached the priest; when a real estate concern acted out a discriminatory policy, they met with the owners in conferences lasting more than a year before convincing them, in all logic, of the error of their way.

There can be no question but that this kind of diplomatic approach to anti-Semitism in-the-fact has worked effectively to date in San Francisco.

_____________

 

As for the internal life of the Jewish community, the leadership thinks of it largely in institutional terms and is proud of its accomplishments. Certainly, in the general, there is no look of impoverishment. The orphans’ home, equipped with cottages and “mothers,” is a showpiece, generously endowed. The residence home for Jewish working girls is complete with all the extra-curricular facilities that might be desired. There is a home for the aged that is described as a “veritable hotel.” The Community Center is huge, thriving, and unstintingly equipped.

Critics (some of whom grew up in the East) certainly have no quarrel with these activities so far as they go—but they don’t think they go far enough. They feel that the leadership (and community thinking) has been too exclusively concerned with considerations of a public relations policy, on the one hand, and of a welfare community on the other. They feel that there has been too much “local Jewish community” in the thinking and not enough Judaism. They feel that the leadership has dispatched its responsibilities as far as it’s seen them, but that it has a minimal concept of a Jewish community life. Finally, many of them believe that this minimal concept, no matter how sumptuously attended, will inevitably lead to the self-annihilation of the Jewish community.

These critics point to the disparity between the tremendous sums that are generally spent on philanthropic projects and the almost negligible amounts that are allotted to such projects as Jewish education. They also deplore the paucity of activity directed towards underlining the historical mission of Judaism and the historico-mystical ties that bind Jewry to Jewry everywhere.

What they are in fact pointing up and objecting to and being frightened by, is the apparent trend of a large (and the particularly “San Franciscan”) section of the community, and its leadership, to slip away from the traditional moorings of Jewish life, to loosen its Jewish roots, and in the process eventually to blur and devitalize Judaism itself.

This kind of trend, insofar as it is a byproduct of Americanization, has its evidences all over the country, but nowhere else does it involve such a large portion of the Jewish population or have such a dominating influence. Nowhere has it had such a fertile field to develop in its “laboratory” form. Nowhere has it kept such clearly defined lines or been less obscured by “recent generation” leavening. Indeed, such leavening has served, more than anything else in recent years, to point up “the trend.”

_____________

 

In defining the various segments of the Jewish community, the synagogues serve as the most convenient and the most accurate (though always approximate) focuses. Temples Emanu-El and Sherith Israel have the largest congregations in the city, a combined total of about twenty-five hundred members. They are the Reform temples, and both had their origins in the pioneer year of 1849. (There is some disagreement about which was first.)

In these congregations all the lay leaders and the famed “leadership” of the community are found (when they can be found in any congregation). Temple Emanu-El has the preponderant number of first-family and wealthy-family names in the community. Its social character has remained more stable, having acquired less of the foreign (to San Francisco) element, and fewer of the “nouveaux.” Symptomatically, almost all of the local members of the American Council for Judaism are affiliated with Emanu-El, almost none with Sherith Israel. One rabbi has said: “Just as America will be the last citadel of capitalism, so Temple Emanu-El will be the last citadel of the kind of thing that Isaac M. Wise and Elka Cohen and Voorsanger stood for.”

In general, the diminution of ceremonial intensity in religious life that has characterized the Jew (and the Christian) in America, is particularly noticeable in San Francisco. And there has been a general (not official) stretching of the Reform philosophy at its most radical points. Some of the city’s religious leaders feel that many of those who have maintained their affiliations with the temple could very well be happy in a church of different proportions. A church that would be named, say, the American Mosaic (or Monotheistic) church where people who believed in Moses’ One God could convene to make their simple devotions, renew their faith in the moral tone of life, and where their children could attend Sunday school.

“Sunday school” is, indeed, a problem. Parents who have lived apart from any formal religious affiliation all their adult life (and, of course, in San Francisco, in a “mixed” neighborhood) are suddenly faced with growing children who desire to attend the neighborhood Sunday school (Baptist or whatever) along with the other children. Parents are continually approaching their rabbi with this problem, and even where long traveling distances are involved, are anxious to have their children receive a Jewish Sunday school education. An interest in the drama of religion inevitably captures some of the children, and there is the recurrent spectacle of children demanding of flabbergasted parents that candles be lit on Friday night.

Culturally, this segment of the population has lost its basic contact with the historical language and literature of Judaism. Hebrew education is barely existent. And the European accent is, of course, completely gone. One of the more prominent members of the community tells this story: At a private affair he was attending in Los Angeles, a number of men around the table burst into strange song. “What in the world are they singing?” he asked. He was astonished to hear that they were singing Yiddish songs. That sort of thing, he said (by way of describing the temper of the city) could never have happened in San Francisco, or at least in that large part with which he was acquainted. It says a great deal that shortly after the American Council for Judaism was formed in 1943, fourteen hundred of its twenty-five hundred national members were San Franciscans. (The local membership has dwindled since.)

The rate of intermarriage is probably greater in San Francisco than any place else in the country. This is an inevitable result of the relative freedom of social movement. One old-timer named, offhand, children of five rabbis who have intermarried in the past. It is only necessary to read the social pages of the press over the months to get a comparative index. However, it is widely believed that intermarriage has passed its peak, and that the rate will not appreciably increase.

_____________

 

The really significant fact about all these various aspects of Jewish life in San Francisco is by and large the naturalness and matter-of-factness of their development. They are not marked by evidences of self-hatred, Jewish anti-Semitism, fear, hysteria, or other minority neuroses. This is emphasized rather than confuted by the few cases of individuals in the community who follow the more obvious and self-betraying pattern of over-vehement and over-emotional “150 per cent Americanism.” It is the normal temper of San Francisco’s old-line Jews, however deviant their behavior from old Jewish patterns, to accept their Jewishness, their deviations, and their Americanism as matters of course, without conscious design, without a special sense of urgency, without schizoid complications. This is underlined by the way they go about their business, by the way they go about engaging in civic affairs, by the way they conduct their social affairs, by the way they talk about their Jewishness. However it may be elsewhere, and whatever its implications for Judaism, it is necessary to recognize that in San Francisco, by and large, the features of the Jewish community are those of an adjusted Jewry, not of a maladjusted Jewry full of jitters and tensions. To many, this “adjustment” threatens much that lies near to the heart of traditional Judaism. And there is a real problem here—the problem of best integrating the old into the new. Perhaps San Francisco does not represent the ideal integration. But who, in the glass houses of other American Jewish communities, will cast the first stone?

And it is worth remembering that so far as it concerns the majority of San Francisco’s older Jewish families, the most remarkable fact of San Francisco is not the vanishing (or shrinking) Jew, but on the contrary, the insistent Jew—the Jew who insists on being a San Francisco Jew despite the historical distance (and geographical distance) from his ethnic origins, the thorough Americanization, the complete lack of ghettoization, the social mobility, the freedom of wealth, the mutations in religious thought, and the relative isolation and absence of pressures.

There are a few sensational pioneer family names that have lost their Jewish identity entirely, but they are not significant either in number or in the indication of any permanent trend. The pattern has been rather that parents, no matter how amorphous their own religious conceptions, or how distant their connections, have invariably sent their children to a Jewish Sunday school, helping them to obtain a sense, however vague, of their Jewish heritage. Families that are intermarried have, much more often than not, continued their active identification with and participation in the Jewish community. Even those who have disaffiliated, formally or effectively, from religious congregations, or are strictly “High Holiday men,” insist vehemently on their Jewish identity and engage in the active leadership of the Jewish community.

This may seem strange in an area where the sentiment is strong that “Jews are members of a religion and nothing more.” But one man said: “Of course I’m a Jew. I’m a Jew by religion. Is a Jew not religious because he doesn’t go to temple every Friday night?” There is an overwhelming emphasis on the ethical texture, which men like this feel is unique to, and inherent in, the Jewish religion: rachmones or a deep-felt (not just formal or ideological) compassion for fellow men. This, along with a personal devotion to One God, they feel, is the essence of the Jewish religion, and they know they are Jews because they feel it and live by it and believe in it. It is on this level that they explain emotional generosities and philanthropies and the liberal activities so often out of character with a politically conservative cast.

It is not generally accepted in these quarters that Judaism is “religion, plus . . .” as it has sometimes been defined, that the American Jew has more of a historical identity as Jew than as American. Yet on the occasion of Israel’s fight for independence and its constitution as a nation, many of San Francisco’s anti-Zionists were profoundly affected, and the tone of the whole community shifted perceptibly. “What happened there,” one of the old stalwarts of the American Council for Judaism said, “must affect the feelings of Jews everywhere.”

Other Jews were stirred by roots they never thought they had. As a matter of fact there has been recently in the “integrated circles” an intensification of religious life, as there has been in the rest of the country. This has been reflected in temple attendance and activity. And of the recently installed rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, one of the Conservative-Orthodox rabbis in town said: “He is, if anything, a more intense Jew than I am.”

_____________

 

The religious structure of the Jewish community has in the past reflected the Americanized tendencies of the leadership of the older families, and the Reform temples are the most important. But there are also two fair-sized Conservative congregations in town—one of which can still understand an address in Yiddish—and a scattering of Orthodoxy. Influenced by the same historical circumstances as the older settlers, but on a smaller scale, these people generally consider themselves integrated civically and socially into San Francisco. There is little evidence of intermarriage in their ranks, but there is a tendency for them, with the accumulation of time of residence, position, and influence, to move over to Sherith Israel, the next step on the ladder to Emanu-El. And some of those who maintain their affiliation elsewhere have liked to send their children to temple Sunday school so that, as one rabbi said, “little Sarah might grow up with and catch the eye of some little San Francisco scion.”

There is, community-wide, a relatively small synagogue attendance and—compared with other large cities—a relatively light preoccupation with Jewish affairs at large. (Although, again in pattern, the Welfare Fund in San Francisco has had the reputation of having a higher percentage of contributors in relation to the population than any city but Boston. In recent years, however, a number of the more wealthy donors have withheld their contributions because they felt that too much of it was going to Israel. Last year the local president of the Fund estimated that a quarter of a million dollars had been lost among large donors because of an “undercurrent of ideological differences.” This tendency is diminishing.)

One member of the community seriously offered as a partial explanation of the generally limited amount of synagogue activity the fact that San Francisco had such fine weather that people weren’t so disposed to go to meetings or services. But considering the climate of Palestine, or at the very least Los Angeles, it would seem that the predisposition to apathy (after all, the San Francisco “x” factor) owes less to the temperature of the air than to the tone of the community.

The vocal critics of the present leadership of San Francisco’s Jewish community are centered mainly around several hundred people who feel strongly about traditional Judaism and world Jewish affairs. They aren’t interested in excommunicating those whose personal Judaism has taken a different turn (“They are mostly good men. They have done fine things here. But because of their background they are out of step with Jewish life. A Jewish community cannot flourish without its traditions, its historical and cultural references . . .”) so much as they are interested in making their own influence felt, sponsoring activity along more traditionally religious and more Zionist lines. They feel that a different leadership would give a different, “more specifically Jewish,” complexion to the community, and this is what they hope to achieve.

The “Old Guard,” for its part, is not anxious to relinquish any more of the office of leadership than it has to. It believes that it is properly restraining these newer elements whose activities might be alien to the traditions of the city and deteriorative of the good public relations they have so meticulously set up. Although they are not so articulate about their own conceptions of Judaism, it is clear that they feel that it is not they who are “out of step” but their critics, who fail to recognize that Jewish life must mean something different to third-generation American Jews from what it did to their ancestors cooped up in the ghettos of Europe and rejected by the world.

“Majority” is cried on both sides but there has been no counting of noses. (In any case, most of the noses of the community wouldn’t be twitching excitedly in any direction.) At this point, “unity of expression” does not seem possible or, by any democratic standards, desirable. There is some sentiment in the committee that is sporadically working on the problem to set up a parallel body to the Survey Committee that can, whenever necessary, sponsor programs or make statements

that will reflect an independent viewpoint on specific Jewish matters. It does not seem that, under the circumstances, such a body would seriously give aid to anti-Semitism in the city—if indeed that is a valid consideration at all—or that, on the other hand, it would seriously change the basic character of the local community.

_____________

 

Whatever happens on that level, it seems that in certain areas the disputants are becoming more amenable to cooperation. In 1948 the AJO held a meeting to greet Reuven Dafni, West Coast consul of Israel, and everybody came. Dafni wrote a letter to the AJO stating that he was gratified in the understanding that it was the “first time” that all the elements of San Francisco had so gathered. Recently all the groups have been working cooperatively in opposition to the Mundt-Nixon bill.

A prominent “both camps” man in town said: “Give us five or ten years more and all this bickering will have been reconciled.” He is probably over-optimistic, but the gap in general is not so great as it was ten years ago. San Francisco is less isolated. No matter how neat its own back yard may be, it is no longer so easy as it once was to ignore the untidiness of the outside world, or to resist its pressures. The younger generation, in all classes, has teethed on Hitler and Israel and modern war. It is less certain of the righteousness of the status quo; it is more perplexed about things in general, and more consciously interested in its Jewishness in particular, than were its fathers and grandfathers.

The over-all character of San Francisco’s community seems to be in for some “pendulum” change, however slight and however temporary. But come what may, the bulk of the Jews of San Francisco, neither vanished nor concerned with themselves as laboratory specimens, will merely thank the Lord that in whatever fashion they find it necessary to practice their Judaism, they are doing it in San Francisco.

_____________

 

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.