Recently I lunched at the Concordia-Argonaut Club, San Francisco’s venerable Jewish social club at the corner of Van Ness and Post.
There are so few places where one can use that verb.
Walking in the front door, up the carpeted stairs and into the marble lobby, I felt swept back to … well, not to anything I’d ever known personally, never having been a member of a men’s club (which the Concordia was until recently) or of a private club of any kind.
I waited in the library for my date to arrive, perusing the photographs of past club presidents on the wall. There was immediate past president Lou Haas, smiling as usual, then a lineup of somber-looking gentlemen stretching back to the 19th century, the more recent clean-shaven faces giving way to beards and top hats.
The club’s roots date back to the 1840s and ’50s, when German men’s clubs, or vereinen, dotted the San Francisco social scene. While wealthy German Jews and non-Jews mixed easily in the city’s early days, soon the “best” men’s clubs were excluding Jews here as they did elsewhere in the country.
In 1865 Levi Strauss led a group of prominent German Jews in establishing a Jewish men’s club in San Francisco: the Concordia, which later merged with the descendant of one of the early vereinen to become the Concordia-Argonaut. All the great Bay Area Jewish families have come through its doors — Koshland, Dinkelspiel, Fleischhacker, Goldman, Haas, Koshland, Lilienthal, Newman and Zellerbach, to name a few. They came to socialize, to play poker and exercise in the gym, to have a shvitz in the steam room and shmooze with the guys.
Historian Stephen Dobbs remembers his father, attorney and political figure Harold Dobbs, taking him to the club in the early ’50s. “It was always a special place to go,” he told me. “I’d go to the gymnasium, play basketball, eat in the fabulous dining room.”
The elder Dobbs was president in the early 1960s when the club admitted its first African American member, baseball great Willie Mays. The vote was so contentious, however, that Dobbs resigned afterward. “He said it bothered him that any members of his club would harbor such racist sentiments,” Stephen recalls.
This and other pivotal moments in the club’s history are chronicled in “House of Harmony,” a lively accounting of its first 130 years written by Bernice Scharlach in 1983 — before women were admitted as members, and before Annette Dobbs (Stephen’s mother) became the first female board member.
Scharlach must have bitten clear through her tongue when she spoke to local matrons who insisted it was “just fine” that their menfolk would go off to the club while they stayed home. In May 1974, Dianne Feinstein showed up with three other women for lunch. They had to get a male member to pay for them.
In the midst of my reveries, Patricia Rosenberg, aka my date, breezed into the library, all smiles and apologies. A high-powered San Francisco litigator and third-generation Concordia member, in 2009 she became the club’s first female president.
Rosenberg, 49, is one of the club’s biggest promoters, and not just because it’s her job. “I love this place,” she told me as we dug into our matzah ball soup. “Not only do we have this incredible history, but it’s a place to work out — we have the most beautiful pool in the city — we have lectures, classes.
“The people you meet here, the friendships you make, it’s unparalleled. You walk through these doors and it’s your refuge.”
When Rosenberg was growing up in Atherton in the 1960s, nearby country clubs were “restricted” — that meant no Jews or blacks. Today about 15 percent of the Concordia’s members are not Jewish. There are still many more men than women, but that’s changing — slowly, she admits.
The club’s biggest challenge is getting new members. There used to be a two-year waiting list, but today membership is well below its capacity of 625. Private clubs are not as popular as they were.
Past president Haas, who says he “raised” his two boys at the club, says there has been an influx of younger members lately. Still, he agrees, there’s “no question” the club needs new members. “All the city’s clubs do,” he points out. “But this one is special. After 148 years, I’d hate to see it ever go away.”
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.