Friday, January 17, 1997 | return to: local


Jewish history center marks three decades of capturing the past

by LESLIE KATZ, Bulletin Staff

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Considered by many to be the foremost repository of materials on Jews in the 13 Western United States, the WJHC this year celebrates its 30th anniversary. It provides scholars and community members with a picture of Western Jewish life from the Gold Rush era through modern times.

To mark the occasion, the organization plans a number of events, including a Thursday, Jan. 23 benefit to honor Louis Heilbron, a founding member of the WJHC's advisory committee.

Though Magnes Director Seymour Fromer began collecting historical documents in 1962, the WJHC formally came to life in 1967, when the museum acquired its current building at 2911 Russell St. Independent from the museum but linked to it through resources and personnel, the center now had a home of its own.

Decades and multiple cartons of documents and artifacts later, the WJHC has achieved "a tremendous sense of accomplishment," says Moses Rischin, its director. In an area now considered a hub of Jewish scholarship, "the Western Jewish History Center is the center -- literally. This is where you have to begin."

Today, the center holds more than 300 collections of archival materials that shed light on individuals, synagogues and Jewish institutions. Ruth Kelson Rafael, who served as the WJHC's archivist for more than 20 years, guided the effort to catalog and conserve many of those items.

Also housed at the center are 100 oral histories of Jewish communal members dating back to the 1970s, and newspapers and periodicals from Western Jewish communities and groups, including a publication from U.C. Berkeley's Radical Jewish Union dated 1969-72.

The center also holds thousands of historic photographs, many of them originals.

The photos include faded portraits of Gold Rush-era pioneers, pictures of turn-of-the-century Jewish women sitting tall in elegant gowns, a photo of a family camping out in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park after the 1906 earthquake rendered them homeless, and shots taken over the years at the various Northern California synagogues.

The center also houses family-related items including narratives and genealogical material; some memorabilia represent the stories of such prominent local families as the Zellerbachs, Haases and Lilienthals.

According to Rischin, who is also a professor of history at San Francisco State University, family materials are the items most frequently accessed at the center.

"In a world in which people have gone through so many changes from one decade to another," he says, "it's a desire to establish some kind of connectedness."

Also popular are the many items chronicling the Gold Rush era, when Jews from abroad were establishing communities and synagogues in remote mining towns like Placerville, Nevada City and Sonora.

Among the WJHC mementos are a number of everyday items -- small, gilded hand mirrors, letters from California residents to family members still in Europe, newspaper clippings and appointment books.

Such simple items "can be the most exciting," says Susan Morris, an archivist and oral historian with the WJHC.

"From an address book from the 1920s that's scratched out and somewhat soiled, there's a lot you learn. You see the names of people, where people lived, their relation to businesses."

The center has also produced videos and published resources on Gold Rush Jews.

In 1995, the center introduced a 300-page teacher guide, "Birth of a Community: Jews and the Gold Rush," designed to help students in both religious and secular schools explore the personalities and contributions of Jewish pioneers.

Morris, meanwhile, recently published a traveler's guide to the pioneer Jewish cemeteries of the Gold Rush era.

The paperback offers a detailed glimpse into the lives of the more than 210 Jews buried in seven graveyards under the care of the museum's Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks.

While the WJHC's Gold Rush archive is among its most complete, other collections are more sparse. Morris would like the center to contain more evidence of Jewish women and their lives, particularly in the 19th century.

She wants the public to know that even those documents or recollections that people or institutions may not deem "worthy" of inclusion in an historical archive are likely to be the very items that shed valuable light on an era.

When urging people to submit material to the center, "the most common response that I get is `I'm not very important,' or `my father wasn't a very important person. We had a very ordinary life,'" Morris says.

"What we need to have people understand is that each person in the community is important, and what they do adds to the historical record."

Copyright Notice (c) 1996, San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc., dba Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


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