Doc pays tribute to a tolerant city that allowed Jews to thrive

Between the Gold Rush and the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco offered a beacon of opportunity for Jews. With no entrenched anti-Semitism to face, and exemplifying California’s can-do attitude, Jews helped turn the region from Western outpost into America’s crown jewel, a cultural and financial powerhouse.

That story is now a motion picture. The documentary “American Jerusalem: Jews and the Building of San Francisco” will have its world premiere on Wednesday, July 31 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Haas family vacation, circa 1890s photo/courtesy of the magnes collection of jewish art and life

“We’re thrilled to have it premiered here,” says Jackie Krentzman, a journalist-turned-film producer. “It’s the place it belongs. The timing worked out great.”

The story of the Jews of San Francisco has filled multiple volumes of written history and could easily have become a 10-part PBS series. So the filmmakers, including director-writer Marc Shaffer, faced the daunting challenge of squeezing the tale down to one hour.

Interviewed on film are noted local historians such as Fred Rosenbaum, Frances Dinkelspiel and Kevin Starr, as well as Jewish community stalwarts such as John Rothmann and Rabbi Sydney Mintz.

To best exemplify the story of Jewish San Francisco, the filmmakers chose three central protagonists, all of them mid-19th-century immigrants from Bavaria, all of them among the best-known names in local history: Adolph Sutro, Isaias Hellman and Levi Strauss, who became pioneers in mining, banking and retail, respectively.

“Jews came here from Germany in the 1850s to reinvent themselves and not just be identified as Jews,” Krentzman says. “Not living in Jewish neighborhoods, not looked down upon, they were just considered white people. So they could identify as Americans.”

That opened the door to a flourishing synagogue community (Congre-gation Emanu-El and Congregation Sherith Israel being among the earliest),  Jewish charities and Jewish involvement at all levels of civic life.

Because nearly all of the narrative takes place in the 19th century, between 1849 and 1915, the filmmakers had to work primarily with photographs, more than 200 of them, mostly taken from the archives of the Western Jewish History Center at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. Animator Drew Takahashi made the old black-and-white images come alive.

Producer Jackie Krentzman (left), director Marc Shaffer and co-producer Camille Servan-Schreiber photo/cathleen maclearie

“When people see it, one thing they’ll notice is the gorgeous imagery of San Francisco then and now,” Krentzman says.

The film shows how the mostly German Jewish population established synagogues, mutual aid societies and other institutions of Jewish life. They also made inroads into all aspects of civic life, with Sutro becoming the city’s largest property owner (he possessed one-twelfth of San Francisco land at one point) and its first practicing Jewish mayor.

It wasn’t pure fairy tale, however. Once poorer Eastern European Jews immigrated to the Bay Area, they met with hostility and indifference from the established Jewish community.

Even more shameful, as anti-Chinese hysteria and violence fomented in 19th-century San Francisco, some Jews — notably in the press — turned a blind eye. One shocking Levi Strauss print ad of the era even mentions that its workforce was “white only.”

“We wanted this to be a journalistic documentary and not a patting on the back,” Krentzman says. “We’re telling a true story, and sometimes they have blemishes. Later, when it came to [Japanese American internment] in World War II, Jews were much more supportive [of the Japanese].”

So what remains of the Jewish San Francisco of those days? For one, Krentzman says, the fact that the Bay Area has no distinctly Jewish neighborhoods. Unlike Jews in Eastern cities, where anti-Semitism caused problems, Jewish pioneers here did not need protection, so they spread out.

For another, the spirit of innovation, which gave rise to everything from the hippie movement to Silicon Valley. In the Jewish world, notes Krentzman, “what happens in the San Francisco Jewish community happens five years later in places like Chicago or St. Louis.”

After the film festival debut, the documentary will air locally on KQED and other PBS affiliates, and will be shown at other Jewish film festivals. Wherever it plays, Krentzman says it’s mostly a Jewish love letter to the Bay Area.

“It’s a film for the city of San Francisco and its Jewish community,” she says. “It’s really a tribute to San Francisco’s diversity, tolerance and openness that allowed this Jewish community to thrive.”


“American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco,” 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, July 31 at the Castro in S.F., 4:20 p.m. Aug. 3 at the  CinéArts in Palo Alto.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.