Food event evokes sweet memories of Jewish Fillmore

The last time Goldenrath’s delicatessen on Geary Boulevard served up its overstuffed pastrami on rye, President Eisenhower was in office and the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air was a hot whip. It was the late ’50s in San Francisco, and you could smell the aroma of Waxman’s freshly baked pumpernickel as it wafted through the Fillmore District.

It’s been nearly 60 years since San Francisco’s once-bustling Jewish hub served up knishes and babka. What remains today are only photos of the kosher restaurants, bakeries, candy store and butcher shops that once stood in the neighborhood.

But several weeks ago, a small group gathered at the Jewish Community Library to learn about local Jewish culinary history from Erica Peters, author of “San Francisco: A Food Biography.”

While Jewish food history is only a small part of her book, the 44-year-old Mountain View resident dug up Jewish food stories from old San Francisco publications, such as the Jewish Times and Observer, a local Jewish newspaper published from 1879 to 1924.

 “Jews of San Francisco were interested in using food to make a community,” Peters told the group of bubbes and zaydes who listened intently while noshing.

The focal point of Peters’ talk was the Fillmore District, the Jewish area that spanned a four-block radius. It’s an area that most of the audience remembered well.

Robert LaVine of San Francisco attended the talk with his wife, Betty. He recalled the 1930s in the Fillmore District vividly

“I remember a synagogue on Webster where my mother would drop me when she wanted to get rid of me while she went grocery shopping,” he said chuckling. “And Diller’s was the place that had barrels out front. You could stick a fork in and pull out a herring or a pickle.”

Betty LaVine, a second-generation San Franciscan, also remembers shopping in the Fillmore as a child. Her mother, Ida Sessman, used to cater bar mitzvahs and would source her food from the Jewish butchers and bakeries in the Fillmore.

“She did it out of our home before we had all these health restrictions,” Betty said. “Her specialty was knishes. I remember my father and her stretching out the dough on our kitchen table.”

Diller’s Kosher Restaurant at 126 Turk St. served what it billed as “Hungarian kosher style” food. photos/courtesy magnes collection of jewish art and life

It wasn’t until after World War II that the Jewish shops in the Fillmore began closing their doors. Bay Area Jews whose culinary lives centered around the Fillmore District dispersed throughout the city.

“Jews were scattered more to areas,” Peters said. “It was gentrification and the change in demographics that essentially changed the Fillmore. It’s a sad part of San Francisco’s history.”

What surprised Peters the most during her research? The prevalence of traif in Jewish dining.

“There was a lot of assimilation,” Peters said. “There were prominent Jewish families who hosted parties and served delicacies like a Christmas ham, bacon and shellfish. It was just the San Francisco way to eat.”

Judy Baston, a San Francisco resident, came to Peters’ talk. “I grew up in Oakland, but when I was little, my family would come into the city for all types of things, especially eating,” she said.

Baston remembers dining at restaurants in the McAllister neighborhood in the ’40s and shopping at the Ukraine Bakery when she moved to the city in the early ’60s.

Now 70, Baston spends a lot of time on Jewish genealogy and says food has a way of invoking family memories and bringing people together.

“A lot of it is what people would call comfort food,” she said, recalling dishes she ate as a child, such as carb-heavy kreplach, kishkes and matzah balls. “It’s food that brings back all types of family memories.”