It’s unusual to find a lively necropolis. But Colma, a city populated by fewer than 2,000 living souls and nearly 2 million dead, was full of activity on Nov. 2 at the Hills of Eternity and Home of Peace cemeteries.
Hundreds of people showed up at the side-by-side Jewish cemeteries to take part in “Buried Treasures: An Underground History Walk,” hosted by San Francisco Congregations Emanu-El and Sherith Israel.
“The idea was that we’d have an event where people could learn about and honor the ones who came before us,” said Emanu-El’s Judi Leff, one of the organizers.
The event was held in part to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the closure of San Francisco’s cemeteries and their move to Colma.
Actors, many of them professional, portrayed a number of local Jewish luminaries, such as Levi Strauss, Alice B. Toklas and Joshua Abraham Norton, a late 1800s San Francisco celebrity better known as “Emperor Norton.”
Leff said the event was fun way to learn about local Jewish history. “The people in the cemeteries are like our buried treasures,” she said. “They not only made the Jewish community in San Francisco, but in many ways they made San Francisco.”
Upon arriving, attendees were given a “passport” to get signed after listening to historic figures’ stories and a map of notable Jews buried there, including Julie Rosewald (America’s first female cantor) and Josephine Earp (wife of famed lawman Wyatt Earp, who is buried at her side).
Actors portraying many of those figures gave oral histories while (mostly) staying in character.
“I must say, I did name the baths after myself,” boasted the actor portraying Adolph Sutro, referring to the Sutro Baths that were built toward the end of his term. Sutro was San Francisco mayor’s from 1895-97, and Mount Sutro, Sutro Tower and Sutro Heights also bear his name. However, he was not buried in Colma; he was cremated upon his death in 1989 and a ceremony was held at his “old home at the Cliff,” according to news reports of the time.
“It was unique to see a grave of someone famous and be able to ask him or her questions,” attendee Sam Bergman said.
Most characters waited at their gravesites to speak to visitors, but not Emperor Norton. Although he was buried in Colma, it wasn’t at one of the Jewish cemeteries, so he simply roamed the grounds, a wandering Jew.
“After my failed pursuits in the rice trade, I left [San Francisco] for a time,” said Norton, an English-born Jew who rose to popularity after he returned to San Francisco and “proclaimed myself emperor of these United States and protector of Mexico.”
Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Emanu-El played Alice B. Toklas, the San Francisco–born bohemian who converted to Catholicism. That fact left some attendees perplexed, considering Toklas was raised in a Jewish household and her partner, Gertrude Stein, was a secular Jew.
“She believed her conversion would give her the ability to spend eternity in the afterlife with Stein,” Mintz explained.
Living members of notable local Jewish families also were on hand to speak. For example, David Fleishhacker talked about his family’s extensive history in San Francisco.
The California Historical Society was present, as well, answering a lot of questions, and many visitors munched on snacks from a taco truck.
“Mexican food felt like a good fit for the Day of the Dead,” Leff said.