Sheila Ash is known around San Francisco for her eye-catching outfits that can range from vintage-era to Burning Man, always with a stylish hat from her vast collection, and most often wearing ruffled pantaloons in lace or tulle or velvet.
Another thing she’s known for is her latke parties. Everyone is invited — “one not need be Jewish to enjoy latkes,” she says — and pays to attend, with proceeds going to one of her designated charities.
What is lesser known is that when kosher visitors come to town, they often choose her longstanding bed and breakfast, Noe’s Nest in Noe Valley, over many other options, because she has a minikitchen on the second level that she keeps kosher.
“I was raised Orthodox, and every time my relatives came out here, they went crazy trying to find kosher food,” she explained.
It’s why Rabbi Gedalia Potash and his wife, Leah, first stayed with her when they arrived to town 17 years ago and hadn’t yet set up Chabad of Noe Valley, and why Rabbi Yosef and Hinda Langer of Chabad of San Francisco stayed with her for weeks after a fire consumed their home.
When the Potashes arrived, they immediately noticed a photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson on the wall, but unlike in most Chabad homes, it wasn’t a stock portrait; this was a personal photograph of Ash’s father with the rebbe from her collection.
“That was very powerful for us to get a sign like that,” Potash recalled.
“Sheila is not just colorful in the way she dresses and goes about life, but in how she is accepting of all kinds of people,” he said. “Her home reminds me of the tent of Sarah and Abraham, in which she welcomes people and makes them like family. She was instrumental in getting us off the ground, and she’s been involved ever since.”
Ash said some observant guests stay with her because of her close proximity to Chabad of Noe Valley. “They have Shabbat dinner Friday night and Shabbat lunch, and guests can walk to [Potash’s] place from here,” she said. “I’ll put the key outside my house, so they can be as religious as they want.”
Noe’s Nest is like a museum, with artifacts from all over the world. Along with a vintage kimono from Japan, a taxidermy peacock and a mirrored portrayal of the Last Supper with Jesus as a black man, her walls feature countless family photos from Poland, paintings of rabbis and Jews praying at the Western Wall, her parents’ ketubah and her father’s naturalization certificate.
Also on display is a letter to Ash’s parents from the principal of her school testifying that despite their complaints that she is difficult to discipline at home, there is absolutely nothing wrong with her. That has a prominent place in the kitchen.
Sheila Rubinson was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and raised mostly in Boro Park, the third daughter in an Orthodox family who came from Poland before the war. She was born with only one ear and so is half-deaf. Her mother tried to hide it; in early photos she is always wearing a hat.
Her mother’s sisters and other family all died in Auschwitz. “That was devastating for my mother; while she didn’t deal with the camps herself, she dealt with the loss.”
Ash said that learning about the Holocaust at a young age profoundly affected her, as did the strict rules her parents enforced, such as not allowing her to have non-Jewish friends. As a result, Ash became pretty rebellious, developing an adventurous spirit at a young age and later hitchhiking around the world without her parents knowing.
“My life became a memorial to my relatives who died,” she said. “My life would be dedicated to living as if they were living their lives and I was giving them the chance they never got.”
Ash takes great pride in being Jewish. “It gives me strength through my traditions, gives me warmth from my memories, and it gives me the choice to be the kind of woman that I want to be,” she said.
As for her disability, Ash said it hasn’t affected her in the ways one might think.
“It’s a blessing in disguise because one, I have no trouble sleeping. Two, if I don’t like what someone’s talking about, I can give them my deaf ear. Three, it gave me compassion for those born with less. And four, if I would have had everything perfect I would have been conceited. My uncle Joe always said that God gives and God takes. We know what he took from you, so let’s find out what he gave you. So my whole life has been about finding out what he gave me.”
Ash came to San Francisco in 1977 and struggled to make ends meet as a single mother. She started renting out rooms in her home to earn extra income and realized she could run it as a B&B. In 2002 she moved to Guerrero Street, acquiring a grand Victorian with eight rooms for guests. The outside is painted in dazzling colors, and every room inside is protected by a mezuzah.
“The Jewish guests like it when they see the mezuzahs, the non-Jews say ‘Oh, how pretty.’ I make sure I’m covered on all sides. I need the blessings wherever I can get them,” she said.
Being in Noe Valley and close to the Mission works to her advantage, she said, because residents who live in these high-rent areas often don’t have extra rooms to host family members or out-of-towners, and hotels are far away.
Most TripAdvisor reviewers give the B&B five-star reviews, and almost all mention the owner, who will often take guests on customized tours of the city.
“This is not only a clean room and breakfast, which I cook during the week, but you’re getting a life with a room,” Ash said. “While I can’t drive everyone around, I do with some guests, and they really appreciate it.”
Curious visitors who wander around might come upon one relic with a personal backstory: A wedding portrait of Ash and her former husband, Norman, gazing at each other superimposed inside a wineglass. The wedding was one of convenience — he was a gay man from South Africa who needed a green card, and Ash married him to satisfy her parents.
“It was my parents’ dying wish that I get married to a Jewish man,” Ash said.
She already had two daughters. The first came out of a long-term relationship with an African American man she met in Central Park. Ash kept both the relationship and her daughter a secret from her parents for eight years.
“I knew if I told my parents about them, they would sit shiva for me, and I’d never see them again,” she said. “I gave up a piece of my heart to keep them happy, but I asked my daughter when she got older to forgive me.”
When she finally did tell her parents, they told her to give the 8-year-old girl up for adoption. Years later, they finally came around, she said.
She had her second daughter with a different boyfriend. “I always believed I’d have children some day, I just wasn’t so sure about the husband,” she said. Both daughters are now grown and live in the area.
Ash is a fixture on the city’s social scene — she recently turned 70 and says she goes out six nights a week — and attracts attention no matter where she goes. “I’m nobody who looks like somebody,” she has joked.
She has been involved with numerous local organizations and institutions and is a longtime member of Congregation Sherith Israel, where her daughters were bat mitzvahed. She has sat on the board of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, one of her favorite Jewish charities, along with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (she had breast cancer herself), a variety of organizations that advocate for the disabled, the symphony and numerous museums, including the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
“I’m a part of so many things, and I love meeting people.”
She said her sense of style is influenced by a wide variety of things but that her love of fabrics comes from Hasidic fashion. Yes, you read that right.
“Hasidic women are boring, but the men are very fashionable,” she said. “If you look at the texture of their clothing, the ones that have money, there are some amazing coats, hats, hats with fur trim.”
Ash has at least 150 hats, ranging from fur to feathered to fascinator, and even has a beaded headdress, as Cleopatra wore. “A hat is like the punctuation in a sentence,” she said. “It accentuates what I’m wearing and is part of my whole motif.”
Ash said she definitely dresses to make a statement, which changes based on how she feels that day (she even wears her ruffled pantaloons to work out at the gym). She shops at thrift and consignment stores and works with a seamstress who adds fur trim on sleeves or other embellishments, like decorative buttons, to pieces Ash likes.
“I think people should have more fun with how they dress and not be so serious,” she said. “You don’t need a reason to express yourself, but expressing yourself is the reason.”