Rabbi Ed Zerin at his 100th birthday party on May 10. (Photo/Courtesy Jill Kneeter)
Rabbi Ed Zerin at his 100th birthday party on May 10. (Photo/Courtesy Jill Kneeter)

Cheerin’ for Zerin: San Francisco rabbi celebrates 100th birthday

Rabbi Ed Zerin had a lot of parties this month. He had one with some Chabad rabbis from his Torah study class (“They sang me ‘Happy Birthday’ in Hebrew,” he said fondly) and one with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (“It was a wonderful time.”).

The San Francisco author and community figure has turned 100, and appreciation is pouring in.

“It’s lovely, that’s all I can tell you,” he said. “It’s been one lovely experience.”

Zerin was born in New York and grew up in Delaware, the son of immigrant parents. He spoke Yiddish as a first language, attended an Arbeiter Ring school and was ordained as a rabbi in 1946. He received a doctorate in 1952 from USC and spent his career serving as both a rabbi and a licensed marriage and family therapist.

Although he’s a well-loved figure in the Bay Area Jewish community, he only moved to Northern California in 2004, when he married Jill Kneeter — at the time a widow whose first marriage ceremony had been performed by Zerin.

After moving, he began to investigate his new stomping grounds, and in 2006, at age 86, he published “Jewish San Francisco.” It’s one of 10 books and countless articles he’s written.

That output was celebrated two years ago when around 120 people attended a celebration at the Jewish Community Library to show appreciation for Zerin. He got tributes from San Francisco State University Jewish studies professor Marc Dollinger (who wrote the foreword to “Jewish San Francisco”) Jewish Community Library director Howard Freedman, novelist Michael Lavigne, Rabbi Beth Singer of Congregation Emanu-El and Jewish LearningWorks CEO David Waksberg.

I have some of the usual things of older people. But nothing that’s keeping me down.

Zerin also had a second bar mitzvah four years ago, on his 96th birthday, at Congregation Emanu-El, as a way to reaffirm his connection to Judaism — and also to try singing, something he’s always been signally bad at, he said at the time.

“I also did it because I have a family, and I wanted to show them what can be done and I wanted to model for them,” he told J.

With shelter in place still in effect, Zerin’s centennial parties had to be virtual, of course. But he didn’t mind, as generations of his family gathered to celebrate him from across the country. The celebrants ranged from a Zerin great-grandbaby just learning to walk to his 95-year-old “kid brother.”

“It was marvelous, because everyone was there,” he said. “We laughed, we sang.”

He’s also getting more tangible appreciation, from cake to unexpected envelopes of cash.

“People have been sending me money, like hundred-dollar bills!” he said. “I have given all of that money away to food causes. People are hungry.”

That joie de vivre and kindness is characteristic of the animated Zerin, who at 100 still writes, studies and calls his friends during shelter in place. Although he said walking is harder these days, he is pleased that recently he was able to renew his driver’s license for five years.

“Physically I’m doing very well,” he said. “I have some of the usual things of older people. But nothing that’s keeping me down.”

Mentally he’s as sharp as ever, and eager to discuss his latest article.

“I have a new paper coming out in the summer edition of the Reform Jewish Quarterly on the first known Jewish alphabet,” he said.

He’s still working on other articles and planning to watch some online lectures through the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute, which runs academic programs for seniors.

“Personally, I’m not bored,” he said. “Because I know when I wake up in the morning, I have a project.”

And at 100, Zerin seems to have no complaints.

“Life, basically, is good!” he said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.