Enriching Jewish Identity in San Francisco

Enriching Jewish Identity in San Francisco


Contemporary Jewish Museum
PHOTO/Bruce Damonte, courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

Across the continent from my East Cobb home, San Francisco is a completely different world: The hills are steeper, the seafood is better and the people are a bit more unique.

But one aspect the Golden Gate City and “Hotlanta” have in common is their Jewish community. Both have prominent synagogues, active federations and community centers, Jewish film festivals and museums dedicated to educating the community of their Jewish roots.

Located downtown near the financial district, the Contemporary Jewish Museum appears to be a rectangular brick building set at the back of a square. However, a closer look reveals the “contemporary” aspect of the building; slightly to the left and behind the main building is a modern, cubic structure.

Architect Daniel Libeskind was commissioned in 1998 to create an innovative attachment to the original building, previously a power station. The design is based on the Jewish word l’chaim (“to life”), and the shape of the new building is based on the Hebrew letters chet and yud, which make up the word chai.

Currently on display is “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.” The exhibit features many prominent and influential Jews from San Francisco who shaped the city, information on the history of the local Jewish community and a discussion of the hippie Hasidic Jewish community and their House of Love and Prayer.

I thought one of the most interesting parts of the exhibit was the profiles on individuals who helped create San Francisco. During the California Gold Rush, Levi Strauss found success not through gold but by selling goods to the miners, most famously denim; Strauss went on to fund many philanthropic causes in San Francisco and also joined the local Temple El-Manuel.

Perhaps San Francisco’s most recognizable landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge came to fruition due to the contributions of three Jewish architects: Joseph Strauss, Charles Ellis and Leon Moisseiff. Another historic S.F. locale, the Sutro Bath Ruins located along the Pacific Ocean, were part of Adolph Sutro’s plans to beautify the city.

When I visited the site of the Ruins, I was struck by the beautiful views of the ocean and photographs of the extravagant pool house that was sadly destroyed by a fire in 1966. In its prime, the Sutro Bath was a popular place for San Francisco residents.

Also on display at the Museum is “Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought,” both a sharp contrast to the history-filled area of the museum and a showcase featuring many examples of contemporary artwork with significant symbolism to Judaism.

The name of the exhibit, “Do Not Destroy,” is actually taken from a commandment in the Torah and alludes to the role trees play in Judaism and their spiritual significance, a value also evident in the holiday of Tu B’Shevat.
The first piece I saw when entering the exhibit also turned out to be my favorite: Placed in a large circle in the floor, tiny cutouts of trees stood lined up; their black color made them appear like shadows compared to the stark, white floor. I studied the trees for a few minutes and their intricate detail then began to walk away.
However, the museum guard called out to me and said I wasn’t finished looking yet; he told me to come around the other side and look at the trees from there. The reverse angle revealed rows of colorful trees that created a much lighter and whimsical atmosphere.

The dichotomy of the two sides of the trees reminded me that things are not always what they seem and that behind darkness can be found light if you look in the right direction.

After five days, I was sad to leave the city, but knew that someday I would return. Not only did I get to experience a completely different culture, but visiting the Jewish Museum provided a few hours of Jewish learning and artwork.

On the last day of our trip, we ended up stopping at a beach along the Pacific Ocean, and the immensity of that moment has stuck with me since. It was liberating to stand next to the ocean, wind whipping my hair and sand crunching between my toes, and be able to think about my life and what it means to be Jewish, wherever you are in the world.

By Jessie Miller
Editorial Intern

read more: