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Film Review

American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco

"American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco" is a fascinating new film from Marc Shaffer, a documentary film maker living in Oakland, who looks at the first 70 years after the 1849 Gold Rush and shows us the considerable impact of Jews on San Francisco and the effect of this new life on the Jews who settled here. After gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in 1848, SF went from a sleepy village of perhaps 500 non native people in 1846 to at least 36,000 in 1852, and to a vibrant city of 150,000 by 1870. No other American city had grown so fast, and no other American city was made up of a higher proportion of immigrants. Beginning in the 1840's, German Jews, escaping persecution and poverty, fled to America, and some continued on to California. The California gold rush became the largest gold rush ever, but it was difficult and dangerous to get here, and some died en route. Those that made it found a roaring small town, lawless to an extent, with new immigrants of every race and from many countries. And a harbor clogged with abandoned ships whose crews had all left to search for gold. All were new to California, and many newly arrived in America. For the first time, Jews found a society entirely composed of new immigrants like themselves, with few class divisions, no established hierarchy, and little anti-Semitism. Most gold seekers were young men, who were risk takers and filled with energy and new ideas. They shared the same hardships, and all rubbed elbows with each other every day. Some of the Jews joined the gold seekers in the gold country, but others realized that the miners would need supplies, and began to sell goods. Shovels, picks, tents, clothing, and food were necessities but scarce. First with packs and push carts, then soon with stores, these new retailers began to create businesses. Others saw the need for banking services and began to set up banks. In 1866, the German Jewish community had prospered so much and felt so secure that it built a huge Moorish Revival synagogue, Emanu-el, that was one of the tallest buildings in the city. By 1870, SF had the largest Jewish population of any city except NY. The largest number of Jews embraced Reform Judaism, which flourished here because of the sense of new freedom and rapid assimilation. Men like Adolph Sutro, Levi Strauss, Isaias Hellman, and August Helbing made fortunes and began a tradition of philanthropy that shaped the city and continues today. These pioneers and their families acknowledged how fortunate they were to be in America, specifically in SF, and were grateful.

"American Jerusalem …" begins with clever animated scenes of early SF and is particularly strong with archival photographs, many of which I had never seen before. Two pre-quake archival film clips are riveting. Shaffer has outstanding on-camera interviews with many historians, scholars, educators, and family members of these pioneer families. To name a few: Kevin Starr, Fred Rosenbaum, Ava Kahn, Richard White, Mark Dollinger, Lynn Downey, John Rothman, Frances Dinkelspiel (great-great-grandaughter of Isaias Hellman) and more. This is a very well presented account of the pioneering Jews in San Francisco and how the city and the Jews were equally changed by the encounter. There is so much richness, visual and intellectual, packed into this all too short 58 minute documentary.

My only criticism of the film is that it focuses almost entirely on those Ashkenazic Jews who made fortunes, and ignores the majority of the Jewish community, who were professional and working class. It suggests that anti-Semitism was totally absent here, and neglects to mention the Boss Ruef trial, in which anti-Semitism played a major role, as well as omitting the fact that most of the newly constructed upper class developments, like Sea Cliff and St Francis Wood, all had deed restrictions preventing Jews (and Asians and blacks) from buying houses. None of the elite private clubs would admit Jews, so they started their own clubs. Even so, San Francisco was arguably more hospitable to Jews than any other city in America. But to Shaffer's credit, it discusses the anti-Chinese attitudes (shared with most San Franciscans) and the hostility that the German born Jews had toward the later arriving Eastern European Jews, who were much poorer and more ethnic. Leaders of the Jewish community felt that these new immigrants threatened to undo their own success in assimilating into the dominant culture. These shameful prejudices persisted well into the 20th Century. But "American Jerusalem…" is well named, for it shows that for most, San Francisco was and still is, a new Jerusalem. It certainly has been for me, and not a day goes by that I am not grateful. Playing at the Vogue Theater through this coming week.

In a curious pairing, preceding the screening of "American Jerusalem…", the Vogue is showing a very short (18 minutes) documentary, "Reporting on The Times", about the intentional downplaying of coverage of the Holocaust by the New York Times from 1935 through 1945. Although the Times did publish a large number of articles about what we now call the Holocaust, they were nearly all buried in back pages without headlines. For instance, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 was noted at the bottom of page 7 without a headline. Although few other newspapers carried much coverage of these events, the New York Times was a paper of record, and could often influence events through its coverage. This was the topic of a well reviewed but controversial 2005 book, "Buried by the Times", by Laurel Leff, who contended that the downplaying of genocide against the Jews was intentional in order to forestall charges that the Times was a Jewish newspaper. The publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, seemed to be ambivalent about being Jewish, and was outspoken in his opposition to Zionism. There were few if any editorials about the roundups and killing of the Jews. The question asked in the film was "Would this have made a difference"? So although short, "Reporting on the Times", is disturbing and raises profound questions. Apparently the Vogue is not screening "Reporting…" on the weekends.

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