Wednesday, March 15, 2006

19th Century San Francisco

I am going to be leading a book group at the Mechanic’s Institute in San Francisco Thursday night and the topic will be ethnic tensions in San Francisco.

These are not tensions between whites and black, or whites and Chinese, or Koreans and blacks. These are tensions between Bavarian-born Jews and those who came from Poland.

In the 1840s and 50s, a wave of Jews left their homelands in central Europe to come to the United States. While most settled on the East Coast, about 5,000 made their way to California. They went up to the gold mines but soon discovered they could earn better livings by selling to the miners. They became peddlers and shopkeepers.

The best known of these Jewish immigrants is Levi Strauss, whose decision to make jeans out of canvas launched a multi-billion dollar business that continues today. Other Jews who left their mark include the Haases (who married into the Levi Strauss family and who once owned the Oakland A’s), the Fleishhackers, (of the foundation and zoo) the Zellerbachs (who made a paper company) the Brandensteins (of MJB Coffee) and many more.

But there were class distinctions among these early Jewish pioneers. Those from Bavaria and Alsace-Lorraine considered themselves superior to those who came from Posen in Poland and Prussia. The Bavarians were mostly members of Temple Emanu-el and those from elsewhere were members of Sherith Israel.

Our book group will be talking about The Haas Sisters of Franklin Street: A Look Back with Love by Frances Bransten Rothmann and 920 O’Farrell Street: A Jewish Girlhood in Old San Francisco by Harriet Lane Levy, first published in 1937.

Rothmann’s book is a nostalgic reflection on her family, who lived in grand style on a now-iconic Victorian mansion on Franklin Street. (That's the house in the photo) Alice and Florine Haas were the daughters of William Haas, who owned a wholesale grocery store, and Bertha Greenbuam. Alice and Florine were second-generation Jews who got to enjoy – and use -- the money their parents earned. There were numerous parties and lunches and balls where the Bavarian Jews gathered together. These families also became influential in San Francisco and California, for the there was much less anti-Semitism in the west than the east.

Levy, whose memoir has been reissued by Heydey Books, came from the more Eastern European group of Jews. While she was an iconoclast who never married and traveled extensively with her childhood neighbor, Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s lover, she never got over the snubbing she experienced in childhood. Here is one of my favorite passages about the tension between Bavarian Jews and Polish Jews:

“That the Baiern (Bavarians) were superior to us, we knew,” wrote Levy. “We took our position as the denominator takes its stand under the horizontal line. On the social counter the price tag “Polack” confessed second class. Why Poles lacked the virtues of Bavarians I did not understand, though I observed that to others the inferiority was as obvious as it was to us that our ashman and butcher were of poorer grade than we, because they were ashman and butcher … Upon this basis of discrimination everybody agreed and acted.”

It is amazing today to think of the strength of this ethnic tension, coming among people who had more in common with one another than with the rest of the world. And it is interesting to note that the tension was a defining characteristic of San Francisco in the 1860s and 1870s. In the 1880s, the Jewish world shifted again with the influx of thousands of Jews from an even more easterly-part of Europe: Russia. If the Germans thought the Posen-born Jews were indecorous, they soon saw they had many more commonalities than they imagined.

Of course, there were other ethnic tensions that colored San Francisco. The Irish were the most dominant group, but the Chinese, and later the Japanese, were the most vilified. While California was a tolerant state in many ways, built on an instant gold society that gave access to almost everyone, it still contained too much racial insensitivity.

1 comment:

Mark Pritchard said...

This reminds me of the book (and play, and TV show, and movie, etc.) "I Remember Mama," which is set in San Francisco's Duboce Park neighborhood, which was a Scadanavian enclave during most of the 20th century. The Lutheran church I belong to, which is located on Church St. near Duboce, has in its archives many pictures of its mostly Danish members from the time of its founding in 1905.

I'm not sure if the Scandanavians had any serious conflicts with any other group, though.