San Diego’s Jewish history gets its own exhibit
March 15, 2017
By Peter Rowe, Contact Reporter, San Diego Union-Tribune
March 12, 2017
The Louis Bank of Commerce, a twin-towered 1888 landmark in the Gaslamp Quarter, is an enduring monument to its builder, Isidor Louis.
In his day, though, Louis was revered for creations that literally melted away.
“He was the first to make ice cream in San Diego,” said historian Joellyn Zollman. “He was the most popular man in town!”
Zollman is the curator of “Celebrate San Diego! The History & Heritage of San Diego’s Jewish Community,” a San Diego History Center exhibition that opened Sunday.
For many Jews and gentiles, this will be an unfamiliar tale. Most treatments of the Jewish experience in the United States focus on the far side of the continent.
“The larger narrative is really the New York story,” Zollman said. “That’s an important story, the headline story, but it’s not everyone’s story.”
San Diego’s role in this story is smaller, but it has a special resonance today. As a new wave of anti-Semitic threats and vandalism convulses the country, our local Jewish heritage offers several lessons.
San Diego’s Jews have been both valued insiders and maligned outsiders. The show explores this group’s varied identities, while reflecting on themes that are relevant to all Americans: immigration, diversity, tolerance.
“These are all covered in this exhibition,” said William Lawrence, the center’s executive director. “I think this is really needed right now.”
In 1850, the year California entered the Union, Louis Rose entered San Diego.
A German immigrant who is believed to be the area’s first Jewish settler, Rose enjoyed spectacular success in his new home. He developed Roseville, part of Point Loma; served as Old Town’s postmaster; and gave his name to Rose Canyon.
His failures were spectacular, too — his seaweed-stuffed mattress made bedtime a smelly, crunchy affair. Yet both his ups and downs underlined an unusual aspect about 19th century San Diego.
“Being Jewish seemed to pose no barriers to entry to that society,” Zollman said.
In this small town, gentiles and Jews lived, worked and socialized together. Rose came to San Diego from Texas via stage coach. He became friends and then a business partner with James Robinson, a fellow passenger but not a fellow Jew.
“This is something you do not see then on the East Coast,” Zollman said. “Jews were much more integrated in the West.”
More evidence of this is seen in the exhibition’s 1890s photo of the Schiller & Murtha Baseball Team. The squad was sponsored by a dry goods store founded by Jacob Schiller, a Jew, and Francis Murtha, a Catholic.
“That’s extraordinary,” said Zollman, who earned a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University. “In New York at the time, the Irish Catholic community and the Jewish community, there was a lot of tension.”
Co-existence did not mean being co-opted, or discarding religious customs. In her 1856-57 diary, 17-year-old Victoria Jacobs complained — as some teens still do — about having to clean her family’s Old Town home before the Sabbath.
Yet this vivacious teen also recounted visits with the Whaleys, the Picos and other local grandees, plus trips to the mission for theatrical entertainments.
“You can see this Jewish family was highly integrated into San Diego society,” Zollman said.
For Jewish settlers, these were good times — too good to last.
Growth brought San Diego new marvels, from Balboa Park to pioneer aviators, and new tensions. Local membership in the Ku Klux Klan grew in the 1920s and ’30s. Hitler’s rise in Germany was applauded by “Silver Shirts,” American fascists with units in several cities, including San Diego.
The ’30s also saw the debut of The Broom, a local newspaper that railed against Jews, blacks, Mexicans, and labor unions.
Real estate covenants banned the sale of properties to non-whites and non-Christians. Although a 1948 federal law prohibited housing discrimination and California adopted similar legislation in the ’50s, buyers and sellers found ways to evade these laws.
“Discrimination went underground,” Zollman said. “This was the ‘gentleman’s agreement.’”
In the 1950s, though, the prospect of a major university in La Jolla — an area known for its hostility to Jews — dealt a lethal blow to this practice.
Zollman quoted Roger Revelle, the scientist who championed the establishment of UC San Diego: “You can have a university or an anti-Semitic covenant. You can’t have both.”
“They had some trouble attracting Jewish professors in the beginning,” Zollman said. “They had heard about La Jolla.”
To gauge local attitudes, four Jewish professors who were new to campus made a pact. One would apply for membership at the private La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club.
“They thought if he could get into the club, no problem,” Zollman said.
The professor was accepted. No problem.
Today, San Diego County is home to about 90,000 Jews. It’s a small group, but notable for its diversity — about one in five was born abroad, in Mexico, South Africa, Syria and other nations.
As was true in the 1850s, Jews are entwined in the area’s fabric. It’s tough to imagine San Diego without Irwin and Joan Jacobs, their charitable gifts or the Fortune 500 company they helped found, Qualcomm.
Or without the Salk Institute, established by Jonas Salk and given form by the architect Louis Kahn. Without the San Diego Public Library’s rare book collection, started by Julius Wagenheim. Without the San Diego Museum of Art, co-founded by Alice Klauber.
It’s been that way since the day Louis Rose rolled into town.
“These pioneer Jews,” Zollman said, “played outsize roles in establishing San Diego.”
Which brings us back to Isidor Louis. The 19th century merchant helped bring opera to San Diego. Ice, too, all the way from the Sierra Nevada.
Zollman tells many stories is this exhibition, including the life of a cultured builder, haberdasher and ice cream vendor. When it comes to San Diego’s Jewish history, she’s got the scoop.
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