New documentary tells the colorful story of how San Francisco became Jews’ American Jerusalem

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When the Gold Rush hit, San Francisco’s population skyrocketed from 800 to 36,000 in just four years. Gambling houses and debauchery flourished, but so did a diverse climate that leveled the economic and cultural playing field for white immigrants — like Jews.

A city was born, and for the Jews, it was their American Jerusalem.

Murders and robberies occur frequently but who cares.
Everybody has his Bowie knife and a revolver
and that is protection enough.
– Adolph Sutro, 1851

In Europe, Jews had been barred from becoming farmers or artisans and were forced to work as peddlers and merchants. In San Francisco, these were the very skills that were in demand. Not all dreams of fortune panned out for gold prospectors, but someone had to feed and clothe them.

And whereas other cultures headed home once they made their money, Jews were twice as likely to stay and put down roots. By the late 1870s, San Francisco had the second largest Jewish population in America, second only to New York.

Well, dearie, I’ll believe most anything now.
Thank God for America. Where else could
a poor Jew have had that honor?
– Florence Prag Kahn, 1900

Even as fortunes were made, however, Jews struggled within their community and without. When Jewish immigrants couldn’t agree on a liturgy, two competing congregations were formed. At the same time, assimilation into American culture posed a threat to Judaism itself. In the 1860s, a Catholic opera singer was hired for Jewish high holidays, and many Jews celebrated Christmas – right down to a dinner of plump suckling pig.

Because Jews had only recently escaped persecution, they were wary of any threat to their new stature. San Francisco Jews joined in anti-Chinese bigotry and even tried to quell the influx of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews. Drawing on the insight of historians and capturing the era’s splendor with period reenactments and animated graphics, American Jerusalem explores the heights and plumbs the depths of this moving and untold chapter of history.

American Jerusalem is produced by Actual Films and Switchback Films, presented by KQED and distributed by NETA.

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