Playing Jewish Geography From California to the New York Islands

Exhibit Shows Differences Between West and East Coast Jews

They Are Family: A Seder at the Emanuel Sisterhood House is seen in the exhibit “California Dreaming” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
Courtesy of Contemporary Jewish Museum
They Are Family: A Seder at the Emanuel Sisterhood House is seen in the exhibit “California Dreaming” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published April 10, 2013, issue of April 12, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

At one point or another, most of us have undoubtedly played “Jewish Geography.” The Jewish equivalent of “six degrees of separation,” the term refers to the kinship ties and social structures that bind one Jew to another. “Jewish Geography” is how we locate ourselves. It’s our very own GPS.

But “Jewish Geography” isn’t just a point of reference or a social compass. We also take the expression quite literally: as a statement of reality. Geography, it turns out, has a lot to do with the distinctive ways in which Jewish life unfolds in one place or another. No one would dispute that the Jews of the Northeast are different in manner, perspective and culinary preferences from those who hail from the South, or that, as I recently discovered on a trip to California, the Jews of the West Coast, especially those who call the Bay Area home, are different, in turn, from both the Jews of the South and the Jews of the Northeast.

The ways in which locale gives birth to a distinctive cultural temperament is the leitmotif of a lively exhibition that has been on display for more than a year at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum: “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area From the Gold Rush to the Present.”

A mix of documents and photographs, many of them privately owned, the display also includes a wealth of multimedia materials that run the gamut from a documentary about the Jews of the Bay Area by Pam Rorke Levy, a celebrated filmmaker, to “California Dreaming: The Game,” which is available via iPad.

In addition, the exhibition features a specially commissioned art installation, “Site Reading,” by photographer Rachel Schreiber. In it, she movingly pairs brief biographies of local residents with images of places that now look somewhat innocuous but whose history is anything but, such as Manzanar, an internment camp for Japanese Americans to which a Jewish woman voluntarily accompanied her Japanese husband. Also highlighted are places where hopes once ran high for a better way of life but are now abandoned or in disrepair, such as the chicken farms of Petaluma.

Despite the diverse modalities through which the stories of Bay Area Jewish residents are told, a common theme unifies the whole: the notion, articulated with much conviction in its promotional materials, that the “Bay Area Jewish community has taken on a character all its own.” Spirited, improvisational, sunny and optimistic, the Jews of this region reflect and sustain a sensibility that is a far cry from that of their East Coast co-religionists. And always have, it seems.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.