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.
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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.


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