Monday, August 24, 2009

Jews of Oakland and Berkeley

Frederick Isaac’s newly published book, “Jews of Oakland and Berkeley,” starts its tale in the 1860s. It ends last December.
Isaac deliberately wanted to bring his history of East Bay Jewish life as close as possible to the present day. “I intended the end to be now,” says writer, who lives in Oakland. “Because 15 years from now, this is going to be history.” 
Isaac’s book — 127 pages of historical photos and extensive captions, with a short introduction — shows how Jews migrated to once-sleepy East Bay outposts and built a grand network of institutions. There’s a shot from 1900 of the First Hebrew Congregation at 12th and Castro in Oakland. The elegant Victorian with Moorish accents housed the congregation that would later become Temple Sinai.
There’s a photo of the young Judah L. Magnes, looking dapper in his three-piece suit and watch fob, years before he became a leader of world Jewry (and namesake of the Berkeley Jewish museum). And there’s a classic photo of the Jewish Federation’s Women’s Division, circa 1954: four Lauren Bacall look-alikes dressed in fur stoles, white gloves and hats right out of an Edith Head sketchbook.
Isaac’s photo survey of the East Bay goes through the development of traditional Jewish institutions in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, as well as offbeat staples like the Berkeley-based Jewish Music Festival and Noah’s Bagels (which started in Berkeley).
In many ways, the saga mirrors that of Jews across America — but in other ways, says the New York–born author, Jewish life in the East Bay is unique.
“It’s interesting how many things that are not synagogue- and federation-related have flourished here,” Isaac says. “The [Contra Costa Jewish Film Festival] and the music festival, for example. I have five pages on [U.C.] Berkeley.”
Those pages cover the campus Hillel and Lehrhaus Judaica (both housed in the same building), and influential U.C. professors like Bible scholar Robert Alter.
Researching and compiling the book came easily to Isaac, who earned a master’s in library science from the University of Pittsburgh. He is the former head librarian at the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, and currently serves as archivist of his synagogue, Temple Sinai in Oakland.
“I started with things I knew,” says Isaac, who did the bulk of his research at the Magnes Museum’s Western Jewish History Center. “I wanted several historical narratives that interwove. The first were the synagogues.”
East Bay synagogues that go way back include the 125-year-old Temple Sinai, Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham and Congregation Beth Israel, all of which figure prominently in the book.

But Isaac wanted to capture hidden Jewish stories of the East Bay. He includes photos of rare documents, monuments and out-of-the-way markers of a Jewish presence.(JWEEKLY)

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