Last night, as a member of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, I had the pleasure of attending the opening reception for their latest exhibit, “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present,” about the history of the Jewish people in Northern California and specifically, the Bay Area. It is structured around 4 questions:
“What does it mean to be the first?”
“If I am only for myself, what am I?”
“What is the promised land?”
“What is a Jewish leader?”
“Through photographs, documents, newspapers, videos, and ephemera, the exhibition will show how the Bay Area Jewish community, despite its stunning diversity and significant historical changes, still operates according to its unwritten founding principles: a pioneering spirit that gave Jews the confidence to create their own destiny; a complex balance of invention/re-invention of institutions and rituals; a lack of physical, social, and economic ghettoization which led to a confident group of citizens; and inspired by their experience in the Bay Area, a yearning for greater justice for Jews and others, inspired by their California experience, and reflecting a sense of optimism that a newer and fairer society could be built.”
Regardless of our identities, we, here in San Francisco, are pioneers.
Interesting thought, isn’t it? Who of you can identify with the following words about life in the Bay Area? The better question is, “Who cannot?” because so many of us have come to San Francisco to write our own story.
“…a pioneering spirit that gave INSERT GROUP the confidence to create their own destiny; a complex balance of invention/re-invention of institutions and rituals; a lack of physical, social, and economic ghettoization which led to a confident group of citizens; and inspired by their experience in the Bay Area, a yearning for greater justice for INSERT GROUP and others, inspired by their California experience, and reflecting a sense of optimism that a newer and fairer society could be built…”
The exhibit was personal in many ways. I came to San Francisco at age 22 – straight out of college with a dream. I didn’t know exactly what that dream was at the time, but I knew I wanted to explore, to find some sort of freedom. I had a gut feeling that there was life beyond the “Doctor, Lawyer, or Engineer” options I had heard most of my fairly bourgeois life in Bergen County, New Jersey and Dallas, Texas. I was different and always had been. I fit in and didn’t. I am a Gemini through and through. Weird and yet using the master’s tools. Driven and ambitious but not in the usual way.
Moving to California – to San Francisco – felt like liberation.
I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have an apartment. I knew about 2 people here at the time. In fact, I had turned down a fairly cushy and definitely customary entry-level position on Wall Street to come here with not much more than credit card debt and fancy shoes (a lifelong weakness). It was scary but also exhilarating. I was a pioneer set out on my California adventure.
Now, before we have a pity party, things were not that bad for me. I am grateful for the various privileges of my life. My parents, and my father in particular, worked very hard to give me a top-notch education. Between the fancy girls school and the incredibly liberal, liberal arts college on the East Coast, I am well-educated and can produce witty repartee at parties. But as the daughter of a modern-day “forty-niner”, life was a series of ups and downs, feast & famine. Ironic that I chose to work for myself, 100% on commission, isn’t it?
But my father also instilled in me deep, inner confidence and an independent spirit. He was a California dreamer himself, coming to Stanford in the late 1950s on a full scholarship from a small town in Illinois. He said that the poster of palm trees and pretty girls in his high school college counselor’s office inspired him. That’s why he chose Stanford over Illinois State! Amazing.
As a San Francisco real estate agent, I meet a lot of people. And I have to say that I have heard variations on this theme numerous times. So many of us left a job, a partner, a family, a traditional education, a suffocating or at least limiting personal existence of some variation or another to “Go West” and make our mark.
There is a photograph at the exhibit where they say that the Gold Rush-era Bay Area Jews, referred to San Francisco as “start-up city.” Start-Up City, indeed!
We are all California Dreamin’.