American Jerusalem (2013) tells the story of the first 66 years of Jewish settlement in Northern California, specifically in San Francisco.
Commentary: The Jewish community is unique in Jewish history, in that nowhere else in the Diaspora were Jews in the majority during the early settlement period of a city. The Jewish community developed differently as a result of this, without the need to buttress itself against anti-Semitism until a much later period. Jewish families were “society” in early San Francisco, and they did not eat or live separately from their gentile neighbors. Even today, Jews in San Francisco have a curious mix of firm Jewish identity with a low rate of synagogue and other Jewish institutional affiliation. While some outsiders look at the demographics and say, “Wow, Judaism is in trouble in San Francisco,” in fact the Jewish community there is vibrant and diverse. It was influential in shaping the past of the city and continues to be engaged with San Francisco’s future.
The filmmakers were extremely selective in their choices, which may leave some old San Franciscan families wondering, “What about my ancestors?” but I think the choices allow viewers to appreciate the forest without losing their way in the trees. Certainly American Jerusalem is a tantalizing springboard from which one can launch into deeper reading (Fred Rosenbaum’s book, Cosmopolitans, a Social and Cultural History of the Jews at the San Francisco Bay Area would be a great next step.)
Questions for Discussion:
1. Where are your Jewish roots? Do you have any connection with the Jewish community in San Francisco?
2. What are the roots of your current Jewish community? Who settled there, and when? Where did they immigrate from?
3. What circumstances contributed to the Jewish community of San Francisco being different from other American Jewish communities?
4. From this film, in what ways do you see the San Francisco Jewish community as distinct from your own Jewish community?
5. What questions did this film bring up for you?