Archive for November, 2010

Who’s left in the neighborhood?

November 28, 2010

Katamon: 'I’m secular and I’ll be happy if my kids pray in the morning,' the candidate for the community council said at a parlor meeting.

Last night I walked down five stairs in our apartment building and stepped into a twilight zone that could exist only in Jerusalem.

The occasion was a parlor meeting to introduce Yael Weiss Gadish, 36, a candidate for the community council that represents four upscale areas: “Old” Katamon, “The Colonies” (the Greek Colony and the German Colony), Talbiya and Yemin Moshe, and Rehavia and Kiryat Shmuel. The council has no budget but does have a voice in municipal decisions, and this is the first time its members are to be elected by the residents, explained Weiss Gadish, who aims to represent Katamon.

Then she laid out her priorities.

“The largest population sector in the neighborhood is young families, among them many ultra-Orthodox ones,” she began. “I want to bring pluralistic Jewish [elementary-school] education here,” added the educator and mother of three.

To my surprise, every one of the ten other participants—all of them about the same age as the candidate and all but one of them easily passing as “secular” on the basis of outward appearance—thought this was a great idea and launched into a long discussion of exactly what they wanted. Many of them had grown up Orthodox and some are still religiously observant to some degree. Some are in “mixed” marriages, in which one of the partners is religious.

“There are a lot of people who are confused,” said one man, who then offered an example of what this Jerusalem neighborhood needs. “In the Yahad School in Modi’in, everyone—religious and secular—feels comfortable. They coexist.”

“I don’t want to commit myself to a particular category,” said Weiss Gadish. “I’m secular and I’ll be happy if my kids pray in the morning.”

But she and others made it clear that although they want to give their children some kind of Jewish education, they are uncomfortable with the growing ultra-Orthodox presence in the neighborhood. Jewish, yes, but not that kind of Jewish.

It was a discussion that probably could not have taken place among the children of the previous generation of secular residents in the neighborhood. In fact, it certainly could not have taken place because, except for one of our children, almost none of the others still live in Jerusalem. If they haven’t moved abroad, they’re in Tel Aviv, where secular young people go in search of  jobs and to escape feeling under siege by the increasingly religious atmosphere of the capital.

When my husband and I moved to “Old” Katamon in 1964 (the true name is simply Katamon), the neighborhood had a mix of university-educated secular or non-Orthodox residents, educated Orthodox Jews who chose to live in a mixed neighborhood, evacuees from the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, and a sprinkling of ultra-Orthodox Jews. There were plenty of nonreligious nursery schools and kindergartens. No longer.

In recent years many apartments have been bought by well-heeled Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews from abroad, only some of whom live here year-round. The two nonreligious elementary schools can barely fill classes, and it’s doubtful that a pluralistic Jewish elementary school would have a chance.

But a minor miracle revealing the power of the people and the community council ushered in this week in which Hanukka begins: A Jerusalem Magistrates Court judge gave a reprieve to the Jerusalem Pool, in the German Colony, whose owners wanted to replace it with luxury apartments. When the pool opened in 1958, Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community protested vociferously against the abomination of men and women swimming together. More than 50 years later, the community council protested the plan to close the pool.

Now it remains to be seen whether, in this state that can’t figure out how to be Jewish and democratic, the people can create a neighborhood that is Jewish and pluralistic.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

Who by knife and who by gunfire, who by axe and who by club

November 25, 2010

A young couple inspects replicas of the weapons used to kill eighteen Israeli women, victims of spousal violence.

In Jerusalem's open-air produce market, protesters against domestic violence hold up placards with advice for women leaving in fear.

Eighteen Israeli women have died before their time this year, all of them victims of spousal murder. Today I took the bus across town to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda open-air market to see replicas of the murder weapons on display amid the ripe tomatoes, juicy grapefruit, and salty olives that are the usual wares.

Knives, a cleaver, a hammer, an axe, a gun, and a baseball bat were posted on a three-panel stand alongside the photos and details of the murdered women. Paulina Lutski, 74, of Haifa was one of the victims; another was Hala Faisal-Salam, 33, of Nazareth.

The macabre exhibition was part of a protest marking International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. On this Thursday afternoon, when the market was filled with people shopping for the Sabbath, the display drew a steady stream of curious passersby, including young couples, ultra-Orthodox men, and other men and women of all ages. A few elderly women, obviously unaware of the protest, asked if the knives were for sale. One middle-aged man kept repeating, “But a woman can do in a man with just one word; she doesn’t even need a weapon.”

Domestic violence causes more deaths than terrorism in Israel today. The number of women killed by their spouses so far this year is twice the number of Israelis—both men and women—killed in terror attacks. But everyone loves to talk about terrorism and almost no one wants to talk about domestic violence. You can’t use it to raise money or garner support for Israel, and there’s no outside enemy to blame.

So the protest organizers had a hard time finding a venue, until Shimon Darwish, head of the Mahane Yehuda Merchants Center, came to the rescue.

“He welcomed us with open arms,” said Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (, of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, which organized the protest together with Rabbis for Human Rights (

The protesters distributed fliers with a hotline number, read out the names of the victims, recited a prayer for an end to domestic violence, and said kaddish, the mourners’ benediction, for the dead women.

And in a clear call to all Israeli women who live in fear, they offered the following advice: “It won’t go away by itself.” “Do not be silent.” “Set aside money for yourself.” “Learn self-defense.” And “Call the police.”

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.

Travelers to and from an antique land

November 22, 2010

Pastor Ribamar Araujo Ladislau, Israel's tourist No. 3,000,000 or 3,000,001 in 2010, gets a royal welcome from Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov for fulfilling the minister's dream. (Photo courtesy of the Tourism Ministry)

When Pastor Ribamar Araujo Ladislau arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport this afternoon, Israel’s tourism VIPs turned out to welcome him with flowers and fanfare. Ladislau, who is leading a group of Evangelical pilgrims from Sao Paolo, was Israel’s tourist No. 3,000,000 of the year (or No. 3,000,001 depending on which you believe: the certificate Ladislau received or the sign at the airport).

Our tourism minister with the unpronounceable last name may not be able to coordinate signs and certificates, but he clearly believes that size matters: For months Stas Misezhnikov had been predicting a bumper crop of tourists in 2010, and Ladislau was his man, breaking the record set in 2008.

I like to think that coming to Israel fulfills a dream not only for the minister but for the pastor and his flock. For what is travel if it is not the fulfillment of a dream?

Last night my husband, Shraga, and I listened to a recording we made of our dream in 1970, when we used to communicate with his sister and brother-in-law in the United States by sending cassette tapes. The quality of most of the recording was very poor, but one part was loud and clear.

“If I finish my thesis,” I heard myself saying, “Shraga says we can take a year off and travel around the world.”

“Yes,” Shraga interjected, “we can bum around the world.”

“We don’t have to sleep in the streets,” I retorted. “We can rent out our apartment and we can buy a van and travel from country to country.”

Then I added, “If we run out of money we can wait on tables or wash dishes, or I can teach Hebrew or English, depending on the country, and Shraga can fix cars.”

All of this would have aroused mere nostalgia for a youthful dream, if we weren’t struck by the irony of it. The thesis never got finished, and we never took a year off to travel, but we did go on long trips around the US, seeing more national parks than most people ever do, and we were also lucky enough to make shorter trips to many other countries. Yet it never seemed enough.

On our last long trip to the US, this fall, as if we had not come up with the idea 40 years ago, we talked endlessly about how we would buy a van and fix it up and travel, not around the world, but from state to state.

But even all that going and coming would not be enough to fulfill my dreams. There would have to be a story, too. For what is travel if one doesn’t return with a story and an insight, like the traveler “from an antique land” in Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias”?

Stas Misezhnikov has his story. But will Pastor Ladislau go home with a story beyond his being Israel’s record-breaking tourist No. 3,000,000 or 3,000,001?

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

(Kosher) Sex and the (Holy) City

November 20, 2010

Next door to a florist and a chocolatier on trendy Emek Refaim Street is this shop selling 'special gifts for lovers.'

Candlesticks and honey dust, massage creams and sexy undies, and even super-kosher spreadable, lickable Belgian chocolate fill the shop.

Under the wedding canopy, a [Jewish] groom promises his bride that he will provide her with comfortable standards of food, shelter, and sexual gratification.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Heavenly Sex

Until 2004, there was nowhere in Israel a woman could buy edible fruit-flavored undies. Nor could couples buy spreadable, lickable Belgian chocolate certified kosher under the strictest rabbinical supervision.

It was then that Idit Ben-Haim opened Lo.Ve.La on Jerusalem’s trendy Emek Refaim Street.

“I was looking for something that didn’t yet exist in Israel,” said Ben-Haim, 39. “Either there was nothing or there were sex shops. So I decided to open a love shop, with a playful touch of sex.”

The shop’s name written in English letters indeed hints at love; in Hebrew, the name means “for him and for her.”

This straight-oriented store, owned and staffed exclusively by women, focuses on romance and intimacy. Candles of all types, even candles made of massage butter, and candlesticks that burn colored paraffin (and that can double as Sabbath lights); Victoria’s Secret creams and lotions; his-and-her ceramic cats and birds; and lacy nighties are among the items that fill the shelves.

But there are also erotic card games for couples, undergarments for role playing, “honey dust” to be applied with a feather and licked off, and a pair of dice that glow in the dark, one of which shows what to do and the other of which indicates which room of the house to do it in.

Ben-Haim’s clientele is very varied. Only a few clients are ultra-Orthodox, but many are Orthodox.

“A couple’s intimate relations are sanctified in the Orthodox community,” Ben-Haim explained. “Some women come here before going to the mikveh [ritual bath] and buy underwear and massage products.”A popular wedding gift among her Orthodox clients is a basket filled with the shop’s products, and a similar basket is also a favorite gift for brides going to the mikveh for the first time.

A tiny back room separated by a curtain from the main part of the shop has a variety of sex toys and a small selection of erotic films. Not everyone is allowed to enter.

“We advise couples who want to buy the sex products,” Ben-Haim said. “This is not a sex shop.”

Lo.Ve.La, which bills itself as selling “special gifts for lovers,” also offers two types of workshops for women, one in which new products are explained, and another, often on the occasion of a birthday, that starts off with games and ends with information about products. Now Ben-Haim plans to expand her business through franchises around the country, using the Emek Refaim shop as the model.

Lo.Ve.La is set back slightly from the street, next door to a florist and a chocolatier. The recessed entrance was not what Ben-Haim wanted originally, but now she sees it as an advantage, because it helps create an atmosphere of intimacy, she said, “and you don’t have to sneak in through a dark, sleazy stairwell.”

Lo.Ve.La, 52 Emek Refaim; 02-563-8090. Open Sunday through Thursday 10 to 9, Friday 10 to 2:30.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.

A nameplate is a sign of another time in Tel Aviv

November 18, 2010

The building my grandparents lived in was once a prime example of the International Style for which Tel Aviv is now famous.

Under the piece of paper, to my surprise, was the metal nameplate bearing my grandfather’s name.

The last time I saw my grandparents’ house was in May 2010. They lived on the top floor of a building designed in the International Style for which Tel Aviv is now famous, with clean lines, rounded balconies and a long, narrow window bringing light into the stairwell. But in May it was boarded up and in the last throes of its long decline.

I was in southern Tel Aviv to visit the Congolese community’s Vie Nouvelle (new life) evangelical church, as part of my research for a story on migrant workers and asylum seekers in the city. The church is at 66 Wolfson, in an area near the central bus station that for the past two decades has had the country’s largest concentration of migrant workers.

My grandparents, who escaped Vienna in 1938 before the Nazis marched in, lived at No. 56, just a few houses away, on the other side of Chlenov Street.

I have fond memories of my grandparents’ apartment, which faced the city’s wholesale produce market that is now slated to become high-rise apartment buildings. My mother, brother and I lived with my grandparents for 10 months from the fall of 1949. Israel was recuperating from the War of Independence, and an austerity program was in full swing. My grandmother kept two chickens in a little coop on the roof, and that meant we had eggs, despite the rationing. I remember my mother helping my grandmother cook, rolling out dough for noodles.

And I remember the sweets vendors, immigrants like my grandparents but from other countries, who walked up and down Wolfson Street with pushcarts, shouting out their wares. “Sham-bali-sham!” and “Sham-ba-lulu!” they would cry, and my brother and I, standing on my grandparents’ balcony, would shout back an echo, mocking them.

But after my grandparents died, I had no reason to go back to that house, until the summer of 1990, just before the First Gulf War rained Scuds on Tel Aviv. I had come to visit my daughter, Shahar, who was serving in the IDF, and we took a long walk from the Reading power station in the north to where Tel Aviv meets Jaffa in the south.

It was then I decided to show Shahar where my grandparents had lived. Already then the building was abandoned except for the shops on the ground floor. We walked into the gloomy stairwell and up the steps to the top floor. The apartment doors gaped open and empty wine bottles littered the floors.

When we got to the door of my grandparents’ apartment, I saw that the last tenant’s name was written on a piece of paper taped to the door. I don’t know what prompted me to lift that piece of paper, but under it, to my surprise, was the metal nameplate bearing my grandfather’s name, Elazar Rokach, in Hebrew.

I ran down to one of the shops, asked to borrow a screwdriver, and ran back up. My fingers were shaking so much I could barely hold the screwdriver, and it seemed to take forever and all my strength to get the screws out of the door. But I kept trying and, at last, I was holding a bit of history in my hands and sharing a priceless moment with my daughter.

Text and images copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or images may be used without written permission of the author.

10 things they didn’t tell me about being married to an Israeli tour guide

November 15, 2010

An Israeli tour guide in action, explaining the history, archaeology, religion, politics, and everything else you were too shy to ask.

1. Dinnertime is an oxymoron. There is no set time for dinner because there is no set time for ending the work day, and tourists may need to be dropped off at the end of a tour as far away as Eilat. Dinner may be at 6, 7, 8, 9, or even 10.

2. Breakfast, too, has no set time. There are days that start at 5 if, for example, the guide has to get from Jerusalem to Haifa to meet a cruise ship.

3. Don’t expect to see the country on your spouse’s day off. After spending all week on a bus, sharing the hotel’s worst room with a chain-saw-snoring driver, your guide will want to enjoy the comforts of home.

4. Forget about your spouse surprising you with a weekend at a luxury hotel on your anniversary. There isn’t a hotel  in the country that your spouse can associate with celebrating.

5. Planning on having kids? Hire an au pair. Your spouse will meet them at their bar mitzvah.

6. Need to hop to the supermarket? Forget about driving your spouse’s car if it has a tourism emblem on it, which means that only a licensed guide may drive it. Or consider getting a guide’s license (it takes just two years).

7. Never make plans that involve your spouse. Jobs have a way of turning up at the last minute, even when you have tickets to the last performance ever of the Rolling Stones.

8. You may meet some nice people (they might even invite you to dinner), but you’ll also hear about the clients you didn’t meet, like the man who complained at the palace at Masada that he was shown only rocks and wanted to know where the furniture was.

9. Expect to have the income tax authorities breathing down your neck, forever. After all, all tour guides are liars. So are writers.

10. You and your spouse will have many, many reasons to travel abroad, and you may even get to be the guide. Go and enjoy.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

From Coit Tower to the Golden Gate Bridge, Jewish connections abound

November 13, 2010

Joseph B. Strauss had the vision and the engineering skills necessary for creating the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Palace of Fine Arts is a remnant of the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915; Jews played an important part in producing that expo.

Many of San Francisco’s major attractions have a Jewish connection, and several are linked to the extended family of Levi Strauss. Here’s a quick guide to some of them.

Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge was the world’s longest single-span bridge when it was completed in 1937 and was considered one of the world’s greatest feats of engineering.The chief engineer and promoter of the project was Joseph Baermann Strauss (1870–1938), the descendant of German Jews (but not, as far as I know, a relative of Levi Strauss).

A bronze sculpture of Strauss stands just below the San Francisco entrance to the bridge and has a plaque that describes his accomplishment in language that echoes God’s promise to Noah after the flood: “Here at the Golden Gate is the eternal rainbow that he conceived and set to form, a promise indeed that the race of man shall endure unto the ages.”

Levi Strauss & Co. headquarters and visitor center

Levi’s Plaza, 1155 Battery Street


Accessible by #10 bus or F line light rail

These modern red-brick offices are near the site of the company’s 19th century headquarters. A visitor center on the ground floor has historical displays, including films, about Levi Strauss and the company.

Coit Tower

1 Telegraph Hill Boulevard, directly above Levi’s Plaza

Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Accessible by steps from Levi’s Plaza or by #39 bus

The tower affords an incomparable view of the city and the bay. It was built in the 1930s under the supervision of Herbert Fleishhacker, the then president of the Board of Park Commissioners and scion of one of the most prominent pioneer Jewish families.

Artist Bernard Baruch Zakheim, an immigrant from Poland, led a group of local artists in seeking the commission to paint murals around the base of the tower. The murals portray life in California and express the social, political and economic concerns of the Great Depression. The three volumes of the Hebrew Bible appear in the middle of Zakheim’s depiction of a public library. Zakheim’s daughter, Masha, leads tours.

Haas-Lilienthal House

2007 Franklin


Accessible by #1 bus

This Queen Anne-style home, with a square bay window, gabled roof and round tower, was built in 1886 for Bavarian-born William Haas, whose nephew, Walter Haas, would eventually take over the Levi Strauss company.After William Haas died, his daughter Alice, who married Samuel Lilienthal, lived here until 1972. There is no mezuzah, and the family had a Christmas tree every year.

Many Victorian homes were destroyed in the fire that raged through the city after the 1906 earthquake; many of those that survived were torn down later. The Haas-Lilienthal House is the only Victorian home open regularly as a museum. Here visitors can see how a merchant’s upper-middle-class family lived. Volunteer docents lead tours on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

Stern Grove

19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard


Accessible by #28 bus

This lush, wooded park was created by Rosalie Meyer Stern as a memorial to her husband, Sigmund Stern, Levi Strauss’s favorite nephew. Free outdoor performances on Sunday afternoons begin in mid-June, offering excellent programs of symphony, opera, jazz, pop music and dance.

San Francisco Zoo

1 Zoo Road


Open daily 10 to 5

Accessible by L line light rail

Herbert Fleishhacker, whose father was a peddler in Bavaria, made his fortune in a variety of business ventures and in banking. As president of the Board of the Parks Commission, he built Fleishhacker Pool, the largest public swimming pool in the United States. He is considered the “father of the San Francisco Zoo,” originally named The Herbert Fleishhacker Zoo.The Mother’s Building, a Renaissance-style structure near the entrance, was commissioned by Herbert and his brother Mortimer in honor of their mother, Delia Fleishhacker. It was designed as a place where mothers could relax with their children. Four murals inside depict Noah and the animals of the ark. Today it is the Zoo Shop.

Exploratorium – Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception

3601 Lyon St.415-397-5673

Open Tuesday through Sunday 10 to 5

Accessible by #30 bus

This hands-on museum helps children and their parents understand basic principles of science, in a playful atmosphere. Physicist and teacher Frank Oppenheimer, the son of a businessman who had immigrated to the United States from Germany, founded the Exploratorium and was its director until his death in 1985. He was the brother of Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, and he also worked on that project. The Exploratorium is behind the Palace of Fine Arts, the remnant of the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915. Prominent Jews were involved at all levels of producing the exposition.

Cliff House

1090 Point Lobos


The Cliff House, a luxurious dining resort built by Westphalian-born Adolph Sutro, burned down in 1907. In 1909, Sutro’s daughter Emma built a new, more modest Cliff House. Since then, the great and famous have dined in this restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Seal Rocks. In 2004 it reopened following renovations that restored the neoclassical design of the 1909 building and added a new wing.

Temple Emanu-El

2 Lake Street, corner Arguello Boulevard


Accessible by #1 bus

Descendants of the family of Levi Strauss and of other German-speaking pioneer families are members of this large Reform congregation. The temple has Byzantine and Roman architectural elements, and its enormous, red-tiled dome—inspired by the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts—can be seen from many parts of the city. The stained glass windows represent “fire” and “water,” the two mystical elements of creation; the bronze and enamel ark stands under a marble canopy; and the Skinner organ has more than 5,000 pipes. Volunteer docents provide guided tours.

Holocaust Memorial

Lincoln Park, opposite the California Palace of the Legion of Honor (a museum of European art)

Accessible by #18 bus

A man in prison garb peers out at the bay through a barbed wire fence, while behind him nine naked bodies lie tangled together. All the figures are white. This evocative sculpture by George Segal was installed in 1984. The inscription on a plaque nearby contains the promise to “pledge our lives to the creation of a world in which such evil and such apathy will not be tolerated.”

Holocaust Center of Northern California

Reopening on January 1, 2011, at:Jewish Family and Children Services

2245 Post Street

Accessible by #38 bus

An usually large collection (more than 500) of “yizkor” books – memorials to the Jewish communities in Europe destroyed in the Holocaust – is part of the research library at this Holocaust center. Founded in 1979 in response to a confrontation between neo-Nazis and Holocaust survivors in the city, the center engages in education and documentation and provides genealogical information.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.

San Francisco alchemist: He made gold out of blue denim

November 11, 2010

Levi Strauss and Co.'s red brick corporate headquarters are just below Coit Tower.

“Gold!” “Gold!” The cry went out in 1848 from Sutter’s Mill, 100 miles northeast of San Francisco, and thousands of men and women around the world rushed to the American West to seek their fortunes.

Jews, too, joined the Gold Rush. But most of them, like the Bavarian-born Levi Strauss, realized that fortunes could be made by providing supplies and services to the miners. They set up shop in canvas tents or in hastily built wooden shacks in the new mining towns and in San Francisco, the city where most miners outfitted themselves before setting out to dig.

Many of the Jews who came would remain to help build the dynamic, cosmopolitan city on the bay, becoming prominent in commerce, banking and industry. As the wealth of these pioneers grew, they would become major benefactors of the symphony, the opera, the theater, the public library, the universities, recreation areas and much more.

The German-speaking Jews, especially those from Bavaria, would also become members of the city’s social elite. Names such as Strauss, Stern, Haas, Lilienthal, Gerstle, Sloss, Greenebaum, Koshland, Levison, Zellerbach and Fleishhacker are deeply woven into the fabric of San Francisco history, and marriages between the families created an intricate web of strong and supportive relationships.

Whereas in Europe, even after the revolutions of 1848, Jews were still treated as second-class citizens, in Gold Rush country Jews were accepted as equals, and anti-Semitic incidents were rare, according to historian Irena Narell, author of Our City: The Jews of San Francisco. Jews became politicians and judges; they sat on the boards of cultural, educational and economic institutions in the new state of California. One even became governor of the state.

Strauss, the son of a dry goods peddler, was 24 when he arrived in San Francisco in 1853 to open his own wholesale dry goods business and a branch of a similar business his step-brothers owned in New York. According to popular myth, he immediately had the brilliant idea of making sturdy denim work trousers for miners and of reinforcing points of strain, especially the pockets, with copper rivets.

The truth, according to historians at Levi Strauss and Co., is a little different. Denim was already in use for work clothes, and one of Strauss’s regular customers, a Latvian-born tailor named Jacob Davis, came up with the idea of using rivets. But in 1872 Davis turned to Strauss, by then a successful businessman, for financial help in patenting the invention; in 1873 the patent was granted to both men.

That year, Strauss and Davis started manufacturing the work trousers that became increasingly popular and eventually came to be known as “jeans.” Neither man, however, could have imagined that one day jeans would be worn for both work and play, that they would be sold in more than 100 countries and that they would become so popular that net sales would mushroom to billions of dollars.

Despite Strauss’s early success, he did not put on airs. “He encouraged his employees to call him Levi,” said Lynn Downey, a company historian.

Strauss was generous, too, with his wealth. As a member of Temple Emanu-El, he contributed to the gold medal given annually to the best Sabbath School student. He also supported the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home, the Eureka Benevolent Society and the Hebrew Board of Relief.

Starting in 1897, Strauss provided the funds for twenty-eight scholarships at the University of California, Berkeley, just across the bay. Eleven of the original recipients were women.

Strauss never married; he lived with his sister, Fanny Stern, and her family. Of Fanny’s four sons, who would inherit the business, Sigmund was Strauss’s favorite.

When Strauss died in 1902, the front page of the San Francisco Call carried the story. On the day of the funeral, local businesses closed so that their proprietors could attend the services. Strauss left most of his $6 million estate to his four nephews, but there were also bequests to his favorite charities.

The devastating fire that followed the great earthquake of 1906 destroyed the company’s headquarters, including all records, and both factories. Strauss’s nephews not only rebuilt the company but helped other merchants get on their feet again. To this day the company is privately owned by descendants of the family, who continue to support cultural and educational endeavors throughout the city. Chairman emeritus of the board is Bob Haas, Strauss’s great-great-grandnephew.

Despite the family’s great wealth, its members prefer not to display it ostentatiously, says company historian Stacia Fink. “They don’t drive it, they don’t wear it,” she said.

Elise Fanny Haas (daughter of Sigmund Stern) is just one example of the family’s involvement and achievements. She was the first woman to become president of the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. When she died in 1990, she left 37 works to the museum, including Matisse’s Femme au Chapeau. The foundation she and her husband, Walter, established supports all the arts, especially dance, theater, music, museums and youth development through the arts. Blue denim had turned to gold, and gold had turned to culture.

Next:  San Francisco: Jewish connections everywhere

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

A neighborhood by any other name: A sign of who’s in power

November 9, 2010

Ask anyone in Jerusalem for directions to Komemiyut and all you'll get are blank stares.

Tel Aviv has decided to consign some old neighborhood names to oblivion and replace them with new ones, according to the daily Ha’aretz. Among the first eight names to be changed is that of Sarona, a settlement established in the 19th century by Templers, Christian visionaries from Germany. Another is of Abu Kabir, which was named for an Egyptian village from which many of its original residents came. The city plans massive development in some of these neighborhoods, and perhaps the old names are not posh enough for their new inhabitants.

Changing names is a trick used worldwide to show who’s in power and whose collective memory will be preserved. About 15 years ago I stumbled around Tashkent, Uzbekistan, unable to find my way with a map that still showed the streets named for Soviet heroes. One of the first things the Uzbeks had done after the fall of the Soviet Union was to change the street names (and replace the statues of Lenin with statues of the 14th century conqueror Timur, known to the West as Tamerlane).

But name changes don’t always stick. Abu Kabir has already undergone one name change to Givat Herzl (Herzl’s hill), a name no one seems to use. And if Jerusalem is any indication, the new names in Tel Aviv will catch on slowly, if at all.

I live in Katamon, which Jerusalem’s naming committee decided decades ago to call Gonen, a name derived from the Hebrew root meaning “to defend.” The original Greek name, which refers to the monastery nearby, clearly did not fit the Israeli image the city fathers wanted for this neighborhood that was the scene of fierce fighting in the War of Independence and whose many Greek Orthodox inhabitants fled to escape the conflict. Most of the streets are named for units and corps that fought in that war.

But ask anyone you meet what this neighborhood is called, and the answer will be Katamon. The same is true for the next neighborhood to the east, Talbiya, which had wealthy Arab residents before 1948. The city would like it to be called Komemiyut, which means “sovereignty.” But no one, absolutely no one, calls it anything but Talbiya (pronounced Tal-BEE-yeh).

And the same goes for a neighborhood to the south of Katamon, named Bak’a (an Arab name that means “valley”). The city would like it to be called Ge’ulim, from the Hebrew word meaning “emancipation,” but everyone still calls it Bak’a.

Even the large directional signs the city has posted include the “old” names along with the “new,” because the new names by themselves would be meaningless.

Oddly, the city has not tried to get rid of the names of the two neighborhoods closest to mine, the German Colony and the Greek Colony, the first named for its 19th century Templer settlers and the second for its former Greek inhabitants (and where you can still learn Greek folk dances at the Greek community center).

So, at least in Jerusalem, a few attempts to eradicate the past and alter the collective memory have failed utterly.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

In the company of movers and shakers

November 6, 2010

This house had only one story when prime minister Levi Eshkol lived in it.

I didn’t plan it this way, but for decades I’ve lived in the company of prime ministers.

In 1964, when my husband and I moved in to our newly built apartment in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, prime minister Levi Eshkol (Israel’s third) was living across the street in a graceful rosy-stone home I could see from our kitchen window.

Katamon had many Christian residents before 1948, and its name, which is Greek, refers to the Greek Orthodox San Simeon Monastery overlooking the neighborhood. The owners of the rosy-stone house probably fled during the fierce battle in the War of Independence for control of the monastery, which Israeli author Meir Shalev immortalized in his recent novel A Pigeon and a Boy.

But Levi Eshkol was not our neighbor for long: He moved out the day we moved in, and the mansion was later rented to a succession of diplomats. It housed the Consulate of the Dominican Republic and the Embassy of Costa Rica, one of only two embassies in Israel’s capital after 1984 (both of which eventually moved to the Tel Aviv area).

While the diplomats were here, the neighborhood children became friendly with the housekeepers and were even invited to a party at which they had their first encounter with a piñata. Finally, the property was sold to a wealthy British family that more than doubled the size of the house but comes to live there for only about two weeks a year.

Meanwhile, in a squat single-family home I can see from another window, the parents of Israel’s ninth and current prime minister moved back from a sojourn in the United States. This is the prime minister everyone in Israel calls by his nickname, Bibi; it’s one of the few things the right and the left can agree on.

In a radio interview some years ago, Bibi recalled the days when the street ended at his family’s house and there was just a grassy field beyond it where the family kept a horse.

I’ve had tea in that house, but not because we’re neighbors. The parents of a close friend were friends of Bibi’s parents; when they would come to visit across the street they would call and invite me over.

Bibi’s mother died some years ago. His father, a centenarian scholar, still lives in the house and I see him going out occasionally. Bibi is a devoted son, visiting his father often (and that’s apart from the times he uses the house for meetings).

And each time Bibi turns up for a visit before heading to the US for more peace talks, my husband and I hope our wishes will cross the street and that Bibi’s father will give his son his blessing for bringing an end to the conflict that has plagued us for so long.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.