30 March 2009

Western Jewish History Center Archives

Did you know that the San Francisco Bay Area is home to the 3rd largest Jewish community in the United States? It's no wonder then that The Western Jewish History Center and Archives, part of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, is the world's largest repository of materials documenting the contribution of Jews to the history of the American West. Located at 2911 Russell Street in Berkeley, California, the Magnes is housed in the Historic Burke Mansion in a quiet residential neighborhood. I have to warn you though, wear your hiking boots. From the street you must climb up 2 1/2 flights of stone steps to get to the front door. I was just barely able to wheeze out my name to the man at the door. Lara Michels, PhD (Head Archivist and Librarian) came to greet me and led me up 2 more flights of stairs, this time in a narrow hallway. It took almost 10 minutes for my calves to stop screaming and the color of my face to return to normal. I have to tell you though, it was well worth the pain.

I had contacted Lara ahead of time to let her know my area of research interest. When I arrived I found that she had pulled several folders and photo albums on the families I was researching. Lara also showed me the card catalog that is the index for the Bay Area Jewish Newspaper Emanu-El. Founded in November 1895, it eventually became the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin and is now the JWeekly.com. This newspaper is full of society news that is a goldmine for family historians.

As you may remember, I have been researching my SIL's family who ancestors are all Jews from Bavaria who immigrated to San Francisco in the 1850's. They are among the very social elite, or as Frances Dinkelspiel likes to call them - "The Reckendorf Aristocracy" - and have been so much fun to research. SIL and I had decided to focus the research on her ancestors every day lives. I came across the following article in the Emanu-el newspaper society column that will give you an idea of what her folks did for a good time on an ordinary evening.

You need a little background first. SIL's 2nd great grandfather is D. N. Walter. D. N. Walter and Isaias Hellman were boyhood friends from Reckendorf, Bavaria. The Walter's have a party and the guest of honor is Hellman's daughter Clara. Below is a photo of the Walter Home, courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

From the Emanu-El Newspaper, 17 December 1897, page 16:

"One of the pleasantest entertainments ever given in San Francisco was that given one evening last week by Mr. and Mrs. D. N. Walter at their home, 1700 Van Ness avenue. It was complimentary to Miss Clara Hellman, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. I. W. Hellman, and the invitations asked a hundred and more friends to meet the young guest of honor "at a gathering of the gypsies." Following the plan of the hostess, Miss Mary Bates carried it out in most picturesque detail. The handsome dining-room of the Walter mansion was converted into a gypsy camp. There were tents of skins and canvas, the tripod with the kettle and all sorts of things that go to make up the typical settlement of the Romanies. the other rooms were canvased for dancing and appropriately decorated. Miss Hellman was not with Mrs. Walter to greet the guests, but made her appearance in a beautiful tableau surrounded by a dozen young ladies like herself in gorgeous gypsy garb, she being the queen. After this pretty general introduction she received "in camp," graciously dispensing its hospitality. Interest was added to this scene by the presence of "real" gypsies from a camp on the outskirts. They told past, present and future to the great amusement of the young people. Dice were shaken for prizes. An Italian supper prepared by a chef of that nationality was served before midnight, after which dancing was resumed."

Well what do you think about that? Over 100 teenagers, tents made of animal skins and real gypsies. I love this stuff!


  1. Great tidbit and great sleuthing. In all my research of the Hellman family, I didn't find this! Isn't the Western Jewish History Center the best.

  2. Thanks Frances, I absolutely loved the Magnes and plan to go back soon. I could literally spend days in there just reading those back issues of the Emanu-el newspaper. Their society column is fabulous because is narrowed down to (obviously) to the Jewish community in the Bay Area. All of their comings and goings being reported make it easy to follow their "every day" lives. Such fun to research - they certainly led different lives from those of my ancestors who were Kansas wheat farmers!