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Reflections from summer research at a funeral home

The following text derives from a lecture I gave at the end of last summer. After working at a Jewish funeral home, designing a map of Jewish places in San Francisco, I spoke before a group of interns and staff at Jewish Bay Area nonprofits sharing my experience. These reflections summarize many of the issues that I ran into during the project, as well as open questions it raised and with which I continue to grapple.

Hello everyone!

My name is Jacob Isaacs, and I’m a senior English major at Carleton College. For the past eight weeks, I’ve had the privilege of working at Sinai Memorial Chapel as part of the Kohn program. Sinai is a unique institution: the only Jewish funeral home between Los Angeles and Seattle, and a rare nonprofit in the funeral industry. I feel very lucky to have worked in such a special environment.

But even when I explain to people what makes Sinai unusual, I still sometimes get weird looks. “You’re working with dead people? Do you see the bodies?” In fact I don’t have much interaction with Sinai’s typical work beyond occasional clerical duties. But it was a little jarring at first. The break room, as I have mentioned to some of you, is right next to the tahara room-where bodies receive ritual cleansing. It took me some time to adjust. On the first day of the job, my boss Sam Salkin came up to me, enthused, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Have you ever been to a Jewish funeral?”

Over time, as I became more absorbed in the work, these concerns faded into the background. What confuses people even more than the idea of working at a funeral home is that my specific job has little to do with funerals. It does, however, have a lot to do with homes.

I’ve buried the lede a little bit. When I was applying to the Kohn program, I at first wanted to do independent research at a museum, but the opportunity didn’t come up. The unparalleled Jessie Austin gave me several counteroffers, one of which was to design a walking tour of Jewish San Francisco. I thought I misread the email at first. Why would an organization whose clients are mainly defined by their lack of movement be thinking about walks?

As I thought more about it, the picture cleared up. Death is a constant in life, and we all -spoiler alert- have to deal with it, so the only place in the community that responds to it must be very well connected indeed. What I’ve done in the past two months is leverage those connections to learn about this city’s Jewish history.

And there’s a lot of it. Since the late 19th century the Bay Area has been one of the most Jewish areas in the country. I knew bits and pieces of this story, Levi Strauss and the other Bavarian gold rush merchants, but I had no idea how far it went. As long as San Francisco has been colonized, as long as it has been San Francisco, Jews have been here. In fact, Yerba Buena became San Francisco in 1847 because of a Jew: Washington Bartlett, later the city’s first Jewish mayor.

To make the walking tours, I created a map with some 200 locations. The map is a summary of San Francisco itself, from the Jewish-designed Transamerica Pyramid and Ghirardelli Square to Stern Grove and Sutro Heights Park.

Fred Rosenbaum, in his book “Cosmopolitans,” writes that the histories of San Francisco and its Jews are so interlinked that they’re inseparable. I’m inclined to agree with him. Colonization, immigration, assimilation, and community formation were all part of the package Jews got when they came here. It’s a complicated story, full of contradictions. The philanthropy and progressivism of wealthy Jews whose names made it on the map disguise the exploitation and massive inequalities that have always plagued this city, its Jews and gentiles alike.

With all the hatred in the world, this kind of project could easily play into antisemitic tropes about Jewish influence. But the reality is, the vast majority of us don’t have a building or park or business with our name on it. But we are all deeply connected to our settled home, in ways that we can only begin to imagine. I came into this project wanting to better understand the history of Bay Area Jewry, and I leave it feeling more satisfied than I hoped. Whether you’re interested in walking tours, maps, funeral homes, or not, I hope you’ll give some thought to this complicated, maddening, beautiful place, its history, and your own.

Thank you.

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