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The Fillmore: A Jewish Neighborhood in the 1920s

Historical Essay

by Kate Shvetsky

Westaddi$bread-truck-1920s.jpg

By the early 1920s, Langendorf's Jewish Bakery had a fleet of trucks delivering across the city.

Photo: Private Collection, San Francisco, CA

Before a mass post-war exodus to the suburbs, there was a thriving Jewish community in the Fillmore district in the 1920s and 30s. Many Jewish families moved to the Fillmore district after being displaced from their former cultural hub—South of Market—by the 1906 quake, setting up synagogues on Geary, Webster, and Golden Gate Ave. Businesses became bustling, local institutions including Langendorf Bakery, the Heineman and Stern Meat Factory, and Jefferson Market, whose descriptions make you wish you could walk through the doors today.

San Francisco had a lively Jewish neighborhood in the 1920s and 1930s. It flourished as part of the Fillmore District for about forty years. Before Jewish families moved out to more fashionable residential areas of the city or to the suburbs, shoppers poured into the busy food stores and markets on Fillmore and McAllister Streets on Saturday nights and Sundays. There they bought Kosher meats and chickens at the butcher and poultry counters. On Saturday nights stores opened after sundown when the twenty-four hour Jewish Sabbath ended, and stayed open until eleven o'clock.

This heavy concentration of Jewish families and businesses began to appear immediately after the 1906 earthquake and fire razed much of the South-of-Market area. Many of the Jews who had come to San Francisco before the turn of the century had settled south of Market. When their homes were demolished they moved up to McAllister and the Fillmore District.

The former headquarters and social rooms of the San Francisco Labor Lyceum Association were in a basement at 1740 O'Farrell Street. The old Workmen's Circle and Socialist Party activities centered here.

During the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, there were crowds throughout the day in front of the district's three synagogues on Geary, Webster, and Golden Gate Avenue. Many came outside periodically for some fresh air and a break from praying. A good percentage, however, never went in. Some couldn't afford membership in the congregations. Others were nonbelievers who nevertheless felt a need to identify themselves as Jews on the special days and "be counted."

As in many other major American cities, Jews -- along with other whites moving up the middle class ladder -- had a mass exodus to the suburbs in the post-war era. San Francisco lost half its Jewish families between 1959-1973, many moved to Marin and the Peninsula. Suburbanization meant the demise of this dense, culturally rich Jewish neighborhood.


Langendorf Bakery, 1160 McAllister St.

Langendorf's was considered to be the Number One Jewish bakery in the neighborhood. During the High Holidays, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the windows of the retail store would have on display jumbo-sized "challah" (egg twist) bread. Some were filled with raisins and candied fruit pieces, and the braided top crusts were sprinkled with colored candy or poppy seeds.

Bernard Langendorf came to America from Vienna when he was sixteen. He moved his small bakery west from Chicago to San Francisco in 1895, establishing Langendorf's Vienna Bakery on Folsom Street, south of Market.

His rye bread was reportedly made from an old Viennese formula. After the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed his small bakery, Bernard re-opened at 878 McAllister, near Laguna. In 1915, with $400,000 raised from ten prominent San Franciscans, he built a new, expanded plant at 1160 McAllister. By the early Twenties, a fleet of delivery wagons with tow-horse teams rented from a nearby stable, together with several battery-operated white trucks, were covering the City. Neighboring merchants and former employees remember Bernard boarding the No. 5 McAllister streetcar and carrying a paper bag full of bakery cash on his way to the bank.

Heineman & Stern, 1040 McAllister St.

This was a sausage and meat-products factory with a retail counter. You walked into the white-tile-front store to a wooden floor covered with clean sawdust. Featured were displays of Kosher-style hot dogs, salamis, and balonies. The factory, established in 1877 on Larkin Street, moved to this location after the 1906 earthquake and fire. It remained here until 1971 when the business was sold and moved across the Bay to San Lorenzo.

Jefferson Market, 1002 Buchanan St.

The Jefferson, owned by I. Goldstein, was the principal fresh-chicken headquarters for the San Francisco's Jewish community. The place bulged with screeching chickens. A cloud of feathers constantly filled the air. Cages of noisy chickens were piled up on the sidewalk outside, leaving only narrow aisles for passing pedestrians and entering customers. You selected the chicken you wanted and one of the clerks would take it, squawking and flapping, out of the cage. He would carry it back to the rear of the market where the "shochet," the Kosher slaughterer, killed it with a straight-edge razor slit across the neck and hung it head down to let it bleed. Then it was plucked clean of feathers, wrapped in a newspaper, and handed to you.

Congregation Kenesth Israel. 935 Webster Street.

One of the Fillmore District's two orthodox synagogues. It was founded by religious immigrant Jews who wanted to follow strictly the precepts their families had lived by in the Old Country. They had split away from another group which founded the Beth Israel Congregation, a conservative -- that is, less orthodox -- synagogue on Geary Street. The cornerstone for the Webster Street building was laid in 1903. Today, the congregation now holds services at the Jack Tar Office Building on Post Street.

Diller's Strictly Kosher Restaurant. 1233 Golden Gate.

Diller's was the biggest, the best, and the most popular Jewish restaurant in the neighborhood -- and the City. Dinner cost a "bissel" (little) more -- seventy-five cents instead of the fifty-cent price at Schindler's -- but it was worth it. On weekend nights Diller's was packed. Many Jewish families returning to the City from the popular Sunday picnics of that day at San Mateo Park or Alum Rock Park in San Jose would come directly to Diller's for dinner before going home.

Hamilton Junior High School, Geary near Scott.

The school was built in 1875 and torn down in 1930. It stood next door to Girl's High School, now Benjamin Franklin Junior High. The student body was predominantly a mixture of white, black and Japanese, reflecting the ethnic makeup of the portion of the Western Addition District.

From Jerry Flamm, Good Life in Hard Times, Chronicle Books, San Francisco


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