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Jewish Culture & IdeasJewish History

Threads of Jewish Life: Ritual and Other Textiles from the San Francisco Bay Area

Feb 13, 2020–Jun 27, 2021

Following the California Gold Rush, Jewish immigrants in San Francisco laid the foundation for community life, creating benevolent societies, synagogues, and schools across the city. At the same time, they influenced the values and construction of the new metropolis, supporting education, the arts, and social causes, thus translating Jewish ideals shaped by the European haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) into the realm of civic engagement.

Due to the 1906 earthquake and fire, however, very little material evidence of Jewish life in nineteenth-century San Francisco survives. The relationship of Jewish culture to textiles and their importance in reconstructing the Jewish history of the city cannot be overestimated. After all, the beginning of Jewish religious life in San Francisco itself occurred under a textile: the first celebration of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) was reportedly held in a wood-framed tent on September 26, 1849, near what is today the 700 block of Montgomery Street.

As a complement to Levi Strauss: A History of American Stylethis exhibition draws from the holdings of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life (University of California, Berkeley) to showcase a variety of textiles in use by San Francisco Jewish community members during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The exhibition highlights the Jewish life cycle through the display of two magnificent wedding dresses and offers a deep look at Jewish ritual customs in nineteenth-century San Francisco through a variety of embroidered bags to hold tefillin, as well as covers for challah and matzah used during Shabbat and Passover (respectively). These original textiles are majestically framed by the pediment and panels of a late nineteenth-century Torah Ark, entirely carved from redwood, from a Bay Area synagogue.

This exhibition is curated by Francesco Spagnolo, Curator of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, University of California, Berkeley.


This exhibition is included in your general admission ticket. Become a Member to receive free admission. All visitors are required to book their timed tickets online in advance to facilitate a contactless visit to The Museum.

RElated Content

Leadership Support for exhibitions at The CJM is generously provided by Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt.

Image Credit

Challah Cover, German origin, 1859. Linen backing, cotton embroidery floss, and glass and metallic beads. Gift of Congregation Beth Israel-Judea, San Francisco, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, University of California, Berkeley