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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Subtle Joys of Sherith Israel, City's Oldest Temple

Posted By on Wed, Apr 21, 2010 at 12:01 AM

click to enlarge 'Charmed and impressed...'
  • 'Charmed and impressed...'
Like any San Franciscan with an appreciation of the city's past, I enjoy Carl Nolte's work for the Chronicle. I particularly enjoyed Tuesday's piece about Sherith Israel, the 105-year-old synagogue on California Street and repository of so many sepia-toned civic memories.

Sherith Israel is the oldest extant synagogue in this city, and one of two breathtaking enough that your humble narrator actually brought people there -- during non-work hours -- just to take in its grandeur. And it was the only place chill enough to let us in.

Anyone reading Nolte's story gets an idea of the majesty of this large and imposing structure. But it's the details that make it a special place. I remember Depression-era graffiti in the attic areas. And while many people catch that the mountain in the background of the 10 Commandments stained glass window isn't Mount Sinai but Half Dome, the installation contains a smaller, subtler treasure.

It's the image illustrating this article. That little girl on the right is the daughter of Rabbi Jacob Nieto, the congregation's spiritual leader from 1893 to 1930. That level of detail in a hall as vast and grandiose as Sherith Israel leaves one both charmed and impressed. That's hard to do.

In fact, as with so many great buildings from its era, what ends up being most astounding -- and, frankly, endearing -- isn't its vast size, but the persistent ornateness. In 1905, it was financially viable to construct a king-sized structure with this many individual details and this much personality. Today it would be unthinkable.  

Too bad for the little Nieto girls of today. Too bad for all of us.


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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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