By Alanna Maya
The History & Heritage of San Diego’s Jewish Community on Display, March 11 2017 – January, 2018
This month, the San Diego History center celebrates one of San Diego’s most vibrant communities with “Celebrate San Diego! The History and Heritage of San Diego’s Jewish Community.” The exhibit chronicles the entire history of our community through today, with historical artifacts, pictures and different media to tell the stories of the Jews who first came to San Diego in the early 19th Century, and those living here today. We spoke with Joellyn Zollman, the curator for this fantastic and fascinating exhibit about what it took to put it all together and why the San Diego Jewish experience is so different.
L’CHAIM Magazine: What a huge undertaking this is! Can you tell us a little bit about what the process of putting this exhibit together looked like?
Joellyn Zollman: Well, I’ve been working on this for about a year and a half, and the San Diego History Center (SDHC) first came to me for the exhibit, because this is a community whose story really hasn’t been told. They were very interested in exploring it and telling it.
For me, I am a Jewish historian. I grew up in a really small town in Pennsylvania, and then I came to San Diego. When I read the basic, major narratives of American Jewish History, it occurred to me that my lived Jewish experience wasn’t really part of those narratives, and it didn’t seem to be reflected in a lot of the American Jewish history that we all tell ourselves and read about, because that narrative is mostly about the New York Jewish experience. So, I became really interested in what it means to be Jewish in somewhere that is not New York.
The big question I had was, ‘How do you build a community somewhere that is remote from the centers of Jewish life?’ So, this is a question about region and identity that I have been really interested in for some time now, so when SDHC came to me and said they were interested in exploring their local Jewish community, it was a perfect match.
L’CHAIM: What are some of the questions explored in the exhibition? What supporting documents help to answer these questions?
JZ: I came to the project with some really big questions about region and identity. What does it mean to be Jewish here in San Diego? How is that different from being Jewish in New York or Chicago or even Los Angeles? But also, how does that experience change over time?
To start to look for answers, I began with the collections at SDHC, and it was quite funny because in the beginning the History Center staff were quite skeptical about what we might be able to find, but that place is a real treasure trove of information, particularly about what I would call the “pioneer Jewish community.” The History Center was originally the San Diego Historical Society, and they were very committed to collecting the documents and life stories of who they saw as san Diego’s founders. Many of those founders included Jews, so, they had so many images and documents and objects that started to unveil the story of San Diego’s Jewish past to us. It was a terrific and surprising discovery.
I also went to the collection of the Jewish Historical Society of San Diego, and that collection turned out to be really nicely paired with the SDHC collection because [they] had more of the 20th century items we were looking for.
L’CHAIM: How did you take all this information and all these documents and narrow them down to what visitors will see in this exhibit?
KZ: Well, I took everything, and laid it out in a timeline; sort of a timeline of the San Diego Jewish experience from the beginning of statehood, in 1850, to the present. On this timeline, I included Jewish organizations, Jewish individuals, the arrival of families, the demographics over time, and I looked for patterns or themes, and those became the themes of the exhibit. But the exhibit is not a sort of encyclopedic retelling of the San Diego Jewish experience, rather, it seeks to ask these big questions about community and identity and hopes to explore some possible beginning of answers.
L’CHAIM: What are some of the major themes that emerged after this process?
JZ: One of the things that people don’t realize about San Diego Jews is that we have been here since the beginning of statehood. San Diego is a community that is always made up of more newcomers than natives because it is a constantly growing community. People don’t realize how deep the roots of the Jewish community here are. So, one of my primary goals with the exhibition is to really show this.
One of the themes of the exhibit is “Jews are Insiders.” They are here from the beginning of statehood and they help to build and shape the city in really significant ways. Jews play a large role in civics here, from the beginning and that is a role that continues over time. This is something that is very important, because it shows that Jews were integrating pretty seamlessly into the community, which is not the same in New York or Baltimore, or other areas of the country where Jews are at this time.
The other theme that emerged is that sometimes in San Diego history, “Jews are Outsiders,” and sometimes they are not permitted to buy houses in certain neighborhoods, or restricted from clubs. So, how does it work to be both an insider and an outsider? That is a big question that the exhibit asks and tries to examine.
The third theme of the exhibit is “Innovators,” and it became clear to me that the kinds of people who came to San Diego, the Jews who were settling here, were outside of the box. Think about the personality of someone who came to the U.S. in the19th century, had already emigrated from somewhere, settled in New York, and moved again to come to San Diego. That takes chutzpah, so the people who come here tend to be adventurous, and at least in the pioneer days, they had to create a city here. So, this part of the exhibit examines innovation and how it emerges over time.
L’CHAIM: How does the exhibit handle different sub-groups of the San Diego Jewish community who have settled here over time?
JZ: One of the characteristics of San Diego is that the number of Jews living here that were born in another country is higher than the average American city. So, in my research, I noticed there were large populations of Jews in San Diego that were originally from Mexico, South Africa, and the former Soviet Union, along with a smaller population of Israelis. That is an aspect, for me, that really gives our community a flavor, and it is one way how living here is different from living in other Jewish communities. So, we look at these communities in a timeline of the larger San Diego Jewish experience, and also as part of their own unique experience as Jews.
L’CHAIM: What are some ways that you hope the community is able to engage and interact with the exhibit?
JZ: It was really important to me that it be a very democratic exhibition, really deeply populist, in the sense that I want all Jews in San Diego to see themselves in the exhibit, and not that it feel like a hall of fame, for example. I want it to feel accessible and also like it is their story and that they are able to recognize their stories. So, I designed the exhibit in a way that would allow people to interact with it.
Part of that is through the educational programming we have built around the larger exhibition, and part of that is through part of the exhibition called the family room. This room is designed to look like a living room, that will be hung very densely with photographs of the San Diego Jewish community from the 1850s to the present, and in that way, people will see themselves, their family, friends and neighbors in the exhibit.
Celebrate San Diego! The History & Heritage of San Diego’s Jewish Community opens March 11 and will run through January 2018. To learn more, visit sandiegohistory.org.