SFCentric History: 7 Notable Jewish People in San Francisco History

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San Francisco is an old, iron safe filled with gold, glory, disaster, and secrets. SFCentric History is a column, by SF writer V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi, that digs in the vaults of local history and shares the sensational people, places, and things that rocked San Francisco.

Photo: Levi Strauss

We are in the midst of Hannukah, and to celebrate, SFCentric History is taking a look at nine prominent people of the Jewish faith who made their mark on the city of San Francisco.

Washington Bartlett

Photo: I.W. Taber/Wikipedia

Washington Bartlett has the distinction of being the only Jewish governor in California history. The Savannah, Georgia native died in Oakland, while in office, in 1887. Before that, Bartlett was the 20th mayor of San Francisco, Harbor Commissioner, San Francisco County clerk, a newspaper and book publisher, state senator, and lawyer.

Herbert Fleishhacker

Photo: Jewish Museum of the American West

San Francisco native Herbert Fleishhacker was the man who brought the city Fleishhacker Pool, the Fleishhacker Zoo (which became the San Francisco Zoo), and Coit Tower (he supervised its construction). The son of a businessman, and co-founder of Temple Emanu-El Aaron Fleishhacker also organized the American River Electric Company, with his brother Mortimer, and was president of the London and Paris National Bank, and later the Anglo California National Bank.

Joseph “Joe” Choynski

Photo: Wikipedia

Professional boxer Joseph Bartlett Choynski, a.k.a. “Chrysanthemum Joe,” was known for his powerful punch. From 1888 to 1904, Joe boxed professionally, earning another nickname–“The California Terror.” While some sources call him the greatest fighter to have never won a title, others state that he, in fact, won the first Light-Heavyweight world championship, in August of 1899. Choynski was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1991. Later that decade, in 1998, he was inducted to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Mary Ann Cohen Magnin

Photo: Alchetron

Although the ‘I’ in I. Magnin comes from her husband, Isaac, the credit for the creation of the store goes to Mary Cohen Magnin. The Dutch entrepreneur opened a store in Oakland, selling baby clothes and lingerie, before moving the business to San Francisco, in 1876, and renaming it I. Magnin. The store now included bridal, and the latest fashion from Paris. It grew from there, becoming a phenomenon. New stores were opened, and I. Magnin was bought by Bullocks in 1944, and then Macy’s in 1964. I. Magnin stores closed in 1994, but Macy’s is now using the name as one of its in-house labels.

Emperor Norton

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Probably the most eccentric person on this list, Joshua Abraham Norton holds a special place in the heart of San Franciscans. In 1859, the failed businessman reinvented himself as Norton I, Emperor of the United States, and Protector of Mexico. And, as San Franciscans are wont to do, we went along with it. Money printed with his face on it was accepted, he was treated like the royalty he acted and dressed like, and after he died, 30,000 city citizens lined the streets for his funeral. To this day, every year, people celebrate Emperor Norton’s birthday.

Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis

Photo: World of faces

The jeans you are probably wearing right now wouldn’t exist if Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis hadn’t invented them first. The duo joined forces to create denim work pants, reinforced with copper rivets, for miners during the Gold Rush. With the company headquarters in San Francisco, their patent was filed in 1873, and we have been enjoying jeans ever since.

Want to party with a bunch of San Francisco Jews?  Who knows, some of them may be legends themselves someday!  There’s a cool afterwork party at the Contemporary Jewish Museum that celebrates analog-Hanukkah! Delight in lo-fi charms from a pre-digital life with dope light instalations, latkes, and a cocktail bar.

Night at the Jewseum: Light, Analog Edition @CJM
Thursday, Dec 14, 2017 • 6–9pm
ADMISSION: Free with Museum admission; $5 after 5pm

Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103



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V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi

V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi

V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi is a writer, pop culture historian, bookseller, and San Francisco native, whose work includes a focus on San Francisco pop culture history. Her articles and columns have been published in a number of publications including the San Francisco Examiner, SF Weekly, Refinery29, HipLatina, Bob Cut Mag, 7x7, BoldLatina, and The Bold Italic. She is also a published poet, with work in The Minison Project, BoldLatina, and The Baram House, and is currently working on her first books. You can check out more of her writing and bookish endeavors at