Site Reading, 2011
Commissioned for the exhibition California Dreaming, Contemporary Jewish Museum,
Site Reading is a series of eight text-and-image pieces that connect biographical narratives of Jewish Californians to the spatial history of the state, in order to highlight people whose contributions attest to the long history of social and political engagement in the San Francisco Bay Area and throughout California. [Read the full artist’s statement below.]
What does it mean, and what has it meant, to be a Jew in the San Francisco Bay Area? The question circulates throughout California Dreaming. Is there some specificity to this experience, or is the Bay Area Jewish community simply another iteration of an American Jewish community? As the entire exhibition itself attests, the San Francisco region is notable for two simultaneous features: a high number of unaffiliated Jews, and a long history of dedicated activism. For those with the means, this has translated to philanthropy and leadership in the organized Jewish community and in local business and political arenas. For others, it has meant devoting oneself to the betterment of the world, either outside the spheres of organized Judaism or in less celebrated social positions. Though at first glance such individuals’ stories may seem to be at the periphery of Bay Area Jewish history, in fact these narratives appear among our most familiar haunts, once we know where to look.
Site Reading examines the varied landscapes around us for these lesser-told stories. The eight image-and-text pieces in this series connect biographical narratives to spatial history in order to highlight people whose contributions attest to the long history of social and political engagement in the Bay Area. In reading the sites in these photographs with fresh eyes, we regularly see artists, labor activists, and Yiddish speakers—countercultural types in whom we see the roots of a geographically specific, Jewish-inflected Bay Area progressive climate. Their history surrounds us: a typical San Francisco business district street corner formerly housed a Communist-affiliated labor school where a Jewish poet taught; a ranch amidst the golden hills of Petaluma was the site where Eastern European Jews taught themselves to raise chickens; a San Francisco convention center showcasing cutting-edge Silicon Valley technology was the location of a nineteenth century union hall at which a Jewish labor activist argued against anti-Chinese discrimination; in a remote desertified valley east of the Sierras a memorial stands to a Japanese internment camp at which a Jewish woman cared for her son, etc. As varied in topography as are the spaces that comprise the “Bay Area,” they are all sites in which such histories can be found.
J Weekly, November 11, 2011.