Elizabeth Lilienthal Gerstley’s Christmas Parties album contains 201 photographs taken inside the Haas Lilienthal House at 2007 Franklin Street, San Francisco, between 1954 and 1971. These images, all taken by Elizabeth’s daughter, Anne Gerstley Pieper, portray members of the Haas, Lilienthal, Bransten and Gerstley families and their guests during their annual Christmas celebrations, and depict their gatherings and the interiors of the Haas Lilienthal House in vivid detail. The album also includes images of the Haas Lilienthal House taken in 1960 in black and white by an anonymous professional photographer for a story run by the San Francisco Chronicle, and a set of color images of the interiors of the house taken in 1972, upon the death of Alice Haas Lilienthal.
Information about many of the individuals portrayed in the album, and recollections about them and the various occasions in which they were photographed, were provided in 2008 by Susan Rothmann Seeley and John Rothmann.
The story of the Haas Lilienthal House is part of a larger history of family construction among San Francisco’s “Jewish aristocracy.” Built in 1886 by William and Bertha (Greenebaum) Haas, the house at 2007 Franklin Street can be seen as a material embodiment of the financial success many German-Jewish immigrants were finding in the western United States. The Haas Brothers wholesale grocery, a dominant force in the commercial world of nineteenth-century California, was one of a group of important businesses owned and operated by increasingly wealthy and socially prominent Jewish families, including, among others, the Lilienthals, the Gerstles (Gerstleys), and the Brandensteins (Branstens). These families often intermarried, creating formidable social and business networks. In 1909, Alice Haas, daughter of William and Bertha, married Samuel Lilienthal in one of the many weddings to take place at 2007 Franklin Street. Alice Haas Lilienthal resided in the house until her death in 1972. The weddings of Alice’s sister Florine to MJB coffee magnate Edward Brandenstein (later Bransten) in 1903, Alice’s brother Charles to Fannie Stern (a great niece of Levi Strauss), and Alice’s daughter Elizabeth to future Borax president James Mack Gerstley in 1934 contributed to the construction of the complex network of family ties that is so evident in this album.
The celebration of Christmas by Jews, in Europe after the Emancipation, and in California following their immigration since the Gold Rush, is a known “tradition” that draws upon the ongoing dialogue between Jewish and native cultures in the Global Diaspora.
Author Frances Dinkelspiel, whose family also arrived to California in the 1850’s, writes:
“It turns out that Jews in California have been celebrating Christmas since the 1850s. But they did not consider it a holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Christmas had deep roots in Europe, where it was a winter holiday. Massachusetts did not make Christmas an official holiday until 1856. The holiday – and Santa Claus – only became popular in the late 1830s when Clarke Moore’s poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’; popular. So an automatic assumption that Christmas = Jesus is wrong.
So my research has assured me that my family is not rejecting Judaism. We are just celebrating it a uniquely American way. Or maybe a way that is just unique to the West Coast. But there are cultural reasons for our celebration, not religious ones.”
The album also includes images of the Haas Lilienthal House taken in 1960 in black and white by an anonymous professional photographer for a story run by the San Francisco Chronlicle, and a set of color images of the interiors of the house taken in 1972, upon the death of Alice Haas Lilienthal.
Elizabeth Lilienthal Gerstley’s “Christmas Parties” album was digitized in the Memory Lab of the Magnes in 2008. The original album remains in the possession of the family.
This project was created by Francesco Spagnolo and Lara Michels.
The Jewish Digital Narratives are part of the Jews in the Golden State program, which is supported by the Walter & Elise Haas Fund and by an Anonymous gift. The Magnes is a beneficiary of the Esther and Jacques Reutlinger Foundation, the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties and the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.
California’s Christmas Jews, by Frances Dinkelspiel (Jewcy, 2008)