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Continuance of Magnificence

June 2, 2016
Posted by: Aimee Ellis, Community Engagement Manager

Growing up in the Richmond District of San Francisco, I was told I was Jewish but felt isolated. We didn’t attend synagogue, my schoolmates were Chinese American and my mother – despite a strong Jewish upbringing – identified with Eastern culture and religion, especially Buddhism. I was even unaware (until adulthood) that some of my Russian-speaking classmates were also Jewish.

My mother gave me Hanukkah, taught me to spin the dreidel, and took me to celebrate Purim at the JCC, but she also let me have Christmas and my “Jewish” upbringing didn’t have any emphasis on Judaism at all. Because of this, I sometimes feel I’ve missed a certain kind of connection to the Jewish community. It’s as though I’m playing catch up – and one day I hope to have a long overdue Bat Mitzvah. However, unbeknownst to me, I was all the while quietly being shaped and influenced by Jews who, like my mother, were likely working through their own identity and religious issues.

For example, one of my fondest childhood formative experiences was being lucky enough to be trained (starting at age two!) by Miss Jean Anderson at the Anderson Sisters School of Dance in the Inner Richmond. She was my first dance instructor, the first teacher I ever had really, and became like a grandmother to me. Thanks to “Miss Jean’s” wonderful influence, I am now a professionally trained dancer and direct my own youth dance company. But it was only after her passing in 2004 that I learned we shared Jewish heritage. For some reason we never discussed our shared ethnic background and I've often wondered why this was.

Last week it was the 79th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge and I was reminded of Miss Jean and her incredible connection to San Francisco. She hailed from a family of Vaudeville era performers and, in 1934, her mother, Irene Anderson, wrote a song called, “Golden Gate Bridge.” Miss Jean and her siblings performed the song at the 1939 World Fair on Treasure Island and, in 1998, it became the “official historic song” of the Golden Gate Bridge. You can see a clip on YouTube of Miss Jean performing it with her unique and “very San Francisco” showbiz panache from the evening news in 1987, as well as at the Paramount Theater, in celebration of the bridge’s 50th anniversary.

Sadly, Miss Jean passed away in 2004. About 10 years later, I learned of my own family’s massive work in the music industry, both in Europe and America. Thanks to this discovery, I’m learning about the incredible history of Jews in American show business and Vaudeville and am absolutely enthralled. As the Jewish Women’s Archive stated:

What brought all of these performers and participants together is also a largely untold story – the story of a struggle over representation. Enacted on the vaudeville stage was the emergence of the American Jew…During this period and in this area, an unprecedented intermingling of men and women from different races, ethnicities, and classes forged not only many of the expressive conventions of vaudeville, but also the foundations for representing ethnic American identity.

I feel the history of Jews in Vaudeville is a lived history I took part in, through knowing Miss Jean, and I now carry on this legacy through my own dance instruction.

Nor has she been the only Jewish person like this in my life. I’m coming to realize how profoundly I was being affected by so many different kinds of Jewish people all around me, who were themselves a product of newfound Jewish-American culture. The culture may have been assimilated and integrated, but I see Jews “like me” sharing their cultural wisdom and insight everywhere I look. Perhaps it is one of the key traits of being Jewish American, this ability to integrate but still retain a uniquely Jewish way of being. 

Key or not, it’s certainly present and I see it as a gift to realize and be aware of this process – it feels nothing short of miraculous. In the news clip linked above, Miss Jean expresses her great joy to be part of a “continuance of magnificence” and I feel the same way. As I dance toward my future, I continue to discover and deepen my understanding of my Jewish American identity.

 

PHOTO: The author at age three learning with Miss Jean.