30 May 2008

California: Berkeley's Jewish pioneers

There are so many sources to consult when detailing the genealogy of a person or a family. Don't forget real estate records, university yearbooks, newspapers and a range of other records, as demonstrated in this story on Berkeley's Jewish history.

The story, focusing on the pioneering Fischel family, by Daniella Thompson, appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet. She also publishes Berkeley Heritage for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).

Among the fortune seekers lured to northern California by the Gold Rush, the Jewish contingent was small but significant. Jewish immigrants would go on to play an important role in the economic and cultural development of the Bay Area, and Berkeley was no exception. Although early accounts rarely discuss Berkeley’s Jewish community, some members figured among the young town’s prominent citizens.

The story centers on a pioneering family - Fischel - which arrived in Berkeley in the late 1870s, and began buying property and building.

Simon Fischel immigrated from Bohemia, then a Crown Land of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Born in 1846 or 1847 (depending on source), he arrived in New York as a teenager in 1865, worked as a butcher for more than 10 years, and became a citizen in 1872. He married Rosa Bauml in 1870 and their first four children were born in New York. Around 1878, they arrived in Berkeley and are listed in the 1879 city directory.

The story thoroughly details the family using such resources as census records, building records, university yearbooks, newspaper advertisements and articles.

On Nov. 6, 1890, the Berkeley Advocate regaled its readers with this anecdote: “A lady called on Fischel & Co. the other evening and made arrangements for that company to supply her family with meat. The team was daily sent to the house, when it was discovered that no such family resided there. It turned out that Mr. Fischel was deceived of a young man who donned the garment of a virgin to fool Fischel.”

Fischel wasn't a kosher butcher, as he sold pork, but he was involved in the First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland, founded by Gold Rush-era settlers.

The story follows their real estate ventures recorded in the Berkeley Advocate and elsewhere. Among his properties was the Fischel Block (1888) on the northwest corner of Shattuck and University.

It was by far the most elegant building on the intersection, adorned with bay windows along the second floor, showy corbels under the eaves, a decorative metal railing along the roofline, and an impressive corner turret crowned by a witch’s cap.

Then whole clan seems to have been living in the area. Simon's brother Isaac and his wife Elsie built his family home next door to Simon, bought other property and built a rental house, but died early; brother-in-law Jacob and Lilly Bauml built a few doors west.

Simon bought more lots and built more houses which survived until 1955. The story details the deaths of Simon and his wife, and newspaper obituaries for both, a well as continuing commercial activities of other family members.

Elsie Fischel's 1890 house was purchased several years ago and restored - the recipient of a 2008 Preservation Award from the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).

Read the complete story here.


  1. A longer version of the article that contains additional images is available here:

  2. Daniella,

    Thank you so much for writing. I enjoyed your story so much, and I think it pointed up resources that some people may not have thought to access.

    And thank you for the note about the longer article. I'm sure many people will look at it. I know I will.


  3. I've just looked at Daniella's longer article at BerkeleyHeritage.com and encourage everyone to do the same. Illustrations include actual advertisements, obituaries, real estate records, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, wonderful photographs (the first one dated 1892) and expanded text. For some researchers who have not used one or more of these resources, it will demonstrate what data can be mined from them.

    Thanks, Daniella, for informing us.

    Best wishes