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  A Tour of Balboa Park, San Diego

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Jewish Walking Tour of Balboa Park

By Donald H. Harrison 

(Enter the park by proceeding from the corner of  Sixth and Laurel across the Cabrillo Bridge  spanning the freeway.  The formal entryway to the park on the east side of the bridge is where our tour begins.)

In 1867, Joseph Mannasse, one of San Diego's original  Jewish settlers, was a member of the city Board of Trustees which decided some city land ought to be set aside for a large park. The trustees voted to authorize creation of a committee to search out just the right spot.

The committee reported back the following year, but by that time Mannasse's one-year term on the Board of Trustees was over. However, his friend and brother-in-law, Marcus Schiller, had taken his place on the three-member board. Schiller voted in 1868 to put aside the land that became Balboa Park.
A plaque commemorating Schiller and other trustees for their foresight can be found today in the plaza on the southwestern side  of the entryway to Balboa Park. 

On top of the structure, looking down on the traffic, are two figures representing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Where their fingers touch symbolically represents the Panama Canal.

In 1909, the leadership of the City of San 

Plaque honoring Marcus Schiller 
Diego was quite excited about the construction of the Panama Canal. They knew that when the canal was finished, San Diego would become the first  U.S. port north of the canal on the West Coast. If people could only be made aware of how beautiful a place San Diego was, perhaps the railroads could be persuaded to make San Diego a western terminus for a transcontinental railroad! In such a case, San Diego could become a leading entrepot of the world.

With such visions in their eyes, a committee was organized to stage the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, the year the Canal was scheduled to open, as a way of publicizing San Diego's potential. Among the committee's board of directors were three prominent members of the Jewish community: Julius Wangenheim, Simon Levi and L.A. Blochman.

Up till nearly the opening, the park was known simply as City Park, a name considered hardly grand enough for such an important enterprise. So a contest was held, and the winning suggestion for a name was Balboa Park -- after the Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who in 1513 became the first European explorer to cross the Isthmus of Panama from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

Balboa never laid eyes on San Diego. He died in 1519, and San Diego was not "discovered" by a European explorer until 1542, when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese-born sailor, claimed it for Spain. Of course, the Kumeyaay Indians who had lived in San Diego since prehistoric times had discovered San Diego far earlier. Nevertheless, Cabrillo is remembered with the bridge leading to Balboa Park. Additionally, that section of Highway 163 going under the bridge is officially named the Cabrillo Freeway.

As it turned out, the railroads decided that Los Angeles, rather than San Diego, would make a better terminal for a transcontinental line, owing in no small measure to the rugged topography east of San Diego. Thus Los Angeles, which up to then had been a rather small town up the coast from San Diego, was destined to become a major metropolitan area of California.

Although San Diego did not become the great trading center it had hoped to be, the buildings constructed for the Exposition created the nucleus of a park that today has one of the greatest collections of museums anywhere and in one of the world's most agreeable settings. More buildings were added in 1935 when the state held the California-Pacific Exposition.

Some of the structures that remain from the 1915 exposition are the California Building, today home to the Museum of Man; the Organ Pavilion which was donated by the Spreckels sugar family, the Cabrillo Bridge and the Botanical Building. 
The California Building is along the northern side of the entryway, and is the second stop on our tour. During the 1915 Exposition, California as the host state decided to have its exhibition in the most prominent location -- thus the name of the California Building. The belltower and dome of the California Building are among the most photographed sites in San Diego. The inscription in Latin at the base of the California Building is a translation from Deuteronomy 8:8: "A land of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees, a land of olive trees and honey."

While the various museums of Balboa Park serve multi-cultural audiences, one can find a "Jewish connection" at many of them. For example, the Museum of Man--inside the California Building--features a permanent exhibit on life cycle events of various cultures, including the bar mitzvah ceremony of Judaism.

From the Museum of Man, proceed east along the sidewalk toward the main part of the park. Almost 

Dome of California Building
quotes Deuteronomy in Latin
immediately to your left you will see the complex of buildings and stages belonging to the Old Globe Theatre, which produces not only Shakespeare plays which inspired its design but a full schedule of contemporary plays.Members of the Jewish community has been stalwart supporters of the Old Globe, particularly Bernard Lipinsky who has underwritten several seasons in memory of his wife, Dorris.
Further ahead are the outdoor sculpture gardens of the San Diego Museum of Art. Here Jewish sculptors are well represented with "Night Presence II" by Louise Nevelson; "Sonata Primitive" by Saul Baizerman and "Odyssey" by Tony Rosenthal.

Inside the Museum of Art, itself, are paintings and drawings by such well known Jewish artists as Marc Chagall (Nude and Vase of Flowers) , Amedeo Modigliani (Blue Eyed Boy; Caryatid), and Camille Pissarro (Personages and Studies of Heads) as well as a painting based on the Book of Genesis: Francesco Maffei's Joseph Sold by His Brothers.

Over the years, the museum has addressed other Jewish subjects, including "The Precious Legacy" exhibit featuring Judaic looted during the Holocaust by the nazis and later housed at the state museum in the Czech Republic. More recently the museum mounted a retrospective of the drawings and paintings of San Diego County's own Harry Sternberg.

The San Diego Museum of Art grew out of the San Diego Fine Arts Society, which Julius Wangenheim had helped to found. Wangenheim was one of the San Diego citizens who militated as early as 1902 for turning the park into a cultural treasure house.

To the south of the Museum of Art's Cafe, across the street, is the House of Charm, where the Mingei International Museum has hosted various traveling exhibits of Jewish interest. Among these was a long-running exhibition of sculptures that Nikki de Saint Phalle had created for the permanent Noah's Ark exhibit at the Jerusalem Zoo.

Sculptures by Louise Nevelson, 
top, and Saul Baizerman, bottom
 To the east of the entrance of the Museum of Art is the Timken Art Museum, which owns but rotates in and out of its displays a variety of works, including Pissarro's Bords de L'Oise a Pontoise.From the Timken Art Museum, go south a short way to a long east-west walkway lined by buildings on both sides. At the eastern end of the walkway, you can make out a large fountain. 

Up the walkway, in the second complex of buildings to the right, is San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts directed by award-winning photographer Arthur Ollman, a member of the Jewish community. MOPA has offered a variety of shows featuring the work of Jewish photographers, including a retrospective on Robert Capa. There is at least a minyan of Jewish photographers represented in the museum's permanent collection, including Bruce Davidson, Neil Folberg, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, John Gutmann, William Klein, Arnold Newman, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Roman Vishniac.
In the same complex is the San Diego Model Railroad Museum where there are numerous examples of Lionel Trains, manufactured by a company which promoted the idea that fathers and sons should spend quality time by playing with model trains. The company's father was born Joshua Lionel Cohen, though he later changed his surname to Cowen.

A break in the buildings on the left side of the walkway reveals the Lilly Pond and the Botanical 

Lionel Trains exhibit at Model RR Museum
Building, featuring a horticultural collection from throughout the world. Continue up the walkway to the large fountain. On the north side is the San Diego Natural History Museum, which counted members of San Diego's early Jewish community among its stalwart contributors. Among these especially were the Klauber family and Samuel Fox. A large cross-section of a California redwood has proven a wonderful way to explain to Jewish children the concept of Tu B'Shevat, the birthday of the trees.
To the south of the fountain is the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theatre and Science Center, whose director Jeff Kirsch is a member of the Jewish community. It offers a variety of exhibits which reflect both Jewish patronage of science and Jewish accomplishments. For example, an exhibit explaining how even low resolution images can form recognizable portraits when seen from afar proves its point with the face of Albert Einstein. 

The Nierman Challenger Learning Center made its debut Oct. 24, 1998. The families of brothers Jim and Paul Nierman donated the mock-up of a mission control center and 21st Century space station to introduce visitors to space travel simulations.

Retrace your steps back down the walkway to the main plaza dominated by the statue of El Cid atop his stallion and turn left. You 

Einstein's low resolution
will pass Japanese Gardens and a Teahouse, donated to San Diego by its sister city Yokohama, en route to a large outdoor Organ Pavillion.

Because Congregation Beth Israel is located so close to the park (at 3rd and Laurel Streets), it has for many years made the Organ Pavilion the focus of its Simchat Torah activities. Back in 1931, the congregation also hosted an outdoor reception for Albert Einstein here. 
To the right of the Organ Pavilion and across the street is an area known as the House of Pacific Relations. The "House" in fact is comprised of many cottages, representing peaceful or "pacific" countries from throughout the world. Among the nations represented is Israel. At the House of Israel, a small band of volunteers tends to a variety of exhibits about Israeli geography and customs. Each Sunday, refreshments are served to visitors from different San Diego Jewish organizations, ranging from temple sisterhoods to the Jewish War Veterans.

Usually in April, the House of Israel sponsors a program on the outdoor stage featuring the music and dance of Israel. Every year, the House of Israel also participates in the International Food Fair held on the grounds.

Continue on the right side of the road, through the intersection. A puppet theatre is on the right. Further down the right is the San Diego Automotive Museum which includes among its exhibits the Mercedes, which many people don't realize originally was named for Mercedes Jellinek, the daughter of Jewish car enthusiast Emil Jellinek. Sadly, during the nazi era, the Mercedes company forgot its Jewish roots and cooperated to the fullest with the Third Reich.

At the end of the road is the San Diego Aerospace Museum with plenty of exhibitry on the planes of  World War II, an era so important to Jewish history. Continue around the circle to the Starlight Theatre where actors and musicians "freeze" the action whenever airplanes pass overhead to the Municipal

House of Israel and volunteer Morris Showel
Gymnasium. For most of 1999, the gymnasium was converted into the home of the exhibition "World War II Through Russian Eyes," in which the battles of the Eastern front were recounted and artifacts seized by victorious Russian troops at the end of the war from Hitler's bunker and from the Reich Chancellery were displayed.
Continuing around the circle one comes to the San Diego Sports Museum and Hall of Champions, whose Jewish founder, Robert Breitbard, perhaps is one of the greatest sports fans anywhere. His memorabilia collection includes one of the bats former San Diegan Ted Williams used with the Boston Red Sox during his best American League season, a racket swung by Maureen Connolly at Wimbledon, and other such artifacts. Several Jewish athletes have been inducted into the San Diego Hall of Champions, among them two former members of the San Diego Chargers: one time coach Sid Gilman and one time offensive lineman Ron Mix.

At the end of the circle turn right and follow the sidewalk to the large parking lot on the east side of

Sid Gilman citation at Hall of Champions
 Park Boulevard. Ahead and to the left in a building that was once the Navy Chapel is the San Diego Veterans Memorial Center Museum. The former chapel includes a stained glass window bearing the Magen David. Now behind a curtain, there is a turntable altar that enabled chaplains to conduct Catholic, Protestant or Jewish services. Sadly, in 1999, the Aron Kodesh and Ner Tamid of the Jewish section were in need of major repairs
Memorabilia and clippings from World War II on display at the museum focus mainly on the War in the Pacific but there are a few exhibits touching on nazi Germany.

Several blocks up Park Boulevard, and back on the west side of the street, is the entrance to the San Diego Zoo. It too has its "Jewish connections." Not only does it exhibit animals indigenous to Israel and the rest of the Middle East, but it has acted as a "big sister" to the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. Some of the exhibits at the Jerusalem facility were modeled after the San Diego Zoo. Additionally, Jerusalem Zoo personnel have visited the San Diego Zoo on two-week study sessions organized by the Jerusalem Foundation

The "Turtletorium" at the Zoo was donated by the late Col. Irving Salomon -- a special ambassador to the United

 Veterans Memorial Museum window
Nations during the administration of U.S. President Dwight  D. Eisenhower. Salomon's family also donated a large playground set on the 6th Avenue side of Balboa Park. The colonel's daughter, Abbe Wolfsheimer Stutz, served for eight years as a San Diego City Councilwoman.