by Judi Leff
Gold is more than just a soft metal found from scratching in “them thar hills.” Gold is also found when we dig below the surface of our own history, and see what has been paid forward by those descended from the immigrants and refugees of the past. Here is an immigrant tale from an OpenSFHistory image.
The January 1931 photo below shows not only a city firehouse, but also, just to the right, Shenson’s Kosher Meat Market at 1053 McAllister Street. The business was started by Aaron Shenson, who arrived here in 1880 from Vilnius Russia. Aaron started as a Kosher butcher for Rabbi Markowitz and, in 1882, opened his own shop at 955 Folsom Street. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, he moved the business to McAllister Street. A religious man, Aaron served as president of Kneseth Israel Congregation for eighteen years and was one of the founders of the Hebrew Free Loan Society.
Three of his four sons were in the business with him, and Aaron’s grandsons, Drs. A. Jess and Ben Shenson went on to have an impact on the medical and arts worlds that resonates to this day.
This butcher shop was the place where the values of hard work, family, and support of community and the arts were passed on through the generations. Aaron’s son, Louis, was once approached by White Russian importers of sausage casings from Shanghai. He couldn’t use the non-Kosher casings, but through this new friendship, he began an avid interest in collecting Chinese art, which was passed on to future generations. Another son, Jesse (Shy), began working for wholesale importers I. Shainin Company, purveyors to Gumps, and became a partner for a time.
Involvement with music began very early, with the grandsons getting music lessons and attending performances grand and small, including music receptions on Saturdays at the homes of prominent Jewish immigrant-descended family names such as Sloss, Stern, and Koshland. They attended public schools including Lowell, where Jess developed a life-long friendship with classmate Carol Channing.
Ben Shenson was an accomplished pianist, winning a local piano competition despite a broken hand. Though Ben stopped playing music when he entered medical school, the passion both brothers had for the world of art and music manifested in a lifetime of involvement and patronage. They practiced medicine together in offices at 450 Sutter Street and through St. Francis Hospital on Hyde Street. Neither brother married, but the young singers and musicians they sponsored and supported became their extended family. Their magnanimity continues to benefit the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Performances, the Merola Opera Program, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum, and the California Historical Society, as well as Stanford University.
The brothers also were responsible for reviving and expanding the posthumous career of outstanding painter Theodore Wores, and established the Louis and Rose Shenson Memorial Fund to provide no-interest loans to Stanford medical students.
They supported numerous Jewish causes as well, and I had the immense privilege of getting to know Dr. Jess when I produced some of the annual concerts he sponsored in Ben’s memory at Temple Emanu-El.
The immigrant Shenson family business pictured here fed generations of San Franciscans. How fortunate we are all to continue to be nourished by that valuable legacy.