Dianne Feinstein, who died this Thursday at age 90, was one of many, many firsts — she was the first female president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; one of the two first Jewish female senators of California (along with the amazing Barbara Boxer); the first woman chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence; the first woman to be considered for Vice President by the Democratic party; the first woman to preside over a presidential inauguration; the first female top Democrat of the Senate Judiciary Committee; and the longest serving female senator. That last distinction was one that became controversial in past years, with fellow senators urging her to retire and questioning her capacity to do her job in declining health.
Yet before all that political history, Feinstein made history as the first Jew to graduate from her Catholic all girls high school, San Fransisco’s Convent of Sacred Heart.
It was her mother, who had Jewish roots but whose family belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church, who insisted Dianne go to the school — though she also attended a Jewish school and was exposed to Judaism thanks to her father, Leon Goldman, a surgeon and professor. At the end of the day, her parents left it up to her to decide how she defined her faith — and Feinstein, at age 20, chose Judaism. It was, she said, “because I liked its simplicity and directness.” Seeing Feinstein’s temperament on the senate floor all these years, that seems to fit her so well; she was known for being cool, collected, dignified and incisive, aside from her last few years in office.
“She chose to be Jewish,” Boxer told J. Weekly in 2023. “That, to me, is extremely admirable. To go in that direction when you know … you’re going to face some prejudice for it.” Despite the fact that Boxer and Feinstein had pretty different politics, when it came to representing California, Boxer told the paper they were “joined at the hip” and supported each other.
Indeed, Feinstein did face antisemitism at multiple junctions throughout her life. “I’ve had graffiti on my home, Stars of David and religious and sexist slurs painted on the walkway, and I just go out and take them off,” Feinstein once said. In 2018, a campaign robocall in California decried her as a “traitorous Jew.”
Yet being Jewish was an essential part of her. Her paternal grandfather founded three synagogues in California, and her Jewish uncle was the one who inspired her to get into politics.
In 1986, she visited Israel for the first time as mayor of San Fransisco and said, “No Jew can come here without feeling a deep sense of pride in all that has been accomplished… Israel means that Jews will never again be sent to gas chambers. If my family had not left Eastern Europe when they did, I might well have been one of the victims instead of standing here.”
Feinstein first became mayor of the Californian city in 1978 — after the shooting of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by Dan White, a former supervisor. At the time, she was the first woman president of the city’s Board of Supervisors. With their literal blood on her hands, after the shooting, Feinstein emerged to tell a shocked pressroom about their murder. That tragic killing ended up shaping her future work on gun control, for which she was a staunch advocate. It was, she said, “one of the hardest moments, if not the hardest moment, of my life. It was a devastating moment. For San Francisco, it was a day of infamy.”
this was quite the exchange on the Senate floor in 1993 featuring Diane Feinstein pic.twitter.com/k6tWhSFPei
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 29, 2023
Feinstein also fought fiercely for LGBTQ+ rights throughout her career, helping her city through the AIDS crisis.
While she vetoed domestic same sex partnerships in 1982, “she came around, and she in fact became one of the strongest voices in favor of gay and lesbian marriage,” reporter Hank Plante told CBS Bay Area this week. “Here’s the thing I hope that people remember through the clutter, back from the old days … Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s AIDS budget for the city of San Francisco was bigger than President Reagan’s AIDS budget was for the entire nation, and that was true for two years in a row. So that’s where her heart is and was.”
Feinstein had one daughter, Katherine, a retired judge who now works as a commissioner of the San Fransisco Fire Department. Katherine’s father is Judge Jack Berman, but she took on the last name of her stepfather, Bertram Feinstein, her mother’s second husband. After Bertram’s passing, Feinstein married Richard Blum, who passed away last year. All three of her husbands were Jewish.
“Probably as a teenager, I was the most resentful of my mother not being like every other mother,” Katherine told NBC Bay Area in 2014. “As time has gone on, I think we’ve gotten closer and closer.”
“My mother thought this was a very good thing for me to do at this time in my life,” Katherine said of the time when she worked a stint at the San Fransisco JCC in 1996, after she retired as a judge. Katherine has one daughter, Eileen Feinstein Mariano. In 2000, Eileen and Dianne were featured in the book series “Grandmothers at Work,” and in 2016, Eileen was an elector for California.
In 2019, Feinstein got the spotlight in the Adam Driver movie “The Report,” where she was played by a fierce Annette Benning. It showed her as a dogged advocate, someone committed to sharing harsh truths about our country’s legacy.
Surely not all of Feinstein’s legacy is glamorous or vaunted. But at the end of the day, she fought for many causes that American Jews care so much about, and she helped lay the groundwork for so many great Jewish women on our city’s and state’s and country’s government floors right now. Feinstein helped show the world that Jewish women belonged in seats of power. It’s a reality we take for granted, but it’s a road that she helped pave. May her memory be for a blessing.