Wednesday, March 24, 2021

sutro and tzair

I grew up in San Francisco, and anyone from there will recognize the name Sutro. 

Sutro Tower is giant radio and TV antenna that can be seen from most places in the city. It sits on a hill between Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro, another place with the Sutro name.

In the Sutro Historic District, on the Pacific coast, you'll find Sutro Heights Park, and it once included the Sutro Baths. And there are other places with the Sutro name in the area.

All of these places were named for Adolph Sutro (1830-1898), the first Jewish mayor of San Francisco1. He was a collector of books, and when I lived there I heard he had a manuscript with the signature of Maimonides (now housed in Sutro Library of course).  I never visited that exhibit - maybe I'll try on my next visit.

I recently learned that this pervasive word, Sutro, actually has Hebrew origins. According to this article, "the family name is probably a writing of the Aramaic zutra." And indeed, the Hebrew entry for the catalog of his books writes Sutro as זוטרא (zutra).

The Aramaic word zutra means "small." From it we get in modern Hebrew zutar - זוטר, an adjective meaning "junior" or "minor." Klein writes that the root of zutra - זטר - is related to the root זער - "to be small", which in turn is related to the root צער - also meaning "to be small, insignificant." This last root gives us the word tzair צעיר - "young" and tzoer צוער, which appears once in the Bible (Zechariah 13:7) as "shepherd boy," and today means "cadet."

Another meaning of the root צער - "sadness, suffering" only appears in post-biblical Hebrew. In the hitpael form - הצטער - it literally means "to feel pain, remorse", and is used to say "I'm sorry" - אני מצטער ani mitztaer.

According to Klein, the two roots are related. One who is treated caused to suffer, treated shamefully, is "belittled" or "made insignificant." Yaakov Etsion, in this article, agrees that the roots are related, but suggests instead that it's not others making the mitztaer feel small, but the one suffering acts as if they are contracting, reduced in size, as opposed to someone comfortable who can relax and spread out.

While Adolph Sutro's name may have meant "small," his legacy in San Francisco is anything but insignificant, and the landmarks bearing his name are the tallest in the city.

1 I have been informed that actually, the first Jewish mayor of San Francisco was Washington Bartlett. Bartlett later converted to Christianity, but was Jewish during his term as mayor.  

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