Queen Esther: Patron saint of crypto-Jews

Faced with threat of execution for Jewish observance, Sephardi conversos created the festival of Santa Esterica to replace Purim

Saint Esther icon, an example of religious syncretism found in the Southwest (courtesy)

According to tradition, around 1,900 years before the Spanish Inquisition, a baby girl named Hadassah was born in the Persian Empire. She was orphaned at a very young age and her cousin Mordechai assumed custody of her. Under his tutelage, she internalized the spark of her Jewish identity.

After a few years, an opportunity presented itself, and Mordechai placed her in King Ahasuerus’ harem. He told her that her name was now Esther.

Mordechai told Esther that she was still a Jew, but that she must not let anyone know. If she was lucky, one day she could be the queen of Persia. It is said that she was a vegetarian, to avoid eating non-kosher meat. Queen Esther seemed to be fully assimilated, yet she never forgot who she really was. She hid her Judaism, and eventually married King Ahasuerus. 

When the Spanish Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, many Jews converted to Catholicism outwardly. Inwardly, they kept practicing Judaism in secret, becoming anusim, conversos, or crypto-Jews.

Queen Esther was an inspiration to the anusim in that she modeled a way for them to remember and retain their true, hidden Jewish identity while integrating into the society around them. The conversos implemented a strategy to be able to continue practicing Jewish customs while hiding their observance by inserting a Jewish tradition into a Catholic practice or “syncretism” — the mixing of rituals from different religions.

When the Roman Catholic Church formally recognizes a person as a saint, this person is canonized. A person who has not been canonized may, however, still be referred to as a saint if it is believed that they are “completely perfect in holiness.” The crypto-Jews took advantage of this loophole.

Although Queen Esther was not canonized by the Catholic Church, the anusim transformed her into Saint Esther. They called her Santa Ester or Santa Esterica. They were able to continue honoring Purim by reinventing it as “The Festival of Saint Esther.”

saintesterretablo

Although Queen Esther was not canonized by the Catholic Church, the anusim transformed her into Saint Esther.

The Festival of Saint Esther originated in Spain. When Spain issued the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, many Jews and conversos escaped to Portugal, taking their traditions with them. Their respite was short-lived and in 1497 the Portuguese king Manuel I married Princess Isabella, the daughter of the Spanish Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand. A clause in this marriage contract extended the Spanish expulsion to Portugal, ousting the Jews once more.

The New World beckoned as a safe haven and the Spanish and Portuguese anusim were among the first settlers in the territories controlled by Spain in what is now Mexico. The Spanish Inquisition followed them to Mexico, however, pushing the conversos north.

The establishment of Nuevo León in the American Southwest is notable in that it was almost entirely carried out by crypto-Jews. Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva, a Portuguese converso, received a royal charter to settle this land without religious scrutiny of the pioneers who followed him. The Festival of Saint Esther was disseminated in the New World by these conversos. It was generally the women of the family who maintained this tradition.

The Festival of Saint Esther had two parts. The first part of the holiday was called the Fast of Queen Esther. The women fasted for three days. This fast replicated the fast Queen Esther asked of Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan before she approached King Ahasuerus.

Execution_of_Mariana_de_Carabajal-300x480

Execution of Mariana de Carabajal at Mexico, 1601 accused of secretly being Jewish. Source: From Palacio, ‘El Libro Rojo’, reprinted in the Jewish Encyclopedia (public domain)

It was too risky to celebrate the Festival of Saint Esther publicly. This was because the Spanish Inquisition considered such an activity to be Judaizing, or the adoption of Jewish beliefs. However, the archives of Mexico’s Inquisition retain testimony about this fast.

In 1643, Gabriel de Granada confessed that in his family, the women divided up the fast between them. Each would fast for one day. The punishment meted out by the tribunal of the Inquisition for Judaizing was “relaxation,” which meant burning at the stake.

Fasting had a special significance for the forced converts. In “The Fast of Esther in the Lore of the Marranos,” Moshe Orfali explains that the conversos felt that they lived in a constant state of sin. Fasting helped them atone.

The second, celebratory part of the festival was the Feast of Saint Esther. In her article “Women, Ritual, and Secrecy: The Creation of the Crypto-Jewish Culture,” Janet Liebman Jacobs relates that the women lit devotional candles in honor of Saint Esther. It was an occasion of mothers bonding with their daughters. They cooked a banquet together. The mothers took advantage of this opportunity to teach their daughters special family recipes that adhered to the remembered laws of kashrut.

The festive, public Purim celebration was transformed into a private meal held at home. As a result, many Jewish traditions were transmitted from mother to daughter.

The crypto-Jews also had their own special way of honoring Esther year round by enshrining her in a piece of art.

All Spanish colonies had a special type of religious art form called santo. Santos were statues made of wood or ivory which depicted the Virgin Mary, saints, or angels. In Latin America and the American Southwest, these statues were called bultos. The bultos were carved from wood, and then coated with a mixture of glue and gypsum, called gesso. They were then painted with vivid homemade pigments.

In crypto-Jewish homes, Queen Esther was fashioned into an icon and transformed into a bulto of Saint Esther.

Santo art was also expressed as devotional paintings called retablos. Traditionally, these were executed on sheets of metal such as copper or tin. Since there was a shortage of metal in the New World, the retablos were made of wood. Like the bultos, they were coated with gesso and painted. The paints were made from natural materials such as plants, insects, ash, and clay. Then they were varnished with tree resins. Crypto-Jews also commissioned retablos of Saint Esther.

It is less common to find bultos or retablos of Saint Esther in the American Southwest today. This is the legacy of Archbishop Peter Davis, who was the Archbishop of Santa Fe from 1964 to 1974. According to Jacobs, the archbishop wanted to get rid of all the Jewish rituals in New Mexico. He told his parishioners that there is no Saint Esther in Catholicism. and explained that the celebration of Esther is called Purim, and that Purim is part of the Jewish faith.

Despite Davis’ best efforts, it is still possible to find bultos and retablos of Saint Esther in crypto-Jewish homes today. In “The Book of Esther in Modern Research,” by Leonard Greenspoon and Sidnie White Crawford, for example, Santa Ester is portrayed as holding “a hanging-rope in one hand, and a crown in the other, weighing the danger of execution against the safety of royal immunity.”

Charles Carrillo is a contemporary artist who creates Saint Esther icons. (courtesy)

There are also contemporary artists creating icons of Saint Esther. Charles Carrillo is one of New Mexico’s most prominent santeros, or artists that carve and paint saints. Carrillo earned a doctorate in archaeology from the University of New Mexico. While working on a dig, he became inspired by the work of the santeros. He conducted a lot of research, and became a self-taught artist whose mission is to preserve the homemade materials, techniques, and designs of the master santeros of 18th century colonial New Mexico. In 2006 he was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award.

According to Carrillo there is a large community of crypto-Jews in New Mexico.

“They came here in the 1500s,” he told me. “I haven’t done one in a long time, but sometimes I still get a commission to create a Santa Ester.” There is an old saying in New Mexico, “A cada santo llega su función,” meaning that there is a saint for every occasion.

“My Santa Ester always has dark hair,” Carrillo said. “It’s a New Mexico tradition. I want my artwork to reflect her attributes. Esther means ‘Hadassah’ in Hebrew. Hadas is a myrtle or fragrant plant,” he explained.

In Carrillo’s retablo, Santa Ester is wearing a crown adorned with myrtle. She holds a myrtle branch in one hand. The rosette at the top of the retablo is decorated with myrtle branches. Santa Ester holds a scepter in her other hand that marks her as a queen. Her scepter is decorated with a pomegranate, an ancient Jewish symbol of fertility, promise, and fulfillment.

The red curtains framing Santa Ester are traditional in a New Mexico retablo. They are an allusion to a stage and symbolize that this has been revealed to us, and that we had better pay attention before the curtains close.

The Spanish Inquisition was formally ended in 1834. It is rational to believe that crypto-Judaism was something that existed in the past and is no longer occurring. However, it has persisted, and there are many anusim that continue their secret practices to this day while living in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Latin America, and the American Southwest.

Several organizations have been established in recent years to help anusim conduct research about their family background. Name Your Roots was formed in Israel by a group of academics who hope to help facilitate research into converso family names and customs. Shavei Israel, was created to assist those descendants of Jews who wish to return to Judaism.

I wondered what it feels like for a devout Catholic like Carrillo to create an icon that he knows is for crypto-Judaic purposes. “I am honored to be asked,” he said. “Ultimately, we all believe in the same God. It is my tradition to paint the images so the story may be told.”


Project for this next year: I would love to commission the creation of a Saint Esther retablo for my small little Jewish community which meets in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles; and maybe even one day the creation of a mural! Are there any interested artists and local partners who are able to help me make this happen?

“The first law in the world that offered protection to Jewish refugees was Mexican”

14-enero-2019-inauguracion-del-cdijum-69-1

Translation of news from Enlace Judío México e Israel – During the dedication of the Centro de Documentación e Investigación Judío de México (CDIJUM) this passed Sunday, a valuable historical document came to its archive, in commemoration for this new site for the Mexican Jewish community.

Recalling the history of MS St. Louis, the president of the Comité Central de la Comunidad Judía de México, Moisés Romano Jafif, celebrated the dedication of the CDIJUM and presented to the audience the bill prepared by Alfredo Félix Díaz Escobar, who said it has its origin in the story of the tragic fate of the more than 900 Jewish crew members who were frustrated in their hope of fleeing from barbarism to our continent.

Félix Díaz presented this initiative to the Congress of the Union, which ended up being approved, for the benefit of Jewish refugees from Germany amidst the full development of the Holocaust in Europe.

After the declaration of war exercised by Mexico against the Axis in May 1942, restrictions were taken against the nationals of Germany, Italy and Japan who were residing at the time in Mexican territory, such as the seizure of property. Jewish immigrants or future refugees of German origin would fall under the framework of these measures. The deputy decided to reverse this for the benefit of the victims of Nazism by law.

Félix Díaz when he presented the initiative before the chamber of deputies on October 6, 1942, and argued for the defense he was asking the Mexican State to give the Jewish refugees, as recorded in the Journal of Debates:

“It is evident that the Israelites are the first victims and the most threatened of Hitlerism. If the civilized world fights for its freedom and for the basic principles of civilization, the Israelite people fight for their own life, and it would be unjust that the just measures that civilized countries, like ours, implant against the hostile foreigners of the nations with which we find ourselves in a state of war, they would harm the Israelites in the same way; this fact would give the unprecedented result that the victims of Nazifascism were likewise the victims of democracy”

The text of the actual legal initiative is as follows:

Article 1 Excluded from the restrictions of the state of war imposed on the nationals of Germany, Italy, Japan and other enemy countries, the Israelites of such origin or nationality.

Article 2 In each and every one of these cases the institution of the Israelite Colony, officially recognized by the authorities of the country, will be responsible and will certify:

  • a) The Israelite origin of the interested party.
  • b) The political and ideological loyalty of the interested party towards the cause of Mexico and the democracies.
  • c) The accuracy of the information you provide with respect to your co-religionists.

Article 3 In the exclusion of the Israelites from the restrictions imposed on nationals and natives of the countries referred to in Article 1, everything related to the freezing or seizure of property, residence rights in the national territory, freedom of movement is included. general and all those points related to individual rights and guarantees that have been decreed or decreed against hostile foreigners.

Article 4 This decree will come into force on the day of its publication in the “Official Gazette” of the Federation.

The bill was the first of its kind in the world enacted for the reception of refugees from the Second World War and the protection of Jews from any type of persecution, according to Cecilia Félix Díaz, daughter of the deputy.

Politician and writer, son of the Sinaloan poet Cecilia Zadi, Félix Díaz was a career soldier who enrolled in the activities of the Mexican Revolution in the second decade of the twentieth century. Within the national potics, which he joined in the 1930s, Félix Diaz not only formed the Comité Nacional Antinazifascista, (Antinazifascist National Committee), but also the Comité Nacional Antisinarquista, which, as the name implies, opposed the Mexican synarchism movement, one of the main groups opposed to the arrival of Jews in the country, which he described as being a “fifth column” of the Adolf Hitler regime in our country.

Félix Díaz, decided to promote his law initiative partly because of the friends he had in Europe who were living through the persecution directed against them, his daughter told Enlace Judío. Jewish families like Jalamsky, Constantine or Ramiansky were great friends of Alfredo Félix Díaz because of the support he gave to the Jews who came to our country.

Cecilia Félix Díaz described her father as someone from the left and a defender of universal values, as well as an admirer of the Jewish people due to their contributions to philosophy, literature and science, both in Mexico and in the world.

During the event, Dr. Alicia Gojman de Backal acknowledged to Cecilia the importance of Félix Díaz for the Jewish Community of Mexico, of whom she has conducted extensive research and has written several articles. “I have no words to thank you,” she said emotionally.

Her granddaughter, Sara Paola Galico Félix Díaz, told Enlace Judío she felt very grateful and moved by the Jewish community for the tribute paid to her grandfather. “My grandfather made this law, and against all odds, it was approved. It was a law which would be an example for many parts of the world, where it began to be replicated; and this legislation began to be a reality for all the lives that had been suffering a monstrous act such as the Second World War,” she said.

Galico Félix Díaz said that the Mexican legislator was a fundamental influence on her to champion social causes and values, which she considers her driving force in the country’s political life, which she says “I learned from my mother, and my mother learned them from my grandfather”.

Currently, Galico Félix Díaz has control of the Mixed Tourism Fund of Mexico City in the administration of Claudia Sheinbaum, the body in charge of promoting the Mexican capital city nationally and internationally. Previously, he held a seat in the Chamber of Deputies for the Morena party in the LXIII legislature, between 2015 and 2018.

Reproducción autorizada con la mención siguiente: ©EnlaceJudíoMéxico
Translated by: Shmuel Gonzales, East Los Angeles, CA

Unite Behind Los Angeles Garment Workers

Fighting Sweatshops and Wage Theft During the Holiday Season

blackfridaycancelledgarmentcenter2018

The Garment Workers Center in Los Angeles is calling upon the public to stand with garment workers for their Anti-Sweatshop Saturday on December 1, 2018. During this holiday season it is important for people to stand with the LA garment workers and demand better wages and working conditions.

During this season it is important that we also consider making ethical choices in what we purchase and where we buy from this holiday season; so that we do not support businesses which thrive off of sweatshop labor.

Unfortunately, this problem hits more close to home for more discount bargain buyers than you might imagine.

LosAngelesGarmentWorkersProtestWageTheft

Certainly there have always been sweatshops in Los Angeles – piece sewing garment shops that are often dangerous and which pay less than the legal wages. Historically these sweatshops have long thrived off of immigrant labor; often taking advantage of new immigrant and undocumented laborers.

Though the seriousness of the current conditions in the 21st century shocked me to the core as it was explained to me by local garment workers themselves of how widespread this is. And how many major stores my own family shop at buy and sell sweatshop garments.

This story hits close to home for many of us. Especially for working-class people in immigrant communities.

garmentworkscenterlosangelemanifestasion.jpg

A few years ago I began to volunteer doing community organizing in the neighborhood of Pico Union; a working-class, immigrant community near the Downtown Los Angeles Fashion District. When I was brought in by the Pico Union Project my work started with surveys and listening sessions. Before I did anything we partnered with IDEPSCA – the Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California – which represents the largely Salvadoran community of laborers in the neighborhood – we set out to get to know what the needs and concerns of the community were.

The two items which topped the list of needs and concerns for the neighborhood were not so surprising to us: housing and jobs.

Though as I walked the neighborhood and listened to the residents and workers of our area I began to more clearly understand how these issues went hand in hand. The local laborers began to explain it to me this way:

If you consider it, most American consumers think that their clothes are made in some other county. That they are made for cheap in Asia or Latin America where impossibly low wage are legal. Consumer accept this because they think this human suffering is a world away. So they feel less guilty about it.

However, the truth is that many clothes you will find on the rack are made in sweatshop conditions here in Los Angeles, often made by Central American and Asian immigrants in our very own city, for less than legal wages.

When I began to talk to our neighbors about this I soon realized that every person I was talking who worked in the garment shops in our area were being paid somewhere between $4.75 and $5.15 per hour; far less than the minimum wage in the City of Los Angeles.

Now with that low of wages, consider how hard it is for a family to pay rent for an inner-city home or apartment; and how many people under one roof it takes in order to just pay the rent alone.

Many families are on the verge of homelessness because of illegally low wages they are paid, and the ever-growing rents as these urban communities begin to experience gentrification.

And that is just scratching the surface of what the difficulties and injustices these workers face.

But how did this problem get so wide-spread? And why is of such consequence to the people of our city?

Understanding the Sweatshop Garment Sourcing

In the past it was true that many garments were made overseas; outsourced to other countries and shipped here, in order to cost less than it would be to make in the United States.

However, there began a shift in the garment industry in past few decades.

If you look in your closet you will even find clothes labeled from places you would expect, like China and Bangladesh. However, in many cases these garments were sent in pieces from abroad and sewn together and decoratively finished here in Los Angeles sweatshops.

Now if you’re not necessarily a fashionista who follows fashion seasons, you might not appreciate how this came to be. So let’s break it down.

In other cities there are generally two or four fashion seasons annually, which define the style of clothing produced in that city for the year.

workersrightsinfoThough in Los Angeles, in contrast, shops began to pull off amazing turn-around times in garment work, enabling as many as twelve fashion seasons a year; so a retailer could have a new product line in their shops every month. Even more recently, some retailers begun to demand new and cheap products every two or three weeks, even every week in some cases.

This is only possible by doing the final sewing and decorative work stateside. The pieces coming in by import from Latin America and the Pacific Rim through the port of Los Angeles, and finally being pieced together in rickety sweatshops lining the downtown Fashion District and surrounding communities.

And this is how Los Angeles became the largest manufacturer of clothing in the country, producing garments which are sold at Macy’s, Nordstrom, Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, Burlington, Dillard’s, TJ Maxx, and especially Ross.

It’s very simple to understand this system of exploitation. Retailers are paying suppliers less, which in-tern are paying laborers less, just so consumers can buy throw-away fashion.

And that is the heart of the problem. People don’t question where they are getting their products from, and few consumers are holding their favorite retailers accountable to buy sweatshop-free garments.

Let me give you some real world examples of this culture of exploitation and wage theft.

In 2016 YN Apparel, a supplier of clothing for Ross Stores, was officially charged by the California Labor Commissioner’s Office with contracting with factories which paid workers as little as $6.00 per hour. YN Apparel agreed to pay $212,000 in back wages. Though the investigations found that Ross would have had to pay their supplier twice as much in order to pass on a basic minimum wage to the factory employees.

The Los Angeles Times at that time also reported:

“The Times reviewed more than a dozen claims for back wages filed with the California Labor Commissioner’s Office in the last two years, from workers who say they were compensated with irregular checks.

“Rosa Murillo, a senior deputy commissioner for the Labor Commissioner’s Office garment unit, said she has conducted inspections where factories require workers to use a check cashing company that operates in the same building as the factory. Some bosses insist that workers collect wages at specified check cashing companies or at the factory itself, said workers, advocates and lawyers interviewed by The Times.

“”It appears as if the owner of the garment factory is speaking with the owner of the check cashing place. It’s almost as if they have an understanding to cash the check even though the information is incomplete,” Murillo said.

“In a case this year, the Labor Commissioner ruled that JK Mode, a garment factory that later became DHL Apparel, had paid workers below the minimum wage and ordered that the companies pay more than $283,000 in back wages to seamsters. One worker testified that his bosses inaccurately reported that they worked eight hours per day when he actually worked 12-hour days, and made him retrieve his weekly pay from the company, which took a fee of 1%. The company did not appeal the decision.

“[Jesus Francisco] Moreno, the clothes packer, says he is undocumented, does not have a bank account and has little choice but to cash his check at the van. [a check-cashing van at the factory]

“Moreno said he worked a 54-hour week in mid-July, meaning he received just over $8 per hour. The van operator took $4.50 of his total $450, he said.

“When workers do get official checks, they say the hours often are doctored to make it look as if they are getting paid the minimum wage.”

Though wage theft doesn’t just end there.

One of the unfortunate realities of being an undocumented worker is that sometimes they are not just underpaid, in some cases they are not even paid at all at the end of the week, with the employer expecting the employees to be too scared to report the case because they are undocumented; this is also another form of wage theft that the Garment Workers Center and IDEPSCA regularly try to help people find redress for.

Though sometimes fighting outright wage theft is hard to win. Often times a shop that is shut down for stolen wages and bad working conditions; they usually close down a few days or weeks, and just open up again under another name. Often at the very same location, and preying upon the same population of local workers. Repeating the cycle of wage theft and labor abuse among those most desperate for work.

Standing with Garment Workings this Holiday Season

This issue of sweatshop labor and wage theft effects immigrant people from Pico Union and South Central Los Angeles, to Chinatown and Boyle Heights. In all these communities we have hard-working garment workers as residents which are struggling to survive.

Though what can we do about it?

Do you shop from one of the retailers?

This season we are asking people to avoid buying disposable fashion from these retailer!

Though we are also asking you to contact the corporate and regional offices of these retailers. Again, the biggest problem there is many of us don’t ask where are garment come from. It is up to consumers to demand of our favorite retailers that they only stock sweatshop-free and fair-wage sourced clothing.

And lastly, we need to support the unions and the unionization of apparel and textile shops in Los Angeles. One of the biggest reasons that workers wages are so low and working conditions are so bad, is because of the decline of the unions in this country.

robo-102516-aa-001_t600

“Basta al robo de nuestra salud.” Stop robbing us of health. Make LA sweatshop free!

As a Jewish American and as a Mexican American, I am well learned in how important the garment industry has historically been for both of these immigrant and working-class communities over the years. Over a century ago, after 146 garment workers were burnt alive in a sweatshop factory their supervisor had locked them into, in the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire of 1911; most of them Jewish and Italian women; women laborers fought to unionize garment shops across the country. In 1933 here in Los Angeles Jewish labor socialists also helped bring Latina seamstresses gain membership into the unions for the first time. Improving working conditions and leveraging better wages for many of our own families.

Now a century later, all the hard work that we did in union organizing has been rolled back. The new immigrants of today are being exploited and being subjected go dangerous working conditions, just like many of our immigrant forebears were also subjected. We need to stand with the workers who are now struggling in this era.

This holiday seasons as you shop for Chanukah and Christmas, make sure to buy and give sweatshop-free and fair-wage sourced clothing!


Copy-of-IMAG0510GarmentCenterPicoUnion

15167506_1389555837721433_6039057599008734821_oBoycott Ross Dress For Less: This is one of the largest of the sweatshop sourced retailers in our region. Though have you noticed that they keep building new stores in minority, immigrant, working-class communities? These retailers buy clothing from producers who pay their immigrant workers below the minimum wage, which Ross ends up selling to many unwitting consumers in those very same communities in which Ross is enabling labor abuse and wage-theft. Don’t buy from Ross… no se compensa!

Related articles:

The First Displacement: The Indigenous People of Boyle Heights

Honoring the Indigenous People of Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day

Southern California has had an indigenous history going back about 10,000 years. We don’t know how long indigenous people have dwelt here in Los Angeles, but we do have a pretty good idea when the last indigenous people migrated here, they are a tribe which is still connected to this land, and which we should honor on this day.

TongvaVilliageMapZoom

I’m of the opinion that one shouldn’t even begin to call themselves a Los Angeles native until they know the indigenous name for their neighborhood. Do you know the native name of your neighborhood?

The Tongva – the Kich nation – migrated from the Sonoran desert near southern Nevada to settle in the greater Los Angeles area some 2,700 to 3,500 years ago

They had three villages of import to us here:

  • Yanga – a large village near the Pueblo of Los Angeles, downtown.
  • Otsunga – a holy village; located in El Sereno.
  • Apichianga – a smaller village straddling the river and stretching into the Flats of Boyle Heights.

We all generally know about the Spanish colonization. The indigenous of our area were first impacted by displacement under Spanish colonialism with the establishment of Mission San Gabriel in 1771 – the Catholic agricultural settlement which absorbed the land of this entire area.  And then in 1782 the Spanish King Carlos III ordered the establishment of the El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles – a secular and civilian settlement, a regular town – which brought a racially diverse group of Spanish colonists, who took over the lands near the heart of the indigenous village of Yanga.

However, that is only part of the story.

The indigenous people were eventually pushed out of the rest of the Pueblo by the Californios and Mexican settlers, and were moved to a settlement near Aliso and Alameda in 1836.

After settlers later complained that the indigenous were bathing near the zanja (water canal) they were pushed over the river into the area of the flat river-washed eastern bank of the Los Angeles River, into El Paredon Blanco (Boyle Heights) in 1845.

Though this complaint leveled against them was understood to be just another excuse used by the Californio and Mexican gentry of political and economic power, to further displace the indigenous people and divide more of their land among themselves. In this sweeping move the true indigenous people were pushed out of downtown area of the pueblo and on to the eastern bank of the river.

Consequently, these indigenous people became the first actual residents of Boyle Heights; years before Andrew Boyle came here, the Irishman who the written history regards as the first resident.

The indigenous people who settled here starting in the Mexican-era are mostly obscured by history. One of the reasons is because during the early American-era native indigenous people often changed their names and took on Spanish surnames in order to also gain citizenship when it was extended to former Mexican citizens as the United States took over states such as California in 1850. Also, some of these indigenous people then married more recent Mexican immigrants in the following decades, creating some of the first land owning families in the Flats of Boyle Heights.

Many of these families remained until the 20th century.

The final blow to the integrity of the true native indigenous community of Boyle Heights, it was the so-called slum clearance projects which gave rise to the creation of the first housing projects in the area in the 1940s. These landowning families of indigenous roots at that time had their land taken by eminent domain to create the original housing projects of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village. Most of these remaining natives were forced to leave at that time.

This is the first displacement Boyle Heights needs to recognize… the displacement of the actual indigenous people of this land!

Related articles:

  • The Anti-Nazi Parade of 1938 – “How Our Multi-Ethnic Community Responded to the Jewish Refugee Crisis.” – Today we are observing the 80th anniversary of this famous event in Boyle Heights History.

Sukkot: Tasting the Joy of the Season

Tasting the diversity of the Jewish journey

Chiles rellenos de picadillo con crema de tehina. It’s my Sephardic Jewish take on blending the flavors of a most famous traditional Mexican dish, chiles en nogada; roasted poblano chiles filled with spiced meat and dried fruits. Though this new recipe of mine is swapping out the nogada walnut cream sauce for a tasty parve (non-dairy) tehina sauce made of toasted sesame seeds. This dish has all the flavors of Mexico, with a Middle Eastern twist!

In the fall season the Jewish calendar is filled with many Jewish holy days. We begin with Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year; the calendar begins with us wishing each other a sweet new year. In order to carry the theme of us hoping for sweet blessing in the year to come, the world over our festival meals are sweetened with the flavors of apples and honey.

And now we find ourselves in the middle of one of my favorite holidays; the week-long festival of Sukkot, also known as the “festival of booths” or “feast of the tabernacles” in English. It is a biblical festival going back to ancient times. It commemorates our ancestors exodus from Egyptian bondage, and their dwelling in temporary shelters as migrants in the desert wilderness.

The festival which takes place during the fall harvest season, it also recalls our agrarian past in the land of Israel and the greater Levant; and so like our ancestors of old we make temporary booths in our fields, which we symbolically dwell in and host festive meals.

A Sukkah party at Beth Shalom of Whittier

A Sukkah party at Beth Shalom of Whittier

And that is the real thrill of the festival of Sukkot. It is a major mitzvah to invite people to your Sukkah, and likewise it is a great honor to be invited as a guest to festive meals in someone else’s sukkah.

Now I want I want to ask you a couple of questions. What dishes do you expect to see at a meal in a Sukkah? And what are the flavors from your culture which you think best fit on the festival table?

The topic of holiday food is fresh on my mind. Recently I was talking with friends of mine about how much joy I get out of cooking for the holidays. When someone asked what my mom makes for the holidays. Now my mother is Mexican-American and isn’t religiously observant of Judaism, however, being that she does catering for a major gourmet supermarket in the Los Angeles area she makes Jewish holiday dinners for thousands of families every year.

Though being that the majority of mom’s customers are Ashkenazi Jews – Jews whose ancestors once lived as migrants in lands stretching from the Rhineland through Central and Eastern Europe – she mostly makes comforting dishes drawn from those traditions.

So I do know and appreciate Ashekanzi holiday food. And so I’m not entirely joking when I say someone’s Rosh HaShanah caramelized brisket and sweet tzimmes isn’t quite an good as my mom’s!

However, being that we are descendants of Sephardic Jews – Jews from Spain and the Mediterranean and stretching through the Middle East, who made their way as refugees to the Americas – we have our own flavors. And I have tried over the years to set a table which through taste tells the journey of my ancestors and the story of my landsmen.

Recently I was sharing with my community about the Sephardic traditions and flavors of the Jewish new year. So naturally people have now asked: What foods do I recommend for the holiday of Sukkot?

The flavors of the holiday of Sukkot are supposed to follow certain themes. Remember, we are still in the midst of the holy days, the high point of our joy before the gates are closed; for this reason it is called the zman simchatein – the season of our joy. Just like Rosh haShanah, we want to continue to wish each other a sweet year with plenty of sweet foods.

Though the foods of Sukkot are often have two additional points of symbolism and themes to bear in mind:

  • First, Sukkot foods are supposed to be representative of the bounty of the fall harvest; foods that are stuffed and overflowing are favored.

  • Second, being that during this festival week we will also celebrate the holy day of Simchat Torah – when we renew the annual Torah reading cycle, when we end the Torah scroll and start it over it from the beginning – there is a tradition to eat food which are shaped like Torah scrolls. Foods which are rolled-up or cylindrical shapes like scrolls are ideal.

As Jews have settled all over the world, Sephardim have learned and adapted many regional dishes from the cultures around us. We will present just a few of these today. And also present a few favorite dishes from my family tradition which have become part of my festival meals.

– * –

When people think of Sukkot and Simchat Torah food, the first item that comes to mind are stuffed cabbage rolls; filled with meat and rice. Though these are considered a staple of Ashkenazi Jewish-deli food; and in many regions were popularly known just as “Jewish stuffed cabbage rolls.”

Interestingly, stuffed cabbage rolls are believed to have been introduced to the Levant and entered Jewish diet about 2,000 years ago; probably during the Roman era.

Over the ages there have developed several interesting variations across many regions of Europe. For instance, Romanian and northern Polish Jews prefer a savory sauce, while Jews from Galicia and Ukraine favor a sweet-and-sour. The latter style recipe being influenced by exchange with the Ottoman empire and also new world traders resulting in the development of one the most famous variations; cabbage rolls smothered in sweetened tomato sauce.

Though the original recipe for cabbage rolls is probably more like the ones Sephardic Jews of Egyptian decent make to this day; stuffed and rolled over, though un-tucked and left open at the ends. They are delicious and easy to make!

Also in the theme of the holiday and making good use of seasonal produce are the other interesting stuffed dishes from the Sephardic tradition:

  • Stuffed Zucchini. These abundantly available summer vegetables can be either hollowed from one end or cut in half into two boats, then stuffed with the meat and rice mixture, and finally cooked until tender. In the Syrian Jewish tradition, which is one of the largest Jewish communities in Mexico, these stuffed vegetables are known as mechshie.

  • Roasted Stuffed Eggplant; filled with cooked meat flavored with cinnamon and dried fruit. In the Middle East these are called sheikh mahshi in Arabic, which basically means they are stuffed in a style which is good enough for royalty; stuffed egglant are a fine addition to a middle-eastern themed Sukkot dinner.

  • Kofte (Turkish) / Kibbeh (Arabic). Kofte is a Levantine dish made of bulgur wheat, minced onions, and finely ground lean beef, lamb or goat meat with Middle Eastern spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice.

  • Stuffed Peppers. Roasted peppers split and filled until they overflow with a kibbeh mixture of spiced ground meat, bulgur wheat, onion and pine nuts.

  • Stuffed grape leaves. Stuffed with rice, dried currants and pine nuts; dressed with lemon, fresh mint and olive oil; they are a favorite dish throughout Greece, Turkey, and the entire Middle East; they are widely known as dolmas. In Turkish they are also called yaprak; and so in the Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino they are known as yaprakes finos.

  • Bourekahs. Made from paper-thin filo dough, they can be filled with cooked lamb and in-season butternut squash, and baked into savory puff pastries. They can also be made with potato filling. And instead of their common triangle form, during this season it is very festive to make them into rolls, reminiscent of the Torah scrolls.

  • Baklavah. A rich and sweet desert pastry made from layers of paper-thin filo dough filled with chopped nuts, favored with rose-water, and sweetened and held together by honey.

These are all fine dishes, which take us on a flavorful journey through the regions of the Sephardic world.

Sephardic Sukkot Dishes

From Left to Right; Upper row, Dried crabapples, potato borekas, stuffed zuchinni; Second row, peppers stuffed with kibbeh and pine nuts, roasted eggplant stuffed with meat and candied fruit, stuffed grape leaves; Bottom row, meat filled kibbeh, Mexican cheese chiles rellenos, and nut filled and rose water flavored baklava covered in honey.

Though over the years I have also adapted these in various ways according to our local varieties of seasonal produce we have available to us and inspired by our local cultural flavors. There are certain festival dishes of the Mexican cultural experience of our region which have become part of my family tradition.

Chiles rellenos de queso, cheese filled roasted chile peppers (left); Chiles rellenos de picadillo, filled with spiced meat and dried fruits. (right).

I have even blended the flavors of the old an new world to come up with unique take on a Mexican dish. I have come up with my own chile rellenos de picadillo. Made much like the seasonal red, white and green dish reminiscent of the Mexican flag, the famous dish known as chiles en nogada; which is the most traditional dish on Mexican Independence day in Septermber.

Now the original dish is known as being made of minced pork, simmered with a mixture of fresh and dried fruits, and covered in a creamed walnut sauce and garnished with red pomegranate seeds and fresh parsley.

Though in my kosher version, one can use beef or dark turkey meat as a perfect substitute without loosing any flavor. But what about substituting the cream sauce, in keeping with the kosher traditions of not mixing meat and milk?

Though the cream sauce is usually made of walnuts, milk and queso fresco blended into a sauce; I known some people who make a wonderful vegan walnut sauce made with toasted walnuts, almond milk, and thickened with toasted pan bolillo.

However, this year I am experimenting with another non-dairy version; stuffed chiles covered with light tehina sauce, a tasty Middle Eastern inspired sauce made from sesame seed paste. In the Mexican tradition ground sesame seeds are also often used to flavor moles, as well. The use of tehina sauce brings that nutty taste and bite; blending both the old world and new world flavors.

Chiles de Picadillo en Crema de Tehina

This is my version of Mexican inspired dish, though one that is filled with so many familiar Sephardic flavors that you would swear it comes directly from the Middle East.

You can download my recipe from, right here!

One of the other great additions to the holiday, to finish of the meal on the theme of sweetness and also of harvest bounty, are dried and candied fruits. I like to head over to one of the best places for finding all our Mexican ingredients, the famous Mercadito in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles; where you will find perfectly crystallized camote (sweet potato), pumpkin, figs, pineapple, oranges, apples and quinces; just to name a few favorites.

DriedandCandiedFruit.jpg

This year while I’m at the mercadito I’m going to also pick-up extra ingredients for a special treat this year.

Though in Southern California and the greater southwest the autumn days might be warm, the evenings are getting just a bit of a nip in air. So that got me thinking, what type of warm Mexican drink would be perfect for cool nights spent outside and that keeps with a fall harvest theme?

I have the perfect idea: Ponche.

Mexican Ponche is a popular drink for special occasions. It is a warm punch made from hibiscus flowers; and sweetened with dried and fresh fruit, spices and piloncillo (cones of unrefined brown sugar); and the topped off with liquor, it is a comforting seasonal drink.

Mexican Ponche

A warm and fruity drink that is traditionally part of the seasonal festivities; including Día de los Muertos and Christmas. This warm drink, which is often topped with warming liquors, can be a great comfort on chilly nights out in the Sukkah.

In the Catholic tradition of Mexico, ponche is best known for being the drink of choice during the Christmas season, and especially during the holidays when people are engaging in posadas – religious processions going from door-to-door retelling the nativity.

Ponche is also considered a traditional drink during the Aztec, Mayan and Catholic influenced holiday of Día de los Muertos – the day of honoring one’s deceased ancestors by building altars in memory of them and visiting their gravesites at the cemetery, traditionally done in the evening.

As both of these are outside events taking place during the cool of the night, ponche is considered a warm and soothing part of the seasonal festivities.

Now it should be noted that ponche, even though it is has become part of the Mexican Catholic tradition, its origins are actually rooted in the orient. The name is actually derived from a Persian loanword; panj, meaning five; a drink that was originally made with only five ingredients being alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and tea or spices.

The drink was later brought to Europe and subsequently the Americas, by way of India. Along the way acquiring many of the fruit and spice flavors we know today.

Now what makes for a good ponche?

Ponche is best when made with a mixture of fresh seasonal fruits; including apples, oranges and guavas. It also most often includes tastes of both the new and ancient old world. Quinces which originate in the ancient Middle East. As well as American tejocotes, their name derived from the native Nahuatl word texocotl which means “stone fruit,” also called the Mexican Hawthorn, they are a tasty seasonal fruit from Mexico and Guatemala that are reminiscent of a crabapple and are used in many of the same fashions; cooked, candied and even used to make festival decorations.

Ponche is a most pleasing drink when spiced with whole cinnamon sticks and cloves, sweetened with raw sugar cane and piloncillo cones, and jeweled with dried prunes. This simmered punch makes for a most delightful drink during the autumn and winter months.

I highly recommend the warm, festival ponche for you Sukkah party this season.

TRY ONE OF THESE RECIPES FOR HOLIDAY PONCHE FOR YOU SUKKAH PARTY:

And so this is how I spend the holiday season; looking into my cultural heritage and towards our regional traditions for festive foods to include in our Jewish holiday tradition.

I’d love to hear from all of you out there about what holiday foods from your culture and region taste like the Jewish holidays for you!

Hollywood Legends: “The Jazz Singer” (1980) Part III

JazzSinger1980-albumcover-goldSo far we have discussed the original “The Jazz Singer” (1927) with Al Jolson; as well as the very fine remake, “The Jazz Singer” (1952) with Danny Thomas. However, there is one more version left to discuss, a version that would be rather forgettable if it were not for the fact that scenes of it were filmed in the sanctuary of the Breed Street Shul, in Boyle Heights.

In 1980 there would be a second big-screen remake of The Jazz Singer, this time casting Neil Diamond in the lead role of the cantor’s son and the father played by Laurence Olivier. The film which got off to a rocky start due to studios and actors bailing on this project early on, though when the female lead dropped out of the film they re-cast the part with Lucie Arnaz, the spunky actor-singer daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

This was supposed to be a first glorious on-screen break in a feature film role for singer Neil Diamond. Though this proved to be a role in which he would fall flat.

When this movie was released Roger Ebert gave it one of his most epic thumbs-down rants of all time:

“The Jazz Singer” has so many things wrong with it that a review threatens to become a list. Let me start with the most obvious: This movie is about a man who is at least 20 years too old for such things to be happening to him. “The Jazz Singer” looks ridiculous giving us Neil Diamond going through an adolescent crisis.

The movie is a remake, of course, of Al Jolson’s 1927 “The Jazz Singer,” which was the first commercially successful talking picture. The remake has played with time in an interesting way: It sets the story in the present, but it places the characters in some kind of time warp. Their behavior seems decades out of date, and some scenes are totally inexplicable in any context.

For example: In the film, Diamond plays a young Jewish cantor at his father’s synagogue. He is married, he has apparently settled down to a lifetime of religion. But he also writes songs for a black group-and when one of the quartet gets sick, Diamond takes his place, appearing in a black nightclub in blackface. Oh yeah? This scene is probably supposed to be homage to Jolson’s blackface performance of “Mammy” in the original, but what it does in 1980 is get the movie off to an unintentionally hilarious start.

The bulk of the movie concerns Diamond’s decision to leave New York, his father and his wife and go to Los Angeles, where he hopes to break into the music industry. This whole business of leaving the nest, of breaking the ties with his father, seems so strange in a middle-aged character: Diamond is just too old to play these scenes. But no matter; the movie is ridiculous for lots of other reasons.

Ebert would then call out this production for being a string of mostly predictable story lines which plod on relentlessly, and blasts the rewritten lead role for dripping in narcissism. In fact he even goes on to make this biting charge against Neil Diamond himself:

But then Diamond’s whole presence in this movie is offensively narcissistic. His songs, are melodramatic, interchangeable, self-aggrandizing groans and anguished shouts, backed protectively by expensive and cloying instrumentation. His dramatic presence also looks over-protected, as if nobody was willing to risk offending him by asking him to seem involved, caring and engaged.

Diamond plays the whole movie looking at people’s third shirt buttons, as if he can’t be bothered to meet their eyes and relate with them. It’s strange about the Diamond performance: It’s not just that he can’t act. It’s that he sends out creepy vibes. He seems self-absorbed, closed off, grandiose, out of touch with his immediate surroundings.

As harsh as his criticism is, I have to agree; this is probably the most tragic productions and performances I have ever seen on film.

This performance would earn Neil Diamond a Razzie for the worst performance in a feature film; and remains marked as one of their 10 worst films of all time.

I’m told by my film director buddy David Herrera that the Neil Diamond version of this film quickly became film school comedy fodder. And a subject of ridicule for his use of modern-day blackface and that fight scene that this act ensues in the film. Herrera claiming that next to “Mommy Dearest,” it is one of the funniest unintentional comedies ever made. The film and the acting are just that bad.

In the opinion of many film makers, The Jazz Singer is considered the holy grail of Jewish entertainment history, a film with a yichus (legacy); which Neil Diamond royally screwed-up in.

Neil Diamond would later make this claim to explain his regrettable attempt at acting:

“I decided while I was doing The Jazz Singer that I’d rather be a really good singer than a mediocre actor; that I’d concentrate on my music, my records and my shows.”

Though this film, in my opinion, was made even worse by the fact that Neil Diamond’s attempt at cantoral musical performance is absolutely terrible and irredeemable.

The film features only about 30 seconds of a recitation of Adon Olam, which is rushed to completion by the character of the impetuous son; and about a minute-and-a-half performance of a rather soulless version of Kol Nidrei.

However, it was not for lack effort on behalf of the producers to make a first-class film.

Neil Diamond did actually train with a well-respected Los Angeles cantor in order to prepare for the part. He was coached for the part by one of the greatest cantors in the country, Cantor Uri Frenkel of Temple Ner Maarav in Encino; who also appears in the film, and who was a personal friend of Neil Diamond.

And for the most important musical score of the movie, the Kol Nidrei scene at the end, they had also hired the best backing vocals. The men’s choir seen and heard from the bimah, they were professional choral singers from the impressive choirs of congregations such as Sinai Temple and Temple Beth Am.

When released the remake film was a flop, however, the soundtrack went on to be a major success selling over 6-million copies. This soundtrack would become notable for releasing a few of Neil Diamond’s most lasting musical standards, among them being the film’s reprising featured song “America” – also known as “They’re coming to America.”

JazzSinger1980-albumcover

Now with the critical analysis behind us, let me state that visually there is something which does make this film a historical treasure, especially for Boyle Heights history enthusiasts.

Though in the 1980 Neil Diamond remake of The Jazz Singer the family again lives in a Jewish neighborhood in New York City just as the original film had, the synagogue scenes were likewise filmed in Los Angeles.

Now in order to evoke this sense of a young man returning to the heimish Jewish community of his family and youth, the producers chose to film the synagogue interior shots in the most old-school orthodox Jewish synagogue in Los Angeles; Congregation Talmud Torah – The Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles.

In the Kol Nidrei scene, it opens up with the camera focused on the lights of the shul’s seven branched menorah and then zooms outward to reveal a filled sanctuary. The entire floor level filled with men, the women are filling the balcony; according to the orthodox tradition. It is rather impressive to see this grant sanctuary dressed for the High Holy Days and filled to the ceiling.

And being that Orthodox Jewish congregations never film during Shabbat or Holy Days, in this film production we probably get the only good look of what a service inside the Breed Street Shul would have actually looked like.

When this film was released in 1980 the Jewish community had already migrated away over a quarter-of-a-century before, however, a small group of worshipers still returned regularly for services in the sanctuary; especially on days when a minyan was needed for Torah services, and on High Holy Days.

However, just a few years after this movie was made the synagogue building would be damaged and abandoned.

On October 1st, 1987, the Breed Street Shul was damaged by the Whittier Narrows Earthquake, the magnitude 5.9 earthquake compromised the structural integrity of the non-reinforced brick building. The grand sanctuary was damaged and subsequently red-tagged, just two days before Yom Kippur.

This tragic event would make the film footage from the sanctuary in the 1980 version all the more valuable, and even more memorable than the rather forgettable production it is taken-from.

Related articles:

Hollywood Legends: “The Jazz Singer” (1952) – Part II

Poster_of_the_movie_The_Jazz_Singer_1952The first remake, The Jazz Singer (1952) was remade starring Danny Thomas as the jazz singing son, and the Eduard Franz as the pious cantor father. This production of the film also produced by Warner Bros. would closely follow the Al Jolson version. Danny Thomas playing a young Korean War veteran who is lunging for success in Hollywood. He returns to his synagogue in the end, where he sneaks into the synagogue’s choir section to surprise his family with his joining in the singing of Kol Nidrei.

The musical performance by Danny Thomas is outstanding. And truly impressive, when one considers that he wasn’t Jewish; Danny Thomas was a Lebanese Maronite Catholic.

Now what is interesting to take notice of is that this 1952 version of the film was filmed at one of the most fashionable Jewish congregations at the time. It was filmed at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, in their grand sanctuary of their second synagogue site located near Fourth and New Hampshire in the mid-Wilshire District, which as built in 1925; it was their synagogue site before their eventual migration more westward down Wilshire Blvd in later years.

Like other film versions of this story, this 1952 version was also filmed entirely in Los Angeles. It is this time depicted as a congregation Sinai Temple in Philadelphia. Again, having Los Angeles sites being staged as east coast Jewish communities.

Today the grand Moorish-Byzantine synagogue building shown in this film is the location of a Korean church, occupying a building which retains much of its Jewish character. Yet the building has seem some changes over the years as the church has made it their own. So it’s really thrilling to in this version of the film see this fine synagogue in its prime, captured through the fine lenses of a major Hollywood film production.

In this 1952 production of The Jazz Singer, Danny Thomas does an outstanding job; in this film he ends up delivering one of the best cantoral presentations to ever grace a Hollywood film. Danny had trained for this role under the tutelage of notable cantors; he was vocally coached for this part by Cantor Carl Urstein who was the musical director at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and Cantor Moe Silverman of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.

Danny Thomas is said to have sang cantonal music in other productions as well, at one time making a lasting impression with his rendition of Rabbi Israel Goldfarb’s famous melody for Shalom Aleichem. He had also previously played a leading role as a cantor in the movie “Big City” in 1948. He was so good at playing the part, a lot of people going forward just assumed he was Jewish.

Now even for to the untrained ear, the singing parts of the cantor father are remarkable and stand apart as phenomenal. Though Eduardo Franz played the father on-screen, the singing heard in the film was actually a musical voice-over performed by the very talented Cantor Saul Silverman of Temple Israel of Hollywood.


ODD HISTORICAL FOOTNOTES:

Jerry Lewis - The Jazz Singer (1959)

Jerry Lewis – The Jazz Singer (1959); made for television production.

This second version of the Jazz Singer in 1952 would be adapted into a taped television version for Ford sponsored show Startime and broadcast on NBC on October 13, 1959. In this version Eduard Franz would reprise his role as the Cantor Rabinowitz, and this time playing the role of a son who was only interested in singing jazz music and making comedy, played by the comedian Jerry Lewis (born Joseph Levitch). In which the movie ends with Jerry Lewis singing Kol Nidrei in clown-face make-up.


Related articles: