Hollywood and Boyle Heights celebrating Chanukah together
This year I had the great pleasure of joining my dear friends Josh Heller and Erika Brooks Adickman of the fantastic “Two Jews Talking” podcast to help them light-up the holiday of Chanukah. I’ve had the honor of being on their show a couple times previously, so I was totally thrilled to be asked to come back to celebrate the holidays with them.
We came together on the eighth and final night of Chunukah at Tabula Rasa Bar in East Hollywood to kindle the fullness of the Chanukah lights and spread light across city. This event was part of Infinite Light, a city-wide festival powered by Nu Roots – “a movement of young people building community across L.A.” which is funded by generous grants from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Now Josh knows what my interests are, so he asked for historical stories about Chanukah in the early 20th century which shed light on the history of Jews in Hollywood… and maybe even throw in some stories about labor movement or antifascist organizing. Something to inspire us in this dark time of political resistance.
Now this was a tall order… one that I thought might require a holiday miracle!
And just then I remembered reading an old newspaper article from the Bnei Brith Messenger from December 1940, about a very special Chanukah celebration which in that year would bring together the people of Hollywood and my neighborhood of Boyle Heights to address fascism.
I had a really great time! I’m really grateful to have spent the holiday with some dear friends, and to share the season’s joy with new friends as well.
For those of you who weren’t able to join us and hear the interview, you can listen to the live recording from the party on the latest episode “Two Jews Talking” podcast in the link below:
And below you will find a more detailed written history and some fascinating sources on this topic.
Chag urim sameach… happy festival of lights!
The history of Chanukah Balls and Banquets in the early-20th century.
In the first half of the 20th century in Los Angeles, Chanukah was seen as mostly a child’s holiday. The synagogue Hebrew schools would host all day celebrations for the small children. And for the the older youth, the ladies of society would host balls in the grand ballrooms to encourage the mingling of Jewish young people.
Then around 1915 these events would become more and more cause-related, and often tendered to in some way be focused on the national matters, matters which were important to Jewish people and the American nation at large. In this spirit they would begin to hold charity events for causes, such as war relief amidst the First World War.
And in the zealous national theme of the holiday of Chanukah – and in the spirit of the times in regard to the aspirations of many people for the establishment of a haven for Jews in Palestine – for those so inclined to the almost Maccabean sentiments of the time, the holiday events would also at times begin to take focus around Zionism. Though it must be noted that this would most certainly become a secondary cause for many Jews, in the face of more pressing domestic and international issues.
Then taking the lead in organizing Chanukah functions starting in the 1920s was the AZA – Aleph Zadik Aleph – a fraternal group dedicated to patriotism, Judaism, love for one’s familial elders, and charity; today they are a junior auxiliary of BBYO – the Bnei Brith Youth Organization.
And that was what celebrations for Chanukah were like in the early 20th century; something between a mixer for Jewish young people and a charity ball.
It is out of this mold that would emerge a tradition of Chanukah celebrations being held by junior auxiliaries and charitable societies, in order to rally people around a cause.
Also worth noting is that over the years children’s Chanukah celebrations in Los Angeles would also be enriched by the magic of Hollywood; with local theaters being booked to show, “Motion pictures of a religious and historic nature will be shown, through the courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios. Parents also are invited.”
In the backdrop of Hollywood, Chanukah in Los Angeles would flourish as a holiday.
The year Hollywood and Boyle Heights Celebrated Chanukah as a Resistance to Fascism
Now tonight we are going to talk about one Chanukah celebration that would bring the Jewish community of Hollywood out to Boyle Heights in the year of 1940 for a matter that was very important to the Jewish people, the American nation, and all the nations of the world. To address the threat of fascism which was ravaging Europe, and causing discord domestically in American.
This Chanukah luncheon would attract some of the finest people of Los Angeles and Hollywood society to the banquet hall of the Jewish Home for the Aged, then located in Boyle Heights.
Among them would be the famous silent film actress Mary Pickford. For over 20 years the Hollywood actress would involve herself in philanthropy and charity fund-raising. It is important to note that among the most notable stories in Boyle Heights history are those of her charity events she co-hosted along with the Junior Auxiliary for the Jewish Home for the Aged. The actress was often the celebrity draw for charity banquets such as these.
Though the most important and interesting person behind the success these events would be Ida Mayer Cummings, the older sister of Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios. She was a notable socialite and charity fund-raiser who was connected to all the important people of business, industry, as well as the religious, civic and philanthropic leadership. And by all accounts, an amazing organizer and larger than-life character who touched many with her gripping appeals.
In the researching of this story I have been in contact with Ida’s great-grand-daughter Alicia Mayer, who has been help in opening up the family photo albums and scrap book. And sharing some interesting details about the Mayer family and their charity work. She relates that Bob Hope said of Ida that “she was the only woman he knew who could grab a man by the lapels over the phone.”
And she knew more than a few things about how to bring a crowd of influential people together as well.
This one holiday event for Chanukah in the year of 1940 drew out a record crowd of the big movers and shakers of the city of Los Angeles and Hollywood itself – over 500 guests. This luncheon attracted an amazingly diverse group of studio heads, actors, politicians, a bishop, a rabbi, members of the most wealthy families of the city, as well as thrilled young socialites.
They had all eagerly come out that day to hear a most special keynote speaker to address the current crisis threating the Jewish people and the world.
The greatly anticipated speaker was Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, the youngest daughter of former President Woodrow Wilson. She would address the Nazi threat in Europe and the sad spirit of isolationism which had gripped the American public, and the anti-refugee rhetoric which was prohibiting Jewish refugees from immigrating to America.
Keep in mind that it was already two years after Kristallnacht erupted in Germany and the invasion of Austria, and a whole year after the invasion of Poland… yet, it was still a year prior the attack on Pearl Harbor which would eventually draw the United States into the war.
Mrs. McAdoo contended that “democracy and humanity are at stake.” And charged that the United States “seemed to be indifferent to the present war.”
All this spoken correctly at a time when the war was going from bad to worse. Little did the people attending this banquet know that on this very day Hitler would order the execution of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasions of Russia.
Rabbi Solomon M. Neches of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, the Palestinian-born Jewish leader who was considered the orthodox Chief Rabbi of Los Angeles at the time, also addressed the crowd with a dvar torah/sermon, as reported in the Los Angeles Herald:
“The first words of the Lord recorded in the Bible are, ‘Let There be Light’. No one can live in darkness. Every year the Jew rededicates himself to the spreading of the light through the world.
“We shall continue to do so despite Adolph – we do not mention the rest of his name. Adolphs or no Adolphs, Israel will still go on. What we suffer is only temporary.
“Surely, in the final reckoning, light will triumph over darkness.”
As President of the Junior Auxiliary for the Home for the Aged, Ida Mayer Cummings addressed the crowd. That year Chanukah just happened to coincided with Christmas that year, which doesn’t always happen. It is likely with this in mind that she made the following statements and reflections for the holidays:
“Our Chanukah lights are set on a background of darkness, the gloom of a world at war, with bigotry rampant. Against this blackness our Chanukah lights gleam the brighter, with promise of a future of peace and goodwill, that same peace and goodwill stressed in the Christian Christmas.”
This was followed with the saying of the national anthem and singing of songs, and many rounds of thunderous applause.
This was an amazing display of resistance to fascism. They were resisting the normalization of the Nazi darkness that had descended upon and was spreading across Europe. They were boldly standing up to the isolationism which had a firm grip on the American public at the time.
However, what is largely unknown this side of history is that this assembly was also resisting Nazism and fascism here in the city of Los Angeles as well. Just a few miles away in downtown Los Angeles, the American manifestation of the Nazi party was actively recruiting and advocating for Nazi Germany at the headquarters of the German American Bund.
Despite the strong Jewish presence in Hollywood… or I should say, in spite of the Jews in Hollywood… Nazi-sympathizing and antisemitism had made much inroads into Los Angeles society, and through out the country. In an age in which nationalism was still fashionable and in a time when people attended controversial political meetings was common, national socialism could be founded in the mix. As well as various assortments of fascist sympathizers as well.
Indeed, early on Mary Pickford herself – this most famous actress of the silent film era, known simple as “America’s Sweetheart” – early on she was know for being vocally pro-fascist, praising Mussolini when he came to power. Pickford even praised Hitler as late as 1937. Like many people she thought these men were strong leaders who were out to make their nation strong for their own people, and sympathized with their aims and rhetoric. However, in the next few years she appears to have shifted in her views when their genocidal intent became clear and evident. Pickford would feel so repentant that she would even write a whole chapter confessing this in her memoirs titled, “Sunshine and Shadow” printed in 1955.
What is important to note is that Mary Pickford would make amends for years to come through charity work starting around 1940, especially focusing on advocating on behalf of the elderly. And so she quickly become very active in helping Ida Mayer Cummings with the Junior Auxiliary for the Jewish Home for the Aged, and would remain actively involved with them for the next two decades. Pickford would actually raise enough money to build an entire new wing for the Jewish home, which was dedicated and named in her honor.
It is also important and right to point out that Pickford was as a conservative – she was far from being a Hollywood liberal and radical – yet she unabashedly threw her support behind the Jewish people and the antifascist cause at this Chanukah luncheon in 1940.
The turn out of Los Angeles and Hollywood society to the Jewish Home for the Ages in Boyle Heights on this special holiday was certainly impressive… and also really bold.
Actually, it was more bold that you might imagine.
There is one shocking fact that was kept secret from the public until it was recently revealed by scholars, how from the Nazis headquarter in downtown Los Angeles there where American fascists who were even planning terrorist attacks on the Jewish public. They were plotting to kidnap 20 Jewish Hollywood studio heads and their allies, and execute them in order to kick off an American pogrom. While also planning on going on a terrorist rampage with machine guns, to kill as many people as possible in the densely populated Jewish community of Boyle Heights.
This plot and its foiling detailed in a pair of excellent books recently published. “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America” by Steven J. Ross, and “Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles” by Laura Rosenzweig.
These types of threats were being thwarted by Jewish anti-fascists and their supporters in Hollywood, and yet somehow remained a closely guarded secret by these leaders, many of them sitting in that very room.
And that is what really strikes me. That what these people were doing was not just politically bold to take this position regarding American’s disgraceful foreign policy of isolationism in the pre-war years… they were actually resisting fascism… fascism which was not just a threat to Jews in Europe, for indeed they were also showing resistance to the normalization of fascism that could be seen on the streets of Los Angeles.
It amazes and inspires me that against this backdrop, they boldly choose to come out and face the darkness with light!
Special thanks to Alicia Mayer, great-grand-daughter of Ida Mayer Cummings who was the oldest sister of Louis B. Mayer’s family; for opening up the family photo albums and scrapbook archives, and sharing this information to help me make this storytelling possible.