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.

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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 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 tradition dish on Mexican Independence day.

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 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 ancient old world. Quinces which originate in the ancient Middle East. As well as 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 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:

Hollywood Legends: “The Jazz Singer” (1927) – Part I

IJazzSinger1927Postern the cannon of Hollywood Jewish films, “The Jazz Singer” is among the most beloved and celebrated. And now that we are in the Jewish High Holy Day season, having just celebrated the Jewish near called Rosh HaShanah and preparing for the day of atonement called Yom Kippur. And during these ten Days of Awe this film title has become one of the seasonal staples for Jewish fans of classic films, and it certain is one of my favorites as well.

Now because the film is so loved, everyone in Los Angeles seems to have a colorful story about it. There are even several different synagogues in the shadow of Hollywood which proudly claim to have been the location where this legendary movie was filmed.

So the big question I often get when standing in front of various old synagogue buildings across the city of Los Angeles is this: Wasn’t “The Jazz Singer” filmed here?

The question I sometime have to ask back is this: Which of the films are we talking about?

Some of the claims local shuls have about being connected to this movie are bubbe-meises. Though not all these claims should be so quickly dismissed.

There are three film productions, which would bear the title of this most famous of Jewish American stories. In these various productions we do get a few interesting peeks at some of the most lovely old Jewish sites in the city of Los Angeles.

In this three-party series we will virtually explore these together. And along the way learn a bit about the history of this all-American Jewish favorite holiday film.

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In 1927 the ground-breaking film production of “The Jazz Singer” staring Al Jolson would make history as being the first talking-film with synchronized music on Vitaphone sound-on-disc; this is regarded as having brought an end to the silent film era.

In the story Cantor Rabinowitz wants his son Jackie to follow in the family traditions of becoming a hazzan – a musical leader of the ancient liturgical Hebrew prayers, at the synagogue in his New York’s Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side.

The conflict of our film presents itself right away when the father is alerted by a local and finds his son in a beer garden singing jazz tunes. The father confront his son for debasing his G-d given voice with such music, and decides to teach him a lesson with a whipping. That day the son makes a vow to his father as he clings to his mother for protection: “If you whip me again, I’ll run away—and never come back!” After taking his beating, the son then kisses his mother and leaves home, only returning while the family is away Yom Kippur services to grab a picture of his dear mother. That night the cantor also makes a vow in his heart and says to his friend at Kol Nidrei, “My son was to stand at my side and sing tonight – but now I have no son.” The cantor vows in his heart that his son is now dead to him.

The story is of a prodigal son of the Jewish American experience.

Then after a decade has passed and going by the assimilated name of Jackie Robins, he is finally given a big-break. Jackie would be offered the promise of success as a singer when after catching the attention of the musical theater crowd, and is then offered the lead role in a new musical.

In this film the son would return at one point to try to explain his love for modern music to his family, only getting himself ultimately banished by the appalled cantor. The cantor father banishing him with the stern line, “I never want to see you again — you jazz singer!

However, a couple of weeks after their fight the cantor would then fall seriously ill, just the day before Yom Kippur. And for the first time the Jewish congregation is left without anyone to lead the services for the Day of Atonement. And so they appeal to the young Jackie, whose father has been dreaming of his son singing Kol Nidrei in his place, musing that surely if Jackie would do this one thing he would surely be forgiven.

However, filling in for his father on Yom Kippur would mean Jackie sacrificing the opening night of his new Broadway musical, a move which he is told would end his entire entertainment career. He is advised that if he is a no-show, he will never work on Broadway ever again.

Jackie is then forced to choose between his Jewish identity and his career.

In the end, young Jackie would cancel the show opening. And he would return back to the synagogue of his family and of his youth, and would sing the grand liturgical opus of Kol Nidrei; written in Aramaic and ordered according the solemn procedures of Jewish law, it is said for the annulment of all vows in preparation for the day of atonement and forgiveness. Jackie ascends to the bimah and sings these profound melodies for the congregation as cantor, in his father’s place.

The yiddish prodigal son had returned, their bad vows are annulled and forgiveness is found.

The film concludes with the young man seemingly blessed with parnasa; as he ends up finding career success as an entertainer.

And most importantly, in this story we see that this Jewish American son is able to ultimately prove to his old world religious family that he has truly chosen the right path for his life; and even his non-Jewish friends also come to accept him “as jazz singer – singing to his G-d.”

It is one of the best stories ever told.

But where did the inspiration for this movie come from?

The story of The Jazz Singer was adapted from a short story written by playwright Samson Raphaelson titled, Day of Atonement. The story was based on the early life of Al Jolson (born Asa Yoselon, in the village of Srednike in Lithuania). Raphaelson, a native of New York’s lower eastside, had first seen Al Jolson in 1917 performing in blackface in Illinois, and was instantly absorbed by his stage presence. Noting that he had only ever heard such emotional intensity of singing among synagogue cantors, which he adventured to ask Jolson about. Raphaelson said: “He told me a little of his background. But I had already guessed it. I knew there was the spirit of cantors in him, the blood of cantors in him.” [See: How I Came to Write “The Jazz Singer” by Samson Raphaelson]

The play would be written in 1922, and first performed on stage at the Warner Theater in NYC in 1925. Due to the great success of the stage play, in 1927 it was announced that Warner Bros. was going to produce a film version of the story starting in June; with the filming with the actors beginning in the month of July. In the month of August the Vitaphone sound sequences were completed. And then on September 23rd it was announced that the film was completed.

The film was then released on October 6, 1927 at the flagship Warner Bros. Theater in New York City, the opening was planned to coincide with Yom Kippur, which the plot of this story largely revolves around.

It is this Yom Kippur – Kol Nidei theme which has made this a seasonal favorite during the High Holy Days.

Rosenblatt, on stage in the movie "The Jazz Singer." (1927)

Chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt performing in “The Jazz Singer” (1927)

Now it should be noted that Al Jolson was actually trained and coached in the Jewish cantoral musical style by none less than the great Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt himself, considered the greatest Jewish liturgical voice of all time. Cantor Rosenblatt was offered $100,000 by Warner Bros. to play the part of Jolson’s cantor father; a part which he turned down, because he felt that Kol Kidrei was too sacred for him to sing in this film.

Instead Cantor Rosenblatt takes a smaller roll in the film, in which he plays himself singing liturgical songs in a theater, which melts the heart of the strayed son and reminds him of his cantor father; all of this moving the narrative towards demanding a reconciliation.

Again it is important to note that Jolson was coached for this part by Cantor Rosenblatt himself. However, the story is told among professional cantors to this day that Al Jolson was actually a really difficult student to try to instruct; as Jolson just wanted to do it all his own way. And it is said that as a result the cantoral pieces Jolson he had recorded were actually rather dismal performances. And so when the movie was finally cut, it was said to have only presented the most essential and best pieces of the liturgical songs they had captured.

Still I think his singing is all together lovely.

Now it must be noted that even though the story is written from an east coast perspective – having scenes depicting places in New York and in Chicago – the movie was very much filmed in Los Angeles.

Interestingly, one of the first rumors I ever heard surround the film The Jazz Singer (1927) is that the movie was often said to have been filmed at the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles.

Even though this rumor is false, begin that the Breed Street Shul was the largest Jewish congregation west of Chicago, it is understandable why people would assume that the producers would have automatically chosen this site. However, the synagogue scenes for this production were actually filmed on a Warner Bros. Studios sound stage off Sunset Blvd., today the location of KTLA Television in Hollywood.

Nonetheless the often repeated claim of being the location where the famed The Jazz Singer (1927) was filmed is also retold by members of several other Los Angeles synagogues. Some of these claims are just assumptions and mistaken leads. While other claims are actually correct about a version of The Jazz Singer being filmed at their site, however they are often just mistaken about the version.

Due to the success of this film it would be remade several times over the years. And a latter version of this movie would indeed be filmed in Boyle Heights.

This is a topic we will further explore in this three-part series.

HISTORICAL CONNECTIONS: Even though The Jazz Singer (1927) was not filmed at the Breed Street Shul, the film does have a tangential connection to the cast of this film. In that year Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt came out to Los Angeles to play himself and sing in this feature film. Though he turned down the lucrative offer to actually sing Kol Nidrei for this Warner Bros. film, he did end up another offer to sing this liturgy for a Los Angeles synagogue that year. In that year of 1927 Cantor Rosenblatt was hired to officiate the High Holy Day for Congregation Talmud Torah – The Breed Street Shul; being paid $5,000 for three days of performance, which is what most people worked two whole years to make. [See: “Sounds of Jewish High Holidays in Classic Boyle Heights”]


The Warner Bros. and their Sunset Blvd. Studios, late 1920’s.

REMEMBERING SAM WARNER: Samuel Louis “Sam” Warner (born Szmuel Wonsal, August 10, 1887 – October 5, 1927) was an American film producer who was the co-founder and chief executive officer of Warner Bros. Studios. He established the studio along with his brothers Harry, Albert, and Jack L. Warner. Sam Warner is credited with procuring the Vitaphone technology that enabled Warner Bros. to produce the film industry’s first feature-length talking picture, “The Jazz Singer” staring Al Jolson.

This movie was a technical and financial challenge for Warner Bros. With a total price tag of $422,000 it was one of the most expensive films in the studio’s history, nearly bankrupting the Warners. It was reported that one of the brothers hocked his wife’s jewels to cover production costs. They really needed this film to succeed in order to save the studio.

“The Jazz Singer” ending up breaking box-office records, establishing Warner Bros. as a major player in Hollywood, and single-handedly launched the talkie revolution which ended the silent film era.

The world premier for “The Jazz Singer” was set to coincide with Yom Kippur, on account of the Kol Nidrei theme which runs through the film. However, Sam and his brothers would not attend the world premiere of this most famous film, which was set to open in their flagship theater in New York City.

Sam Warner died of pneumonia at the age of 40 years old, just the day before the film’s enormously successful premiere; so they left New York to return to Los Angeles to bury their brother in the family tomb at Home of Peace Memorial Cemetery in East Los Angeles.

Today is his yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing according to the Hebrew calendar.


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The Solidarity and the Martyrs of the National Chicano Moratorium (August 29, 1970)

Today is the 48th anniversary of the National Chicano Moratorium protest which began August 29,  1970 in East Los Angeles, which attracted as many as 30,000 people to protest the drafting of young Mexican Americans into the Vietnam War.

National Chicano Moratorium, Aug. 29, 1970. East Los Angeles, Calif.

In this photo we see an African-American student in the very front lines, holding the National Chicano Moratorium banner at the front of the parade, while a young Chicano holds it on to the other side of the banner.

On account of the lack of educational and vocational opportunities extended to Mexican Americans because of persisting racial discrimination of that era, our people were most often being denied deferments from the war. And consequently it became clearly evident to the public that our brown-skinned young people were being disproportionately sent to the front lines as cannon fodder for this war. So in the face of this reality, our people began to protest. They fiercely organized when they realized that Latinos accounted for about 20% of the wartime deaths in Vietnam while making up less than 5% of the population of our country at the time.

The protest was organized by local college students and activists from the Brown Berets.

However, it should be noted that the National Chicano Moratorium had a multi-racial backing and presence on the front-line of this protest. As you will see in pictures and film from the events, there are also black and white people standing in solidarity with the Chicano anti-war movement.

In the police violence that ensued, Ruben Salazar, then the news director of KMEX Channel 34 and a Los Angeles Times columnist, he would be killed by the sheriff’s department.

However, our dear Ruben Salazar would not be the only death in the actions known as the moratorium, actions which raged for months; there would be four deaths in total; among the dead were three other people. One is Lyn Ward, who was a Brown Berets “medic” who was killed when a burning trash can containing combustibles exploded; and also another Chicano simply identified as José “Angel” Diaz.

And the fourth fallen person was a person who did not identify as a Chicano at all. In-fact the oral legends and passing historical accounts identified him as a Jewish college student from East Los Angeles.

This is how the account is generally remembered (taken from Wikipedia):

“Some of the deaths seemed accidental but Gustav Montag got into direct confrontation with the police, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. Its front-page article the next day recounted that several protesters faced police officers with drawn rifles at the end of an alley, shouting, and kept their ground, even when ordered to disperse. The article stated that Montag was picking up pieces of broken concrete and throwing them at the officers, who opened fire. Montag died at the scene from gunshot wounds. The police officers later said that they had aimed over his head in order to scare him off. A photo accompanied this article, showing Montag’s body being carried away by several brothers. Montag was not a Chicano, but a Sephardic Jew who was supporting the movement.”

I have spent a few years investigating this account, trying to authenticate this story.

What I have found out is that while this story might be true, it seems that it might have at least one fact wrong. The student is identified as a Sephardic Jew; and to some eastside people this would have seemed to have made sense to them as to why he might join in such a movement; if he was a Jew of Spanish extraction.

Though as a Sephardic Jew myself, this doesn’t sound exactly right.

The name Gustav Montag, both the first and last name, suggests that he was actually an Ashkenazi Jew, of German Jewish roots. And I can tell you with great certainly that we did have Ashkenazi Jewish families by the name of Montag who had lived in the area for many years; some buried in East Los Angeles Cemeteries.

So it appears to me that this mysterious martyr of the National Chicano Moratorium was quite possibly not a Sephardic Jew, as the urban legend tells the story, but instead a white Ashkenazi Jew; a white Jewish young man who joined in the solidarity with the Chicano movement, as leftist Jews had since Chicano student organizing began back in 1963.

This seems to been confirmed by the original Los Angeles Times article I just found. This news report is actually taken from the fourth moratorium held several months into the movement on February 2, 1971:

“The Toll of Sunday’s outbreak:

Dead: Gustav Montag, Jr., 24, a native of Sternowitz, Austria, who lived with relatives at 2208 Tuller Road. A spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department said he was evidently struck by a ricocheting gunshot pellet that pierced his heart.

The coroners office said Montag had recently dropped out of East Los Angeles College, where he had been enrolled in a Hebrew course.”

GustavMontagKilled

In the past couple years I have asked around quite a bit, though I have not yet been able to locate the resting place of the martyr Gustav Montag. I hope to one day be able to fill in the details of this story, and pay my respects at his resting place if such a site exists.

Rest in power martyrs of the National Chicano MoratoriumRuben Salazar, Lyn Ward, José “Angel” Diaz… and our Jewish brother Gustav Montag.


Film from the events of the National Chicano Moratorium:

Note: In this film “Chicano Moratorium: A Question of Freedom“, by Loyola-Marymount film student Tom Myrdahl which captures the events, it opens with my dear friend John Ortiz, que descanse en paz, marching with pride on the horizon of change. John passed away this passed year. Rest in power, our friend and “professor”!

Oldest Soldier in the World, Served Czar and in Civil War (1918)

This article was published 100 years ago today:

OLDEST SOLDIER IN THE WORLD TO UNFURL FLAG

“The oldest soldier in the world, an inmate of the Hebrew Sheltering and Home for the Aged Association, will raise the American flag over the Home at 131 S. Boyle avenue, Sunday, April 14. He is Mr. B. Corn, 110 years of age, who served 35 years for Czar Nicholas I. He was taken from him parents’ home when a mere child of eight years and was forced into the army training school where he suffered for many years and was forced to abandon the Jewish religion. He finally escaped to the United States where, under the protection of the Stars and Stripes, he shared in the liberty to worship in the Jewish faith. He became a soldier in the Union Army and served under General Grant.

“To his pride, once again, in the last of his life, he will raise the American flag over the Home for the Aged while the children of the Jewish Orphans Home will participate by singing “America.” All are invited to witness the grand scene.”

– – Bnai Brith Messenger, Friday, April 12, 1918

There are many Jewish people who came to the United States as veterans of the czarist army. There were also many people who came to avoid being drafted by the Russians army. At the time that Mr. Corn was drafted, any male between the age of 12 and 25 years old could be conscripted for a standard service of 25 years.

On account of the extremely long conscription, some Russian Jewish young men cut off their trigger finger to avoid being drafted. I have several friends who clearly remember their grandfather thus having one shorter finger; though people rarely mentioned the reason why.

However, Mr. Corn was like many Jews who did service in the czarist Imperial Russian Army, where he suffered greatly.

The Gless House

The Gless House was the early location of the Hebrew Sheltering and Home for the Aged, located at 131 S. Boyle Avenue.

It’s amazing that after all that, while advanced in years he served in the righteous ranks of the Union Army, to put down the Confederate slave-state rebellion and defend the freedom of the United States.

It’s also very touching that as Mr. Corn raised the flag over the Jewish Home for the Aged, which at the time was located at the old Gless House, where he had become a resident. While the choir was led by children from the Jewish Orphans Home, which at the time was located in a boarding house across the street from Hollenbeck Park. The children in the choir would have been around the age he was when he was taken into the czar’s army.

The Russian Cantons: The Draft of Jewish Boys

And one of the common Eastern European Jewish family stories is the epic of how their family members or ancestors were sent away lest they be taken by the czarist Russian army.

Today, I ask us to consider the life of a Russian Jewish boys who were subjected to the czar’s draft in the 19th century.

This was a real and terrifying concern.

Czar Nicholas I ordered that the Russian draft into the Imperial army also apply to the Jewish communities in 1827. At that time the scare of conscription was extended to potentially affect every single young Jewish boy.

Though it is important to note that it wouldn’t have been the Russians who would have selected and taken the young Jewish boys… it’s a bit more complicated than that. The terrible task of selection was done by the “kahal,” by the Jewish community body. And it was them who handed the young boys of their community over to the Russians.

And because of this authority of selection being in the hands of the men of the community, it happened that a disproportionate amount of those selected were children. This was further justified based on the idea that these boys didn’t yet have a family and dependents to support. So the younger ones were often sent instead of the more mature youths.

And when young men could not be found to fulfill the quota, they would start to take boys as young as eight years old, and sometimes even younger. Taking these boys from their families, the kahal would often employ their own informants and send “khappers” (kidnappers), to steal these Jewish boys before they could be hid or sent away by their family.

They were then taken by the community and handed over to the army for 25 years. Some 30,000 to 50,000 Jewish children were taken to be conscripted into the cantonist army schools and prepared for service in the Imperial army.

Though Jews were drafted into the army, they were limited in the roles they could serve. Only 8 people are known to have risen above Russian racial nationalistic policies.

Most often the boys were deprived of their Jewish practice and pressured to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church. And some did – as much as one-third of the young Jewish boys converted to Christianity – for better treatment and opportunities. Though many more struggled to maintain their Jewish identity under impossible circumstances.

In 1856 this policy would be abolished by Czar Alexander II, thought it would take a few years to entirely abolish the canton policy. All unconverted young men under 20 years old were then given back to their parents. All those who had converted were given to their Christian godparents.

The liberation of the Jewish boys drafted into the cantons would have be undone just a few years before Mr. Corn would have joined the Union Army and served under General Grant during the American Civil War.

A lot of people have history of their ancestors suffering from, or fleeing conscription.

Though the family story of fleeing conscription is common, it should be noted that Jews are not to be characterized as draft dodgers, as YIVO states:

“Between 1874 and 1914, there were more Jews in the Russian army than non-Jews in proportion to the general population. For example, in 1907, Jewish soldiers constituted almost 5 percent of the entire military but only 4 percent of the population of the empire. These figures make obsolete any vociferous right-wing criticism of the “Jewish draft dodging” that after 1882 and especially after 1905 was considered a collective crime of Jews in Russian political discourse.”

Then later on Jews would also have to deal with fears of Russian Army conscription during the communist revolution. And at that time would send Jewish young men abroad, some of which would come here to America.

We would start to get a lot more Jewish Russian army veterans here in Los Angeles in the first couple decades of the 20th century.

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  • The Cantonist Saga – A horrific era when Jewish boys were forced into 25 years of Russian military service. (Aish)

The Japanese Diplomat and the Yeshiva Bochurs of Shanghai

As we are ending the observance of Yom ha-Shoah – the Hebrew date for the observance of Holocaust Memorial Day, I would like us to consider this inspirational story.The Bnei Brith Messenger in July of 1946 made this announcement for an upcoming event to be held in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles:

“Ex-Yeshiva Students Shanghai Refugees Awaited Here

“Fleeing the death chambers and concentration camps of Poland, only to find hardships and misery in Shanghai, as prisoners of war, about thirty former students of the Lubavitcher Rabbi, Joseph I. Schneerson, have been enabled, through its efforts to come to the United States.

“About seventeen of them will arrive in Los Angeles on the 16th or 17th of July, and a reception is being planned in their honor by Los Angeles Jewry.

“At a meeting held in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Max Wecksler, Monday night, a group of distinguished rabbis and laymen laid plans for the forthcoming reception, and for the maintenance of these refugees until steps can be taken for their future welfare in the country.

“RECEPTION SUNDAY

“Arrangements have been made for a reception in their honor by a committee headed by Harry Altman and Max Weksler, to be held Sunday evening, July 21, in the Jewish Home for the Aged, 325 South Boyle Ave, at a dinner.

“Others on the committee are…”

Then it gives the names of the people on the committee.

Lastly, it lists this amazing line-up of entertainment for the fete:

“Among those who will be entertain at the program will be Cantors Itzikel Schiff and Joseph Czycowski, accompanied by the world renowned composer Cantor Paul Discount.”

Bnai Brith Messenger, Friday, July 19, 1946; Page: 17

The students had been studying at the Chabad-Lubavitch Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim in Otwock, a suburb of Warsaw, when Nazi troops invaded Poland in September of 1939.

Refugee yeshivah students arrive in Shanghai

Refugee yeshiva students arrive in Shanghai, China.

Together the group of yeshivah students, managed to make it to Lithuania, where they obtained transit visas from diplomat Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s consul in Kaunas (Kovno), enabling them to cross the Soviet Union and spend the war years in the relative safety of Kobe, Japan and Japanese-controlled Shanghai, arriving in 1941.

There they would suffer much hardship – the exhaustion of the journey had worn them down. And then they faced years of being held as prisoners of war, suffering from everything from the extreme change in climate to food poisoning. They were then liberated finally after the end of the war in the Pacific.

Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim in Shanghai during WWII

Students and rabbis at the Chabad-Lubavitch Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim in Shanghai during World War II

After the war they would come to America by way of Los Angeles in 1946, to be welcomed and given support as they came to establish themselves in this country.

Though one of those refugee students would play an important role in establishing the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Los Angeles. In 1948, Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Raichik would be sent by the sixth Rebbe – Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, of righteous memory – sent the newly-married scholar to Los Angeles as his representative in California.

Notably, Rabbi Raichik would be one of the disciples of the sixth Rebbe who would plead with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, to become the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Rabbi Raichik would be given the mandate by the rebbe to not just focus on building up one synagogue in the city of Los Angeles, but to spread out across the entire city and surrounding area.

Today Chabad-Lubavitch is one of the most widespread Jewish movements in greater Los Angeles.

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Now let us take a look at the life of the Japanese diplomat who came to the rescue. And also take a peek at a monument in downtown Los Angeles which honors the hero of this story.

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara Memorial
(January 1, 1900- July 31, 1986)
Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles

The Talmud states: “He who saves one life, saves the entire world.” This verse is written on the base of this monument to Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara – you will find it right next to a Starbucks off Central Avenue in Little Toyko, just over the river in downtown Los Angeles.

Chiune "Shempo" Sugihara Memorial, Little Tokyo

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara Memorial, Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles.

The statue was a gift of public art from the Neman Foundation and Levy Affiliated Holdings, LLC, honoring this hero.

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park wrote a wonderful biography about this hero:

“Sempo Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania who issued thousands of transit visas to Jewish refugees of the Holocaust. Though he did not have authority from the Japanese government to do so, Sugihara is said to have saved approximately 7,000 Jewish refugees though his efforts.

“Sugihara was posted in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1939. At the time, the Japanese government required that transit visas only be granted to those who had sufficient funds, and who had also procured an exit visa from Japan.

“Seeing the desperate condition of the men and women who came to his office, Sugihara, a low-level bureaucrat, disobeyed orders dispatched from the Japanese Foreign Ministry and issued visas anyway.

[Including those given to the Lubavitch yeshiva bochurs who ended up in Shanghai.]

“From August to September, 1941, Sugihara worked 18-20 hours per day, creating the same volume of visas each day that would have ordinarily been issued over the course of a month. Even as his office was shut down and he was leaving Kaunas, he threw visas to refugees waiting on the train platform.

“After the war, Sugihara was asked to resign from his post by the Japanese Foreign Office. It is unclear whether this was a punitive action, but nonetheless Sugihara spent the rest of his life working menial jobs, and settled in the Soviet Union for many years. He was eventually recognized for his efforts in 1985, and named ‘Righteous Among the Nations‘ by Yad Vashem. Chiune Sugihara died in 1986, largely unknown in his native Japan.

“When asked why he risked his career to save other people, he cited an old samurai proverb: “Even the hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge.””

This is some deep history here.

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara faced great danger. He didn’t just follow orders when he saw Jews suffering, he did everything he could to save them. He came to the rescue of so many Jewish people whose lives hung in the balance, even though it endangered him and his family. And on account of his defiant act, he would lose his career in the end.

And though when he died he was virtually unknown in his own country, he became well honored posthumously by the Jewish people all around the world.

Every time I am in Little Tokyo I see people pass this statue. Even Jewish people I know, even those who are normally in the know historically, they often miss this one. So I regularly find myself point it out to friends.

And now each time you pass, I ask you to remember how a righteous act by this Japanese diplomat half a world away would help Jews fleeing the Nazi find shelter in Japanese territories. And consider how his act of salvation of just one of these fleeing yeshiva students would benefit chassidic orthodox Judaism in Los Angeles so much.

Imagine what stories might be told of the other thousands of people Sugihara rescued!

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