In this Latino LA neighborhood, Jews commemorate an ancient biblical holiday

By: Alejandra Molina, Religious News Service

Rabbi Robin Podolsky, left, blesses the bread during a feast inside a sukkah in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. RNS photo by Alejandra Molina

LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Corinne Mosh celebrated the first night of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot like never before. 

She feasted in a space embellished with decorative Mexican papel picado, alongside a Chicano vocalist singing folk music in Spanish and a Jewish and Mexican-American spiritual leader who casually switched between Spanish, English and Hebrew.

“To me, it speaks to the diaspora of Jewish people all over the world,” said Mosh, 43.

Mosh and about 15 others gathered Sunday (Oct. 13) in Boyle Heights — a working-class Latino neighborhood on the east side of Los Angeles that was once a thriving Jewish enclave — to observe the biblical holiday of Sukkot. This tradition celebrates the harvest and recalls the Israelites’ 40-year journey in the desert after they fled Egypt. 

During Sukkot, which began Sunday and ends Oct. 20, observant Jews spend time in a sukkah — a temporary outdoor hut that signals the Israelites’ dwellings before they reached the Promised Land. These structures are made out of thatch or branches that can provide shade and protection from the sun.

Mosh and others held their celebration in what is believed to be the first sukkah in Boyle Heights — a community with a strong Chicano and Mexican identity — in more than 30 years. 

Inside the Sukkah, standing here are Shmuel Gonzales (left) and Rabbi Robin Podolsky (right).

Shmuel Gonzales, a Mexican American and Jewish community historian, helped organize the Sunday feast inside the sukkah. Shiny wreaths in violet, gold and red colors hung from side to side. Banners of traditional Mexican tissue paper decorated the shelter’s white walls. Stuffed eggplant, chili peppers filled with meat and dried fruit, and squash stuffed with tomato and tamarind sauce were served for dinner. To keep with tradition, Gonzales shook the “lulav” — a palm branch bundled with myrtle and willow branches — and a yellow citrus fruit called an “etrog.”

The lulav and etrog are waved to represent “God’s presence in all directions.”

Celebrating Sukkot with our local families; the Levine-Morris family, and Shmuel Gonzales the founder of the Boyle Heights Chavurah – the modern-day Jewish community circle of Boyle Heights and City Terrace.

“We’re here making history,” Gonzales said on Sunday.

Gonzales, 42, said the tradition of celebrating Sukkot in Boyle Heights faded after the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake damaged the Breed Street Shul, the last of the Eastside synagogues that stayed open in the decades following the population shifts of the postwar era. Vandalism and neglect contributed to the final services being held in 1996.

“I decided a while ago that (if) we were going to have the Jewish faith alive in the Eastside no one was going to do it for us,” Gonzales said.

For Gonzales, preserving remnants of the Jewish faith in the Eastside is personal. His family has roots in Boyle Heights dating back to 1896. He said the Jewish community has embraced him as a convert. It’s estimated that about 227,000 Latino adults in the United States identify their religion as Jewish, according to a 2019 report released by the American Jewish Population Project.

About 40% of Boyle Heights’ population was Jewish through the 1920s and ’30s, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy. While more upwardly mobile Jews established themselves in Hollywood and the Westside before World War II, the Jewish community in Boyle Heights was made up of mostly working-class families from Eastern Europe. They were mainly secular and politically engaged in the Eastside.

Gonzales held the sukkah gathering outside a community space that hosts comedy nights and is the home of Boyle Heights History Tours. As part of these tours, Gonzales takes people on urban hikes and walks to explore the area’s Jewish history as well as some of the lost cemeteries of Los Angeles. The money made through that work helped pay for the Sukkot festivities, he said.  

Sukkot is “one of these ancient holidays that has been revived in so many different ways for us to find relevance with it,” Gonzales said.

He tied the holiday to the homeless crisis in Los Angeles that has left more than 36,000 in the city without a home. He recalled seeing homeless people under palm branches seeking relief from the heat. “These are homeless people that need shelter,” he said.

He also thought of the immigration crisis along the southern border and of the “refugees wandering through the desert in hopes of getting to the Promised Land here.”

Sukkot, Gonzales said, is “not just to celebrate how far we’ve come … but also to keep in mind all of those who are still on that journey looking for their shelter.” 

Gonzales also likened the sukkah to a Día de los Muertos altar, a sacred space where people honor their ancestors. 

“With a sukkah, it also becomes a mystical space in which we are able to connect with our ancestors,” he said.

This is the kind of multiculturalism that attracts Martín Olvera, who is Chicano with roots in Boyle Heights. Olvera’s father was born in Boyle Heights and learned woodcrafting from a Jewish man. His grandmother arrived in Boyle Heights as an immigrant from Mexico in 1910. His New Mexican mother also made L.A. her home.

Olvera, a musician who was raised Catholic, said he values the Jewish community for standing up for immigrant rights. 

Sunday was his first Sukkot, where he sang and played the violin.

“I thought it was really empowering,” said Olvera, 63.

Matthew Hom of Bend the Arc — a Jewish, nonprofit working for social justice — also attended Sukkot in Boyle Heights. He normally commemorates the holiday by going to services at his synagogue and having a meal in the sukkah, but this time it felt different.

Hom’s grandfather was raised in Boyle Heights, and celebrating Sukkot there was special “because it allowed me to connect to my family’s history here.” He said he’s inspired by the history of the community because of the “social justice work and solidarity between Jewish and Latinx residents.”

Hom, 32, said Sukkot is a way for Jews to remember their history of migration and insecurity.

“It’s precisely why we commemorate this narrative that we feel compelled to redouble our effort to secure immigrant justice today,” Hom said.

For Mosh, Sukkot in Boyle Heights was a learning experience. She’s not originally from L.A. and was unaware of the Jewish history of the community.

Although she grew up going to synagogue, Mosh said she is not particularly religious. She remembers going to Sunday school and decorating the sukkah and wanted her kids to experience the tradition. Mosh said she appreciated commemorating the holiday through a social justice perspective, considering the housing and immigration crisis.

“It felt refreshing and familiar,” she said. “That’s the Judaism I remember and was needing in my life.”

Shmuel Gonzales, a sixth generation member of our eastside community and founder of the Boyle Heights Chavurah; seen here leading kiddush in Hebrew for our guests.

Our foods over the Sukkot holidays focused on featuring the Sephardic-Mizrahi influenced foods of the Mexican Jewish tradition; coming from the Middle East, as many Mexican Jewish families come from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and is high influenced by spices and flavors from the Orient. During the season it is the traditions to have foods which are overflowing as a sign of abundance and as sweet as we wish the new year to be. And as we get towards Simchat Torah – we feature foods which are cylindrical and rolled, stuffed foods that reminds of the shape of the Torah scrolls.

Alejandra Molina

Alejandra Molina is a National Reporter covering Latinos and religion in the West Coast. She is based in Los Angeles. Previously, she was a reporter for the Southern California News Group where she covered cities, immigration, race and religion for newspapers like The Orange County Register, The Press-Enterprise in Riverside and The Los Angeles Daily News.

The First Displacement: The Indigenous People of Boyle Heights

Honoring the Indigenous People of Los Angeles

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 Kizh 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.

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.

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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.

– * –

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 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 that famous 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

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 generations already; 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 (z”l). 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.

Related Articles:

  • 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 B’nai B’rith 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 – who assigned 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.

Related Article:

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. Most people I know, even those who are normally in the know historically, they often miss this one. So I regularly find myself pointing 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!

Related Article:

Did you know it’s National Brotherhood Week?

The Yiddish reads:
אין חודש פעברואַר ווערט געפייערט ביי אונדז אין לאַנד די וואָך פון ברידערלעכקייט
In khudsh februar vert gefeyert bey aundz in land di vokh fun briderlekhkeyt.
Which in English means: “In February, we celebrate the week of brotherhood in our country.”
“Yungvarg”Magazine (1949) – This is a cartoon titled “Briderlekhkeyt (Brotherhood),” from the Yiddish youth magazine of the International Workers Order (IWO).
In this cartoon a child insists: “What’s the difference what nationality he is – HE CAN PITCH!”

Did you know it’s National Brotherhood Week? Actually, it should be the time for observance of national brotherhood week. It used to be recognized and celebrated as such… until it was discontinued a few decades ago in the 1980s. Though I am among those who contend that we need to bring it back!

In 1934 an organization known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews – which was an inter-faith and inter-cultural organization founded in 1927 to “bring diverse people together to address interfaith divisions” – they came up with the idea for Brotherhood Week.

The NCCJ was an organization founded back in 1927 in response the racial nationalism that was rising up in the country, and specifically to respond to the anti-Catholic religious bigotry which at that time had injected itself into the national politics when Catholic politician Al Smith was running for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.

In 1927, The New York Times reported on the founding of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, represented by community leaders from different faiths including US Supreme Court Chief Justices of the United States Charles Evans Hughes, a Catholic; and Associate Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, a Jew; as well as the “mother of social work” Jane Addams. Their members were committed to bringing diverse people together to address interfaith divisions, race relations, and social and economic barriers between people of different faiths, cultures, and ethnicities.

And for decades they organization would continue to partner Jews and Christians in both public policy and inter-community bridge building.

The rise of Brotherhood Week would be because of the work of three of their spokesmen known as “The Tolerance Trio” – Father John Elliot Ross, Protestant minister Dr. Everett Ross Clinchy, and Rabbi Morris Samuel Lazaron. In 1933 they traveled across the country to rally people together and calling on people everywhere to embrace intergroup understanding. They traveled over 9,000 miles on their mission of brotherhood, and visited with 129 audiences across the nation.

The spirit of all this caught wind of the administration of President Franklin Deleno Roosevelt.

The next year in 1934, the president made an official declaration for “National Brotherhood Week.” Which was to be celebrated towards the end of the month of February; in the 1930s it seems to have been the third week of the month, and by the 1940s it seems to have been celebrated in the fourth week of the month (February 19-28th).

brotherhoodweek

Brotherhood Week (February 19th to 28th, 1943) declaration, this year’s statement in the context of the conflict of World War II.

In declaration of this observance President Roosevelt was declared its first Honorary Chairman of National Brotherhood Week. And the NCCJ would continue to sponsor it for over four decades.

However, since the Ronald Regan administration, there has not been any declaration for Brotherhood Week. We have not been able to look to our leaders to set even one week aside to focus on promoting brotherhood in our country, not for the past three decades. And we are all the worse off for it.

Indeed much racial and religious intolerance has injected into politics in recent years. As nationalism and bigotry again raised their ugly heads. We need such a week of focusing on brotherhood and sisterhood in our communities.

I also believe that we desperately need to revive partnerships after the model of the National Conference of Christians and Jews once again.

The NCCJ did not entirely disappear. Though not long after Brotherhood Week came to an end they became re-branded as the National Conference for Community and Justice, in the early 1990s. Keeping the acronym but updating their branding and reconstituted their mission to doing community work “dedicated to fighting bias, bigotry and racism in America.

ANYTOWN USA Youth Camps

Though the NCCJ newly re-branded themselves in the 1990s, their work in communities had already been the bread and butter of the work of the NCCJ for decades.

For instance, what is often under-appreciated is the crucial work which the NCCJ did working with youth in Los Angeles.

In 1956 they created ANYTOWN USA, a diversity and human rights camp which brought youth together from various parts of the city. ANYTOWN was originally created by the NCCJ-Los Angeles chapter to help Los Angeles area schools address desegregation; becoming the experts in providing essential anti-bias training.

Though I am told by my friend Miguel Duran, a former veterano gang leader in Boyle Heights turned expert in gang intervention, that the NCCJ would also play an important role in addressing the “anti-social behavior” we know as gang violence. It would bring cholos from East Los Angeles, black gang members from South Central, and even ruffian white kids from Beverly Hills; all to focus overcoming social barriers and empowering youth leadership skills.

I was once told by Jack Serna, who worked closely with Duran in those years, that this all had a real impact in the world. That many of these kids came to camp from totally different life experiences, though by the end the “kids went home as friends…. and sometimes back in the streets a fight would be brewing and one of those kids would step forward and greet a friend from the trip and both gangs would stand down.”

ANYTOWN by all measures was a great success. So much so that it was eventually replicated first in Arizona, and then in over 64 cities and regions across the country.

According to Duran, ANYTOWN USA would have great successes through their diversity camps from the 1950s and early-1960s. Though their work would start to become thwarted and challenged by Los Angeles civic leaders who fearfully insisted that youth needed to be kept in their own communities after the explosions of the 1965 Watts Riots (meaning they wanted youth of color to stay in their own neighborhoods); and so they at that time turned against such programs based on new social theories which rejected the benefits of group interventions.

However, the program would continue to be modeled, and still exists in other cities across the country.

So what is the legacy of the NCCJ today?

In 2005 the NCCJ national organization was dissolved, however some of their regional offices continued to operate independently, under names which are more reflective of their regional identity.

However, several of the former NCCJ chapters are still connected through a loose national organization know as National Federation for Just Communities (NFJC).

In our region there are two NFJC member organizations: The California Conference for Equality and Justice in Long Beach, California, and Just Communities, CA Central Coast in Santa Barbara, California.

Topic for further exploration:

  • In 1967 Tom Lehrer of piano and satire song fame in the 1950s and 60s recorded a song called, “National Brotherhood Week.” A song which People Magazine called, “perhaps one of the most lacerating and hilariously trenchant pieces of musical satire ever… Lehrer’s deft skewering of the idea of a week established to promote unity in a country where the KKK was still lynching people was decades ahead of its time and earned him as many detractors as it did fans.” Tom Lehrer stopped performing in the US in the 1960s, and later became a popular teacher of musical theater and mathematics at UC Santa Cruz. He is also often credited as being the inventor of the Jell-O shot cocktail.

The Racial Politics of Americanizing the Barrio Diet (1920s)

Is what you eat political? Do you accept the claim that your food choices determine your social order in this world? And do you accept that conforming to white American norms in eating is important in transforming people of color into better citizens? Will assimilating ones food choices make people of color less prone to crime and revolutionary tendencies?

AmericanizationThroughHomeMakingPearlEllis

Believe it or not, this is something that has been explored and well discussed in our communities for over a century.

In the 1920s in Southern California there were social reformers who were sent on transform the eating choices made by the public, especially among the immigrant working-class.

One of the most notable reformers to arise in this era was a lady by the name of Pearl Idelia Ellis, of the Department of Americanization and Homemaking, of Covina City Elementary Schools. She was the author the guide “Americanization though Homemaking” which was published in 1929, detailing her work.

Ellis’ work was based in Southern California, which put her in contact with local Mexican American homemakers. Where she would set an agenda for transforming their food choices into ones which made them more like the Anglo Americans they were expected to model.

In 1915 the California state legislature had passed the Home Teacher Act, which would allow school districts to employ teachers “to work in the homes of the pupils, instructing children and adults in matters related to school attendance,… in sanitation, in English language, in household duties,… and in fundamental principles of the American system of government and the rights and duties of citizenship.” This legislation was largely born out of an Americanist panic which arose at that time, as nativists insisted that society demanded that these so-called uncultured immigrants be Americanized.

This legislation enabled reformers like Pearl Ellis to take her work directly into the homes of the people she was trying to effect, with the official authority of state and local government behind her. While the work of Ellis extended into modeling almost every form of homemaking, she took special attention to food. She spent much time and energy with special concern for the nutrition of families and trying to influence their food choices.

PearlEllisPrefaceShe would encourage certain food choices for Mexican American mothers: giving up tortillas, and replacing them with sandwiches on store-bought white bread, made with mayonnaise and “commercial spreads,” and minced meats. They were further encouraged to give up essential staples of their diets like beans, and replaced them with lettuce and mixed salads (example: boiled spinach with mayonnaise, mixed fruit with mayonnaise, cherry-topped banana with mayonnaise, and even “pineapple and avocado salad with mayonnaise to carry out the color scheme”.)

In this manner she instructed mothers in making what she determined to be affordable and suitable food choices. She even went as far as to provide menus for their school lunch choices: “One glass of milk; one cheese sandwich; one lettuce sandwich; one graham cracker sandwich; one apple or pear; one cooky [sic]”.

She would set for people a top-down approach in how to transform Mexican homes into Americanized homes, starting with their choice for a child’s lunch. And based on the assumption that the dietary issues of the community was not based on a lack of food, but rooted in their poor choices of foods.

Professor George Sanchez of USC sheds some light on this for us:

“Food and diet management became tools in a system of social control intended to construct a well-behaved citizenry. A healthy diet was seen not only as an essential for proper health but as fundamental for creating productive members of society. In the eyes of reformers, the typical noon lunch of the Mexican child, thought to consist of “a folded tortilla with no filling,” became the first step in a life of crime. With “no milk or fruit to whet the appetite,” the child would become lazy and subsequently “take food from the lunch boxes of more fortunate children” in order to appease his or her hunger. “Thus,” reformers alleged, “the initial step in a life of thieving is taken.” Teaching immigrant women proper food values would keep the head of the family out of jail, the rest of the family off the charity list, and save taxpayers a great amount of money.”

(Mothers and Motherhood: Readings In American History; “Go After the Women: Americanization and the Mexican Immigrant Woman, 1915-1929)

The ideas of Americanization would not just be taught to mothers, but it would carry over into the education of girls in the school system. As young Mexican American girls were taught these values in order to model them for the home. With the idea that gradually one could transform the tastes of the family into more Americanized ones; which was further reinforced by the school lunch system.

The very table and every meal plate thus became battlefields for cultural assimilation.

Though make no mistake about it, their proposed model American-style diet was even intended to do nothing less than help maintain social order itself.

In her work titled “Americanization though Homemaking,” published in 1929, Pearl Ellis contended:

“The old adage, ‘ As a man thinketh so is he,’ might be easily translated to, ‘As a man eatest, so is he,’ for his thinking is controlled to a greater extent. Than we are wont to realize by his eating and digestive processes… Employers maintain that the man with a home and family is more dependable and less revolutionary in his tendencies. Thus the influence of the home extends to labor problems and to many other problems in the social regime. The homekeeper creates the atmosphere, whether it be one of harmony and cooperation or of dissatisfaction and revolt. It is to be remembered that the dispositions, one angelic, become very much marred with incorrect diet and resultant digestive disturbances.”

Yeah… how about that take on dietary pseudo-science based in classism.

Now think about that, vato, next time you find yourself eating your bologna and mayo, on white bread, that somehow found its way into your face!

And seriously, I also hope people give this all some real good consideration before you even listen to some politicians suggest replacing a big part of our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with “Blue Apron” type meals sent down to us from a government-based central planning, developed by the current administration and rolled-out by private corporate contractors. Think of how bad it could go, if our food is directly chosen for us by them; with food being sent to us regardless of our specific dietary needs and cultural customs.

History tell us that people who lack cultural sensitivity take the reins, they do more damage than just make culturally inappropriate food choices. They also tend to want to change our diets as a form of maintaining the social order.

Topics of further discussion:

  • The social pressure to Americanize ones diet was also experienced by other immigrants as well, especially among the Jews in the “corn beef belt” of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles. The dietary choices of Ashkenazi Jews from the east were often considered too exotic and rich; they were expected to conform to a more Americanized diet. In some cases Jewish social service organizations even encouraged what they considered cheaper and more mainstream treif (non-kosher, religiously inappropriate) foods. When the Los Angeles Council of Jewish Women in 1928 published their “Helpful Hints for Jewish Housewives,” they included recipes for Virginia ham, pork chops, oysters and other non-kosher recipes as well as advertisements for Best Foods Mayonnaise, Maxwell House Coffee, and branded canned vegetables and other processed foods.

  • Lunchtime social pressure to assimilate. In Fred Okrand’s interview for the UCLA Center for Oral History Research, “Forty Years Defending the Constitution, Oral History Interview” Tape 1 side 2 – Feb. 4th, 1982, Okrand speaks of his classmates at Lorena Street School in Boyle Heights: “… The kids would make fun of me…because they would be eating sandwiches on white bread, on what we would call kvachehdikeh, soft white bread. But my mother was a Jewish woman; she would go to the varshehveh bakery on Brooklyn Avenue and get good Jewish rye bread. And I remember being ashamed somehow, that I was eating rye bread and the other kids weren’t….” He was shamed for eating cheaper and darker Jewish rye bread, instead of grocery store-bought white bread.

An Anti-Fascist Chanukah, Los Angeles (1940)

Hollywood and Boyle Heights celebrating Chanukah together

Shmuel Gonzales the Barrio Boychik, lighing the menorah in Hollywood

Shmuel Gonzales the Barrio Boychik, saying the Hebrew blessings and lighting the Chanukah lights in Hollywood with the hosts of “Two Jews Talking” Podcast.

This year I had the great pleasure of joining my dear friends Josh Heller and Erika Brooks Adickman of the fantastic Two Jews Talkingpodcast 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:

Two Jews Talking Logo

https://art19.com/shows/2-jews-talking/episodes/1937e0ea-1db7-4b97-a77b-2a9f8017a007/embed?theme=dark-blue

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.

Jewish Chanukah 8-Day Feast Begins. “The holidays are welcomed especially by the children, for Chanukah has become largely a children’s festival.”
From the Los Angeles Herald, December 16, 1919

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 AZAAleph 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.”

Chanukah parties were sponsored and held in theaters which showed motions pictures of “a religious and historic nature,” shown through the courtesy of Warner. Bros. Studios.
Bnei Brith Messenger, Dec 4. 1940 Chanukah

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.

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Ida Mayer Cummings (oldest sister of Louis B. Mayer of MGM) and actress Mary Pickford would fund-raise for charities together for over two decades. Photographs provided courtesy of the Alicia Mayer Collection.

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.

Ida + Mrs William Gibbs McAdoo daughter of Woodrow Wilson watermark

Ida Mayer Cummings with Eleanor Wilson McAdoo at the Jewish Home for the Aged in Boyle Heights in December 18th 1940. Picture courtesy of the Alicia Mayer Collection.

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.

NaziFlagDowntownLosAngelesBroadwayHeadquartersThere 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. 

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