Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel: Celebrity Gangster of the West Coast Murdered

“Class is the only thing that counts in life … Without class and style a man’s a bum, he might as well be dead.” – Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel

On the evening of June 20, 1947, notorious Jewish American gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was shot and killed in Beverly Hills, California. The next day the news would make all the major world newspapers which had made him so famous.

Benjamin Siegel was born on February 28, 1906 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. He was the second of five children of Max and Jenny Siegel, both of them Jewish immigrants from Letychiv, Podolia, in Poland. They later moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which was a hotbed of crime. It didn’t take long before their son discovered he had a taste for life on the street.

In communities like this filled with many poor, immigrant, ethnic minorities of many nationalities, for self protection just about every ethnic group had their own gangs, first created for self-protection against racial attacks and also police abuse. Eventually the successful gangs would create protection rackets, shaking down local shops and businesses to pay them to avoid any “unfortunate accidents.”

Consider this, at the turn of the 20th century there are these groups of immigrants being discriminated against, abused and taken advantage upon arrival in the United States – Italian, Eastern European Jewish, Irish, Polish, and many others. Their families had come to America being drawn by stories of the streets being paved with gold, and justice and equality. But when they got here they found poverty, harsh working conditions, prejudice, and the trials of often being relegated to older and rougher neighborhoods. And this made them as mad as hell. And some intended to get their share of the all-American pie, by any means necessary.

This reality bred full on mobsters in these low-income and working-class communities, wiseguys who first considered themselves businessmen to be respected and not to be messed with. And if they screwed the system over, no matter; it was just them taking back what they felt they actually deserved from the system.

Also for many working-class minorities that often felt weak and unable to fight back against abuse, to many these guys had the allure of being the tough guys and therefore commanded a certain level of respect, as they walked by in their flashy tailor made suits. This all providing an allure to this life of crime for many young men whose families were struggling as underpaid laborers.

Benjamin’s life of crime began early, when he dropped out of school and, at age 14, joined up with a gang on Lafayette Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Early friends and accomplices included Moe Sedway, with whom Siegel started a protection racket, extorting pushcart peddlers for a regular payoff and burning their carts if they didn’t pay up; and also Meyer Lansky, who remained his partner in crime until the end of Siegel’s life.

Siegel’s violent temper and dramatic mood swings caused friends to remark that he was “crazy as a bedbug.” Hence “Bugsy,” a nickname he actually despised. Siegel had befriended fellow Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky when he was a teenager. Together they formed “The Bugs and Meyer Mob,” a violent Jewish gang on the Lower East Side that specialized in extortion; and hijacking trucks of bootleg liquor from other mobsters during prohibition, one of the mob’s biggest forms of income and which came with fierce competitions.

This outfit eventually morphed into the mob’s group of killers-for-hire that became known as “Murder. Inc.

In time, the Bugs and Meyer Mob had been absorbed by “the Syndicate,” a loose coalition of organized-crime families that coalesced in the early 1930s. At the insistence of mobsters such a Ben Siegel and Meyer Lanksy, the Syndicate had a branch devoted specifically to enforcement, which the press dubbed Murder Incorporated. Siegel himself is estimated to have been directly responsible for some 30 assassinations of other crime figures.

Siegel was known as one of the most infamous and feared gangsters of his day. Described as handsome and charismatic, he became one of the first front-page celebrity gangsters. Siegel was not only influential within the Jewish mob but, like his friend and fellow gangster Meyer Lansky, he also held significant influence within the Italian-American Mafia and the largely Italian-Jewish National Crime Syndicate.

Now Siegel was a rather good-looking man. Though it needs to be noted that he put a lot of thought into his appearance. Buying the finest tailored Italian suits and silk shirts. He was even a bit vain, applying face creams each night and sleeping with a chinstrap to keep his skin taut.

Class,” Siegel insisted, “is the only thing that counts in life … Without class and style a man’s a bum, he might as well be dead.”

In 1936, Siegel headed for Los Angeles, after rivals put out a contract on his life, but also because he had the opportunity to take over the gambling rackets on the West Coast. He began socializing with movie stars, but – sociopath that he was – Siegel also borrowed money from his new friends, with no intention of returning it. He reasoned that celebrities would lack the nerve to publicly pursue the money. During his first year in LA, he is said to have taken in some $400,000 in loans this way.

He also was influential in the creation of the Las Vegas Strip. In the mid-1940s, Siegel loaned money to nightclub owner William Wilkerson, who was building the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, which Siegel was to supply with gambling services. When Wilkerson went over budget, Siegel forced him to turn the entire project over to him. When it opened, on March 1, 1947, the Flamingo was the most expensive and luxurious in Las Vegas – but also seriously over budget; it had cost $6-million to complete, which today is equivalent to $60-million.

Also, he was supposed to be reporting business from the western states, and paying the mob back for their investment in his Las Vegas casino too. Though he was suspected to have been skimming money off the books during the construction of the casino, which put him in their sights. Though he eventually got brazen and announced to his mob colleagues that he was running the California syndicate all by himself and that he would return loans in his “own good time”. Despite his defiance to the mob bosses they were patient with Siegel because he had always proven to be a valuable man.

He did turn around the business in Las Vegas eventually, with the support of Meyer Lansky himself. However, it appears that by the time profits began improving the mob bosses above Siegel were tired of waiting.

And so he was shot dead while sitting on the couch in the home of his girlfriend in Beverly Hills.

The day after Siegel’s death, the Los Angeles Herald-Express carried a photograph on its front page from the morgue of Siegel’s bare right foot with a toe tag. Although Siegel’s murder occurred in Beverly Hills, his death thrust Las Vegas into the national spotlight as photographs of his lifeless body were published in newspapers throughout the country.

He was laid to rest in Los Angeles, at the famed Hollywood Forever Cemetery; in the Beth Olam Mausoleum, in the Jewish section.

It should be noted that on account of his burial and that of other gangsters at this cemetery located behind Paramount Studios, many Jewish Hollywood studio families who had already purchased plots at this cemetery years before, they later refused to be buried next to this gangster which they considered too low brow and which they didn’t want to associate with even in death; so most Hollywood studio families and celebrities chose to be laid to rest at Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles.

In the Bialystoker Synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side, Siegel is memorialized by a Yahrtzeit (remembrance) plaque that marks his death date so mourners can say Kaddish for the anniversary. Siegel’s plaque is below that of Max Siegel, his father, who died just two months before his son.

On the plaque is revealed his actual Hebrew name; Berush bar Mordechi David ha-Levi. Though not one you would expect to call up for the second reading from the Torah scroll, as is the custom during Torah Services to call up a Cohen and then a Levite in honor of their religious heritage before the rest of the congregation of Israel; he was a bad Jew, but in his own way he was still a Jew at times.

As the story is told, he was handsome and well know enough that he had several relationships with actresses, including socialite Dorothy DiFrasso, the wife of an Italian count. The alliance with the countess took Siegel to Italy in 1938, where he met Benito Mussolini, to whom Siegel tried to sell weapons. He also met Nazi leaders Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels, to whom he took an instant dislike and later offered to kill them. He relented because of the countess’ anxious pleas. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall of that room!

On the Hebrew calendar his Yahrzeit falls on Gimmel Tammuz – the 3rd day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz.


Now, a personal story from the Barrio Boychik. Did you know that from toddler-age until around 8 years of age my family and neighborhood nickname was “Bugsy,” after this badass. There are even old pictures out there with this nickname on my birthday cake and all. They thought I was more trouble than a gang of vatos locos, so they gave me a nickname of an even scarier Jewish gangster. It was a not so inside joke, from my rambunctious childhood. True story!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The text of the actual legal initiative is as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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:

National Tamale Day

March 23rd is National Tamale Day – At one times the tamal – and its closely related north of the border variation known officially as the tamale – was a treat as all-American as the hot dog and hamburger, and could be found on street corners across the entire country by the end of the 19th century.

This is “The Tamale” in East Los Angeles, which opened in 1928. It is shaped in the popular shape of tamales at the time.

TheTamaleEastLosAngeles
EAST LOS ANGELES- “The Tamale” was built in 1928. It’s an example of programmatic architecture – where buildings are made to attract customers, often looking like what they sell inside. This building is no longer a restaurant. It has changed hands many times, and has been used as a hair salon and even a dental office. It was recently up for sale. Sadly, it is not land-marked for preservation and there are limited protections because of its location outside of the City of Los Angeles, located in unincorporated Los Angeles County.

The shape and wrapping of this tamale was a result of the process becoming automated by the California Chicken Tamale Co. in 1892; giving rise to the San Francisco style tamale. The automation of tamale making would also give an interesting uniform shape to our local XLNT brand tamales, founded in 1894, which had a plant located off of Washington Blvd. in Los Angeles.

This machine-made process not just made them easier to make, it also made it possible to produce and sell across the country.

In 1892 the founder of California Chicken Tamale Co. would take his product first to Chicago, where it would be met with great success. And eventually make their world debut during the 1893 World Columbian Fair in Chicago, and would proliferate as a craze across the country.

And in Chicago a new tamale recipe would also be popularized and take the market by storm, the corn meal style tamale filled with chili con carne; which seems to be inspired by Southern and Mississippi Delta related ingredients and flavors African-Americans brought with them as they migrated. And maybe even influenced by similar dishes and recipes from the delta region. These style tamales would also be popularized by African-Americans, and sold in mass on corners across the country. [See: “The unique Chicago tamale, a tuneful mystery.”]

Now back in Los Angeles tamale carts managed by street vendors had existed as far back as anyone can remember, the presence of tamales here stretching back to the Spanish-Mexican settlement of the area. And by the start of the 1890s in the American-era, even before they had become well-known elsewhere, tamale carts had already begun to take their place at the old Placita.

As Los Angeles Times once recounted the story:

“They dominated downtown by the 1890s, specifically from the old plaza near what is today Olvera Street southwest toward 6th Street, between Temple and Main, blocks that attracted itinerant men, new residents and laborers looking to waste their week’s earnings in the many saloons. As dusk fell, an army of 2-by-4 pushcarts and wagons wheeled their way through this Tamale Row, setting up shop until last call and beyond.”

These tamale carts were essential to laborers, residents, migrants… and even the frequenters of saloon nightlife, they depended upon them. In time they even came to service the local working-class anarchists and socialists who held meetings close by. This certainly made them a target by local business owners and politicians. And eventually tamale carts were banned from the Placita in 1924.


XLNT Tamale Cart – One of the original tamale carts of Los Angeles. Founded in 1894, they have been using the same recipe since 1906.

Then just a few years later in 1928, in a wide and open stretch of what is today known as Whittier Blvd., in the unincorporated territory of East Los Angeles, this tamale structure in the tradition of programmatic architecture arose. Offering a diner-like experience in which to enjoy tamales.

Now notice the items that they are serving here in the tamale cafe.

They are serving tamales; as well as chile con carne. Most likely both of them were provided by XLNT, one of original tamale carts which started a successful tamale empire in Los Angeles; making the tamales and the brick chile base. In the style of the time, the tamales were often served unwrapped and with chile con carne spooned over the top as a sauce. This “hot tamale” style is still a popular favorite with some old school Angelenos to this day.

This building is an interesting look at a fascinating period in Los Angeles history, indeed American history. I hope that one day The Tamale is historically land-marked and preserved!


HOW ABOUT THAT:

In Los Angeles street vending has had a big influence on our local food fare. Many immigrants made ends meet by food vending, not just Mexicans; but Shiks, Pakistanis, and African-Americans as well. And by the end of the 19th century tamales were already one of the hottest selling items across the country.

In the classic film “War of the Worlds” in 1953, one of the most important scenes is when the townsfolk notice the smoking crater which is concealing the space ship. Crowds of residents, journalist and officials all come out to see the spectacle. And with all these people waiting around the local entrepreneurs talk about making it into a tourist attraction. One of the characters, a Mexican man with an accent, suggest they can sell to the visitors: “…tamales, enchiladas and hot dogs.”

Now what can be more American than that, and also more Southern Californian?

Oh and by the way, the actor who played the Mexican pulled off the part, he had the look and accent down, almost like he had come from the barrio himself. The part was actually played by a Canadian-born Jewish actor named Jack Kruschen.

Related articles:

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 that we are about to come out of 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.