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.

Sukkot: Tasting the Joy of the Season

Tasting the diversity of the Jewish journey

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

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

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

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

A Sukkah party at Beth Shalom of Whittier

A Sukkah party at Beth Shalom of Whittier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sephardic Sukkot Dishes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chiles de Picadillo en Crema de Tehina

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

You can download my recipe from, right here!

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

DriedandCandiedFruit.jpg

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

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

I have the perfect idea: Ponche.

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

Mexican Ponche

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now what makes for a good ponche?

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

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

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

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

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

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