by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As part of the Homestead’s “A Weekend of Holiday Merriment” held this past Saturday and Sunday, journalist Edmon Rodman participated yesterday by giving two presentations on the history of Hanukkah in Los Angeles, covering the period from the late 1890s to the 1920s.
Edmon, who gave a very interesting talk last year on Walter P. Temple’s memorial to World War I soldier Joseph Kauffman, who was killed on the battlefield in France at the end of the conflict, talked about Hanukkah, more commonly spelled as Chanukah, was a somber reflection by Jews on the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem after the 2nd Century B.C. revolt by Judas Maccabeus against the Seleucid emperor Antiochus.
It was said that, at the temple ceremony, there was only a day’s supply of lamp oil, but a miracle occurred in which the amount actually stretched out over eight days. This led to the creation of what is often called the “Festival of Lights” in which the menorah of eight candles symbolizes the miracle with a candle lit each day during Hanukkah.
Edmon’s discussion brought an emphasis on several key points. One is that Jewish rabbis and other community figures in Los Angeles brought changes to Hanukkah in response to the growing commercial and celebratory aspect of Christmas, which decades before in the Mexican era, was a religious feast day. Another is that the emphasis on gift giving, performances of plays and music, tilting elements of the holiday towards children, and others evolved over a few decades. His talk demonstrated that the modern conception of Hanukkah was fundamentally established by the end of the 1920s.
There was another notable element to the way the holiday was discussed in the media to gentiles, specifically that the revolt of Judah Maccabeus and others was a quest for religious and personal freedom (Antiochus was seeking to “Hellenize” the Jews, essentially turning them into pagans in the Syrian-Greek mold.) For local Jewish religious leaders, putting this in an American context, especially during a time of great demographic and social change in the United States, was crucial, but there was also the growing Zionist movement in Palestine that was part of the picture.
At the same time, commercialization definitely kicked in, much as it had been with Christmas for several decades, and one striking example Edmon cited was through advertisements in the Jewish weekly newspaper B’nai B’rith Messenger, which had the largest circulation of a Jewish paper in Los Angeles.
Asher Hamburger, whose department store was very popular (a recent post here discussed the still-extant building in downtown that the store occupied before it became May Company), was, to Edmon’s knowledge, the first person to promote gift giving for Hanukkah in advertising, starting in the early 1920s. Another ad, from a local tailor, encouraged men to buy a new suit for the holiday.
Edmon pointed out that there were performances of music and theater, including the “Chanukah Gifts” by Shalom Aleichem, born Shalom Rabinovitz and who was best known for his Yiddish writings, including fictional letters, confessions and monologues, in addition to novels and plays. Additionally, women played a bigger role in celebrations of the holiday than before, when men oversaw the lighting of the menorah and other elements. The celebration of Hanukkah, a term occasionally used in the period, but which became more standardized after World War II, certainly changed a great deal in the roughly thirty years covered by Edmon’s excellent talk.
The Homestead has several issues of B’nai B’rith Messenger in its collection and there are some references to the holiday. For example, in the 9 December 1927 issue, which contained a lengthy editorial about negative portrayals of Jews in film titan Cecil B. DeMille’s recently released epic King of Kings, there was an article about a “Unique Chanukah Program” at the Ritz Theater, located at Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea Avenue.
The program was developed by Rabbi Maxwell Dubin for the B’nai B’rith Religious School and it was reported that it “will be unusual in character and highly interesting in its nature, even though it departs somewhat from the cut-and-dried ‘Judas Maccabeus’ Chanukah subject.” This included, besides the lighting of the menorah, “some Mother Goose presentations of an original character” and music by the Temple Orchestra.
The following year, the 21 December 1928 edition of the paper had a few references to Chanukah, including an interesting account of a visit by writer Isaac Sapher’s visit to a New York celebration by the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Association of America. Some 200 immigrants, transients, homeless persons and the unemployed were given food and shelter for the holiday. Prayers and recitations were followed by a feast and it was observed, “Now what is Chanukah without a restive meal and particularly without the latkes (pancakes)?”
There was also an account of “a diversified program to commemorate the festival of Chanukah” at the Beth Israel Hebrew School in the Temple-Beaudry area of Los Angeles. “Chanukah Gifts” was performed in Yiddish and there was an English-language presentation called “A Chanukah Vision.” Another celebration at the Sinai Social Hall in what is the Pico-Union district of the city, included a “moving picture,” a tableaux called “Hannah and Her Sons,” and a comedy called “The Chanukah Party.” The singing of Hebrew songs, addresses by Rabbi Mayer Winkler, and entertainment for children comprised other parts of the program.
Notably, neither issue of the B’nai B’rith Messenger had advertising specifically identifying Hanukkah, though there were those promoting general gift purchases and those for Christmas. It may be that the former were intended to refer to the Jewish holiday, but the presence of so many of the latter reinforces Edmon’s point that the gradual change to the celebration of Chanukkah/Hanukkah was in response to the growing commercialization of Christmas.
Finally, the 1928 issue had a short, but striking, article on “Jews and Christians in Unified Holiday Service.” That day, the 21st, Rabbi Herman Lissner of Temple Emanu-El on Wilshire Boulevard just west of Western Avenue, was to join with Dr. John Snape of Temple Baptist Church, which had its home in the Philharmonic Auditorium off the north side of Pershing Square. It was stated that
Behind this mutual gesture of friendliness lies the most modern spirit of cooperation and tolerance. The exchange of greetings means much more than one sect sending good wishes to the other. It marks the abridgement of an age-old gulf and the abrogation of equally old prejudices and inhibitions.
After greetings between the two religious leaders, Rabbi Lissner was to speak on “If I Were a Christian” and his counterpart was to respond with “If I Were a Jew.”
Nine decades later, this “unified holiday service” is something to ponder as we move into the holiday season of 2017.