Take It On Faith: The Celebration of Hanukkah in “B’nai B’rith Messenger,” Los Angeles, 27 December 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While this year’s Hanukkah season is rather early, having begun last Sunday and ends Monday, that of 1929 (the year 5690 among Jews), much as next year will be, came at the end of December, beginning the 26th, and concluded on 2 January 1930. Not mentioned in the Bible, the history on which the holiday is based comes from the two books of Maccabees from the Arocrypha.

Having just read the complete works of Josephus including the tragic destruction of the Jewish Temple by Titus in 70 A.D., this is particularly interesting, as the desecration of the temple, renamed for the Greek god Zeus, in 168 B.C. by the Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the monarch of the Hellenistic Syrian Seleucid empire, also included a command that Judaism be made illegal in favor of worship of the Greek gods and that Jews either converted or executed.

The Hasmonean family otherwise known as Maccabees led by Mattathias fomented a rebellion, with his son Judah Maccabee at the head of a military force that shockingly defeated the Seleucid forces. The courage and prowess of Jewish resistance is a core element of the Hanukkah celebration, as is the fight against intolerance against Judaism, the attempted eradication of the identity of the Jews in favor of a forced assimilation into Greek society, and the battle for Jewish political self-rule and autonomy.

The word Hanukkah refers to the dedication of the repurified temple with the paramount concern being keeping the flame of Judaism and the Jewish society and culture alive and passed from one generation to the next. The eight day celebration was to mirror the Sukkot observance, also of that length, and the story that the Macabee reclamation of the temple included the lighting of a jar of oil that was supposed to only have enough fuel for single day, but had enough for eight later appeared in the Talmud.

The lighting of the menorah (hanukiyyah) symbolizes the miracle of the eight-day burning of the oil jar, but the giving of gifts during the holiday is a recent introduction so that, by the 1920s, it became a central feature as Hanukkah, frequently referred to as Chanukah, long one of the lesser of the Jewish festivals, rose to become as popularly observed as Passover and Purim.

In the United States, this was a reflection of Jews adapting to life in a country in which there was a near- universal observance of Christmas (which was a minor holiday, as well, until about the mid-19th century). A Reform Jewish website notes that the holiday “is a means for North American Jews to feel a kinship with their neighbors, while simultaneously asserting their Jewish distinctiveness.”

Today’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s holdings is the 27 December 1929 edition of B’nai B’rith Messenger, the weekly Jewish newspaper formed in 1897 and which combined with the California Jewish Review the past June, and the emphasis is on coverage of the observance of Hanukkah, though there is much other material of interest concerning local, national and international news and features.

For example, Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin of the B’nai B’rith, or Wilshire Boulevard, Temple and a major spiritual leader in the Angel City for decades, wrote on “Religion and Race” in his “Getting Acquainted With Judaism” column and made the observation that there were Hebrews before the Baylonian Exile, but not Jews. In 586 B.C., the temple at Jerusalem “was reduced to fragments and dust. But the people lived. In fact they were reborn. Judaism broke forth out of the womb of time to continue to this day, perhaps to continue until the world shall be consumed like a garment and be extinguished like a flame.”

A feature titled “Holiday Spirit In All The Local Synagogues” has the subheading “Chanukah Brings Out All Local Talent in Plays and Programs.” The piece went on to note that the holiday “promises to be a season of rejoicing and festivities in many homes, in some instututions and in the synagogues and temples.” Moreover, an emphasis was on plays “for what Chanukah is complete without a display of the dramatic talent of our Jewish boys and girls.”

At the school of the conservative Sinai Temple, an evening program on the 30th was to include “a very elaborate and unique program, the feature of which will be a play in Hebrew given by the children of the Hebrew school, and a playlet in English by the confirmation class.” Rabbi Mayer Winkler was to speak “and there will be various tableaux, ercitations and songs in Hebrew and English” as well as prizes of honor to a pair of students.

The reform Temple Emanuel-El was to host “a very beautiful Chanukah service” on the 27th, including a lecture by Rabbi Ernest Trattner to the Sunday School and music. The Sunday School was to perform a playlet in Hebrew and English with more music provided as well. At the Jewish Institute, the Sunday School put on a program about “Chanukah in many lands,” while high schoolers offered a play, “By the Lights of Chanukah.”

The conservative Congregation Beth Israel had its celebration on the 30th with the play “Chanukah Thoughts” given in Hebrew, while Rabbi I. David Essrig’s talk was on Chanukah and Jewish education. The Rodef Sholom, also from the conservative tradition, offered, on the 29th, a banquet by its sisterhood, while a play called “Mattathias and Antiochus” was to be given on the 2nd, the final day of the holiday, by the girls in the Hebrew school’s advanced class.

While the above were Westside institutions, the Talmud Torah Teferess (Tifereth) Jacob Synagogue, also a conservative congregation, was in South Los Angeles and it was to “present a three-act play in Jewish” while “the choir will sing traditional songs and the children will recite in Jewish and Hebrew.”

The Orthodox B’nai Jacob Shul, also known as the Fairmount Street Shul, and situated in Boyle Heights, where the largest concentration of Jews was during the first decades of the 20th century, was holding a dinner on the 29th and “a feature of this baet will be the burning of the mortgage.” The nearby Wabash City Terrace Talmud Torah was giving a play at the shul and its school principal gave an address, as well.

At the Orthodox Breed Street Synagogue Hebrew School, of the Congregation Talmud Torah and also in Boyle Heights, an annual Hanukkah concert comprsed “an elaborate program . . . [of] Recitatons, Declamations, in Hebrew, English, and Yiddish, narrations, etc.” by a pair of teachers and the congregation’s cantor, while the rabbi, S.M. Neches “will deliver an address on Chanukah.” The site is now the Breed Street Shul Project, a community center that builds on its history to serve present-day Boyle Heights.

Out in Venice, the Orthodox Congregation Mischan [Mishkon] Tephilo, children in the Sunday School were presnting, on the 29th, a play titled “One Chanukah Day” while the Ladies’ Auxiliary would follow with refreshments. With regard to ladies’ auxiliary units in other institutions that of The Mount Sinai Home for the Incurables, a precursor to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, was to host an “unusual Chanukah Festival, tendered by the patients,” including gifts of appreciation from them. The West Side auxiliary, on the 28th, “will hold a Chanukah Concert and Package Party” including dancing by a Russian Imperial Ballet School alum. The Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Congregation Kneseth Israel, west of Exposition Park, discussed, at its regular meeting “plans for a Chanukah concert program with surprise bags for the kiddies” on the 30th.

A Calendar of Events from the Los Angeles Conference of Jewish Women included that day’s B’nai B’rith Sisterhood Hanukkah party at 2 p.m. in the Temple House Auditorium at the Wilshire Boulevard temple. On the 29th, were to be a day nursery holiday play and a Hanukkah dinner for the Beth-El Sisterhood in Hollywood, while the following day was to be a holiday party by the Bas Ami Hadassah, part of the rapidly growing Women’s Zionist Organization of America, launched in 1912 to provide better health care for Jews in Palestine.

A separate short article reported that the Boyle Heights Hadassah noted that “among the outstanding events . . . will be a Chanukah Latke party” at a member’s Boyle Heights house. The chapter president was to give an address, while “a novel feature of the program will be a surprise number of an educational and instructive nature.”

There is another interesting holiday reference as the Messenger noted that “A Chanukah present to the Jews of Los Angeles comes from J.J Franklin of the Fox-West Coast Theatres in the form of the first presentation on the coast of ‘The Eternal Prayer,’ or ‘Ad Musae’ as it is titled.” The 36-minute Metropolitan Studios production was released on 25 October and the paper continued that “this is the first all-Jewish talking and singing picture” and its story about recent massacres of Jews in Palestine was, Franklin said, such that “as appeal for every Jew in this city, eform or Orthodox.

The picture was to be shown on the 29th at the Fox Brooklyn Theatre on the street of that name, now César E. Chávez Avenue, in Boyle Heights, and the paper added that “the house has just been equipped with Western Electric sound devices” and that “besides this picture, the theatre will present its regular attractions, with no advance in price.”

A brief editorial statement about the holiday observed,

The Feast of Lights, known in Hebrew as Chanukah . . . is characterized by its beautiful ceremonial of lighting candles in the home and in the Synagogue, the number of candles being increased by one each consecutive evening. It has its historic experience of the Jewish, embracing memories and achievements so unique that it is ardently cherished and commemorated by Jews of every rank and affiliation, of every sentiment and cultural aspiration.

A cartoon by Meyer Kaufman, a 21-year old who became a listed painter while also continuing his work as a cartoonist, is a very timely connection of the origins of Hanukkah to modern life. Kaufman drew a scene of Soviet officials and a “Program For Abolishment Of Religion” with three of the five men proclaiming “Away With The Jewish Religion!” “No Talmud!” and “Convert the Synagogues To Workmen Clubs.” Looming over them is Judas Maccabeus, displaying a sword and shield, and who rejoins, “Remember Antiochus Tried The Same Thing—Another Maccabeus Will Surely Rise!”

Finally, there is a poem by Philip M. Raskin (1880-1944,) a prominent literary figure who’d studied in his native Russia and and in Switzerland and England. While working as a public health official in Leeds, England, he published, in 1914, his first collection of verse. After he migrated to the United States, he continued to issue works in Hebrew, Yiddish and English and, in 1927, edited and wrote the introduction to the Anthology of Modern Jewish Poetry.

The Messenger published Raskin’s “On The Feast of Lights,” which is a deceptively simple and powerful poem:

Flicker, candle, flicker,

Spin your threads of gold,

While the mist grows thicker,

And the earth is cold.

Wintry winds and showers

Leave my sky unstarred,

Blinded all my towers,

All my highways—barred.

Cleave the clouds asunder

With your wonder-light,

Thousand years I wander

And no dawn in sight.

Every stone—a grave-stone

Every tree—a ghost;

Every sigh—a slaves’ groan

In a desert lost.

Dimmer, ever dimmer

Earth and heaven seem;

Once a year you glimmer,

Lighting up a dream.

While the mist grows thicker

And the dawn is far,

Flicker, candle, flicker,

Be my guiding star.

Raskin wrote at least one other Hanukkah poem, “Hanukkah Lights,” which is available online.

As this year’s Hanukkah celebration soon comes to an end, it is interesting and instructive to see how the holiday was celebrated over nine decades before, including the showing of The Eternal Prayer, Kaufman’s evocative cartoon, and Raskin’s beautiful poem. Look for future posts on this blog from the pages of the B’nai B’rith Messenger from the late 1920s, including content dealing with religion, politics and local, national and international Jewish news.

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