On December 10, hundreds of thousands of Angelenos will light the first candle on the menorah, marking the opening night of Hanukkah. Over the past century, the celebration has evolved, but its meaning remains the same.
According to the history The Jews of Los Angeles: Urban Pioneers, the first Jewish settlers arrived in the tiny, Wild West pueblo of Los Angeles in the late 1840s. In 1851 (the year after California became an American state), census workers recorded eight Jewish citizens in Los Angeles, a town of roughly 1,600 souls. “All of them were bachelors who lived in their stores on the ground floor of the city’s lead commercial building, a two-story structure located at the southeast corner of Aliso and Los Angeles Streets,” writes historian William M. Kramer.
The men were not single for long, and soon the Jewish population rose to around 60, including women and children. This increase in population presented pressing issues. There were charitable needs and religious services to be organized, and there was also the need for a burial ground that was not Catholic or Protestant.
In 1854, the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles formed, making it the first charitable organization in the City of Angels (now Jewish Family Service L.A.). Not only did it establish the first Jewish Cemetery on Chavez Ravine (moved to the current Home of Peace in Boyle Heights), it also helped Angelenos of all religions and creeds.
“Even in the 1850s, the early L.A. Jewish pioneers, though few in number, were able to find each other, establish joint businesses, and on the High Holy Days come together for services,” says journalist and historian Edmon Rodman, author of the monthly Jewish newsletter MegilLA. “Jews were largely accepted. The Los Angeles Star, a newspaper from the period, ran articles about their communal activities, and recorded their business dealings. As merchants, they were trusted.”
It is thought that Rosh Hashanah of 1851 was the first Jewish holiday celebrated in Los Angeles. We do not know when the first Hanukkah was celebrated, since it was considered a minor holiday, usually observed within the home by devout members of the faith.
The earliest public Jewish religious leader of prominence in Los Angeles was Rabbi Abraham Wolf Edelman. Originally from Poland, Edelman and his wife, Hannah, came to Los Angeles in 1862 to organize the new B’nai B’rith, L.A.’s first Jewish congregation (now the famous Wilshire Boulevard Temple). According to the Los Angeles Herald:
“In early times he was the only rabbi in this part of the country, and owing to his genial and charitable nature he officiated at nearly all the old-time weddings and at various other functions to which he was called. He was a great friend of the Catholic priests, who practically reigned supreme in the early days. He was a close adherent to the orthodox Jewish faith and yet was always very liberal in his ideas and was always friendly with all other religious denominations.”
Edelman held services in a building at Los Angeles and Arcadia Streets until 1873, when their first synagogue opened at Temple and Broadway in downtown L.A.. After retiring from B’nai B’rith after 25 years of service, Edelman became a leader in both religious and secular L.A. In 1901, he published a piece in the Los Angeles Times, explaining the importance of Hanukkah and its meaning to readers:
“The miracle of Chanukah has many times been repeated in later days. There has always been found in our midst an untainted flask of oil, bearing the seal of truth. One spark of true Jewish faith has sufficed to keep up the sacred fire of many centuries, yes, a single Jewish truth, stamped with the divine seal, has often nourished the minds and the hearts of generations. Let us then kindle the Chanukah Lights as symbols of everlasting truth, and aided by their brilliancy, let us go forth to illumine the dark spots of earth, to scatter the mists that still envelop the minds of men, to disperse the prejudice that still beclouds the hearts of the people.”
It was during the Victorian era that Hanukkah started gaining popularity as a quaint family holiday to compete with the growing American Christian emphasis on Christmas. As Emma Green notes in The Atlantic, Hanukkah was not a high holiday and had until this time been limited only to relatively religious households. But Jewish leaders in America increasingly saw its promotion as a way to counteract assimilation fears and boost the interest of American Jewish children in their faith.
Los Angeles faith leaders followed suit. “The B’nai B’rith Messenger [L.A.’s Jewish Newspaper] took an early role in the struggle against Jewish assimilation,” historian Rodman says. “An editorial in December 1910, asked readers not to send Christmas cards to Jewish orphans but instead ‘write a few lines alluding to the Feast of the Maccabees,’ and how the holiday radiated ‘the highest ideals.’”
In 1906, the Los Angeles Times took note of Hanukkah’s increasing importance to its growing Jewish population:
“With the large influx into Los Angeles of the Jewish population during the past two years, much more attention is paid to the Hebrew feasts than formerly, and in many households during the past eight days there has been lit the symbolical tapers, beginning with one the first night of the feast and increasing one each night until the whole eight were ablaze.”
Two years later, a large Hanukkah celebration was held at Gamut Hall by Congregation Beth Israel. The program included music, inspirational readings, and speeches by Jewish leaders, including developer George N. Black, who made sure to highlight the Jewish people’s patriotic spirit. He said they “were to be found fighting in the army of any country where they might happen to be located. He asked that they all become better citizens and stand for all that is worthy in American citizenship,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
During the 1920s, as the population of Los Angeles rapidly expanded, the Jewish population likewise tripled from 28,000 in 1920 to 91,000 in 1930. The Roaring Twenties brought a new commercialization to the Christmas season, and Jewish elders responded accordingly. “In the 1920s, Jewish women’s organizations saw the challenges that the commercialization of Christmas presented to their families, and began to educate their members about what the lights of Chanukah had to offer, emphasizing how the holiday could be celebrated in the home with family menorah lightings,” Rodman says.
An emphasis on receiving gifts during Hanukkah was encouraged by local stores, which began to target Hanukkah shoppers specifically. “A local Jewish-owned department store, Hamburger’s, which had previously only run Christmas ads, began to place ads for Chanukah gifts,” Rodman says.
L.A.’s Jewish leaders also utilized new mediums to spread the message of Hanukkah to all Angelenos. “Rabbi Mayer Winkler of Sinai Temple, in 1926, went on KHJ radio to give a radio address that identified the challenge of Chanukah that is still with us today,” Rodman explains. “‘The story of the Maccabees contains a great truth applicable in every age,’ he said in an address that echoes to our time. ‘The freedom of conscience and of religion should be safeguarded by modern man.'”
There were also increasingly elaborate Hanukkah pageants, plays and musical performances and celebrations. According to Paul Spitzzeri of the amazing Homestead Museum in City of Industry, in 1928, B’nai B’rith Messenger noted numerous events taking place:
“There was… 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.
The Hanukkah season and the meaning behind it became increasingly poignant during the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II. According to historian Alicia Mayer (the great-niece of MGM boss Louis B. Mayer) on her blog “The Film Colony,” in 1940, Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah fell on the same day.
To celebrate, on December 18 a “historic Chanukah fete” and fundraiser was held at the Jewish Home for the Aged. The event was hosted by the powerful fundraising team of Ida Mayer Cummings (sister of Louis B.) and film legend Mary Pickford. After a talk by Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, the daughter of President Wilson, Cummings made a heartbreaking statement about the power of Hanukkah’s message:
“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.”
In postwar America, Hanukkah became increasingly important and was tied to the birth of the state of Israel in 1948. As Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel-Air told the Los Angeles Times in 1986, the coming of television changed Hanukkah in America shortly after World War II.
“With the advent of TV, Christmas penetrated the Jewish household. Almost in self-defense, Jews then began to enlarge the scope of the holiday and if there were to be Christmas decorations, there were to be Hanukkah decorations,” Zeldin said.
Los Angeles joined in on the kid-friendly decorations and fun. There were parties, plays, puppet shows, latkes buffets, and sing-alongs. “In the 1950s, at a local synagogue, there was a ‘Funorama Bazaar’ with Chanukah-themed game booths, and a ‘dreidel hop’ that I would have liked to attend,” Rodman says.
By the end of the 1950s, Hanukkah had evolved into the festive celebration it is today. And over the years, the way Los Angeles celebrates has gotten bigger and brighter.
“Central to Chanukah is lighting a menorah in the window, to ‘proclaim the miracle,’ of both a victory over oppression, and a small amount of Temple menorah oil burning for eight days,” Rodman says. “Adapting this custom, Chabad sends out a fleet of electric menorah-topped cars to drive around L.A., and some local homeowners put up elaborate blue and white outdoor Chanukah house light displays and decorations, including giant inflatable menorahs and Chanukah bears spinning dreidels.”
This year, of course, promises to be different, but many organizations are offering modified, COVID-safe community events to celebrate the season. On December 13, the Skirball Cultural Center will host a virtual Hanukkah celebration. The Stephen Wise Temple is hosting LIT- A Drive-Thru Hanukkah Experience featuring light displays and an animated short film The Broken Candle (featuring L.A. native, Jewish funny woman Tiffany Haddish). The Holocaust Museum will host a night of Virtual Latkes and Lights on December 14. And on December 13, there will be a Chanukah Menorah Car parade in Beverly Hills.
Families across L.A. will also light candles, make latkes, exchange gifts, and eat delicious sufganiyot ordered from Eilat Bakery. They will remember that in the darkest times there is always light, a message of hope that’s badly needed during this strange, unsettled holiday season.
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