Visiting History (The cemeteries of LA)

I have always had a soft spot for Brazil. I spent the summer after high school graduation there, and my wife and I spent our honeymoon there. I love the people, the music, the food and the spirit that Brazilians carry with them as effortlessly as they dance the samba. But I never imagined my affection for Brazil had a historic basis and a Jewish link.

I mention this because it turns out that the first Jews in America, who arrived 350 years ago, came from Brazil. Those first 23 Jews from Recife arrived in New York in 1654, having fled the auto-da-fé that awaited them in their homeland only to be captured by Spanish pirates and rescued by a French vessel eager to ditch them in America. When after their Job-like journey they set foot in this land-o-plenty, Peter Stuyvesant, director general of New Amsterdam, greeted them with a stream of anti-Semitic invective usually reserved for Jews who’ve resided in a land for at least a few years. Despite his biases they stayed. And flourished.

Over the last centuries, the Jews, as has been remarked by Semite and anti-Semite alike, have succeeded at the highest levels in every industry and profession they have entered including law, medicine, science, manufacturing, the media and the arts. We have seen dreams come true that earlier generations could not even imagine. That the chronicle of Jewish achievement appears to us today self-evident, almost a cliché, doesn’t make the last 350 years any less remarkable.

The earliest Jewish residents arrived in Los Angeles in the 1840s, and the impact of American Jews on the city’s culture is pervasive. Los Angeles’ history and landscape are so rife with the concrete and lasting evidence of Jewish creative accomplishments that the challenge is to find the right prism to celebrate its many cultural heroes. Movies, TV, art museums — take your pick.

So for this celebration of 350 years of Jewish culture in America, I thought I’d invite you to a gathering of some of our most famous co-religionists here in Los Angeles, and take you to some places where you can find, as they used to say at MGM, “More stars than there are in heaven.” There is, without fail, but one sure way to see a cavalcade of celebrities in Los Angeles: go to a cemetery.

You want intellectuals, we got those. In Santa Monica, at Woodlawn Cemetery, I’ve gazed upon the graves of novelists Lion Feuchtwanger and Heinrich Mann, their headstones engaged in eternal conversation.

In Westwood, just one block from Wilshire Boulevard sits the oasis of Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park. There one can commune with director Billy Wilder (who’s probably otherwise engaged in a card game with fellow resident Walter Matthau), trade quips with Oscar Levant, recent arrival Rodney Dangerfield or the original “Funny Girl” Fanny Brice. You might hum a tune to Sammy Cahn or Mel Torme, or pound out a beat to Buddy Rich. If you’re mulling over how to close a deal, perhaps some time with Armand Hammer or Swifty Lazar is in order. And if you wish to worship at the altar of beauty, pray pay a visit to Natalie Wood or Marilyn Monroe.

Should you find yourself between pitches to Warner Bros., Universal or Disney, you may want to practice before the luminaries interred at Mount Sinai Memorial Park on Forest Lawn Drive. If it’s a comedy, Phil Silvers and Totie Fields are willing to listen; for a disaster movie, consult the master — Irwin Allen; and if it’s a TV show you are contemplating the late great Brandon Tartikoff is there to inspire. Need more expert opinions? Forest Lawn next door is the final resting place of Jack Webb, Freddie Prinze and Marty Feldman.

Talk about heroes: This Nov. 11, Mount Sinai will honor Jewish veterans, placing flags on each of their graves as they have every year for the last 50 years. If you know of a Jewish veteran interred at Mount Sinai that they should honor, please call Shelli Spitzer at (323) 769-1371.

The Hollywood Forever Cemetery tucked away behind Paramount Studios, has some of the most gorgeous grounds in all of Los Angeles with a beautiful lake and the mausoleums and memorials of many of Hollywood’s earliest pioneers and greatest stars. Studio founders Jesse Lasky and Harry Cohn are there, as well as Paul Muni and Peter Lorre. You can also visit Mel Blanc, the voice behind so many classic cartoons, whose headstone reads, predictably enough, “That’s all folks.” If you really want to know how to intimidate and influence people, in the southwest corner you will find Beth Olam cemetery, consecrated ground which holds the earthly remains of Benjamin Siegel, better known and feared as “Bugsy.”

Finally — and I do mean finally — which one of us has not been driving on the 405 freeway south of Los Angeles, perhaps coming from or going to LAX and not marveled at the giant white stone canopied monument and the water cascading down the green slope at Hillside Memorial Park. Look closely and you can imagine its honoree, legendary entertainer Al Jolson on one knee singing “Swanee.”

Hillside is very proud of its roster of stars. As part of this year’s national “Celebrate 350” program, Hillside has published “Distinguished Residents,” a who’s who of their necropolis, including Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Lew Wasserman, Michael Landon, Max Factor, Dinah Shore, Lorne Greene, Hank Greenberg, Allan Sherman, The Three Stooges’ Moe Howard and Milton Berle, to name but a few. This book is available for free on a limited basis by calling (800) 576-1994.

As we celebrate 350 years of Jewish life in America, we recall those 23 Brazilian Jews brave enough to travel to this land, resourceful enough to stay. Their inauspicious arrival in this country has been followed by a rich history of Jewish participation in every aspect of American history.

In Los Angeles, America’s Jews have found a home where they not only embraced the culture, they created, nurtured and supported it. To marvel and be inspired by the depth and breadth of Jewish cultural achievement is not hard. You need but visit the cemeteries of Los Angeles.