‘Festal Holiday’ to ‘Funorama Bazaar’: The changing light of Chanukah in L.A.
The real Chanukah miracle, in the early days of Los Angeles, was how Jewish residents managed to get through the holiday without latke parties, chocolate gelt, or blue-and-white wrapping paper featuring dancing dreidels.
At the turn of the 20th century, the American Chanukah known for “eight crazy nights” of lavish gift-giving, LED home decorations, mall menorah lightings and ugly sweaters was not even a twinkle in any Jewish Angeleno’s eye.
So how did the once minor holiday transform into the glowing and blinking Festival of Lights we celebrate today? By sharing in the innovations responsible for Chanukah’s rise to prominence in America, and adding a few dreidel twirls of its own, the growing Jewish community of Los Angeles evolved the way it celebrated the Festival of Lights into the 1950s.
“Whatever the age, Jews have deemed Hanukkah ripe for embellishment with food, songs, charity and games,” author Dianne Ashton, who teaches religion in America at Rowan University in New Jersey, wrote in “Hanukkah in America.”
As a reminder of how simply the holiday was observed at the turn of the century, when mostly only the man of the house lit the Chanukah candles, an article in the Dec. 9, 1898, edition of the B’nai B’rith Messenger by Rabbi A.W. Edelman of Congregation B’nai B’rith (today, Wilshire Boulevard Temple) states: “It is merely a festal holiday to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees, by lighting a taper or light called Chanukah light for eight days, and by adding special prayers and thanksgivings to God.”
Yet, that simple celebration had already begun to change, according to Ashton, as rabbis and Jewish educators showed new interest in the Maccabees — ancient heroes, who offered an “authentically Jewish model that inspired,” she wrote. Taking its cue from this new interest, an editorial in the Dec. 16, 1910 issue of the B’nai B’rith Messenger asked readers not to send Christmas cards to Jewish orphans but instead “write a few lines alluding to the Feast of the Maccabees which is a store of incentives radiating forth the highest ideals.”
To interest Jewish children, plays, concerts, programs and contests — now holiday mainstays — were introduced. “A dynamic relationship between congregational rabbi and lay women became the engine that developed and promoted these new Hanukkah activities,” Ashton wrote.
In 1919, the Chanukah celebration at Sinai Temple included a two-act Chanukah comedy, a Chanukah essay winner and a violin solo. All this was preceded by a parade of 300 children, each of whom marched in carrying a “Jewish flag.” In 1922, the Department of Synagogue and School extension of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (today, the Reform Movement) introduced a new play titled “A Make Believe Chanukah,” which depicted the “Maccabees in a new and interesting form,” according to a blurb in the B’nai B’rith Messenger, a paper that chronicled the life of L.A.’s Jewish community for almost 100 years, .
In an open society like America, competition with the other winter holiday, Christmas, began to be seen as a threat, especially as some Jews began to bring Christmas trees into their homes. “We Jews should never forget that Chanukah candles burnt before Christianity was born and that if Antiochus had triumphed over the Jewish people and Jews and Judaism had become assimilated, there would have been no Jesus and no Christianity to inspire the gentiles,” wrote Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin of Congregation B’nai B’rith, in the Dec. 11, 1925, edition of the Messenger.
Responding to this challenge, beginning in the ’20s, “Jewish women in their own organizations aggrandized Hanukkah in order to educate their children, to build devotion to Judaism in their families, to enhance synagogue life,” Ashton wrote. Sisterhoods and other Jewish women’s auxiliaries, in the ’20s and ’30s, spread the Chanukah light through children’s celebrations and “mammoth” Chanukah parties throughout the Southland. By the late 1950s, the Sisterhood of B’nai Israel organized a “Funorama Bazaar” with Chanukah-themed game booths and a “dreidl hop” for the teenagers.
The idea of Chanukah gifts, too, gradually began to catch on. The giving of Chanukah gelt had long been the norm, especially among Jews from Eastern Europe, but beginning in the 1890s, Jewish publishers saw in Chanukah the opportunity to promote “Hanukkah as a gift giving occasion for Jews,” Ashton wrote. By the late 1940s and early ’50s, children’s titles like “Chanukah Fun and Story Book,” were available in local Jewish bookstores, and “The Jingle-Book for Jewish Children,” which included poems for Chanukah and other Jewish holidays, was available in the Los Angeles Jewish Community Library.
The gift-giving was not limited to one’s own family. Several Messenger articles from the 1920s note that during Chanukah toys were given by the Elks Club to the children of the Jewish Orphans home and Vista Del Mar. A Hadassah chapter donated money to purchase garments to be sent as Chanukah gifts to the Jews of Palestine, as well.
Expanding beyond books, in 1921, advertisements suggesting “Happy Gift Suggestions for Chanukah” were run by Hamburger’s, a large, popular Jewish-owned downtown department store at the time. The ads appeared in the Messenger, promoting “gifts of apparel … gifts for the home … remembrances from Toyland for the children” and a Southland touch — “gift boxes of California Fruits and Nuts.”
In L.A., there were even Chanukah gifts for the Zionist in one’s life: “Palestinian Articles made by Jewish labor.” A 1929 ad by the Palestinian Import & Export Co., located in the Bryson building downtown, promoted Chanukah lamps, “Bezalel Art and Filigree Silver Articles as Gifts,” as well as tapestries with Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau (co-founders of the World Zionist Organization) and Arthur James Balfour.
From the 1920s, the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (of the Reform Movement) promoted a national effort to make “Chanukah more widely celebrated among Reform’s families,” including the selling of new Chanukah products such as Chanukah greeting cards, Ashton wrote. Adding new ways to express one’s Jewish identity, the cards, along with Chanukah candles, menorahs (with the electric menorah becoming popular by midcentury), decorations and wrapping paper proved a profitable addition for Jewish bookstores and temple gift shops.
Sinai Temple extended that market in 1952 by holding a series of Chanukah workshops “in which members and friends may join to learn the art of Hanukah decorations for the home,” according to an announcement. Taking holiday decorations one step further, the Foothill Jewish Community Center of Temple Beth Israel of Sierra Madre held a Chanukah decoration contest in 1957. Contest judges were to visit the homes of all who entered and award three prizes for the best decorations “typifying the spirit of Hanukah,” the announcement said.
There were other changes regarding the holiday that were apparent in the Messenger, too. For one, the spelling went from “Chanukah” to “Hanukah” in 1930.
Treats eaten on the holiday also changed. Around 1951, Barton’s Bonbonniere introduced “chocolate lotkes,” round-shaped chocolate confections in five flavors — coconut, hazelnut, banana, mocha-nut and orange-marzipan. “A box of 15 sells for $1.19,” read the promotion copy that ran in the B’nai B’rith Messenger. This was quite the change from the foil-wrapped chocolate gelt introduced in the 1920s by Loft’s, according to several sources.
Los Angeles, as a bright center of entertainment, added new light to the celebration of Chanukah. In 1952, KTLA broadcast a Chanukah program featuring Temple Isaiah with Rabbi Albert M. Lewis officiating, and Cantor Robert Nadell appearing with the Temple Isaiah Choir.
Preceding this TV program by decades, Rabbi Mayer Winkler of Sinai Temple gave a radio address in 1926 on KHJ-AM titled “The Message of the Maccabees to the Modern World” that identified the challenge of Chanukah that is still with us today.
“The story of the Maccabees contains a great truth applicable in every age,” he said. “The freedom of conscience and of religion should be safeguarded by modern man.”
Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at email@example.com.