Imagining a seder in my home a century ago

With 30-minute seders, food drives for the hungry and boxes of perfectly baked matzah, we like to think that in 2015 we have finally achieved a modern, socially relevant and easy-to-observe Passover.
April 2, 2015

With 30-minute seders, food drives for the hungry and boxes of perfectly baked matzah, we like to think that in 2015 we have finally achieved a modern, socially relevant and easy-to-observe Passover. But in Los Angeles, if we were to travel back 100 years to 1915, in any way-back conveyance of your choosing, we would see that our approach to Passover is really not so new. In fact, many of the current trends in holiday observance were already very much in place in the City of Angels of that time.

I live in a house a few miles west of downtown that has remained largely unchanged since it was built in 1916, so atmospherically, at least, it is not hard for me to imagine what the first night of Passover might have been like back then. A guest sitting down to a seder in our dining room sees that the walls are wainscoted with oak paneling, the lighting dim and the door to the adjacent kitchen swinging. During the seder, one can catch a glimpse of oneself drinking wine or eating maror in a built-in-mirrored sideboard.

Today, to prepare for the seder, we shop at Ralphs, Pavilions and Western Kosher, but recently, while bringing up our Passover dishes from the basement, I wondered where, in 1915, would I have shopped, and at the end of the holiday, where would I go to Yizkor services? What might have been my social concerns? And, most critically, if I ran out of matzah farfel, how close would I have been from a Jewish neighbor from whom I could borrow?

In the “History of the Jews of Los Angeles,” authors Max Vorspan and Lloyd P. Gartner estimate that in 1900, some 2,500 Jews lived in L.A. — out of a population of 102,000 — with one-third living downtown. By 1914, they estimate that a growing Jewish population — between 18,000 and 20,000 in 1918 — included “prosperous and acculturated Jews” who were settling westward, in such areas as Wilshire, West Adams and Hollywood.

Replica of the wooden cigar-style box in which Manischewitz matzahs were sold. Photo by Edmon J. Rodman

Growing with the Jewish population was the circulation of the B’nai B’rith Messenger (1897-1995), a Jewish weekly named for the city’s prominent Reform temple (in 1933, Congregation B’nai Brith was renamed Wilshire Boulevard Temple). In its pages for March and April 1915, I found most of the Passover provisions I would need for pantry and soul.

Among pages that featured an ad for Hellman Commercial Trust and Savings Bank, and a notice that Dr. Hecht (a reference to the synagogue’s Rabbi Sigmund Hecht) would be giving a sermon titled “The Hope of Nations” at Congregation B’nai B’rith on the first day of Passover, I found a display ad for the Palace Market at 622 S. Broadway. “Now on hand” were “Kosher Goods for the Passover,” including “Matzos, Matzo Meal, Cake Flour,” as well as a full line of “kosher sausage, smoked meats and delicatessen.”

But would it be the same bread of affliction that we have all come to adore?

Before the introduction of mass production methods, according to historian Jonathan D. Sarna, “most matzah had been round, irregular or oval-shaped.” Changing tradition in 1912, the Manischewitz Co. began to advertise its product, kneaded, rolled, stretched, perforated and cut by machine, as “Manischewitz’s Square Matzoths.”

What a relief. Although not any better for a sandwich than today’s product, at least it would be familiar.

For new yontif clothes, I found an ad for Harris & Frank, 437 S. Spring St. Previously called the London Clothing Co., the name changed when founder Leopold Harris took in his son-in-law, Herman W. Frank, as a general manager and partner. Although known for its dapper menswear, the ad promoted a “special purchase” of women’s dresses representing “the keenest of new styles” at $15.

The week before Passover, an appeal by the “Passover Supply Society” was published that, with only a change in diction, could have appeared in a Jewish paper 100 years later. Citing unemployment and high cost of living, the society sought by soliciting “our more fortunate coreligionists,” to “help worthy poor families and individuals in properly observing the approaching Feast of Passover.”

Along with Passover food, new duds and a start on helping at least a few who were in need, I also needed an era-appropriate haggadah.

At the suggestion of Kevin Proffitt, senior archivist at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, I searched for the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis, founded in 1889) haggadah that had come out as a section in 1892 in the Union Prayer Book. By 1903, according to Proffitt, more than 300 congregations, “not all aligned with the Reform Movement, used the prayer book and over 100,000 copies had been sold,” he wrote in an email.

Finding the book at Los Angeles’ Hebrew Union College library, I turned to the “Domestic Service for the Eve of Passover.” Mostly in English, and using a dialogue format where the leader reads longer passages, and the youngest at the table responds with a line or two, the text seemed quite modern in its approach to participation. At only 30 pages, it also looked to be a forerunner of several contemporary haggadot designed for seders lasting 30 or 60 minutes.

I did wonder, however, about later having to shake the matzah crumbs out of my siddur.

From left: Opening page from the CCAR haggadah and illustration of the Four Sons from the 1910 Hebrew Publishing haggadah. Photos courtesy of the Frances-Henry Library at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College

Another haggadah, in a more familiar booklet style that would have been available at the time, was the “Form of Service for the Two First Nights of the Feast of Passover,” published in 1910 by Hebrew Publishing. With the entire text in Hebrew and English, and with illustrations, it was more to my liking, although the first of the Four Questions translated as, “Wherefore is this night distinguished from all other nights,” quickly alerted me to its vintage.

For Passover recipes, the San Francisco branch of the Council of Jewish Women offered an entire chapter in its “Council Cook Book” (1908-09) devoted to Passover dishes, including “Matzo Kloess,” (kloess is German for boiled or steamed dumpling) for soup, as well as recipes for sponge, date and chocolate matzah cakes.

As to where we might daven in 1915, two locations were possibilities.

In 1909, Congregation Sinai (which later became Sinai Temple) had dedicated its first house of worship. Designed in classic Greek revival style by architect Samuel Tilden Norton, according to “Sinai Temple: A Centennial History,” by Florie Brizel, it featured a pipe organ in the choir loft above the main pulpit; a “serious departure” for the time, as playing music, in traditional quarters, is considered a form of work. Because kashrut was observed, the temple also had two kitchens.

Located at 12th and Valencia streets (today, the same building has become the Pico Union Project), it was a couple of miles from where my house would be built in 1916, just a short yellow streetcar ride away. The congregation’s leader at that time, Rabbi Isidore Meyers, wrote Brizel, was a “brilliant, witty, clever and very independent-minded theologian.” 

Because it was a Conservative temple, I could sit next to my wife. If I were to nod off during one of the rabbi’s brilliant sermons, she could nudge me awake.

My other choice would have been Congregation B’nai B’rith. Founded in 1862, in 1915 it occupied an onion-domed Victorian structure downtown at Ninth and Hope. Looking through its yearbook for 1915-16, I found that “Strangers in the city are always heartily welcome to our weekly services,” and that Rabbi Hecht was available for consultation in his study “every afternoon (except Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) between 1:30 and 3:30.”

There was also a temple sewing circle that with the “hum of busy machines” turned out “work for the benefit of the needy.”

Two years before the United States entered the “Great War,” the yearbook also counseled that “Jewish Relief work undertaken in this country for the relief of the Jews in the war zones” had “thus far been woefully inadequate.”

Looking through the congregation directory, among the historically notable families are the Lazards, Meybergs, Newmarks, Nortons, Edelmans and Kremers, but I also found many potential neighbors living on my street, as well as on those adjacent. 

It was comforting to know that if I ever ran low on matzah, or wanted to chat over a bowl of matzah kloess soup, other landsmen would be just a few blocks away.

Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at edmojace@gmail.com.

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