February 17, 2019

Israel @ 60: The day that Israel came to town

This is the first in a series of weekly columns celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary, leading up to Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, in May.

In the summer of 1948, the Jewish State of Israel had just been created, and to celebrate, some 18,000 ecstatic Angelenos jam-packed the Hollywood Bowl to welcome Israel’s first diplomat to California.

Reuven Dafni and his wife Rinna were newlyweds at the time and had arrived in Los Angeles only a couple of days earlier to establish the first Israeli consulate for the Western states, the second in the United States after New York.

“We were treated like a prince and princess; we were lionized wherever we went,” recalls that new consul-general’s wife — now Rinna Samuel — looking back 60 years.

Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron addressed the revved-up crowd, as did Dafni and Jewish community leaders. Rabbi Max Nussbaum of Temple Israel of Hollywood, the city’s leading Zionist spokesman, made the fundraising appeal, remembers his wife Ruth.Reuven DafniReuven Dafni, a World War II hero, was the right man in the right place for a celebrity-oriented city whose entertainment industry was the financial mainstay of the organized Jewish community.

“He was good-looking, well-spoken, and there was a romantic aura about him,” Ruth Nussbaum, now 96, remembers vividly.

Dafni, born in Croatia, had parachuted into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia as leader of a four-person team, which included Hannah Senesh, to rescue downed Allied airmen and what Jews they could.

After the war, one of his assignments was to visit Los Angeles and other American cities for clandestine parlor meetings, where large amounts of cash in brown paper bags changed hands to buy arms for the looming struggle in Palestine.

Rinna, the daughter of Meir Grossman, a prominent Zionist leader and journalist, had been educated in Palestine, England and the United States. She had quit her job as a researcher and correspondent at Time magazine to work as a volunteer for the Jewish Agency office in New York.

“One day I was in the office and overheard a handsome man, who had just arrived from Palestine, talking on the phone trying to get tickets for the smash Broadway musical ‘Oklahoma,'” she recalls. “It was none of my business, but I, as a knowledgeable New Yorker, broke in to tell him that the show was sold out for years and there wasn’t a chance he could get tickets.”

The man, who was of course Dafni, turned to her and said, “I’ll get two tickets and I’ll take you to the show.”

And so he did, and they were married exactly one month before Israel declared its independence.

“On the day we were married, Reuven got a call from the United Jewish Appeal [UJA] that he had to leave immediately for a speaking tour across the United States,” the then brand-new bride told The Journal recently in a phone call from her home in Rehovot, near Tel Aviv.

When the Dafnis arrived in Los Angeles, the feeling in the Jewish community “was absolutely explosive, and here were Reuven and I, two young people, who symbolized everything the new state had accomplished. People were suddenly so proud of being Jewish,” Rinna recounts.

When the Dafnis had their first baby in 1949 at the former Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, it was celebrated as a community event, and the hospital’s staff declined to take any money for the delivery.

Among the first friends the Dafnis made was Betty Sheinbaum, then married to Milton Sperling, a prominent movie producer. She was the daughter of Harry Warner, head of the Warner Bros. studio, who was active in bringing Jewish refugees from Europe to the United States in the 1930s and ’40s.

The notion of an independent Jewish State in the Middle East was not automatically endorsed at that time, however.

“My father didn’t think that Palestine would be a good place for the refugees, and he petitioned President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt, who was a friend, to give Alaska to the Jews,” Sheinbaum recalls.

Some American Jews were lukewarm, if not hostile, to the Zionist agenda, especially among the leadership of the Reform movement. Max Nussbaum discovered the bias when the board of Temple Israel of Hollywood interviewed him to become the spiritual leader of the Reform congregation.

The Nussbaums had narrowly escaped Germany and war-torn Europe in 1940, and had spent their first two years in America leading a tiny congregation in Muskogee, Okla.

Temple Israel, whose regular rabbi had joined the army as a chaplain, invited Nussbaum to come for an interview. The refugee rabbi informed the board that he was an ardent Zionist and intended to be an advocate for Zionism from the pulpit.

This did not sit well with some influential directors, and the board went into executive session to weigh the matter.

It is unknown what went on behind closed doors, but in the end the temple decided to hire Nussbaum (see period photo of the Nussbaums, right), despite his ideological tendencies.

However, by the time the Dafnis arrived in Los Angeles, with Israel fighting for its survival, the sheer emotion and elation of the history-making events had swept away reservations about the new Jewish State among all but a small minority of diehard anti-Zionists.Ruth and Max NussbaumThere were also some Jews who hardly noticed the excitement: Among them was Edward Sanders, later to become president of the Jewish Federation and President Jimmy Carter’s senior advisor on the Middle East, a 26-year-old law student at USC in 1948. He had spent three years in the U.S. Army, and his wife Rose was expecting their first child.

“I was completely focused on my studies and supporting my family, so what went on in Israel didn’t mean that much to me,” Sanders says.

To the cosmopolitan Rinna, the initial impression of Los Angeles was a bit of a culture shock.