Celebrating Passover Was More Complex in L.A. of the 1800s
Jewish historians are turning back the clock to examine how Passover was celebrated in California and the West in the 19th century.
Today, as Jews prepare to observe Passover, which begins Wednesday at sundown, Southern California has the nation’s second-largest Jewish population -- roughly 600,000. By contrast, the overwhelmingly Catholic pueblo of Los Angeles of 1854 had fewer than 200 Jewish residents and no kosher bakery or butcher shop.
A lay rabbi slaughtered animals, carefully observing rabbinic laws, so that Jews might have kosher meat. The aroma of matzo -- unleavened bread -- wafted from a bakery owned and run by a Catholic.
In the hinterlands -- the Gold Country of Northern California or the outlying reaches of Southern California -- men were often the ones who prepared the Passover seder because there were no women around.
Despite such accommodations to necessity, historians say a common thread of faith and tradition is woven through the fabric of Jewish history in the West.
Passover Was Special
Then, as now, even many Jews who were otherwise nonobservant tried to keep Passover -- a major Jewish holiday marking the exodus of Israelites from Egypt under the leadership of Moses after generations of slavery.
Then as now, a child’s ritual question on the first night of Passover -- “Why is this night different from all other nights?” -- bound one generation to the next.
Then as now, the answers sought to transmit the history of a people and universal yearnings for freedom and justice -- and faith in the audacious leadings of God.
Interest in the roots of Judaism in the American West is growing, historians and Jewish educators say.
Recently, for example, the Autry Museum of Western Heritage featured a half-year-long exhibition, “Jewish Life in the American West: Generation to Generation.” The museum said the exhibit broke attendance records, with more than 300,000 visitors. A book, “Jewish Life in the American West,” edited by Ava F. Kahn, was published in conjunction with the exhibition.
The Jewish Historical Society of Southern California says interest has never been greater in its bus tours of Jewish Los Angeles, including historic synagogues.
The first Los Angeles synagogue, Congregation B’Nai B’Rith, the predecessor of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, was erected in 1873 on Broadway between 2nd and 3rd streets. In those days, there were an estimated 200 Jews in the city, and the fund-raising committee included Christians. By the beginning of the 20th century, the number of Jewish settlers had grown to 2,500. A sidewalk plaque on the east side of Broadway marks the spot today, near a parking garage owned by The Times.
The heightened interest is coming none too soon, says Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz.
A Certain Urgency
“There’s stuff disappearing daily. Old people are dying. Priceless artifacts and records are being thrown into dumpsters across the country because people don’t understand how important the legacy of traditional Jewry has been to the country,” said Horowitz, who has a small Orthodox congregation in Lawrence, N.Y., and founded a group called American Jewish Legacy. The group seeks to document the history of traditional Jewish practice in the United States.
Jewish history in the American West has a flavor all its own. The preparation of Passover meals often fell to men, who served other men. “It was the ingathering of the bachelors!” said Rabbi William M. Kramer, publisher of the journal Western States Jewish History and a retired professor of art history at Cal State Northridge.
In the late 1850s there was only one bakery in what is now downtown Los Angeles. It was the American Bakery owned by Joseph Mesmer, a Catholic who arrived in 1858. Joseph Newmark, the first lay leader of the city’s Jewish population, approached Mesmer to bake matzo according to rabbinical rules.
Newmark was not ordained as a rabbi but had rabbinic training in Europe as a shochet, a person who slaughters animals according to kosher standards. It wasn’t until 1862 that the first kosher butcher shop was opened, on Temple Street, by H.M. Cohn, who had been a sheep grazer.
The unavailability of kosher meat was a problem throughout the West. Jewish peddlers, some of whom would go on to found department stores, were sometimes known as “egg eaters” because it was one food that could be preserved and also meet kosher requirements.
They Did Their Best
Then as now, however, many Jews simply did not keep kosher, and Passover was often observed as best they could.
“People who went west were very independent people and pioneering people,” said David Epstein, managing editor of Western States Jewish History.
“Once you crossed the Mississippi River, none of that applied,” said Epstein. As Jewish communities began to develop, that lack of observance of Jewish law changed somewhat. But one of the hardest things was getting unleavened bread, which must be baked for no more than 18 minutes so that it doesn’t rise.
“Basically, in order to observe this tradition in Los Angeles at that time and in the West you had to be creative,” said Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. “You ... had to reach out to your non-Jewish neighbors and ask them to help you observe Passover.”