The Synagogue In America: A Short History by Marc Lee Raphael

This is a superb new book. I just picked it up at the library and I can’t put it down.

It has lots of stories about Los Angeles in general and Pico-Robertson in particular.

On page 95, professor Raphael writes: “In the 1990s and early 2000s “Sephardic” congregations became home to a wide variety of non-Sephardic Jews. In addition to a large number of members from “mixed” marriages between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, there are many Ashkenazic families and/or individuals who join Sephardic synagogues because of the traditions and melodies.”

On page 138, Marc writes that Reform rabbis after World War II preached about civil rights while acknowledging that “Jews outside the South were as fearful of blacks as were white southerners, noting that congregants simply moved away when blacks approached instead of burning crosses on the newcomers’ lawns.”

One rabbi said that when blacks move into a Jewish neighborhood, “with the milk of human kindness and brotherly love for the Negro of Little Rock pumping in his veins, the Jew picks up his skirts and runs before the Negro.”

From page 140: “If we look at the sermons preached at these same [Reform] congregations ten years later — 1965-1966 — we find that only a little had changed. Blacks’ fight was still the Jews’ fight; Jews were not free if blacks were not free; and surely America was not free if either was enslaved.”

The proper word for Reform Jewish homiletics of the 1950s and early 1960s was formal. Rarely did one of these rabbis preach from notes.

The sermon preached most often was called “What do Jews believe?”

Decorum in Reform services resembled Protestant services. By contrast, Orthodox services seemed chaotic and anarchic. Conservative was in between.

From page 159 on Pico-Robertson after World War II: “If you lived around that intersection, there was no Reform synagogue to which you could walk and only one Conservative synagogue within a few miles. But there were at least five mainline or established Orthodox synagogues (and at least two storefront “shuls”, synagogues in a rented store or in a room or two over a store, known just as “the shul on Pico near Genesee” or “the shul upstairs over the butcher shop”) within walking distance. This was striking, because fewer than 10% of the affiliated Jews in the neighborhood would have claimed membership in any of these Orthodox synagogues. One followed the Sephardic ritual, another the Hungarian ritual, and another accepted Polish customs. One had mostly men in their seventies, while another attracted younger Jews. At least four of the five had a bar mitzvah ceremony frequently; all had mixed seating and microphones in 1955-1956; none of them had a ritual bath, nor was there one nearby; one, Beth Jacob of Beverly Hills (with Rabbi Simon Dolgin, who arrived in the late 1930s, when the synagogue was in a different location, still at the helm), might have been the largest Orthodox congregation in the West. At least the rabbi regularly made this claim.”

The overwhelming number of Jewish congregants (from Reform to Orthodox) in America in the 1950s did not have college degrees.

From page 161: “Surprisingly, because Orthodox synagogue leaders are guarded about most information that is freely given to historians by Conservative and Reform congregations, the financial details of most Orthodox synagogues are readily available in bulletins.”

The first bat mitzvah on the West Coast took place at Beth Jacob on a Friday night in 1947.

Under Rabbi Dolgin, Beth Jacob had 8:15 pm Friday night services.

Over the past few decades, Orthodox rabbis have tended to focus their Saturday morning sermons on the parsha (weekly Torah portion). “There is usually only a perfunctory attempt to ask how this might relate to the lives of the worshipers.”

“Rare is the Orthodox rabbi today who draws upon non-Jewish literature (fiction or non-fiction), popular or contemporary culture (theater, cinema, television), general academic disciplines (anthropology, sociology, psychology), or contemporary non-Jewish thinkers in philosophy and theology. Instead, the explicit assumption is that all the insight one needs is in Jewish texts (generally the older the better).” (pg. 192)

In the Orthodox shuls I’ve attended, when the rabbi references some non-Jewish book or thinker or radio or TV program, the congregants laugh at the incongruity of it.

From page 194: “By embracing the nonobservant, modern Orthodox Jews do clearly differentiate themselves not only from Conservative Jews but from the right wing of the Orthodox spectrum.”

It is “much less common for non-Jews to attend an Orthodox synagogue today than it was during the years 1920-1960.” (Pg. 197)

“Decorum has not been embraced by the membership within most Orthodox synagogues.” (Pg. 198)

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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