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Life's a Picnic: Leisure and Entertainment in Sephardic Los Angeles

by Max Modiano Daniel

Organized Sephardic Jewish life in Los Angeles consisted of more than the organizing of mutual aid societies, burial accommodations, worship and ritual services. Socializing and entertaining were essential parts of what it meant to be part of a Sephardic community, whether at home, in the synagogue, at the beach, or a hotel ballroom. Social events created small, temporary spaces where Ladino could be heard, a Joha story told, a romancero sung, or a boreka eaten. But they were also spaces where Sephardic Jews negotiated a balance between traditional elements of their culture and modern, American cultural norms.

Los Angeles was, as historian Lawrence Culver described, the "Frontier of Leisure," where resort-style living and year-round outdoor recreation were promoted as part of civic identity since the late 19th century. This leisure oriented lifestyle proved complementary, if not inseparable, from Jewish community life. Picnics, outings, dances and concerts - not to mention bazaars, "Shabbaton" retreats, and Miss Sephardic Beauty contests - all dotted the calendars of Sephardic Jews in Los Angeles, often attracting non-Sephardim and non-Jews as well. Some of the earliest extent photographs of the community are of large picnics held at Redondo and Seal Beach. 

Picnic of the Paz y progresa society, 1921. STTI Archives.

Rebecca Amato Levy, screenshot from The Island of Rhodes: The Jews of Rhodes in Los Angeles, dir. Gregory Viens, 1995. 

Picnics were a particularly meaningful tradition for Jews from Rhodes, where picnicking played an important role in the Jewish social scene. Annual outings to Catalina Island - located about 20 miles south of Los Angeles - held a special place among the Rhodeslis, for many evoking memories of the geography, climate and atmosphere of Rhodes itself. One Rhodes-born resident, Rebecca Amato Levy, who settled in L.A. on the eve of World War II, described annual trips to Catalina Island as a kind of homecoming. Through these 'pilgrimages' to Catalina, a new Sephardic ritual was born in Southern California.

Formal balls and dances were also popular in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, often held on secular holidays like Halloween or New Year's Eve. Not only did these formal occasions offer opportunities to meet one's future spouse, but also to donate funds and by doing so, contribute to one's community. These fundraising events often built on American cultural forms, such as the "Miss Sephardic Beauty Contest," held annually in the 1950s and 1960s by the Maccabeans, a youth group of the Sephardic Hebrew Center to raise funds to erect a youth center. Other American innovations included annual testimonial dinners honoring communal leaders, like the "Man of the Year Award" dinner hosted by the Sephardic Hebrew Center" and the "Sephardic Heritage Award" at Temple Tifereth Israel.

Social life and entertainment for Sephardim was not restricted to laid-back picnics or formal balls; it also included organized and programmed retreats, like the Sephardic Hebrew Center's Shabbatons in the early 1980s. Other events mixed socializing and Jewish learning, as demonstrated in one retreat in 1980: workshops included "the Kosher Consumer," "Endurcos (folk medicine and superstition)," and "The Making of a Jewish home." Unmistakably Sephardi and American, the two-day retreat was called "Fideo Rodeo," playing on a classic Sephardi noodle dish and the cowboy mythos of the "old west."

Cultural events, especially recurring ones like the Sephardic Hebrew Center's "Turkish Night," engaged audiences and participants through music and dance, cementing the relationship between culture, entertainment, and community among Sephardi Jews in L.A. At weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other family celebrations, amateur musicians and dancers would often emerge from the crowd playing instruments like the oud or dancing ala Turka (Turkish-style), ala Grega (Greek-style), or ala Franka (European-style). Like many Jewish communities, L.A. Sephardim also put on plays and skits for the Purim holiday, often in Ladino. 

"Fideo Rodeo," 1980. STTI Archives.

Ladino remained a staple of entertainment activities put on by both the Sephardic Hebrew Center and Temple Tifereth Israel well into the 1970s and 1980s. But as the demographics of the Sephardi community in Los Angeles changed, so too did the cultural programming of these organizations. In order to be inclusive of the newer members of their congregation, the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel began hosting "Cultural Nights" in the early 1990s, featuring informal lectures alongside presentations of the food, music and dance of Persian, Greek, Moroccan, Rhodesli, Cuban, Iraqi, Turkish and Egyptian Jews.

 

These cultural events - like picnics, fundraising balls, and retreats - provided ways for the Sephardic Jews of Los Angeles to relax and enjoy themselves in Los Angeles' balmy climate. But they also served to re-inscribe the bonds of community and family and to blend the maintenance of traditional cultural expressions with American social and cultural norms. 

A Purim play staged in 1925 under the direction of Amelia Notrica. STTI Archives.