Modernity, Zionism, and the Menorah

The menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum, has traversed millennia as a living symbol of Judaism and the Jewish people. Naturally, it did not pass through the ages unaltered. The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel explores the cultural and intellectual history of the Western world’s oldest continuously used religious symbol. Steven Fine’s meticulously researched yet deeply personal history explains how the menorah illuminates the great changes and continuities in Jewish culture, from biblical times to modern Israel. Here is an excerpt looking at Rabbi Edgar Magnin’s magnificent domed synagogue in Los Angeles.

In 1929 Rabbi Edgar Magnin, the rabbi of Congregation B’nai B’rith, newly dubbed the “Wilshire Boulevard Temple,” inaugurated a magnificent domed synagogue that was to serve as his podium as the rabbi of Los Angeles for the next fifty years. Magnin chafed under the religious experience to be had at Reform synagogues of his day, whose ritual he thought was staid and emotionless. He wanted to involve all of the senses in “his” temple, to provoke piety, Jewish pride, and respect for Judaism within the larger community. With this in mind, Magnin, “the rabbi to the stars,” harnessed the intense visuality and theatricality of Hollywood in the creation of his “set” for Judaism — and for himself. To the left and right of the huge Torah ark he placed identical large bronze menorahs, their branches (though not their bases) modeled on the Arch of Titus menorah. This was a pretty standard feature of the large “cathedral” synagogues built during the decades preceding the Great Depression — and even of smaller Orthodox “shuls” through wall murals. It has become a standard of large synagogues ever since. As in antique synagogues, these lamps served as frames enclosing the Torah shrine podium of the synagogue. The Wilshire Boulevard Temple menorahs were lit with gas flames, and one of them was set before a mural showing the earth rising up and giving its bounty to the United States, representing the crescendo of Jewish history. The temple itself had been built in the center of the oil field that had brought wealth to Los Angeles. It must have been a deeply moving sight, a messianic statement of Israel renewed that was fitting of the Jewish Los Angeles of the era. Magnin commissioned a New York–trained muralist turned studio artist, Hugo Ballin, to paint a pageant of Jewish history ranging from Creation to Columbus in brilliant color on the walls of this octagonal shrine. Ballin created the most monumental Jewish paintings of his time.

In the “Warner Murals,” donated by the studio magnates in memory of their parents, Magnin and Ballin began their story with Creation and concluded with the discovery of America. That said, Magnin, a Reform rabbi and graduate of Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College, was in fact well versed in modern Hebrew and the literature of the modern Hebrew renaissance. Early in his career he even lectured on modern Hebrew literature to popular audiences. Maxwell Dubin, the assistant rabbi, had interrupted his rabbinic studies at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati to serve in the Jewish Legion during World War I. Dubin was with General Edmund Allenby when he took Jerusalem (1917) and must have been well aware of the art of Bezalel. Steeped in the film culture of Los Angeles, the Warner Murals are deeply imbued with the international Jewish culture of the age.

In one small corner of the paintings, Magnin and Ballin imagined the destruction of Jerusalem. Here they portrayed Josephus’s emotional turmoil as he hid out at the fall of Jotapata, the battle for Jerusalem, and finally the carrying of the golden menorah out of the city. The menorah in the mural greatly resembles those lit in the Wilshire Boulevard Temple — clearly no accident. Its base is decorated with garlands and not the creatures that appear on the original in Rome. It looks like the bronze menorahs that were used by secularizing Jewish groups at the time: B’nai B’rith, a fraternal group much like the freemasons; Jewish (and nondenominational) Masonic groups, and the various Zionist groups. Jews across the Jewish community lit such menorahs. This fact would not have been lost on participants in temple religious ceremonies, many of whom were — like Magnin — Masons. In the mural the golden menorah is borne aloft as in the Arch of Titus, with a Roman soldier on horseback moving the beleaguered bearers forward. In the background is pictured the single tower, Phasaelis, that Josephus describes Titus leaving standing as a memorial to a great city destroyed. Five men bear the menorah, none with wreaths on their heads. The menorah-bearers are not the triumphal Romans of the Arch of Titus, but Jews, compelled to move forward — ultimately toward redemption in the New World.

This identification of the bearers as Jews is no accident. In fact, Magnin was insistent that in “his” temple, the Jews were the active agents in their destiny. This is a leitmotif of the entire sequence and reflects an instinct shared across the spectrum of Jewish modernizers, including Zionists. While the “ghetto Jews” of recent history were to be honored, the strong Jews of ancient history — the muscular Jews of the Bible through the destruction of Jerusalem — were to be celebrated. Ballin conformed to Magnin’s instructions, which are preserved explicitly in preparatory notes for the artist: “SIEGE OF JERUSALEM UNDER TITUS_ HEBREWS CARRIED CAPTIVE_ THE MENORAH. Arch of Titus, Jews but no Romans.” Magnin’s description of the panel soon after its dedication was clear: “The Jews march captive out of Jerusalem bearing a golden menorah or candlestick of the Temple.” To achieve this identification, yet to maintain an iconographic link with the Arch of Titus, Ballin cleverly portrayed Jews carrying the menorah out of Jerusalem — and not into Rome. At Wilshire Boulevard Temple it was the Jews themselves, not the Romans, who shaped, and will shape, the Jewish future.