The major league baseball season that began before Passover and extended until after Yom Kippur is about to start its playoffs. My favorite this year is of course my beloved hometown Los Angeles Dodgers, which finished with the best record in baseball and secured the home field advantage for the rest of the playoffs. This privilege will extend even if the Dodgers win the pennant and advance to the World Series, a milestone that has unfortunately eluded them since the waning months of the Reagan administration in October 1988. Home field advantage will hopefully strengthen the Dodgers’ chance of success, as sabermetrics gurus have long written about the advantages provided to the home team. As a lifelong fan of the Dodgers, I look forward to watching my team play on the sacred ground of Dodger Stadium, the third oldest stadium in baseball today. But as not many of the team’s fans know, the stadium sits near the former sacred ground of the first Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles, a fact which led the famous Los Angeles Jewish historian Max Vorspan to quip that Chavez Ravine, the area in Los Angeles where the stadium is located, should actually be called “Shabbos Levine.”
A far cry from Ebbets Field, the intimate home of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the highly urban neighborhood of Flatbush, Dodger Stadium is nestled just north of downtown, providing fans with a stunning view of the San Gabriel Mountains to the north. The stadium itself is surrounded by tens of thousands of parking spaces sprawled over a large number of parking lots. Below the southernmost parking lot, parking lot 10, a hill slopes down to a street called Lilac Terrace. On the south side of this street, just west of the corner where Lilac Terrace turns into Lookout Drive, there is a bronze plaque for California Registered Historical Landmark No. 822. The plaque, which depicts a bear (the symbol on the California state flag) and two stars, reads as follows:
FIRST JEWISH SITE IN LOS ANGELES
The Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles (1854), first charitable organization in the city, acquired this site by deed on April 9, 1855 from the City Council for a sacred burial ground. This property represented the first organized community effort by the pioneer Jewish settlers.
California Registered Historical Landmark No. 822
Plaque placed by the State Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperation with the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles
September 29, 1968
This plaque stakes a Jewish connection to the area which predates Sandy Koufax’s arrival to the area by over one hundred years. On the eve of the 2017 playoffs, with the eyes of the baseball nation focused on Dodger Stadium, it’s worth taking a moment to review some of the fascinating historical background associated with this iconic venue.
The story begins in 1855, when the newly established Hebrew Benevolent Society petitioned the city for the donation of land to serve as a cemetery. On April 9, title was granted to the Society in consideration of the sum of one dollar for a parcel of land to serve, as described in the Los Angeles County Book of Deeds, “as a burying ground for the Israelites forever.” The cemetery was in Chavez Ravine on land that had once belonged to Jose Andres Sepulveda and used as a reservoir. Harris Newmark, who is considered the father of modern Jewish Los Angeles, beautifully described the cemetery in his monumental memoir Sixty Years in Southern California: 1853-1913 as follows: “This cemetery… was beautifully located in a recess or little pocket, as it were, among the hills in the northwest section of the city, where the environment of nature was in perfect harmony with the Jewish ideal- ‘Home of Peace.’” The specific site of the cemetery can be viewed in an 1897 map of the city where there is a labeled “Hebrew Cemetary” in a sparsely inhabited area north of downtown (starting at the middle of the map- it is between the innermost and second-innermost circles, slightly to the left).
The cemetery duly served its purpose between 1858, when the first burial occurred, until 1902, with over 360 burials during that period. According to a petition to the city from the Society in 1902, the reason for the abandonment of the old cemetery site is due to “the growth of our city, the increase of population, and the development of the oil industry on the lands adjacent to the cemetery site… It has become almost inaccessible, completely surrounded by oil wells, derricks and tanks, and brick yards and kilns, the smoke from which has so discolored the shrubbery and monuments that they have become lack and unsightly.”
As Los Angeles’s Jewish community continued to grow, new synagogues sprang up, as did new cemeteries. With the removal of the graves in the old cemetery, the Society subsequently sold the majority of the property to the city of Los Angeles, with the city using the property for various usages, including leasing it out as a rubbish dump. Between 1938 and 1941, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built the Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center, a historic art deco building that had served as the induction and training center for more than 20,000 sailors during World War II.
A decade and a half later, leaving behind their devastated fan base in Flatbush, the newly minted Los Angeles Dodgers finally arrived on the west coast in 1958. After playing four seasons in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Dodgers were ready to move to their new home. On April 9, 1962, the Dodgers held a gala opening day ceremony for Dodger Stadium, which would formally open the next day, April 10, when the Dodgers would take on the Cincinnati Reds. The master of ceremonies, Vin Scully (of course), introduced a host of speakers, including O’Malley, baseball commissioner Ford Frick, Cardinal James McIntyre of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Rabbi Edgar Magnin, the legendary “Rabbi to the Stars” and longtime Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. While most likely unintended, as Magnin was an influential leader in the city at that time, it seems fitting that a representative of the Jewish community was on hand to witness the new stadium being built close to the old cemetery site. After his death in 1984, Magnin himself would eventually be buried in the successor cemetery, Home of Peace Memorial Park and Cemetery. Once they took the field in their new home, the Dodgers, who had unexpectedly won the World Series championship in 1959, would continue their string of success in the new stadium, as it won championships again in 1963 and 1965. Of course, it sure helped that O’Malley and the Dodgers came west with a Brooklyn born Jewish southpaw pitcher named Sandy Koufax, who had a brilliant career that ended prematurely to injury after the 1966 season.
With the ascension of Chavez Ravine to a prominent place in the hearts of Angelenos in the 1960s, it was only a few years before the Jewish Federation Council in Los Angeles filed an application to place a commemorating marker near the old cemetery site. The application was approved in January 1968, after historical evidence was provided that the old cemetery involved three “firsts”: It was the first property owned and administered by the Los Angeles Jewish community; the Hebrew Benevolent Society was the first charitable organization in the city; and it was the first sacred Jewish burial place in Southern California.
According to Stephen Sass, President of the Jewish Historical Society of Los Angeles, that old plaque will soon be replaced by a bright new one. In the meantime, if you’re by Dodger Stadium to catch a game or two, consider stopping by and remembering a forgotten piece of Jewish Los Angeles history.
Aaron R. Katz is an associate in the corporate and securities practice at Greenberg Traurig. He lives with his wife and three children in Israel.