Places of Worship

by Anthony Mohr

Hebrew book on a shelf

In 1961, when I was fourteen, downtown Los Angeles was a gritty place to flee at sundown, full of drunks, addicts, and prostitutes. My pal Robbie wanted to take me there. He loved it. He’d walk down Main Street, wander through pawn shops, and meet what, many years later, he would call “a diversity of people that I imagined as hoboes and poets.” He was enamored of them. Maybe it was because he was the son and stepson of writers that he hunted down experiences “in search of the soul of man”—his words.

I wasn’t brave enough to tag along.

Robbie and I had known each other since I was a baby and he was a toddler. Our mothers were high school friends and enjoyed throwing us together. We played on my jungle gym; he introduced me to baseball, the sport he adored. He rode the bus to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where he sold programs during Dodger games. (Dodger Stadium wouldn’t open until 1962.)

I was two years younger than Robbie and twice as cautious, afraid to venture out of Beverly Hills, the cocoon in which we lived and went to school. As teenagers that was Beverly Hills High. My parents kept me busy with tennis lessons and piano lessons, along with sailing and snorkeling.

After a lot of pressure, I relented and said yes to Robbie’s urging to visit downtown. But on one condition: we wouldn’t hitchhike. So we took the bus.

For my debut visit Robbie picked a piece of urban blight called Pershing Square, which was full, he said, of “religious fanatics.”

Like Robbie, I was an unobservant Jew, as removed as possible from Judaism’s rituals and traditions thanks to my father, who had no use for any faith. He laughed at all of them—not just the rabbis but the clerics, evangelists, and sky pilots who ranted on Sunday-morning television. “Mongoloid idiots,” he called them during breakfast as he ate his eggs and burnt bacon and lit another Virginia Rounds cigarette.

Before turning into a wasteland, Pershing Square had been grand, a public space spanning a city block with palm trees and statues of a doughboy, a bronze cannon, a soldier from the Spanish-American War, and—I guess to fulfill someone’s humanities requirement—Ludwig van Beethoven. By the time Robbie and I arrived, the park had morphed into an underground parking garage with a bit of grass on top along with a few scrawny trees. The palm trees had been carted away to Disneyland, where they lined Adventureland’s Jungle Cruise.

With his slight build, Robbie was at least two inches shorter than I. Although almost anyone in the square could have taken him in a fight, I clung to his side, not knowing what to expect and fearing the worst.

We came across a stout man dressed in a light-tan suit and standing on a soapbox. I was sure he’d been blond, once. His eyebrows still were—sort of—but most of his hair had gone to gray. He had a pasty complexion and a flinty face. His veiny hand held a Bible.

“Most of you know, though you won’t admit it, that those who don’t accept the word of God are going to hell.” He didn’t shout, he didn’t gesture, but his reedy voice was stern.

He said it a second time, that without God in our lives, we’d go to hell. Then he looked straight at Robbie and me. “Let me repeat that. The gospel says…” And once more he promised us hell, all nine circles of it.

The only other sounds came from traffic in the streets. The odor of exhaust fumes hung in the air. I viewed the scene like an anthropologist in the field except that, unlike a good anthropologist, I wasn’t neutral. I suppressed a smile. I couldn’t understand why this person would waste his time preaching to a bunch of strangers. Maybe he was mentally ill. That was my attitude, the product of hearing my father call places of worship “monuments to ignorance.”

Robbie tapped my arm and said he was sure nobody else at school had been here.

He was right, at least about my close friends. We spent our free days playing Marco Polo in swimming pools or lazing at Tee’s Beach in Santa Monica, just below the California Incline and next to the Sand and Sea Club, where many of our parents belonged.

From under a tree across the square, a loud voice interrupted us. A man was gyrating and waving his arms. “Oh, wonderful savior!” he shouted. No soapbox for him. He needed space to move about and flail and draw a crowd. And a crowd he certainly drew. Shot full of wonder, I moved in faster than Robbie.

On he went, shrieking New Testament phrases, his angular face dripping sweat and his hair soggy. His bulging eyes resembled an insect’s. “Give us this day, oh wonderful savior. Our daily bread. Oh, wonderful savior.” He had a booming, deep voice, and as he raved, saliva flew everywhere. For the first time I was looking at an individual my father would have called a holy roller. I thought this preacher was a lunatic, but Robbie later called him passionate.

At school we had learned about freedom of religion. We were taught that we needed to respect and try to understand everyone, including these Pershing Square zealots. Robbie absorbed that lesson long before I did.

“Oh, wonderful savior,” the man said yet again. He spun and stared at Robbie and me, then pivoted left to glare at the others. The crowd had swelled to at least forty, everyone listening, no one saying a thing. It was hard to tell if they were polite because he was convincing them or because he was amusing them. Whichever, he ranted on, dancing and spitting as he preached. “Only the Lord’s gonna save you. What can King do for you? What can Kennedy do for you? Only our wonderful savior can help you.”

Kennedy. It was an April weekend, barely a hundred days into the New Frontier, and like most of my classmates, I brimmed with optimism, eager to help “get this country moving again.” Part of me wanted to challenge the speaker, to practice what I’d learned in debate class, but most of me was sane enough to say nothing.

Someone did interrupt. A voice from behind us interjected a reference to race, something like, “The Bible has only white people.” The moment he said that, a second voice, also from behind, shrilled, “You’re wrong. Praise God. Solomon was black.”

“Oh, wonderful savior,” said the orator, as if he’d heard nothing.

From the other side of the crowd, an African-American woman cried out, “Solomon’s white.”

“Solomon was the blackest man in the Bible, lady,” shouted another voice.

“That’s right,” another called out. “And if you don’t know that, you don’t know your Bible.”

Someone else spoke up. “You think you know the Good Book? Come up here and preach the word. Come on; come up here.”

“Oh, wonderful savior.”

When someone yelled that the Bible was a white man’s book, more voices erupted, a couple began to curse, and Robbie started easing away.

I wanted to stay. This promised to be an exciting match and I was feeling fearless.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Robbie said. He yanked my arm, hard.

Heading home, trading hoots and expletives about the day, I didn’t appreciate the contrast between the intense faith of the people we’d seen and our own beliefs, two Jewish boys about as disconnected from their heritage as possible without becoming apostates. The only religion I’d been exposed to, except for a brief unit on the Bible during eighth-grade literature, came from two Jewish members of Beverly High’s speech team who’d picked sermons by Jonathan Edwards and Aimee Semple McPherson to use in tournaments.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t reflect on the absence of Jewish speakers in the square. We didn’t know our religion well enough to understand: Jews don’t proselytize; they debate. Consider the Maggid section of the Passover Haggadah:

Once, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon were participating in a Seder in B’nai Berak. They were discussing the Exodus from Egypt all that night until their students came and said to them: ‘Our Masters, the time has come to pray the morning Shema.’

Robbie and I never heard of such a debate, let alone a Talmudic discussion. I was quite unaware of this event until my early twenties. Nor, in our world, were Robbie and I unique. We matched the Jews at Beverly Hills High, many from families who could have been mistaken for Protestants. The statistic most of us bandied about put the percentage of Jews at our school at eighty-five. (In a self-published book, our principal—an evangelical Christian—wrote that it was almost ninety.)

We came from solid Ashkenazi stock. An outsider would have matched, in appearance and attitude, the kids at Beverly High with the student bodies at Miss Porter’s and Choate. The school’s language curriculum included French, Spanish, Latin, and German, but not Hebrew. And Yiddish? Feh. Of course not. There were no yarmulke-wearing Jews on campus. The cafeteria wasn’t kosher. Although many Jews then, as now, refused to listen to Richard Wagner because of his antisemitism, in 1961, the school district put on a musical extravaganza that opened with the Overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and featured the elementary school glee clubs singing, among other numbers, a gospel piece and “God of Our Fathers,” a nineteenth century Christian hymn. When Robbie was twelve his mother and father asked what he preferred: to play in Little League or have a bar-mitzvah. Without a pause Robbie said, “Little League.”

There were b’nai mitzvahs but I missed them. I don’t recall any of our friends regularly going to temple. Or my parents sitting me down and narrating the struggles of our ancestors—surviving pogroms, coming to America, facing anti-Semitism here. I don’t remember hearing Jewish music until adulthood.

As for the Holidays: until I was seven I’d never heard of Hanukah. I never saw a menorah on campus; Beverly High held Christmas assemblies. (The year before I arrived, I was told they split the program, half Hanukah and half Christmas, but an ensuing parental firestorm stopped that.)

One of our holiday plays was Amahl and the Night Visitors, an opera featuring the Christ child healing a little boy who needed a crutch to walk. I never missed the annual Christmas Eve tree-trimming party at the home of the president of the Board of Education, also Jewish, whose son was a close friend. They did it all: eggnog, Christmas cookies, and hanging ornaments on the tree. A log crackled in the fireplace. Hardly unique, such parties. Christmas had become an American holiday as much as, if not more than, a Christian one. And this was Beverly Hills, home to the movie-makers. Would anybody expect Beverly Hills to shun Christmas in favor of Hanukah, which was, after all, a so-so holiday, ranking far below Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Passover?

I wish that Robbie and I had sat down for an hour with the speakers in Pershing Square. My guess is they had Southern roots, a place steeped in a tradition of itinerant preachers, singing and praying, where faith was an experience.

Eventually I compared Judaism with these preachers. Judaism may not foster missionaries, but it has the power to draw its people back, even if not until middle age. The family who had the annual Christmas party? Their son became a bar mitzvah in his forties, and then he joined the board of his temple. Another of our high school classmates, now a well-known movie producer, became a bar mitzvah at fifty. Even I managed to carve a slit of daylight between my father and me by attending religious services everywhere I traveled. I confess that it’s been more from curiosity than spirituality. But it’s also a desire to learn.

In 1987, at age forty, I visited Israel. Two days after my arrival, with the sun high in the sky, a few friends led me to the Western Wall for my bar mitzvah. As we stood there a bearded rabbi opened the Torah to the Book of Genesis, and I stumbled through the transliteration he handed me. My bar mitzvah was a compressed ceremony, designed for American tourists coming through, but I took it seriously, and at the end the rabbi seized my hand. “Today you are a man. Mazel tov!” He said this with passion, and as he spoke a drop of saliva hit my shoulder. The rabbi handed me a certificate. I turned and faced the wall, sixty-two feet high. Wedged between the stones were tiny pieces of paper, notes from the hundreds of thousands who had come before me. I added to this collection—a note to my father, who’d died nineteen years earlier. Even if he verged on apostacy, he deserved a remembrance. The moment I touched the wall, a tender jolt of static electricity entered my hand. Others have said they’ve felt the same sensation.

Category: Featured, Nonfiction