Jewish Journal

Israel @ 60:The day that Israel came to town

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Feb. 14, 2008 at 5:00 pm

Reuven Dafni, Israel's first consul general in Los Angeles (second from right) and his wife Rinna are welcomed at Hollywood Bowl celebration by L.A. Mayor and Mrs. Fletcher Bowron. Man on left is unidentified. Photo courtesy of Rinna Samuel

Reuven Dafni, Israel's first consul general in Los Angeles (second from right) and his wife Rinna are welcomed at Hollywood Bowl celebration by L.A. Mayor and Mrs. Fletcher Bowron. Man on left is unidentified. Photo courtesy of Rinna Samuel

This is the first in a series of weekly columns celebrating Israel's 60th anniversary, leading up to Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, in May.
In the summer of 1948, the Jewish State of Israel had just been created, and to celebrate, some 18,000 ecstatic Angelenos jam-packed the Hollywood Bowl to welcome Israel's first diplomat to California.

Reuven Dafni and his wife Rinna were newlyweds at the time and had arrived in Los Angeles only a couple of days earlier to establish the first Israeli consulate for the Western states, the second in the United States after New York.

"We were treated like a prince and princess; we were lionized wherever we went," recalls that new consul-general's wife -- now Rinna Samuel -- looking back 60 years.

Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron addressed the revved-up crowd, as did Dafni and Jewish community leaders. Rabbi Max Nussbaum of Temple Israel of Hollywood, the city's leading Zionist spokesman, made the fundraising appeal, remembers his wife Ruth. Reuven Dafni Reuven Dafni, a World War II hero, was the right man in the right place for a celebrity-oriented city whose entertainment industry was the financial mainstay of the organized Jewish community.

"He was good-looking, well-spoken, and there was a romantic aura about him," Ruth Nussbaum, now 96, remembers vividly.

Dafni, born in Croatia, had parachuted into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia as leader of a four-person team, which included Hannah Senesh, to rescue downed Allied airmen and what Jews they could.

After the war, one of his assignments was to visit Los Angeles and other American cities for clandestine parlor meetings, where large amounts of cash in brown paper bags changed hands to buy arms for the looming struggle in Palestine.

Rinna, the daughter of Meir Grossman, a prominent Zionist leader and journalist, had been educated in Palestine, England and the United States. She had quit her job as a researcher and correspondent at Time magazine to work as a volunteer for the Jewish Agency office in New York.

"One day I was in the office and overheard a handsome man, who had just arrived from Palestine, talking on the phone trying to get tickets for the smash Broadway musical 'Oklahoma,'" she recalls. "It was none of my business, but I, as a knowledgeable New Yorker, broke in to tell him that the show was sold out for years and there wasn't a chance he could get tickets."

The man, who was of course Dafni, turned to her and said, "I'll get two tickets and I'll take you to the show."

And so he did, and they were married exactly one month before Israel declared its independence.

"On the day we were married, Reuven got a call from the United Jewish Appeal [UJA] that he had to leave immediately for a speaking tour across the United States," the then brand-new bride told The Journal recently in a phone call from her home in Rehovot, near Tel Aviv.

When the Dafnis arrived in Los Angeles, the feeling in the Jewish community "was absolutely explosive, and here were Reuven and I, two young people, who symbolized everything the new state had accomplished. People were suddenly so proud of being Jewish," Rinna recounts.

When the Dafnis had their first baby in 1949 at the former Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, it was celebrated as a community event, and the hospital's staff declined to take any money for the delivery.

Among the first friends the Dafnis made was Betty Sheinbaum, then married to Milton Sperling, a prominent movie producer. She was the daughter of Harry Warner, head of the Warner Bros. studio, who was active in bringing Jewish refugees from Europe to the United States in the 1930s and '40s.

The notion of an independent Jewish State in the Middle East was not automatically endorsed at that time, however.

"My father didn't think that Palestine would be a good place for the refugees, and he petitioned President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt, who was a friend, to give Alaska to the Jews," Sheinbaum recalls.

Some American Jews were lukewarm, if not hostile, to the Zionist agenda, especially among the leadership of the Reform movement. Max Nussbaum discovered the bias when the board of Temple Israel of Hollywood interviewed him to become the spiritual leader of the Reform congregation.

The Nussbaums had narrowly escaped Germany and war-torn Europe in 1940, and had spent their first two years in America leading a tiny congregation in Muskogee, Okla.

Temple Israel, whose regular rabbi had joined the army as a chaplain, invited Nussbaum to come for an interview. The refugee rabbi informed the board that he was an ardent Zionist and intended to be an advocate for Zionism from the pulpit.

This did not sit well with some influential directors, and the board went into executive session to weigh the matter.

It is unknown what went on behind closed doors, but in the end the temple decided to hire Nussbaum (see period photo of the Nussbaums, right), despite his ideological tendencies.

However, by the time the Dafnis arrived in Los Angeles, with Israel fighting for its survival, the sheer emotion and elation of the history-making events had swept away reservations about the new Jewish State among all but a small minority of diehard anti-Zionists. Ruth and Max Nussbaum There were also some Jews who hardly noticed the excitement: Among them was Edward Sanders, later to become president of the Jewish Federation and President Jimmy Carter's senior advisor on the Middle East, a 26-year-old law student at USC in 1948. He had spent three years in the U.S. Army, and his wife Rose was expecting their first child.

"I was completely focused on my studies and supporting my family, so what went on in Israel didn't mean that much to me," Sanders says.

To the cosmopolitan Rinna, the initial impression of Los Angeles was a bit of a culture shock."The place was a backwater at the time, without even an art museum," she remembers, "There was only one industry, and that was Hollywood."

She and Reuven, who had lived and breathed Zionism from childhood on, were occasionally taken aback by the relative naivet�(c) of many resident Jews.

"We really had to explain some of the basic concepts and facts about Israel, and that we were struggling for our survival," she says.

Establishing Israel's first diplomatic outpost on the West Coast was not an easy job.

The Dafnis had bought a car in New York and driven across the country, along with two young Israeli women who were to constitute the entire staff of the consulate-general.

The new state was strapped for money, but allocated a small dress allowance so that its representatives would be properly attired. However, there was no money to pay the apartment rent for the two employees, so the Dafnis turned over the dress allowance for that purpose.

No one was assigned to handle press relations, so Rinna put out a newsletter for the consulate and served as her husband's unofficial media adviser.

As the Dafnis' circle of friends expanded, it included many noted artists, such as violinist Jascha Heifetz, cellist Gregory Piatigorsky, actor Lee J. Cobb, writer Michael Blankfort and directors Fred Zinnemann and Jules Dassin.

Then, as now, the support of the entertainment industry was important to Israel, and Hollywood's biggest Jewish event of the year was the UJA fundraiser.

A key part of the evening was the card-calling drill, during which the attending machers announced how large a check they were signing for the cause.

Dafni was the main speaker, and when he got home he told his flu-stricken wife of a remarkable incident.

After the card-calling had ended, a man sitting in the back of the Beverly Hills Hotel ballroom stood up to complain that his name had not been called.

"And what is your name, Sir?" asked the UJA official, and the man responded, "Cary Grant."

Israelis even then were excited to come to Los Angeles and see Hollywood: Among the early visitors were Abba Eban, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, and Teddy Kollek, the future mayor of Jerusalem.

The initial distinguished guest was Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, and for the occasion the Dafnis had invited the top community leaders for an elaborate luncheon at their home.

As Rinna went to the dining room for a last-minute check of the preparations, she was met by a horrifying sight.

"I couldn't even see the table because all the food was covered by swarms of flying termites," she recalls with a shudder.

The luncheon quickly adjourned to a nearby restaurant.

After three years, the Dafnis, new daughter in tow, returned to Israel. Reuven Dafni went on to a distinguished career in the diplomatic service and at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial authority. He died in 2005.

Rinna Samuel, whose second husband was David Samuel, a prominent Weitzman Institute scientist, is the author of widely read books on modern Israel and its leaders and served as editor of Rehovot magazine, published by the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Looking back on the solid relationships they helped establish between the new Jewish state and the American Southwest, Rinna can justifiably claim, "We helped to create history."

Photo information:

  • Los Angeles' first Israeli Consul General Reuven Dafni at his desk. Photo courtesy of Rinna Samuel
  • Ruth and Max Nussbaum at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Gabriel Nussbaum

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