Israel Expo ‘75: Blockbuster event drew 75,000

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

In our decade-by-decade look-back at the 50 years since the inception of the St. Louis Jewish Light as an autonomous publication with its own independent board of trustees, we have reached the 1970s. There is no shortage of events to review including: the Yom Kippur War, which started on Oct. 6, 1973 and which was the deadliest of the Arab-Israeli wars, costing over 2,600 Israeli lives.

In contrast to the nearly miraculous Israeli victories in its 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur invasion by Egypt and Syria caught Israel completely by surprise. Not until General Ariel (Arik) Sharon, came up with the brilliant strategy of doing an end-run around Egypt’s Third Army did the tide finally turn in Israel’s favor. But the exuberance which had greeted Israel’s lighting victory in the Six-Day War was replaced by deep mourning over the loss of life and the shattering of the belief that Israel’s military was virtually invincible.

The American Jewish community, including that of St. Louis, was still very pro-Israel and there was no sharp disagreement among American Jews of all political and ideological stripes about the need to be supportive of the humanitarian needs of the Jewish State. But there was clearly a strong need to dispel the dark clouds left after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. 

Local Jewish community leaders Paul and Diane Gallant, both current or former members of the St. Louis Jewish Light Board of Trustees, became co-chairs of ISRAEL EXPO ‘75, which assembled a broad-based committee to literally transform the Jewish Community Center facilities into a virtual replica of the “sights, sounds and smells” of the State of Israel, and which during its week-long run  May 4-11, 1975, drew a record total number of 75,000 visitors to its many exhibits, shows, lectures and presentations by artists-in-residence.

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If the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair is the premiere local event which put our general community on the map, Israel Expo ‘75 achieved the same result for the Jewish community of St. Louis. A detailed and extremely accurate full-color replica of the Western Wall, designed and constructed locally by Grady-Larkin, was the dominant backdrop for all of the week’s events.

The event was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation and the JCC. “The success of Israel Expo ‘75 proves that the St. Louis Jewish community is capable of marshaling its total resources of time, energy and talent in behalf of a totally new concept,” said the Gallants at the time.

The expo had to overcome skepticism here and abroad. Prominent members of the Jewish community expressed doubts that such a massive event could be pulled off. They were even initially rebuffed by the late Pinhas Sapir, Finance Minister of the Israeli government who expressed doubts that the ambitious plan could be turned into a reality. But the nay-sayers both here and in Israel were proved wrong.

At the opening night Gala, the EXPOnents, the hundreds of committee chairs and other volunteers, in the words of a story I penned at the time, “were greeted with a mind-boggling phantasmagoria of sights, sounds and textures of Israel, which grew more and more realistic as the week progressed. By the closing day of Expo, one had the impression that he or she was passing through the winding streets of Jerusalem in the elaborate bazaar and dining area constructed by an imaginative team of volunteer architects and builders.” Morris Sterneck, chair of the physical plant “deserves special praise for coordinating the complex logistics.”

Each night and each day brought new artists, dancers, comedians and entertainers to Expo. Yankel Ginzberg, a prominent Israeli painter, served as artist-in-residence, who sold more than 80 of his paintings. Ervin and Sarah Rodin also arranged for scores of “min-lectures” on art and other subjects.

Of course the Expo experience was enhanced by authentic Israeli food, including falafel, which has since become a popular and well-known treat, but which in 1975 was not well known by St. Louisans who had never visited the State of Israel.

In the course of the week, Expo visitors consumed 8,000 falafels, 4,500 beef kabobs, 5,000 cheese blintzes, 16,000 knishes, 2,150 pieces each of ribbon cake, strudel and pound cake.

I commented at the time, “While the mere listing of such blockbuster foods might sound like the first half of an Alka-Seltzer commercial, the food was superbly prepared and served with Jewish warmth by a volunteer army of men and women (including my own mother) who stood for long hours, facing hungry mobs in intense heat. They also served who only stood and ate.”

Israel Expo ’75 was a singularly spectacular and successful event proving that in its ability to put on a major event (and come in under budget), the Jewish community of St. Louis takes a back seat to no other. 

‘Cohnipedia’ is the online feature by Editor-in-Chief Emeritus  Robert A. Cohn, chronicling St. Louis’ Jewish history. Visit Cohnipedia online at www.stljewishlight.com/cohn.