Legendary concert promoter Bill Graham made his mark in the Bay Area by establishing several of The City’s benchmark music venues — including the Fillmore and Warfield — while maintaining nearly as high a profile as the acts he filled them with.
A legacy of Graham’s that endures today, however, started from an act of goodwill in which he was uncharacteristically camera shy.
In 1975, Graham, who as a young child was a refugee from Nazi Germany, approached several well-known Jewish religious leaders and inquired about the possibility of staging a public lighting of the menorah, a Jewish symbol that marks the eight holy days of Hanukkah.
Among those Jewish leaders was Rabbi Yosef Langer, then a man in his 20s who leapt at the idea of bringing the menorah to the masses.
With Graham’s financial backing, Langer and others were able to erect and light a 22-foot-tall menorah in Union Square — the first public display of its kind outside Israel.
“Bill was looking for something to take the spirit of Judaism out to the marketplace,” Langer said. “We organized everything because he didn’t want to be very open with his Jewishness. But without him, none of this would have been possible.”
Although Graham, who died in a helicopter crash in 1991, rarely made any formal public appearances at the lighting ceremonies, he always made an effort to slip in and check things out, Langer said.
“I remember one year where I didn’t see Bill,” Langer said. “It was cold, raining, and after a while it was just me, the seagulls and the homeless. Then, he showed up at the very end and gave me a smile. It was very important to him.”
With Graham gone, Langer is now the chief organizer of the event, which is funded by private donors and draws thousands of people each year. Even though the flamboyant music aficionado is gone, Graham’s spirit lives on with each year that the menorah is lit, Langer said.
“He was a very unique individual,” said Langer. “He believed in the universal symbol of the menorah. It’s the message that a little light pushes out the darkness.”
— Will Reisman
Rabbi Yosef Langer
Residence: Richmond district
Education: San Jose State, Hadar Torah/Rabbinical Seminary
Family: Wife, two sons, three daughters
Favorite books: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Discourses
Favorite type of music: Jewish hip-hop, reggae
Favorite sports team: San Francisco Giants
Favorite thing about the Bay Area: The openness of the people
What he wants to be remembered for: “To fulfill the purpose for why I was sent here by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, while leading my service to the people with my heart.”
Role model and inspiration: The Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
If you go
What: Annual lighting of the menorah
When: 3 p.m. Dec. 21
Where: Union Square
Entertainment: Isaiah and the Prophets, a Hasidic Jewish hip-hop group
Expected attendance: 3,500-4,000