Kever Avot: Visiting the Graves of the Ancestors

The Jewish tradition of visiting the cemetery during the High Holy Days

EAST LOS ANGELES – It is a very special Jewish custom that during the Days of Awe – the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – that one visit the cemeteries, to consider our mortality like that of our forefathers. And to visit the graves of our ancestors.

I recently went to the annual Kever Avot memorial service at Home of Peace Memorial Park in East Los Angeles. Several families from my synagogue have loved ones buried here and so were in attendance on this day. And I also have many friends who have loved ones buried here as well. So I came out to pay my respects to our eastside mishpacha and some of my favorite Jewish heroes.

 

So what is this custom of visiting the cemeteries during the holy days?

In the Jewish calendar there are two very important dates in the fall. The first is Rosh HaShanah, the head of the year; when every year one acknowledges the Divine as being King over us all. On that day we celebrate with anticipation the hope of being declared for a good new year by the King.

Though on Yom Kippur the day is more solemn; it is the day of atonement. When we consider G-d as the King sitting in judgment over us for based on our deeds; and therefore we seek atonement for our sins through repentance, prayer and charity. It is a day of fasting and people wearing white garments like a burial shrouds. On this day we remember that we are but mere mortals, who will one days perish and all that will remain is the memory and merit of our deeds.

And likewise it is also said in the Jewish tradition, on Rosh HaShanah the declaration is written in the Book of Life, who will live and who will die in that year. And on Yom Kippur, this fate is then sealed.

So in the ten days between these two most holy days, one is encouraged to visit the grave sites of their loved ones and teachers. To reinforce this understanding in the most vivid way.

Although I must make the case that most Jews also come out to visit the graveyards on these days between the high holy days for less pious and mystical reasons.

The graveyard visits became a pervasive custom since days of old for more obvious reasons; because when the holidays come people just miss their loved ones so much. And it’s felt most deeply during the high holy days.

It can be overwhelming sometime, when someone you love and have spent a lifetime of joyous holidays memories with, and then for them to no longer be there. And sometimes it just really hits one at the core, as you hear that holiday melody your zaydie taught you. And as you make that recipe that you and your bubbie used to make together. And as a mother and father passes away, while they remain alive to you in your vivid holiday memories; it can be entirely overwhelming.

The Jewish tradition recognizes this. It has given us several ways of affirming that sense of loss and turning it into soulful remembrance. One is the visiting of the resting places of our dearly departed. The other is special memorial services with solemn prayers that are recited during the midst of the holidays; the Yizkor service; the name comes from the Hebrew word zachor, which means to remember.

And that is how the tradition of the Kever Avot – which in Hebrew literally means the grave of the ancestors – has come to be.

In this video I invite you to come with me to observe this tradition today at Home of Peace Cemetery, and a quick peek into the lesser known Mount Zion and Agudath Achim orthodox cemeteries.

Home of Peace Cemetery is the oldest of the Jewish cemeteries that in continual use to this day, and is the relocation of the original “Old Jewish Cemetery” founded by the Hebrew Benevolent Society near Chavez Ravine, near the base of today’s Dodger Stadium until it was evicted at the start of the 20th century; as discussed on my Lost Cemeteries of Los Angeles Tour.” In the years between 1901 and 1903 almost all of the 360 burials were transferred to this then newly dedicated Jewish sacred burial site. Making this site one of the most deeply historical Jewish sites in all of the city.

And to me, it is all together lovely. Where I hope to come to my final rest some day.

DID YOU KNOW? In the most ancient times of Jewish history the Yizkor service was only recited once a year; during Yom Kippur. However, eventually it became four times a year according to the widespread Ashkenazi tradition of Central and Eastern European Jews. In the aftermath of the massacres of the middle-ages and crusades that had decimated their communities. Thereafter people were so grieved that they began demanding more liturgical opportunities during the holidays to acknowledges their loved ones. In the Sephadic and Mizrahi tradition this is not generally the custom, though it is has come to be adopted by some western-influenced Sephardic synagogues in America.

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Sounds of the Jewish High Holy Days in Classic Boyle Heights

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Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt once sang at the Breed Street Shul for the High Holy Days

Breed Street Shul sanctuary, Boyle Heights

Breed Street Shul sanctuary, Boyle Heights

Just imagine the sounds of the Breed Street Shul of Boyle Heights during her heights of glory in the 1920s. For the High Holy Days the congregation would hire famous liturgical cantors. Sparing no expense to get the best talent. Notably, the greatly celebrated Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt once came to lead High Holy Days.

This is what it would have sounded like this very night in the old Breed Street Shul some 90-years ago, but being an orthodox congregation performed without an organ accompaniment. This is his haunting and solemn Kol Nidrei, for the evening of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement):

In the old days the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, was home to dozens of synagogues. There were over thirty Jewish congregation of various sizes, varying from home congregations and shteible minyans, to great synagogues. I am told that on high holy days the young people would often wander from shul to shul, in order to see their friends and slip in to experience the sounds of each of the congregations.

Though the most grand of the shuls, the one which really drew the crowds, was the queen of the shuls, it was Congregation Talmud Torah – also known as the Breed Street Shul

In the well-known documentary about Jewish Boyle Heights called “Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto,” when they begin to introduce the story of the Breed Street Shul they start with this interesting anecdote:

Manny Zellman: “During the great depression that shul, which was the largest synagogue west of Chicago, drew people from all over. And when they would hire a cantor they would hire the best. The most famous cantor in the United States was a man by the name of Rosenblatt, they would pay that man for 3 days $5,000 dollars. That’s what most people worked two years to make.”

Now, I only know of Cantor Rosenblatt leading High Holy Days once at the historic Breed Street Shul. However, this is impressive enough to boast all on its own!

Cantor Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt (May 9, 1882 – June 19, 1933) came to America from the Ukraine and was regarded to be among the greatest cantors of all time. He is well-recognized as the most influential chazzan of the Golden Age of classical cantoral music.

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Sings a Synagogue Service. Recorded and pressed by RCA.

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Sings a Synagogue Service. Recorded and pressed by RCA.

One of the most interesting things about listening to his liturgical music is his metered style and emotional delivery. His use of krekhts, or emotional sobs and breaks in his voice intended to deliver the emotion of the song. He would inspire generations of cantors and liturgical soloists.

There are many recordings of Rosenblatt. He and the other cantors of this golden age of cantoral music would be made famous across Europe and America through the wide distribution of their recorded albums.

Also, it is important to note that the latter part of his life coincided with the rise of talking films. He would even be featured in the 1927 film “The Jazz Singer,” the first talkie; playing himself. Which is still the ultimate kol nidrei related movie.

In the film a wayward Jewish son who had become a jazz singer would by chance come across a concert featuring Cantor Rosenblatt, who would move the young man’s heart with familiar melodies like those his father sang from the bima of his childhood shul. Stirring his soul and ultimately bringing him home to become the cantor himself.

Interesting, the concert scene in the film was staged as taking place in Chicago, even though it was most certainly filmed right here in Los Angeles.

Rosenblatt came to Hollywood in 1927 to be featured in this role. This would be the same year that he would notoriously perform the High Holy Day services at the Breed Street Shul.

Cantor Rosenblatt wrote over one hundred and eighty compositions, some of which had been originally recorded on vinyl and then digitized in recent years.

And several of these great pieces have even been rearranged with instrumental accompaniment for new compilations in recent years. As a historian and also as a liturgist, these recordings are both comforting and a bit crazy-making at the same time.

It’s comforting that we have many recordings by which to sample his talent at the heights of his career.

However, it’s also crazy-making to hear his rich voice running in with organs in old records made for RCA distribution. And to hear his singing run over by elaborate piano accompaniment added to newly remastered versions of the original recordings, by modern-day musicians who naively believe that they are restoring and “fixing” these recordings, which essentially mutilates these pieces. This is really not the way they were truly intended to sound… and so we need to overcome some of that mental distraction, in order to really feel these melodies the same way an actual congregation would have.

In the orthodox tradition, these songs were generally performed without instruments; which are consider muktzeh (forbidden to tend to on Shabbat and Holy Days) according to traditional Jewish law. These songs would have been performed by choirs to carry the melody and to fill out the sound, and not have relied on instruments.

In keeping with orthodox Jewish tradition, you will notice the Breed Street Shul does not have an organ. We know for certain that the services here were performed acapella, and if accompanied it would have been with an all men’s or boy’s ensemble.

I am told by my good friend Don Hodes who grew up here in the 1930s, that his father was a talented singer who sang for High Holy Days. And he tells me that the holiday services were led by a special performing chazzan (cantor), the shul’s own chazzan, and three young men singing from the bima.


Historical topics we will continue to explore:

the-jazz-singerIt is widely believed that the Kol Nidre scene from “The Jazz Singer” (1927) was filmed at the Breed Street Shul. Though many claim that the talkie starring Al Jolson was filmed at the Breed Street Shul, this is a total bubbameister. It’s often repeated both as a Jewish myth and as a Latino urban legend. However, it should be noted that in the 1980 version of “The Jazz Singer” with Neil Diamond the Kol Nidre scene was filmed in the sanctuary of the Breed Street Shul.

The Breed Street Shul had a big role in the establishment of the Orthodox Jewish community of Los Angeles. Prior to this shul there were many congregations which identified as orthodox by default. However, most of these early congregations were quite modern in their actual practice; some having musical organs and most allowing mixed-gender seating to allow families to sit together. The early Jewish settlers of Los Angeles were mostly German and Polish Jews – Central European Jews – who at first shirked at calling themselves reform and instead thought of themselves as innovating orthodox Judaism.

Though this would not do for the newly arriving Eastern European Jews coming from places like Russia and Lithuania who swelled into this neighborhood. As well as those coming in from Romania and Hungary, they didn’t know from these things. They were not familiar with these reforms, and wanted to keep the traditions of the old country which they had brought with them.

Breed Street Shul, Los AngelesThe Breed Street Shul was therefore very orthodox in practice. This synagogue was built with a women’s balcony (ezrat nashim), an area where ladies would be seated separately to not distract the attention of men during prayer. Though several other local shuls built second story galleries, some of them were not actually used for gender separation in the end. In the case of the Breed Street Shul it was certainly used as a women’s gallery.

In this building we would have heard the room entirely filled with the rumbling voices of davening from men on the sanctuary floor below, with the sound of the ladies faintly coming from the balcony above.

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Rekindling our Jewish holiday spirit in Boyle Heights

The story of the new menorah from an old Jewish shop founded on the eastside

20151208_174952The joy of the holidays are found in that warmth we get from remembering holidays past, and the magic of the season is found in how we rekindle these memories anew.

During the winter months the cultural and religious traditions of the area seem to shine the brightest. When during the winter months people of our various cultures display their festive ways to bring brightness to the darkest time of the year. When the days and short and the night are longest, the spirit inside of us just longs to brighten up the darkness.

Catholics brighten up these winter nights in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights with las posadas (processions) and bright nativities; from Christmas time and through Three Kings Day. Protestants as well, with their stirring candlelit Christmas vigils. And our Armenian neighbors too, with their celebrations of the eastern orthodox Feast of the Nativity and Epiphany also on January 6th; when their churches will light lamps and the faithful will hold candles according to their ancient custom, symbolic of the presence of the holy spirit in their lives (yes, we even have an Armenian Catholic church in the area as well!).

These are commonly shared themes in many faith traditions.

And the holidays are nothing if not about tradition! If you haven’t noticed, I’m a pretty old school cat. So I get a lot of joy out of keeping the old traditions alive.

Olive Oil Chanukah Menorah (Chanukiah)One of the ways I have been connecting to our old school Jewish heritage of the area over the past few years has been to light old classic style olive oil Chanukah lights with my friends in the community of Boyle Heights. To share the celebration of the miracle of the oil lamps – commemorating when in ancient times Jewish rebels recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, relighting the Menorah’s sacred oil lights that were miraculously sustained for eight days on one day’s oil, until more sacred oil could be made.

This is a bright celebration of culture and faith, overcoming imperialism and hegemony. And as the haftarah reading from the prophets for this holiday reminds us: “Not by might, nor by power but by My spirit says the L-rd of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6); this is a festival when we celebrate the power of spirit over militaristic might.

This is a message many of us around here can identify with culturally, if not religiously. Among my friends it has been a time to share Jewish traditional holiday treats and stories of our warmest memories of years gone by, sometimes joined by a few local Jews who grew up in the area and who are still found in these parts.

This year we were intent on lighting the Chanukah lights up on top of the Sixth Street Bridge for the last time, before the bridge comes down. As the viaduct is set for demolition over the next few weeks. Ordinary I do havdalah on the bridge, so figured I could pull it off with Chanukah lights. So I brought with me a most beautiful, silvery chanukiah to light – a traditional Chanukah menorah, and lit it on the Boyle Heights side of the bridge just east of the river.

Maybe you had seen me and my friends out there in the first few nights of the festival (before the rain came in), lighting the menorah in view of the bright Los Angeles skyline:

In previous years, I have brought travel sized menorahs and done guerrilla-style lightings around town. Though last year I had promised that I would buy a new, big boy’s sized menorah, to add some beauty to the mitzvah of lighting with olive oil lamps; one which is reminiscent of what many Jewish families of the area would have used in the classic days of the Yiddish eastside.

The question is, where do you find such a thing around here? Are there any Jewish bookstores or Judaica shops in the area? Aside from the small gift-shops at our local synagogues, where does a local find their religious Jewish items?

One of my favorite shops is Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, on Fairfax Ave. in mid-city, but was originally founded right here in Boyle Heights. In fact, I often find myself buying from shops off Fairfax which used to be located right in our own eastside community when Boyle Heights was then the heart of the LA Jewish community!

Solomon’s was founded in Boyle Heights almost 80 years ago, operating a shop on Brooklyn Ave. (now Cesar E. Chavez Ave.) just a couple of doors down from the original location of Canter’s Deli. They were among the businesses which later relocated to the Fairfax with the mass migration of Jewish families heading that way some 70 years ago.

Today as both Boyle Heights and Fairfax are once again going through tremendous changes which seem to be jeopardizing the classic and cultural character of these neighborhoods, it’s nice to know that some family run businesses like these are somehow managing to remain in loving service to our changing communities.

Learn more about the history of Solomon’s and the rent hike issues being faced in Fairfax see: “Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, founded in Boyle Heights.”

After having a wonderful time lighting the new menorah on the old Sixth Street Bridge in it’s final days, people keep asking where I’m going to do a public lighting for Chanukah next year.

The suggestion I really like the most is that maybe next year we should do a public lighting off of old Brooklyn Ave. itself, where the story all started. To really bring this cultural history which we share together completely full-circle!

Happy holidays and a blessed new year to one and all!

Some nice shots of the Chanukah menorah from the LA eastside:

Kosher Food Businesses Displaced for New Sixth Street Bridge

The Final Days of the Kosher Food and Wine Business of Boyle Heights

One of the leasts known facts about the community of Boyle Heights, is that until recently it remained a very relevant hub in the daily Jewish life. Up until the past month, our kosher wines and foods used to be mostly distributed from right here in the lower industrial section of the Flats.

In the shadow of the classic Sixth Street Bridge, sat two special Jewish business. Which were located in the lower industrial section on Anderson Road.

The larger of the kosher food plants used to be run by Teva Foods:

“At Teva Foods, we bring together the goodness of nature and the flavors of fine Mediterranean cuisine in every pack of our Hummus, Dip and Salad. We use only the freshest ingredients, handpicked by our team of experts, to make sure that what you eat is healthy and tasty.”

Many of our local residents were employed at this plant, doing jobs like peeling the raw garlic for their products. Processing natural products under the supervision of the Orthodox Union.

The other the business has been my favorite by far, Shalom and Son’s Wholesale Foods:

“Shalom & Sons is a family owned full service direct store delivery distributor of kosher and health food products in Los Angeles, California. As a company, we are dedicated to providing outstanding service, while responding to the every day needs of the retail and institutional industries. We currently service the greater Los Angeles area, as well as the cities of Orange County, Santa Barbara County, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Arizona and Las Vegas.

“Shalom & Sons represents some of the largest food manufacturers in the kosher and health food industries, and is the exclusive west coast distributor of many kosher product lines…”

Though I had not met the owners of these business until recently, I have appreciated their presence here in the community for years.

Their facilities have long sat right along my favorite path I walk towards home. They have been a familiar presence for as long as I can remember. So you can only imagine my shock when I walked by one day and saw the Teva plant entirely demolished and hauled away.

Shalom and Son's Wholesale Foods, Anderson Street.

Shalom and Son’s Wholesale Foods, Anderson Street.

It was just the day after the groundbreaking for the new Sixth Street Viaduct that I noticed the demolition beginning in the area surrounding the footprint of the bridge.  Already busy were the sounds of tractors and hauling trucks. Contractors scurrying about. Electrical crews rushing as they redirect the old power cables.

In concern I went into the offices of the Shalom and Son’s to inquire of them.

“How is our business being effected? We’re being forced to move!” responded Shalom, the owner, in exasperation. “We don’t want to move. We’re very happy here, but the city has bought our land. We have to move now.”

Shalom explained that his business had been in the neighborhood for over 20 year. Growing from a small family business to becoming a major stakeholder in the kosher food and natural food industry at this site.

Their operations had take residency on both sides of Anderson Street. Their business offices and cold storage facility, being located at 638 S. Anderson Street. And across from them on the  west side of the street at 631 S. Anderson Street, was located their kosher wine storage.

“It was only the larger facility across the street that they wanted at first. Over there is where we actually keep the Kedem and all that.” Shalom said. Referring to the special kosher grape juice by brand, a necessary staple for making sacramental blessings over wine.

The cold storage facility of Shalom and Son's

The cold storage facility of Shalom and Son’s

This is something that I totally appreciate hearing about, as kosher wine is very special part of the Jewish tradition. It is a liquid symbol of joy, which is used in every religious celebration and life-cycle event in our tradition.

It is also something which requires special care in preparation and handling to maintain its kashrut – meaning it’s ritually appropriate status. This special care taken by Jewish producers and distributors also makes this a premium product of the highest order.

“In the end, we also had to get them to buy this building too.” Shalom explains, referring to the small offices and cold storage facility. Explaining that without their larger wine storage across the way, the smaller facility could no longer suit the needs of their mainstay business. Their operation was being divided.

He explains that with the compensation from the city they are planning on relocating to Vernon with tension in his voice. Like he’s painfully imagining the notorious density and congestion of that area.

I had to appreciate his sentiments. He is situated right here in the middle of the East Los Angeles Interchange of freeways, which sends traffic in every direction. Close to every on-ramp. Ideal for a distribution business like his. And also located in a less dense area, here in an almost sleepy underside of the Sixth Street Bridge.

Shalom, owner of Shalom and Son's. In his office on Anderson Street.

Shalom, owner of Shalom and Son’s: “Money isn’t the issue. When they give me money to set-up elsewhere in Vernon, I’m no better off. Because this is where I want to be. I’m happy here.”

Expressing even though they did buy out his property, he’s still not any better off than any other displaced person. Namely because this is where he wants to be. Stating if he wanted to move he would moved years ago. Holding his arms out he says, “Who would want to leave this? I’m happy here!”

As I looked at the amazing view just outside the doorway, I had to share his sentiments.

As I was visiting their site the business was in the middle of their biggest rush of the year. Everyone is rushing about their operation. We were just weeks before the Passover holiday. When their products are in highest demand.

Wanting to get out of their hair, I asked Shalom if I could snap a photo of him for my historical archives. He smiled for the camera. And I shuffled on my way.

See my very impassioned video, taken immediately after my visit:

This area of the surrounding the Sixth Street Viaduct is going to continue to change dramatically in the weeks to come. As businesses are finished being cleared to make way for the upcoming bridge demolition of the bridge above. The changes are breathtaking.

The location of the kosher food and wine fascilities: In red are the sites which have already been demolished.

The location of the kosher food and wine facilities: In red are the sites which have already been demolished.

The lots where Shalom and Son’s and Teva used to operate will become the storage and processing sites for the rubble from the bridge demolition. As the city agree to restrict the processing to the Boyle Heights side of the river, and not on the already gentrified downtown Art’s District side.

It should also be noted that this is not the only lopsided concession to the downtown Art’s District. which secured an amphitheater and some sort of arts park feature in their area’s redevelopment.

The land here on the much larger east side will remain greatly undeveloped as open fields and bike paths. With only an afterthought of an soccer field feature being planned for the empty field left in and near the footprint of the bridge. [See “The Inequity of the New Sixth Street Bridge Plan.“]

In the most typical fashion and according to the way this community has always been treated, the city is taking what it wants for its roads here and is carelessly tossing aside the rest.

And so we see right before our eyes, the past revisiting us. As the major Jewish businesses of the area are once again leaving the neighborhood, for no other reason than being displaced by road works.

Shalom and Son's Wholesale Foods, Anderson Street, Boyle Heights Flats. The larger building on the left of was the kosher wine facility, on the left is their old offices.

Shalom and Son’s Wholesale Foods, Anderson Street, Boyle Heights Flats. The larger building on the left was their kosher wine facility (now demolished), and on the right is their old offices.

For many years the subject of Boyle Heights had fallen out of the public consciousness. Few people seemed to remember the old neighborhood until recent years. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a Jewish presence proudly doing business here all along.

Often times I have traveled all over Los Angeles, to enjoy and also lead Jewish ritual. And most often as I introduce myself, people have seemed shocked that I come hailing from Boyle Heights

A neighborhood which is tarnished, if not discounted entirely as less than “kosher” (on many levels) in many people’s minds.

In retort I always was armed with, “Boyle Heights is plenty kosher! You’re wine here for this simcha (joyous occasion), makes its way to this and every table in the area by way of our neighborhood.”

I’m really going to miss saying that!

Thank you to Shalom and Son’s and Teva Foods. For over twenty-years of service to the Boyle Heights community.

To see what the area was like before the demolitions, see “Under the 6th Street Bridge (LA Bridge Series – Part I).”

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Rediscovering “Congregation Tiferes Jacob,” of 59th Street, South Central Los Angeles

The former

The former “Congregation Tiferes Jacob – Congregation Talmud Torah.” 59th and Brentwood, just east of Broadway.

Every time I go through the middle corridor of South Central LA, I crane my neck as I approach the area around Slauson and Broadway. Since the first day I noticed it I have been filled with curiosity. As even from the Harbor Freeway one can clearly see it if you pay attention, a Star of David on a blue copula and a Christian cross on the other.

After spending much time wondering about this, I have finally started to uncover the history of this site as a former synagogue. An old Jewish religious site, which was converted into a church. I have spent the past few weeks returning to the site. Talking to residents in the neighborhood to get to know the history of the area. [See: “Unusual Sightings of the Star of David in South Central LA“]

And I have also been following-up on this further with some research at the library. Which has also provided some fascinating leads regarding the history of this congregation and the surrounding neighborhoods.

While at the Los Angeles Central Library going through old city directories – the forerunners to phone books – I got curious, and found myself thumbing through the pages looking for a listing of the old synagogues of the area. And in the 1930 through the 1942 directories, listed by name under “Congregation” I found a large listing of the old shuls of Los Angeles. The revelations left me stunned.

What was so significant about the revelation, was not just how many synagogues there were in the city of Los Angeles at the time. The most remarkable thing was where many of these Jewish houses of worship and study were located in South Central Los Angeles.

Though it was the very first address which my eyes rested upon in the 1938 city directory which caught my attention. It unlocked the mystery of this building I have been so curious about:

20150928_162515-2Now I have to tell you, this revelation was more than exciting. But it was also a bit curious. A curiosity which has been shared by just about every historian and religious leader I have shown this list to. Because these listings show that there was a larger Jewish presence in these older working-class communities than we are aware of today.

These directories do reveal some important information regarding this synagogue at 5972 Brentwood Street, near 59th and Broadway, in South Los Angeles. This old community had a name, and in was here listed as “Congregation Talmud Torah.”

This is an interesting discover, and certainly a fact I find fascinating. Being from the Los Angeles Eastside, the Congregation Talmud Torah which always comes to mind in my circle and among the historians is the Breed Street Shul – which was founded downtown, before moving to Boyle Heights.

However, here we find two others Los Angeles synagogues which also used this designation as part of their name in the 1930s.

The third being the Sephardic Hebrew Center (founded by immigrants from the isle of Rhodes as, “Sociedad, Paz, y Progreso” in Ladino) which as just over on 55th and Hoover, here listed as the “Congregation Talmud Torah of Peace and Progress.” This is from the 1935 directory:

Los Angeles City Directory, 1938While this might confuse some people, we need to understand that in reality none of these congregations were really called “Congregation Talmud Torah” by people in their day. The Hebrew term “Talmud Torah” means that such a congregation is a place of Torah learning, and is the normative term used for shuls which facilitated Jewish education.

It was also just a frequently reoccurring, yet generic title used by Los Angeles Jewish congregations in old Los Angeles. Whether they had a formal building, or where just meeting loosely. This naming was frequently employed. In doing research going back to the 1880s, I have discovered that several talmud torah congregations have existed since then.

Is it therefore possible that this congregation’s roots may date back to this time? I don’t know, but it has also been suggested to me that this is a real possibility. [See: “The Jewish High Holidays in Los Angeles (September 1889).”]

What is known with some certainty is that none of these congregations listed here would have been popularly known as “Congregation Talmud Torah.” Just as in the case of the more familiar Breed Street Shul of Boyle Heights, it has instead always been known by it’s more popular name.

But what might the commonly used name of the 59th Street shul have been? The answer is found in the 1942 city directory:

Los Angeles City Directory 1942Listed side-by-side by alphabetical order are two congregations listed here. The first being the “Congregation Talmud Torah” at 5972 Brentwood Street. The following being “Congregation Tiferes Jacob,” with the address listed as 211 W. 59th Street. Yet, these two addresses lead us to the same location!

From what I’m gathering, sometime in the 1930s two Jewish congregations met at this site. One with their mailing address as Brentwood, and the other with their 59th Street address; two different doors and thus twice listed in the old city directory, even though it’s simply one location.

The two congregations, probably reflective of distinct minyans and factions of one community. With eventually both congregations seeming to have completely merged sometime in the 1940s, to form one larger shul. From then on the congregation was simply known as “Congregation Tiferes Jacob” – as their name was accented, by the Eastern Europeans immigrants who would have been its members.

So what does the historical record say about the origins of this congregation? Though the published facts on this are few, we do have a couple interesting historical accounts regarding the founding of this congregation which are worth exploring.

According to the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles, this congregation began this way:

“Congregation Tifereth Jacob began in 1922 with fifty families, rented space at first, and in 1925 purchased a building at the corner of 59th Street and Brentwood in the southern part of the city. After two years, the old building was replaced by a new and larger one, which served 1500 families.”

This would have made this synagogue one of the most significant Jewish religious sites of the area at the time. Which would have been a very active site up until the 1950s, when it was sold to an African-American church.

The building was purchased by the Evening Star Missionary Baptist Church in 1952. It was then refurbished and redecorated in 1964. Now for over two generations this site has operated as a celebrated and historically honored African-American church.

I know of no other historical accounts regarding this location. The only other account I know of which mentions a Jewish congregation by the same name from South Los Angeles, is this history of a congregation which still exists to this day:

Congregation Tikvat Jacob is the result of two long-established community institutions — Congregation Tifereth Jacob of Manhattan Beach and B’nai Tikvah Congregation of Westchester… Congregation Tifereth Jacob was chartered in October 1925, beginning operations out of a West Adams storefront. In 1976, the synagogue moved south to Manhattan Beach.”

I’m not sure if these old congregations are one and the same. Either the historical record is a bit confused regarding the details of their founding and the geography of the old community, or this is a different congregation all together. But I do wonder. Could it be possible that this old shul still has a living legacy, which today embodied in a still active Los Angeles area synagogue?

[Update: Immediately upon posting this I was contacted by one of my best and oldest friends, Jason Dubov. He recognized the building as his family’s old shul, where they remained active members until the congregation moved to Manhattan Beach.]

To be continued…

Unusual Sightings of the Star of David in South Central LA

Getting off the bus, and on to the streets. A metaphor for inter-community engagement.

The former “Congregation Tiferes Jacob – Congregation Talmud Torah.” 59th and Brentwood, just east of Broadaway.

The religious and cultural history of our lesser known neighborhoods always intrigues me. I learn something new everyday. And I see amazing sights nearly everyday. However, what I have learned the most has come not from tour bus excursions. It’s from getting off the public buses, and by making my friends pull over to see something usual which catches my eye.

A few days ago as I was taking the express bus north towards Downtown Los Angeles I found myself staring over the rooftops before Slauson Avenue. Looking for the landmark which has kept me intrigued for a while now. Until I spot it. And as I exit the bus at Slauson Metro Station – disembarking at the station right in the middle of the 110-freeway – I keep my eyes on this almost gleaming beacon.

Just east of the 110-freeway, beyond the rows of speeding freeway traffic in front of me, and down in a residential community below, I can clearly see this great building with two blue copulas, one bearing a Star of David and the other a Christian cross.

After spending much time wondering about this, I have finally started to uncover the history of this site as a former synagogue. Following leads from old city directories and oral histories.

So I have spent the past couple weeks returning to the site. Talking to people in the neighborhood, to get to know the history of the area. Also collected some pictures and video of the local sites. This day, my unplanned stop is spurred on by pure impulse and curiosity.

This object of my curiosity is just a couple of blocks away, which is easily walkable. So I descend the freeway’s Metro station platform, making my way over to Broadway.

Here in this area right here off of Broadway, there are a lot of churches right on this thoroughfare. Some of these house of worship are really impressive, like the Greater New Canaan Church of G-d in Christ – just a block over on Brentwood Street, she’s a real beauty!

Though most of the churches here are more humble – being just converted storefronts and former commercial buildings. Small make shift congregations, as it seems to have been in this area since its earliest days.

Though churches of today are more dense. Several of them are directly next door to each other, all smashed up together on the very same corner in some cases. Side-by-side storefront churches, reflective of the diversity and divergence in religious thought found in fundamentalist sectarianism common to the area.

Just at the corner of 59th and Broadway alone, there are two interesting churches. They are just in eyesight of an old synagogue.

The first is the very dispensationally named Concilio de Iglesias Pentecostales “La Nueva Jerusalem (sic).” Which seems to have been a African-American church which has more recently changed their signage to Spanish, and which is now seemingly renting back space from their own meetings from the Spanish congregation. A striking example of the more recent demographic changes in the area.

Spanish church sign with Star of David and Menorah

Now notice that even though this movement feels comfortable co-opting Jewish elements and symbolism, their sign shows the tension of the duplicity: “Cien porcento trinitaria. Pardre, hijo, espitu santo.” (Translation: “100% Trinitarian. Father, son, holy spirit.”).

It’s the second church – the one right next to it – which really caught my eye. “Iglesia Cristian ‘El Dios de Santidad.‘” A fundamentalist holiness church. More precisely, my attention was grabbed by their proudly placed sign emblazoned with a Star of David, that is morphed with a menorah.

Now notice that even though this movement feels comfortable co-opting Jewish symbolism, their sign shows the tension of the duplicity: “Cien porcento trinitaria. Pardre, hijo, espitu santo.” (Translation: “100% Trinitarian. Father, son, holy spirit.”).

The reason a sign like this is necessary, is because in many Latino and black churches Trinitarianism is not just a given. Indeed, the Apostolic” subbranch of Pentecostalism (aka: Oneness Pentecostalism, or “Jesus only Pentecostals.”) does not believe in the trinity. There are those who follow their biblical fundamentalism to their logical end, and therefore reject any blatant form of plurality in the godhead. This is a tension for many fundamentalist people and holiness congregations which strain on the issue. (See a mainstream evangelical critique of this fundamentalist movement: “What is Oneness Pentecostalism?”)

Many of these churches are outgrowths of church-splits over such doctrinal differences dividing them. This well positioned signage here therefore serves as a notice and warning for people entering the door of this congregation’s firm doctrinal stance.

This artifact revealing that the range of religious thought and questioning in this area is more nuanced than many mainstream white people expect.

Now I notice that the first church, “Nueva Jerusalem” Pentecostal Church, they had a person standing in the doorway. A young black gentleman holding religious tracts and doing some street preaching.

So I ask him if he has lived in the area long. As this has historically been known as a black neighborhood for many years, I ask if his family might have a bit more historical connections to the area than the people I’ve been talking to so far.

I begin relating to him that I’ve been speaking to a lot of the Spanish-speaking residents lately, but that most tell me they are quite recent immigrants. Many of them being central-American families – may of them from Guatemala – who tell me they don’t have enough time living in the area to know the history. Families telling me if I learn the history here, to come back and share the story with them!

The young man says that he’s lived I the area his entire life. And says he knows a bit of the history, which other locals have related to him. Saying that he might be able to help.

As I lift my hand and gesture towards the old building with a Star of David just a block away he quickly blurts out, “Oh, that used to be an old synagogue! It started out way back in the day as a Jewish temple. Today it’s a Baptist church. It’s really old and awesome looking on the inside!”

Without me even doing so much as making a suggestion as to what the site used to be, he instead begins to tell me the story of the site. Telling me in brief how the church purchased the old synagogue building in the 1950s, and then later remodeled it in the 1960s.

He insists with excitement, “You really need to visit on Sunday, to see the inside and talk to the pastor.” Saying that he had once been given a tour and told the history by the church pastor.

I tell him that I find this all fascinating. And that I’d love to hear about the old Jewish history of the area.

And then I mention that for me to hear all this from a non-Jewish person really is even more fascinating. As the Jewish community really seems to be unaware that this site is here and seems to have forgotten the history of this community.

I relate to him that the very thought of this area once being home to a sizable working-class Jewish community really touches something within me, both as a Jewish person and as an ethnic person of color. And that witnessing it, even from the outside, really moves me. Explaining how I’ve been by several times recently with other Jewish friends of mine.

When he hears I’m Jewish his ears perk up. He then asks me: “Have you ever considered Christianity?” Of course, he’s a street preacher so this response does not come as a surprise.

I respond with the same confidence he’s showing in the marketplace of faith: “I do consider it quite often, but honestly, I more often discuss the topic with people who are converted from Christianity to Judaism. And with inter-faith families who are exploring faith.” And I begin to tell him how much of my work is related to helping a diverse spectrum of people return to their historic Jewish faith. And also teaching Judaism to new converts, who are seeking out the Jewish faith.

The guys jaw drops. Surely, he’s never received this answer from someone before! He’s never gotten a response this chutzpadik. So for a while he was just stunned and listening. But I could see that he began to become intrigued hearing of the diversity of race, nationality, language and cultural expression in Judaism. Something he said he had never heard of or considered before.

I tell him how I appreciate the philosophy and teachings of Christianity. And though I love to talk about this faith, I don’t believe it is the path for me. And begin to remind him that the bible says Jews are to be true to our own G-d and not follow after the gods our ancestors did not know. (Deuteronomy 13) That it’s important for me to be faithful and true to the Torah of my G-d, which the scriptures call an eternal covenant between the Divine and the Jewish people. (Genesis 17:7)

He then related to me that he knew a few Jewish people. And that he had several Jewish coworkers. But that his impression of them and their families, was that they didn’t know much about the bible. And so they didn’t really seem Jewish enough to him, as far as he could see. Having a disconnect in his mind between his Jewish acquaintances, and what he understood Jews to be from his reading of the bible.

And he was further troubled and unable to understand how less than pious people could still consider themselves Jewish.

Screenshot_2015-09-17-17-12-43So I took a moment to hear him out. And to consider where he was coming from. In this case, standing literally in the doorway of a “holiness” church – a church which fundamentally believes that even most Christians aren’t really “saved” from hell, because they believe they are lax regarding sin. A group which especially preaches against people who drink, smoke, or even those who listen to secular music. This group has especially become fixated with castigating gays and lesbians in more recent years.

For these people, sin is all around. And to give in to it, means loosing your salvation and place in heaven. This is an old school doctrinal position, which is still quite common in the hood.

So I begin to speak to him one-on-one as a person of faith doing outreach in the inner city. To show him that I both appreciate his beliefs, and truly believe that the power of faith needs to be shared with a society so badly in need of hope. But that I believe we need to transform the way we communicate our faith to people.

And for a while, I begin to make the case that our relationship with our faith and G-d is not an all-or-nothing affair. And that to have this type relationship with G-d is unhealthy, as it would be in any relationship.

I relate to him how I have always been taught by my rabbis that the Jewish faith is not all-or-nothing, it is choosing to embrace holiness one mitzvah at a time. Making inspired and righteous choices, one little act of goodness at a time.

For a while I begin to talk about the realities of society, and our very inner city communities here. Pointing out that there are so many people in need of faith in their lives. Especially here, where life is so very hard for many. And yet for some reason when people can’t live up to some standard of perfection, they are rejected. Shunned and tossed out of their faith communities.

I begin to relate to him the stories I hear from people in these neighborhoods, how many faithful and soulful people feel rejected by their religion. How many who cannot live up to such high ideals are often ejected into a world with no moral guidance. Sent lost and stumbling into an underworld of real danger.

I tell him that many religious people always complain how so many have no moral compass, when we tend to be the very ones taking it away from people and sending them wandering into a wilderness of doubt.

I began to speak to him about my passion for faith and righteousness. And that I feel we need to open the doors wide, to welcome people back to reclaim their spiritual core. And to even rediscover faith anew.

And from there we begin to talk about religion and the bible for about the next hour-and-a-half. For some time him asking questions, and me responding with patient answers. To which he responds with signs of agreement and nods, to his noticeable surprise and delight.

Having heard me mention righteousness and holiness before, he says that he notices that I use these words differently than he’s ever heard before. So I spent some time talking with him about demystifying words of the bible, and understanding them by their clear and obvious meaning.

How righteous is when people decide to do the right thing, not if they believe the right thing. How righteousness is when we do right by G-d and man. As that is the true and literal meaning of righteousness.

And how holiness is not attaining some sense of ethereal perfection. But how kedusha – holiness as described in the Torah – is when something is set-aside for a divine purpose. When we take something that is mundane and ordinary, and we do something extraordinary with it.

I express how I feel it’s very important to understand that when the words of the bible are taken at face value, they call us to do right by others (which is righteousness) and to infuse spiritual inspiration into the ordinary things we encounter in our world (which is holiness).

However, there was one thing which still left him wondering. So he ventured to ask me, “What about salvation? Do you believe you are saved? What about leading people to salvation?”

So I ask him to really consider that word again. To really think about what that word means. To consider the words of the bible and contextualize its meaning. How salvation means saving people from harm and danger.

I ask him to consider how the Jewish people from the time of the bible until present have been troubled by so many hardships. Suffering enslavement, persecution, war, occupation, and near-annihilation; the Jewish people have always understood salvation as being saved from these calamities. For this is the word’s true meaning, and my people’s true reality as Jews.

Then I begin to relate to him in-depth about how my inner city experience has also reinforced this clear view of what salvation is for me. As a person of color, from a struggling working-class community.

As I see the need and challenges in our urban communities, I cannot help but be reminded of what salvation means. As salvation literally means saving, helping and rescuing people from their disparity. Salvation from sword (violence), plague (disease), famine (hunger) and woe (grief, sorrow, sadness).

I contented that leading people to salvation is not helping people attain some abstract religious and philosophical ascent. Insisting that is something which most of the common man here doesn’t really have the luxury to entertain and worry about anyhow. The people of these communities here need saving from real life troubles.

I begin to tell him how we all need to get back to the basics of faith and religion. And begin to remember salvation is in the true sense, and not just as a metaphor.

I see him continuing to nod his head in agreement. Smiling and laughing as I describe my faith in my own very urban and colorful fashion.

Then we get back to talking about people reclaiming their roots and about fostering communal interconnectivity. And about how exploring this history here can help us have more appreciation for the spirit of our historical working-class communities. Discussing my desire to uncover our shared history as a multicultural Los Angeles. With him agreeing that there is an important story to tell here in this community.

The gentleman then tells with excitement that he hopes I will return to see the inside of the old synagogue soon. Asking for my business card. so he could pass it on to the ministers of the church which owns the building.

And saying that he also wished to keep in touch, to talk again sometime. Before shaking my hand heartily, as I departed and continued on my way to explore the site.

One of the things that I could not help but be shaken from this interactions, is the fact that the story of Judaism is being told here. It’s just that so far we aren’t being part of that discussion.

Now all I need is more people to be willing to get off the bus with me. To be continued….

The Jewish High Holy Days in Los Angeles (September 1889)

While researching the history of the Los Angeles Jewish community, I stumbled across a most interesting surprise. Uncovering some listings which give us an intriguing look into the lives of Los Angeles area Jews during the High Holy Days in the late 19th century, which also presents us with some historical twists.

This advertisement is from the Los Angeles Harold, September 23, 1889. This add announcing the season’s upcoming High Holy Day services, organized by “Talmud Torah Congregation.”

TalmudTorahMasonicSept1889Clipping

The add reads:

Talmud Torah Congregation will hold their services at Masonic hall, on South Spring street, commencing September 25th, 1889.

Notice the instructions:

Those wishing to secure seats can do so by calling on the Secretary at the White House Clothing Co., corner of Spring and Franklin Streets.

Which seems to reveal a bit about the lifestyles and trades of a mostly working-class Jewish congregation of the time.

It has been suggested to me through oral history that this congregation might have existed for some time downtown, before migrating to South Central Los Angeles.

This is an interesting revelation, and certainly something which I find fascinating. Being from East Los Angeles, the Congregation Talmud Torah which always comes to mind in my circle and among my historian friends is the Breed Street Shul – which was founded downtown in 1904, before moving to Boyle Heights a decade later.

TalmudTorah1888Herald

This is their High Holiday advertisement from the year before. Urging reservations, “…as no one will be admitted without tickets.” Los Angeles Harold, August 24, 1888.

However, the congregation listed in this add is previously unknown to me. And so far it appears to be unaccounted for in the historical record. Though this older congregation seems to have started sometime in the 1880s.

We really don’t know much about this congregation. We don’t know if they were a congregation which only met for High Holy Days. Nor do we know much about their custom or affiliation. We don’t even exactly know how well established they were. For instance, did they not have a building of their own?

However, we can make some pretty good educated guesses based on the information provided.

In these advertisements we see that the services are being held at Masonic Hall on South Spring Street.

Now we need to keep in mind that this is not the original pueblo Masonic Hall on North Main Street (called “old” Masonic Hall in those days), which is still existent. This would have been a much grander and larger hall, built after Masonic Lodge No. 42 outgrew the old hall. The location of the newer Masonic Hall was on the west side of South Spring Street, near the corner of 1st Street. Just over near Los Angeles City Hall – for which it was eventually demolished to help make way for.

During the late 1800s it was very common for both civic organizations and social groups to rent meeting space in the spacious Masonic Halls. This was quite the respectable place to hold special events.

It should be noted that the first Jewish congregation in Los Angeles started meeting in the Masonic Hall on holidays. Congregation B’nai Brith –  the forerunner of todays Wilshire Blvd Temple –  renting the Masonic halls before moving into their own glorious building on Broadway, between 2nd and 3rd in 1872.

It should also be noted that many society Jews of the day were also very influential Masons. Including Rabbi Edelman of Congregation B’nai Brith, who served five times as Grand Master of this same Lodge No. 42.

When I look over these advertisements here, it reveals a lot to me. While leaving so many more things to explore which just puzzle me and beg for answers.

Was this congregation also just a holiday minyan? Or were they just renting the large hall to accommodate more people for the swelling High Holy Days? Sometimes in the case of congregations meeting out of a houses or storefronts, to accommodate the flood of holiday attendees local minyans would often rent space in halls or theaters.

“At a recent meeting of the Talmud Torah congregation, the following officers were elected to serve for the ensuing year: B. Cohn, President; L. C. Cohn, Vice-President; Jacob Lyser, Secretary ; W. Harris, Treasurer; and M. Summerfield, S. Levy and S. Rosenbladt, Trustees.” Los Angeles Herald, October 21, 1888.

And what was the style and character of this community? So far there is no way to know precisely. But my guess is that this community would have followed the form of all the other Los Angeles synagogues before it, and have been traditional and just shy of Orthodoxy.

And almost certainly of the Ashkenazi tradition. Not just because Sephardim were few in those days. This is further suggested by the published names of the board of members elected by this congregation in 1888. [See image at right, “Election of Officers.”]

However, I would venture to say that this congregation taking hold in this area at this time must have some significance. The area already had a notable congregation just blocks away, that being “Congregation B’nei Brith.” A synagogue which had already begun to reform in many ways during the days of Rabbi Edelman’s leadership (1862-1885). And which completely embraced modern Reform after his tenure. [see “Rabbi Abraham Wolf Edelman, Jewish Padre to the Pueblo,” Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly, Vol. III, No. 4, July 1971, pp.193-226]

This other congregation here had to exist for a reason. It seems to me that it is quite likely that this “Talmud Torah Congregation” arose to meet the needs of a more Orthodox congregation. Most likely appealing to Polish Jews and the newly arriving Eastern European Jews who would have just started arriving in the 1880s, most of whom were more traditional than the earlier arriving German Jews. The newly arriving Yiddish speaking immigrants whom came from as far away as Russia, not having been familiar with the influence of German Reform and haskalah which was embodied at “Congregation B’nai Brith.”

We also need to remember that that the Eastern European Jews which started arriving in mass from the late-1880s through 1924 were also a different class of immigrant all together. These Yiddish speaking arrivals were far humbler than the German Jews which came before them. Coming dirt poor, after fleeing political massacres in the east. Over 2-million Eastern European Jews came to America in those years in total desperation.

We also need to keep well in mind that the influx of impoverished Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrants provided this country with a desperate and eager labor force. Many of these new immigrants going into the shmata business – the garment and dress-making industry.

And of course, the history of the way that these garment workers were treated is regarded as a national shame. The hazardous nature of those job and their sweatshop conditions, the details of these facts are notorious. This was about 20-years before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which would mobilize the Yiddish organizers for fair labor. [see: “Jewish-Latino Relations: Rooted in a Shared Immigrant, Working-class Experience”]

WhiteHouseLogoAs we see from our advertisement from 1889, in Los Angeles Jews were already establishing themselves in the garment trade. This is a clear look into their lives at the start of the industrial revolution. When already the relationship between Jews and the shmata business was so very well intertwined in Los Angeles. So much so that one had to pay a visit to the secretary of one of these garment buildings to reserve seats for High Holy Day services in those days.

So what do we suppose became of this congregation? Did they disband or did they continue to meet? Did they eventually acquire a building that fully suited their needs in the end? If so, where did they eventually settle down?

If this “Talmud Torah Congregation” persisted, it is very likely that this community would have eventually settled in the Temple District or South Central Los Angeles. As these were the notable Jewish districts of the day, years before Jewish migration began moving towards the frontiers of Boyle Heights and West Adams later on.

My best guess has been that a successfully growing community would have most likely taken root in South Central Los Angeles – just off the Central Avenue corridor. Into the newest working-class area of the day.

All persons who do not, can not and will not pay $30 for a business suit, should by all means call at, The White House Clothing Company.

“All persons who do not, can not and will not pay $30 for a business suit, should by all means call at The White House Clothing Company.” Los Angeles Herald, October 13, 1888.

The history of the Jews of this area has never been told. Though in Dr. Max Vospan’s and Lloyd P. Gartner’s definitive work titled “The History of the Jews of Los Angeles” they do mention the existence of a Jewish presence in the Central corridor. Identifying these people as related to the shmata business. The existence of which is still clearly evident even to this day, as the garment trade still has a major presence in that area. However, they did not go so far as to document the life of the Jewish communities there. To present the history of the synagogues in this area, as they did so famously for the rest of the city.

The normal historical sources regarding Jewish Los Angeles do not give us much to work with. Therefore I have been turning to the public for source information and oral histories.

Interestingly, within hours of posting the first image of this add to social media I got a most promising lead from a friendly local named Tony Washington Shapiro. He stated that his research shows that there were many congregations forming downtown in those days. And that this congregation did indeed start in the 1880s. Then between 1900-1910 the Jewish community started to spread out more. Noting that his own father was a Jew born in South Central Los Angeles in 1922.

Shapiro stated that I should turn my eye back to the history of South Central Los Angeles. This advice actually confirms my own hunch. And also helps me attempt to give some context to another piece of historical documentation I came across the very same week.

While going through the city directories of Los Angeles from the 1880s-1940s, I found the existence of other congregations in South Los Angeles which also identified themselves as “Congregation Talmud Torah.” This is the Los Angeles city directory listings for Jewish congregations in 1938:

Los Angeles City Directory, 1938.It could very well be that this congregation did indeed come to rest in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. Hopefully with the aid of more historical sources and oral histories, we will be able to explore this further. And hopefully one day tell the story of these people.

To be continued….

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