Nancy From Eastside Clover, Lincoln Heights (Queer History)

Nancy Valverde (1932 – present) is a barber, as well as a notable lesbian and gender-nonconformist. She was repeatedly charged and incarcerated in Lincoln Heights Jail  for “masquerading.” Her story is one of challenging bias and injustice; and eventually winning. Her life has been the subject of much interest by queer historians in recent years, and through their documentation she has become well-known as a butch lesbian icon. Though to many on the Los Angeles eastside, she is simply known as “Nancy from Eastside Clover.”

Today I want us to take a look at the life and celebrate the life of a very special queer hero from the barrio.

 

The Early Life of Nancy Valverde

Nancy was born in the southern New Mexico town of Deming, and when she was 9 years old her father brought her to Lincoln Heights, East Los Angeles.

When asked about her childhood and school age years, she would talk about the awkwardness of having all the girls chattering about the cute boys and asking for her fawning input, but that she just ended up feeling alienated and like an outsider. And of the reactions she got from people for being different.

Though her formal education was  really short. She didn’t really have much schooling except for grammar school. As she had gone to work in the fields with her family by the time she was 11 years old, seasonally picking Apricots in Santa Paula and cotton in Tulare County up near Bakersfield.

And by 13 years old, she was already working in a local neighborhood restaurant in Lincoln Heights, helping the matron of the kitchen. When the restaurant was sold by the man who owned the building, it was sold to Mexican Americans who started a bakery there. Nancy would continue on working for them for the next fear years, delivering pastries all over Los Angeles. Though keep in mind, this was years before she had a driver’s license. Driving her baked loaves and pan dulce up to the once thriving Mexican enclave of Chavez Ravine, where Dodger Stadium sits today. Where later in life she would also witness a woman being dragged from her home, as it was demolished and she was left homeless.

A lot of the experience of discrimination begin as a Mexican American, feeling like a second-class citizen. Which quite naturally resulted in producing in her a certain sense of rebellion. Though nothing seemed to be more of a rebel statement at the time than her gender non-conformity, wearing pants and short hair. She began to realize she was different at the age of 15, all the while thinking of herself as growing into being comfortable in her own skin.

Nancy’s Arrest for Gender Nonconformity, the Crime of “Masquerading.”

In 1948, Nancy Valverde was just 17 years old when she was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department. She was charged with the crime of masquerading, an old law on the books which prohibited men and women from wearing gender-nonconforming clothing. The authorities pointed to her short hair and the zipper fly of her pants as evidence, which got her sentence to three months in jail. And criminal charge that got her kicked out of her mother’s house.

And that was just the beginning of her persecution by the Los Angeles Police Department over several years. She often ended up in the lock-up for lesbian women known as the Daddy Tank at Lincoln Heights Jail.

Lincoln Heights jail had mostly become notorious for its “Drunk Tank” when it opened in 1930. And then through the next couple decades still, drunks would be locked up for 30 to 90 days, then released – often to inevitable destitution on skid row – and then picked-up against and it starting all over again.

In the same manner they had a gay men’s section of the jail called the “Fruit Tank,” as well. People would be held for some time, released and then before long picked-up again by harassing police.

Nancy would be dragged in to jail repeatedly. And be placed in the lesbian lock-up.

Sometimes she was even held in the jail without being officially booked, so at times her friends could not find her for days and sometimes weeks.

Nancy insists that the hostility shown to her was because the authorities were against lesbians. Though she makes the point of addressing that as well when talking of her incarceration:

“I was a juvenile. I wasn’t supposed to be there with those older women. Of course, I didn’t mind it,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t even know the word ‘lesbian.’ The first time I heard it was in jail.”

All the while Nancy contended that the clothes she wore was a matter of comfort, while working to financially support herself. The jail would seem to have a revolving door for Nancy, a cycle she tried hard to break out of.

In 1951 she visited the Los Angeles County Law Library in hopes of finding some legal defense. In her research she was able to find rulings from 1950 that stated that women wearing men’s clothing was not actually a crime in Los Angeles. She informed her lawyer and was able to use this in her defense. And so eventually the police stopped arresting her.

Even though the LAPD stopped incarcerating her, the harassment didn’t stop. The beat policemen were known to have made a habit of knocking loudly with their nightstick on the window of her Brooklyn Ave barber shop, to intimidate her and scare away customers.

Though Nancy worked many jobs to make ends meet, her main occupation was as a barber. Though it is important to note that like many of the situations in her life, getting her barbers license was also came with challenges. She found herself being unable to be admitted to barber school because her lack of education. Though eventually she was able to overcome this when a man came up to her and informed her that she could proceed to getting her barbers license if she could pass a basic IQ test. Which she did, and was issued her barbering license. However, like much of her life, she was treated unequally by the other barbers who were all male. And was paid less than the other barbers, because she was a woman.

On top of all this, she also the target of harassment from inside the community, from the cholos and gang members who also went after her for being a lesbian. Even though she was well liked and accepted in the local bars by those who got to know her, long before there were any gays bars around here she would frequent the local watering holes, and be acknowledged just as “Nancy from Eastside Clover,” simply as their friend from the barrio.

Career, Family Life and Retirement

She also worked in the eastside as a bartender, as well as doing odd jobs and home repair work around town. Not to just support herself, but also a family.

In 2013 she spoke about this time in her life to Advocate Magazine, in a segment titled, “9 Tales of Young Love and Old Memories: Nine residents of Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing share stories of love from the past and present.” It was recounted:

One day, she ran into a woman named Mary Sanchez, whom she had met before at a bar with mutual friends. By chance, Sanchez was moving her belongings out of her apartment, and Valverde offered to assist her.

“The next day, my back was shot,” Valverde says. “Destiny. I believe in that — the invisible forces.”

Valverde stayed in bed while Sanchez, who was pregnant at the time, cared for her. She told Valverde about the troubles she had been having with her boyfriend. By the time Valverde’s health improved, Sanchez had ended the relationship, prompting Valverde to offer to help support her and her unborn child.

“I said, ‘I’m not lazy, I work,'” she remembers telling Sanchez. “And she looked at me really sad, as if she’d heard that line before.”

Already two weeks behind on the rent (a total that, at the time, amounted to $14), Sanchez managed to convince her landlord to let her become the building’s manager. They were able to stay together in the apartment.

Valverde and Sanchez became a couple and sustained their relationship for 25 years. However, they broke up after Sanchez’s child grew to become an adult suffering from drug addiction, causing a rift between the pair.

“I couldn’t see myself putting up with an addict for the rest of my life,” says Valverde, sadly. “And I walked out. I miss her every day of my life.”

Throughout her lifetime, Valverde helped raise four children of women she loved. She raised one child, Salvatore, for six years, before his birth mother, who initially rejected the baby, returned to take him away.

“They said lesbians could not raise kids,” Valverde says.

But 10 years ago, Salvatore tracked down Valverde, and the two reunited. Valverde keeps a picture of him and his wife in her apartment, along with a photograph that the pair took together when he found her as an adult.

After a long career as a barber and laborer, she retired to assisted living. And is now a resident of the 104-unit Triangle Square senior housing facility in Hollywood, created by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.

“This is the best place that I’ve lived in,” Valverde says of Triangle Square. “People know what you’re about.”

Which is really something special. After a long life of struggling for her sense of place up against so many societal prejudices which stood against her. Since her childhood she had to work hard to get by, she had to contend with the rejection of family, and then even had to contend with the gangs that also terrorized her for being a lesbian. Now she has a safe place in this world.

The Legacy of Nancy Valverde

After she moved to Triangle Square she was found by lesbian historians, journals and playwrights. And based on their documentation of her life story in recent years she has become regarded as a Mexican American butch icon by those who admire her.

She inspired Raquel Gutiérrez of the Butchlalis de Panochtitlan, who wrote The Barber of East L.A. based on her life.

The life of Nancy Valverde is also documented and featured in the documentaries On These Shoulders We Stand and Nancy from East Side Clover; and in the books Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, and Lavender Los Angeles.

Nancy Valverde has a tremendous life story. Her life experience is one that is both reflective of a terrible history of homophobia and gender politics in the 20th century. And the experience that she suffered through was something that was not uncommon in other big cities, but it was more complicated here due to the conditions and culture of Los Angeles at the time.

Now let us keep in mind that Nancy is not transgender, she is a butch lesbian. She was not trying to pass as a man, meaning she was not trying to “masqerade.” She even had people testify in her defense that they knew she was a woman and that she was certainly not trying to fool anyone either. That is just who she was and who they knew her to be.

Most white, queer and transgender scholars state that her attire would hardly be noticed today. And note that even at that time it might have likely gone unnoticed in many other big cities. However, it must be stated that Los Angeles was especially intolerant in respect to gender non-conformity and any attire that broke with white cultural norms; all this coming to a head during this height of World War II.

In addition to that Los Angeles, unlike some other cities, would eventually target both male and female cross dressers. This was something of a particular obsession for mayor Fletcher Bowron, who was mayor of Los Angeles from 1938 to 1953. He was known to have a specific abhorrence for women in pants. In 1942 he declared to the city council that he loathed “to see masculine women much more than feminine traits in men.”

Now keep in mind that is all going on during the middle of World War II, as women are going to work in local industrial jobs as the men went off to war, as they work their asses off in the factories to help support the war effort. Nonetheless he looked at these women in their practical work attire as a desecration of gender and womanliness.

While Bowron was alarmed that he could not prevent this of women in defense factories, he contended with his council members that this needed to be stood against and banned in City Hall. In that year of 1942, the city council was urged by him to pass a regulation that prevented women employees from wearing pants at City Hall.

In 1950 legal precedent began to offer some level of defense, that wasn’t present before the war. However, in the post-war years and going into the 1950s, still this era came with increasing examples of harsh treatment as women refused to return to the traditional gender roles they had emerged from.

And certainly, as a Mexican American Nancy Valverde also suffered even more persecution. In an era in which there was increased targeting of Latinos, who had also stretched their legs in society during these years and then ultimately refused to be pushed back into their subjugated roles again as well. And who were likewise often seen as challenging all that with their attire as well.

We will discuss this more in the future as we further explore the history of the repeated criminalization of minorities and non-conformists at the Lincoln Heights Jail, in upcoming blog entries. Stay tuned!

Christmas 1941 in Boyle Heights, and the Japanese Internment

This is a copy of the “The Siren,” published by Hollenbeck Middle School (Jr Rough Riders) students in December 1941. What should we notice about this page?

hollenbeckjrhighdec1941It is at this time a publication with mostly Jewish and Japanese names in the masthead, and the occasional cute spelling slip-ups which reveal there are possibly some Spanish speaker’s hands at the presses typesetting as well. And most interesting, an article by one little Jewish girl named Marilyn Greene, about the tone of Christmas in Boyle Heights in 1941, right after the US was thrown into WWII:

CHRISTMAS 1941

Christmas 1941! We are all looking forward to a joyous Christmas season, a time when all would be in a glad holiday mood, a time of peace and good will.

This Christmas season has come but not as we foresaw. It will be a wartime Christmas, for on December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire declared war on the people of the United States.

We have a special concern for our loyal American citizens of Japanese descent who are as truly American as any of us.

They have our especial (sic) sympathy in the hard days and difficult situation that may lie before them.

We Americans of all colors, races and creeds must unite to win, that freedom for all people may be possible.

Marilyn Greene

The apprehension felt in this immigrant community was justified.

Shortly after their Japanese Americans neighborhoods were taken and interned in camps, such as those erected at the stables of Santa Anita Park racetrack. The neighborhood kids would then take the electric streetcars all the way out there to see their friends. Though the kids were never allowed to go inside and their interned friends weren’t allowed to come out; and absolutely no one was allowed to touch the fence that separated them, but they could only talk from afar. And at best hope to sneak a baseball across to them when the guards weren’t looking.

baseballbat

A caucasian American gives a baseball bat to an interned Japanese American, through a wire fence, at the “evacuation assembly center” at Santa Anita. January 1, 1942.

For their Japanese American neighbors, their property and belongings were most often liquidated, before being shipped off to the hastily made internment camps such as those at the racetracks. Then eventually being interned for the duration of the war in more permanent camps in such places as Manzanar and Tule Lake.

In the wake of all this, our local Jewish publishers were alone in decrying this injustice in the media. Al Waxman’s “East Side Journal” and the “L.A. Reporter” were the only newspapers in the nation to editorialize and decry the Japanese interment at the time. A brave and bold position in decrying injustice, one Waxman would also hold in the wake of the so-called Zoot Suit Riots as well.1

The rounding up of our Japanese American families in this mostly immigrant eastside community came with an overwhelming sense of horror, especially for the children. Seeing their neighbors, who were just as American as they were, instantly being treated as enemies of the nation. And traumatized by the implications this had for anyone else who might be labeled “un-American.”

The internment of Japanese Americans is still widely considered the most tragic and traumatizing event in Boyle Heights history.

Pictures from Manzanar and Tule Lake, where many Los Angeles Japanese Americans were interned:

Topics for Further Discussion:

  • Notice the section to the left titled, “Anxious to help” by Harold Karpman, he talks about wanting to be helpful when questioned by school authorities and the police. He cautions, “Let’s not become panicky at wild rumors, but be on alert to observe closely all possibilities of the rumors being true.” Before going on to say, “Report any un-American activities to your police department, or to any faculty member of this school. Let us all try to keep our American the way we like it and are used to it.”

  • Notice the lower left poem: “American’s All” by Marvin Wernick. Despite all the racism and xenophobia which was gripping the country, some of the children at Hollenback School were countering that in their newspaper; “Black, Red, Yellow, White, / Side by side we stand and fight…. When hatred and and war strike out at humanity, / they share the blows / In Unity….” In a country that was caught up in the wartime winds of ultra-nationalism and questioning the true Americanism of many, Marvin’s poem declares of those who fight for the cause of justice and right, those who fight for their rights of democracy, “For they are the children of America.”

1Al Waxman, was the uncle of former US Congressman Henry Waxman (D-33rd), also formerly of Boyle Heights and members of the Breed Street Shul.

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Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO-IWO) in City Terrace

The Yiddishists of the eastside hills, a community destroyed by the Red Scare

The JPFO-IWO folkeshul, the most popular network of Yiddish dayschools in the area which was run by Jewish labor socialists.

The JPFO-IWO folkeshul, the most popular network of Yiddish dayschools in the area which was run by Jewish labor socialists.

The Los Angeles neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and City Terrace have always been working-class communities, and the home of many progressive and leftist causes. This is a tradition which was well established early on by the politically and socially active Jewish community which flourished here in the first half of the 20th century.

So many ideas on how to fix society bubbled out of this community! Everyone, young and old, promoting social advancement. However, with so many visions being proposed and tried there were bound to be some contentions along the way. Yet, many of the communal schisms were caused by cautious fears of persecution as much as internal conflict over a social vision.

In 1922 political tensions in the Arberter Ring/Workmen’s Circle created a rift, out of which grew the leftist branch of the organization which would become known as the International Worker’s Order (IWO). However, the rift was so great that the IWO made an official break-away in 1930; promoting leftist, progressive values and operating as a fraternal mutual aid organization and insurance provider.

The organization also organized 13 other major ethnic communities and languages – including Italian, Spanish, Ukrainian, Greek, Portuguese, etc. However, in the first half of the 20th century the Los Angeles Jewish Section was the largest and most important Jewish organization there was.

The group started a couple folkshule sites – two Jewish community centers in two notable locations. They ran two Jewish kindergarten day-schools off Wabash, enrolling most of the kids from the area; one of them being the yellow house sitting at the corner of Wabash and Stone.

Then they founded the Jewish Cultural Center in City Terrace, which was eventually demolished to make way for the off-ramp to the 10-freeway. This Jewish cultural center once sat directly at the spot of the current freeway ramp, just immediately east of today’s City Terrace Spanish Congregation.

However, it must be stated that the loss of these resources for the community was not just on account of displacement. The political tensions and the fear of the community being targeted as socialists during the Red Scare, these also played heavily into the gutting of the resources of the largely progressive Jewish community here.

As the Yiddishkeit website states:

“After the Second World War, the rise of McCarthyism with its intense focus on Hollywood leftism together with the virulently antisemitic campaign of California State Senator Jack Tenney, made IWO a clear target. It also became the prime scapegoat for anti-communists and anti-progressives and for members of the L.A. Jewish community establishment, which sought to publicly distance themselves from leftism.

Children of the International Workers order Jewish-American Section in Los Angeles, holding Yiddish protest signs. Even the children of the neighborhood were encouraged to be involved in labor and political activity from an early age.

Children of the International Workers order Jewish-American Section in Los Angeles, holding Yiddish protest signs. Even the children of the neighborhood were encouraged to be involved in labor and political activity from an early age.

“While the IWO-Jewish Section was one of the most popular Jewish organizations in the city and had more children enrolled in its school network than any other single Jewish organization, a campaign began in 1949 to expel it from the official Jewish Community. Members of the Jewish Community Council claimed that community support should not go to any “international” organization. Although the IWO-Jewish Section had become the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO-IWO) in 1944, this was not enough. L.A. Jewish Community Council members challenged the JPFO as political movement and argued that its leftism was a violation of of the Community’s apolitical stance. When the JPFO argued that Zionist organizations were also overtly political, opponents claimed that its domestic politics were the problem and that support for the fledgling State of Israel was not to be considered a “political” cause. Partly to distinguish their particular liberal-left bent from the more radical JPFO, the Workmen’s Circle along with the American Jewish Congress argued vociferously for the JPFO’s expulsion.

“The L.A. developments followed the pattern of the nationwide McCarthyite witchhunt. IWO was placed on the U.S. Attorney General’s list of “subversive” organizations (Dec. 5, 1947) and the New York State Insurance Department of moved on December 14, 1950 to liquidate the Order on grounds that its significant cash reserves — far beyond what commercial insurers were required to maintain — would, in the event of war with the Soviet Union, be turned over to the enemy.

The City Terrace Jewish Cultural Center, on Grand Opening Day 1947. It was eventually closed during the Red Scare.

The City Terrace Jewish Cultural Center, on Grand Opening Day 1947. It was eventually closed during the anti-communist Red Scare.

“After a four year heated struggle, during which the IWO was added to the state’s list of “subversive” organizations, the Jewish Community Council (which became the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles in 1959) expelled the JPFO from the Jewish community, freezing the JPFO’s assets and actively worked towards its dissolution. The Community Council also began a process of halting support for the Jewish Community Centers on the Eastside — at the Soto-Michigan JCC and the City Terrace Cultural Center where JPFO members met. Within a few years, not only was the JPFO destroyed, but so too were the Eastside’s two most important Jewish cultural institutions.”

For more info see: http://www.yiddishkayt.org/jpfo/

It might seem to some that the eastside Jewish community centers were inevitably doomed because of demographic changes, with Jewish people migrating away in great numbers, especially among the rapidly emerging youth demographic.

However, it is important to note that at the same time many other radical leftists and labor socialists were also moving here to be part of a movement; the eastside becoming one of the last-stand leftist enclaves. And it was that form of “threat” that drove the Jewish Community Relations Council (the forerunner to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles) to be both be complicit to McCarthyism and to also snuff out the eastside community centers.

Undoubtedly, this closing of these cultural sites which the remaining Yiddishists and Jewish social progressives of the area depended on further accelerated their exodus from the eastside.

All any historian can say at this point is that we would hope that if such political witch-hunting were to happen today that our community leaders would not make the same decisions. That we would instead have the integrity and courage to stand in resistance to such ultra-nationalism. I’d like to believe we have all learned our lesson, in light of this dark chapter of history.

We will explore this more when we further talk about the impact of the Senator Jack Tenny led witch-hunt against communists in Boyle Heights.

Now I should note that while the building of the City Terrace JCC was eventually demolished to make way for the freeway off-ramp, most of the other sites remain in one form or another; re-purposed as churches, houses, stores and youth centers.

In the near future I hope to talk more about the other Jewish and Yiddishist sites of City Terrace. There really is so much to explore. And yet there is so much that has been forgotten too. Do you or your family members have stories to share about the Yiddish community of City Terrace? I’d love to document them as well.

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Post-election Vigil Brings People Together in Boyle Heights

Faith communities of Los Angeles come together in resistance after the Trump election

Shmu and Squared at the I Am America Vigil at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, on this rainy day we packed into the parsh church and sat on the floor with the other people coming in to be part of this time of renewal.

Shmu and Squared at the I Am America Vigil at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, on this rainy day we packed into the parsh church and sat on the floor with the other people coming in to be part of this time of inspiration and renewal.

On Sunday morning the people of the city of Los Angeles came together for an interfaith vigil at Dolores Mission Catholic Church in our working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Hundreds of people came out and lined the pews, the walkways, floors and spilled out the door of the church despite the cold rain pouring outside.

People of all backgrounds came out this day to unite and join our voices as one, to find strength in faith and in each other, to overcome the fear that has gripped us in the post-election season. To unite as one as we see the rise of Trump and racial nationalism threatening the security of us all. We came together – Latino, African-American, Japanese, Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and LGBTQ – to stand united. Standing with all our brothers and sisters who feel threatened.

This event was organized by LA Voice – a local interfaith and community based organization. Dedicated to giving voice to all people of faith and advancing the pursuit of dignity for those in greatest need in our community. Co-sponsoring and in attendance at this event were the people of:

* ACLU Southern California
* All Saints Church
* American Muslim Professionals (AMP-LA)
* Asian Americans Advancing Justice LA
* Bend The Arc
* Beth Shir Shalom
* CAIR-LA
* CLUE
* Guibord Center
* Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace
* Islamic Center of Southern California
* IKAR Synagogue
* ILM Foundation
* Islamic Shura Council of Southern California

* Jewish Voices for Peace
* Japanese American National Museum
* La Asociación Latina Musulmana de América
* Little Tokyo Service Center
* Muslim Public Affairs Council
* Muslims for Progressive Values
* New City Church of Los Angeles
* Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress
* Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center
* Pico Union Project
* Temple Isaiah
* Sahaba Initiative
* South Coast Interfaith Council
* St. Camillus Catholic Center
* Steven S Wise Temple
* Temple Israel of Hollywood

As we joined in prayer and song, gave testimony and spoke of resistance, we also committed to doing more than just cry out. We committed to organizing together as one people.

As I came in out of the rain dripping eves and slipped in through the crowd I heard the words of Deacon Jason Welles of the Dolores Mission Parish: “We are here today to lament, and to share our lamentations together. We are here together to form solidarity. We are in solidarity to encourage each other and to ignite a new work. Because our work did not end of November 8th, our work begins now in solidarity.”

This event was also joining in solidarity with other communities across the nation who were also holding #IAmAmerica rallies in their hometown.

Haru Kuromiy spoke of her memories as a 12 year old girl of being interred with he family at Manzanar during the detention of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. She spoke in “opposition to the proposal to register American Muslims. I do not want to see any community suffer like we did.

Haru Kuromiy spoke of her memories as a 12 year old girl of being interred with he family at Manzanar during the detention of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. She spoke in “opposition to the proposal to register American Muslims. I do not want to see any community suffer like we did.”
During this meeting people of all faiths and backgrounds vowed to in the face of Muslim registry, we will ourselves register as Muslims.

As I looked across the crowd I was touched by the sight of people I know from across the city, who instinctively came out to join in solidarity. Though I was even more deeply moved to see walls of people who I have never seen in my neighborhood before, all coming out to give and find strength in each other.

Seated on the floor in front of me was Eric A. Gordon, author and director emeritus of the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) in Southern California. He wrote an excellent article about the event, in which he rightfully mentions the contributions of each faith community to this event, titled: “Faith communities find a new voice in resistance after election.”

In his article Gordon, an expert on leftist organzing, described this event as filled with “courageous, militant speeches and songs.” I wouldn’t say “militant,” but maybe “radical.” And even then the only thing radical about this event was that it drew people together from across all ethnic and religious lines to stand together against injustice; much like the early political organizing of Boyle Heights from the 1930s through the 1950s. Congregates committing to unite as one people and as part of a single goal, to protect the rights of each person in America. And vowing to neither stand alone nor leave each other alone in the struggle. Something that has been so lost for almost two generations, that it may again seems radical at this point in history.

However, Gordon did a great job on detailing this event journalistically.

So I just want to take a few moments to point out what really touched me and what I felt as member of this very community of Boyle Heights.

Crouched on the floor right next to us was Craig Taubman, Jewish sing-songwriter and founder of the Pico Union Project, who I have worked with for the past year in Pico Union. I was so surprised and glad to see his presence in my own backyard.

When LA Voice had begun to plan the event they had first considered using the fascilities of the Pico Union Project (the oldest standing synagogue in Los Angeles) and the Breed Street Shul (the historic “Queen of the Shuls in Boyle Heights), both located in historically significant, multi-ethnic, immigrant communities. Before choosing Dolores Mission, which would normally accommodate a larger crowd, had it not been for the rain.

As we embraced Craig asked, “Hey, I’m in your hood right?”

I responded, “Yeah. Actually my family was one of the first Mexican land owning families here in the Flats. My great-great-grandparents had their market at the end of this block, at First and Gless, when this neighborhood was still known as Russian Flats. I’ll tell you the truth though, I’ve never in my lifetime seen this diverse of a crowd coming together here in this neighborhood before. This is inspiring!”

Shortly after Craig would be called out of the crowd. He would get the congregation engaged with asking: “How do you say love in Spanish? Amor. How do you say love in Hebrew? Ahavah. How do you say love in Russian? Just checking!” Long had the Russian community left the area and our Mexican families taken root, but he just had to check to make sure no one was left out.

And in the way that only Craig can do, he got the crowd joining in song and motion to the words: “We can build this world with love.” Leaving the crowd glowing in inspiration.

Rabbi Ron Stern from Stephen S. Wise Temple addressed the crowd next. Gordon notes that Stern took to the podium: “remarking about ‘a lot of Hebrew being spoken in Boyle Heights,’ a reference to the fact that this area was at one time the largest Jewish community west of Chicago, and the epicenter of much social activism. He taught the audience the importance of the line from Deuteronomy, ‘Tsedek tsedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ ‘We’ve always said that,’ as he recalled not just Jewish history but the history of all oppressed people. ‘We’ve picked ourselves up, buried our dead if we had to, and we’ve said Tsedek tsedek tirdof. We will not stop. History tells us we cannot give up. We want to make sure that the world we dream of is the world we will live in.’”

I’ll tell you the truth. Rabbi Stern’s astonishment at hearing Hebrew words being spoken in Boyle Heights that day was none less than my own. And it was really moving to me. Though my amazement was more related to seeing people from the Jewish community coming out to be more that just tourists of their grandparents history, but to actually be part of a living movement and to join in direct social action in the present; and that was something I had never experienced like this before in this neighborhood.

This neighborhood of Boyle Heights is one of Los Angeles’ most historic immigrant communities. And as a large immigrant community of mostly Mexican-Americans today, this community is feeling even more vulnerable and also fearful in the wake of this election.

Though this event had deep impact in that it brought to the forefront the struggles of so many of our other neighbors and friends we need to be mindful to support in the face of Trump’s demagoguery.

Marta Galadery, from La Asociación Latina Musulmana de América.

Marta Galadery, from La Asociación Latina Musulmana de América.

People like Marta Galadery, from La Asociación Latina Musulmana de América. As a convert to Islam, who helped found the association decades ago to find fellowship among other Latina Muslim women. I’m glad that she was there to speak up for Latina Muslim community, which is most vulnerable in that many people in our community don’t even know they even exist. It was important to hear from her. She spoke of finding herself in fear of discrimination on two fronts, as Latina and as a Muslim. Addressing the crowd she asked and asserted, “How are we all together going to help each other?… G-d has the last word, but we have to act.

And she’s right we as people of faith and social action we need to act. And we need to consider how we are going to do it, and do it together.

And that was really the important thing about this event, it was all about doing it together as one people.

Rahuldeepgill of the local Sikh community addressed the crowd. Talking about how in his tradition, they had faced the rise of tyrants and persecution. And in the early days their leaders were even eventually put to death for standing up for the rights of others.

Rahuldeepgill passionately stated, “But that is the lesson of my tradition. We take it for one another. The days of standing up for ourselves are long gone. The days of standing up for each other are our future. We need to continue to act.” He words met with cheering and thunderous applause.

He made an even deeper point. That many “confused people” tell him that in the wake of hate crimes that turban wearing Sikhs should go out of their way to let people know that they are not Muslim. So as not be the victims of mis-direct violence, but that it isn’t right. We are in it together.

Preacher André Scott also spoke, saying “Donald Trump, if you make us rally together. G-d bless Donald Trump!” Scott was a former gang banger and also faced the corrections systems, and now ministers to those who are also coming out of those hardships.

Though what gave me the chills was to hear Brother Scott say these words I’ve been waiting for any community leader to have the courage to say: “It’s not about black power, or any of that anymore. It’s about us power!

That needed to be said. Especially here and now.

One of the realities is that this most vulnerable neighborhood of Boyle Heights has long felt isolation because of prejudice and injustice, but also because it has long been obsessed with simular “brown power.” A neighborhood which has all but forgotten their rich history of inter-cultural social and political activism, and has long been gripped in sole pursuit of our own ethnic and nationalistic self-interests ever since the Chicano rights movement.

The fact is that we can’t counter the rise of the white nationalism as seen in this election with any other form of racial nationalism. We cant counter white power with brown power. In fact it is plainly obvious that all racial nationalism only feeds into the likes of racial separatism and exclusivity. That all needs to end.

So I now repeat what needs to be stated, what is long overdue to be said: It’s not about brown power. Those days are over. It’s about us power now!

And that was the power of that event, to me. That on that day we came together to commit to stand as one. We have risen above self-interest and divisiveness. Above religious, racial and nationalist exclusivity. Not about brown power or black power anymore, but about us power. We stand united.

One thing that the locals and even the organizers of the event didn’t know was that they vigil they were having that day mirrored another monumental event in Boyle Heights history, which had taken place almost 78 years ago to the day on November 22, 1938. When Los Angeles groups organized a parade protesting the Nazi’s rise to power and their wave of violence against Jews in the events of Kristallnacht. And to raise their voices on behalf of  Jewish refugees, who were being denied entrance by the US and the world powers.

On that night came together people Jewish and non-Jewish, brown and white, black and Asian, adult and children; to show support and stand in solidarity with the Jews who were facing Nazism not just in Europe, but also in Los Angeles.

I had many times heard first hand stories from my friends who were there at this most notorious protest parade. At that key moment in the advancement of social activism and civil rights organizing, which would directly inspire inter-community and interfaith cooperation for decades to come. I often wished I had myself been so lucky to see such a diverse movement of people come together and rise up as one. [“The Anti-Nazi Parade of November 1938. – Local civil rights activism born out of the Jewish refugee crisis.”]

I think in this event I got a prevision of that experience. It’s now up to us to continue to come together to make our actions into a movement, in our days and in our time.


Check out these videos of the event, posted on Facebook by the Dolores Mission. They capture about the first two hours of the event.

Some of my favorite footage is from when Pastor Delonte Gholston of New City Church of Los Angeles address the crowd and lead us in songs of resistance. I was deeply moved by his song based on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “Night cannot turn back the night, only light.” That is also the right message for these darkening times. I’ve had this inspirational melody stuck in my head ever since.

Enjoy!

Video #2:

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How Hillary Clinton Helped Save the Breed Street Shul

Hillary Has Been Good For Boyle Heights

hillaryboyleheights

In December of 1998 Hillary Clinton came to Boyle Heights to designate the Breed Street Shul as a historical landmark. She earned a lot of dedicated followers that day, who have supported her own rise in politics since the beginning. Especially among us preservationists who remember her coming through for us.  (Photo by Al Seib, Los Angeles Times collection via Getty Images.)

When considering a political candidate, it’s always best to choose someone who has done good by your community. And when selecting a person to represent you, it’s always best to choose the person who understands the issues of your community. And above all, its essential to choose someone who can take these issues to the halls of power and produce results.

And for me and many eastsiders, that all points towards a vote for Hillary for President.

Let me tell a story today, to bring this home for us.

In December of 1998 First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton came to visit Boyle Heights to recognize one of the most important historical landmarks on the eastside, the Breed Street Shul – also known as Congregation Talmud Torah. It was her first stop in Los Angeles, on a tour that would take her to several historic landmarks throughout the city.

Hillary Clinton was touring the country as honorary chair of the White House’s “Save American’s Treasures” campaign, established by Executive Order 13072 in February 1998 by President Bill Clinton. This federal initiative was created to enable the preservation of historical buildings, art and published works. A public-private partnership between the U.S. National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation

This came at a time when many important historical sites and cultural treasures of our county were falling into neglect and disrepair.

On December 11, 1998 the Los Angeles Times reported, “First Lady Visits Historic Synagogue, Movie House Preservation: Trip to L.A. promotes White House drive to save key landmarks.The article went on to say:

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visited a historic synagogue in Boyle Heights on Thursday and an ornate downtown movie house to promote a White House initiative dedicated to preserving historic American sites….

On Thursday afternoon, Clinton stood in front of the dilapidated synagogue and addressed more than 500 people who gathered outside.

This shul and the work we are doing together to preserve it for future generations is an important statement,” she said. “We believe that there must be continuity between generations.”

Boyle Heights, Clinton said, always has been a community for immigrants.

“Boyle Heights immigrants today can think back to those immigrants 60 to 70 years ago who did not speak English–they spoke Yiddish,” she said. “In honoring this particular building, we honor the past.”

…Built in 1923, the synagogue was an integral part of the flourishing Jewish community from the 1920s to the 1950s, when Boyle Heights was home to about 90,000 Jews, then the largest Jewish population west of Chicago.

As the Jewish community moved to other areas, so did the synagogue’s worshipers. By the late 1970s, the congregation wasn’t able to gather a minyan of 10 men to pray.

The congregation ceased services in 1993, when the last rabbi of the Congregation of Talmud Torah wanted to raze the building and sell the property. Last July the City Council voted to buy the synagogue and turn it over to the Jewish Historical Society.

The shul has great personal significance to several City Council members. Councilman Hal Bernson’s Bar Mitzvah was held there, and Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg’s aunt, uncle and cousins were members of the congregation. Councilman Mike Feuer’s mother grew up a few blocks away.

After Clinton spoke at the synagogue, she addressed a crowd at the Los Angeles Theater, which is one of the magnificent historic theaters in the city…

This event was a turning point in the historical preservation of the Breed Street Shul. And this day would be regarded as one of the historical highlights of our community, that Hillary Clinton came to our neighborhood for this very special cause.

If you have been to the Breed Street Shul over the years, you will probably remember that there have often been pictures of Hillary Clinton posted which commemorate this event. In remembrance of how she came through for this community, in helping save one of our most precious Boyle Heights landmarks.

For this reason many people who value the restoration of this site have voiced their enthusiastic support for Hillary Clinton throughout these twenty-years. And some of us have also been some of the most ardent supporters of Hilliary for President in this current election, on account of her legacy of support for the historical and cultural integrity of our neighborhood.

I am proud to count myself as one of those: Go Hillary!

Over the years I have heard of this historical event by several people who remember her visit and met with the first lady on that day. Jewish historians have told me that they came away impressed with how much Hillary knew about the Jewish community and Yiddish organizing history of Boyle Heights when she came. And also Richard Alatorre, he once related in conversation how surprised he was of the in-depth knowledge she had of the Mexican-American social issues and of the organizing history of the area.

Well… not any of this should come as a surprise to us if we really consider it.

Indeed, Hillary Clinton has been literally demonized by conservatives for decades for her interest and critical study of the work of one of the most influential community organizers to ever effect Boyle Heights; Saul Alinksy, of the Industrial Areas Foundation. Whom she studied for a year in community organizing and wrote a critical analysis of his work for her university graduate thesis, with his direct help.

Though because most people don’t know history, many have probably only ever heard of this guy from conspiracy theorist nuts, who scandalize this. However, her inside view of his work is one of her greatest merits.

Alinksky had inspired and funded the creation of the CSO, which helped elect Edward Roybal. Alinsky was also the primary mentor of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

That’s how she would have known so much about the specifics of the social issues and history of organizing in the area, both Jewish and Latino; from Alinksy’s work.

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“Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto” Documentary

A film celebrating the Jewish history of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles

meetmeatbrooklynandsotofilmIn 1996 director Ellie Kahn premiered a wonderful documentary called “Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto,” about the old Jewish community of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles. It is still one of the most well-known and most loved documentaries about the history of the neighborhood.

This documentary was released at a unique turning point in history. As a community which once was a vibrant home and business district for tens of thousands of Jews, dwindled down to only a handful of Jewish people remaining. It also came at a unique time when good old Brooklyn Ave was giving way to Cesar E. Chavez Ave, bearing witness to the transition of the area into a noteworthy Spanish-speaking neighborhood.

This documentary was created for the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, the parent organization for the Breed Street Shul Project. Which had begun to restore the grand and beloved synagogue just a few years before.

This film weaves in so many gorgeous old pictures as it tells the story of the neighborhood. Showing glimpses of some of these notable sites as they once looked in the old days. It gives us a good view into the social aspects of the neighborhood. And presents us with wonderful testimony of an active community, rich in Yiddish culture and leftist organizing, as recounted by former residents.

What I love so much about this film is the personal stories from people who grew up in the area. I think it is one of the most heart-warming documentaries you will find.

Back in 1996 when the film was first released, it was shown on PBS. The Los Angeles Times reported it as the center piece of a 90-minute KCET special with Huell Howser in October of that year. The special featured a brief chat with Kahn and “ends with his own walking tour of a vastly different Boyle Heights than the one memorialized by her.” (Los Angeles Times)

This documentary by Kahn was released on VHS, and became an instant favorite in the area. Being passed down from person to person in the neighborhood, until the tape has worn out. I have even shown worn out copies of it a few times at back-yard screenings in the neighborhood.

It has never been released before in DVD to my knowledge. So people have been anxious to see this film for many years now.

Recently I was amazed to see that some Boyle Heights residents were sharing a digitized copy of this film on social media, uploaded into several parts due to it’s length. Though this might not be an authorized copy, I think that given the fact that after 20-years this has not been re-released in a digital format, we can turn a blind eye in charity!

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 1 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

First Clip:

  • The Early History of Boyle Heights
  • And the rise of the Jewish community until the 1920s
  • The establishment of the Jewish communal institutions

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 2 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Second Clip:

  • The establishment of the Jewish communal institutions (cont.)
  • The 1930s and the Great Depression, Jewish social responses
  • The Synagogues of the Eastside, and the Breed Street Shul
  • The intrusion of the Hebrew Christian Synagogue
  • The Jewish Community Centers
  • The secular Yiddishist cultural centers

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 3 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Third Clip:

  • The Yiddishist community culture of the Eastside
  • The Yiddish socialists and labor organizing
  • The Jewish businesses of Boyle Heights

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 4 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Fourth Clip:

  • The Jewish businesses of Boyle Heights (cont.)
  • The Jewish underworld, gangsters, bootlegging

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 5 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Fifth Clip:

  • The Jewish underworld, gangsters, bootlegging (cont.)
  • The social life of the neighborhood
  • The social clubs and gangs

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 6 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Sixth Clip:

  • The social clubs and gangs (cont.)
  • The multiculturalism of the neighborhood
  • The rise of Nazism and World War II

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 7 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Seventh Clip:

  • The exodus from Boyle Heights
  • The transition of the neighborhood
  • The need for the restoration of the Breed Street Shul

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 8 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Eighth Clip:

  • The living legacy of Jewish Boyle Heights during the 1990s

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 9 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Ninth Clip:

  • Parting words from former residents
  • Credits

Social topic for further discussion:

It is not infrequent that Latino residents of Boyle Heights have related to me that they have sometimes felt that historians of other ethnicities have been overly nostalgic and have tended to avoid the harsher realities of life here. And sidesteps the coarse racial issues which were historically present and which still linger in Boyle Heights.

The above cited Los Angeles Times article by Howard Rosenberg noted: “Kahn says that a couple of former residents she contacted worried about the film’s nostalgia softening reality. But the ethnically mixed Boyle Heights depicted here is not one of constant harmony, even though we do hear stories of connections made between diverse cultures.”

Sounds of the Jewish High Holy Days in Classic Boyle Heights

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 Holidays.

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 choir.

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

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 featured in the 1927 film “The Jazz Singer,” the first talkie; playing himself. Which is still the ultimate kol nidrei related movie.

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 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 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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