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 sometimes 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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