The Yiddishists of the eastside hills, a community destroyed by the Red Scare
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.
“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.
“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.
- Resolving Conflict and Preventing Racial Violence, in the Classic Eastside – details about Saul Alinksy’s work in Boyle Heights and the Jewish Cultural Centers of Boyle Heights
- “The Anti-Nazi Parade, Boyle Heights (1938)” – Local civil rights activism born out of the Jewish refugee crisis
- Jewish-Latino Relations: Rooted in a Shared Immigrant, Working-class Experience
- Boyle Heights and City Terrace: Musical bridge to East L.A (Jewish Journal)