Jewish-Latino Relations: Rooted in a Shared Immigrant, Working-class Experience

A brief history of how Jewish immigrants lent their acquired experience in organizing to more recent Latino immigrants.

“Under the direction of Israel Feinberg, the Los Angeles ILGWU membership rose from 30 to 2,000 between 1930 and 1935, making it one of the larger unions in Southern California. Part of the growth resulted from the 1933 strike by Latina dressmakers. By 1938 the ILGWU’s Spanish-speaking branch had a float in the city’s annual Labor Day parade, and Latinas were active within the union.” – Kenneth Burt

(Revised November 2015)

Jewish-Latino relations in the US are built upon a legacy of recognizing a shared immigrant and working-class experience. We have a long history of being natural allies in promoting social advances. And it all began with organized labor.

At the start of the 20th century an influx of impoverished Eastern European Jewish immigrants provided this country with a desperate and eager labor force. Many of these new immigrants going into the garment and dress-making industry. However, the working conditions in this era of the industrial revolution were terrible and even deadly. Women laborers such as these were among those who organized as early as 1900 in New York City, founding the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). Often holding meetings in Yiddish.

With immigrants venturing west and industry taking off in the booming years of Los Angeles, ILGWU became established here in 1910.

However, by the 1930s the largest growing group of new union members were Spanish-speaking Latinos. Saby Nehama a Sephardic Jew, a Jewish person of Spanish descent – first organized efforts among Spanish speakers on the east coast. And then whole Spanish-speaking branches were soon established in several major cities. [see “Memories and Migrations: Mapping Boricua and Chicana Histories,” p. 130]

In Los Angeles, the work of organizing would be most fearlessly taken up by Russian Jewish immigrant and political anarchist Rose Pesotta [See: Jewish Women’s Archive: Encyclopedia; also see Wikipedia.] As stated in this account published by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324:

“On September 15, 1933, a young, New York labor organizer by the name of Rose Pesotta landed in Los Angeles. Pesotta once worked in Southern California where she had been discharged from a garment factory and blacklisted for union activity. Now Pesotta was returning at the request of garment workers to organize their industry. Within one month a new International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) local was formed and the garment industry found itself in the middle of a bitter strike with Rose Pesotta leading the charge.

“In 1933, the Los Angeles garment industry employed nearly 7,500 workers, half of which were scattered in an estimated 200 small sweatshops in the downtown garment district. Latinas comprised nearly 75 percent of those workers, with the rest consisting of Italians, Russians and Americans. Nearly half of the female dressmakers made less than $5 a week, which stood as a clear violation of the $16 a week California minimum wage for female workers and National Industrial Recovery Act’s (NRA) Dress Code, which set standards in the industry. Workers who attempted to organize were routinely fired and blacklisted by the employers. The local leadership of the ILGWU, consisting of mostly white men, had no interest in organizing female dressmakers, feeling that most either leave the industry to raise their families or shouldn’t be working in the first place.

“But Rose Pesotta refused to buy into that dismissive attitude. With the ILGWU International’s approval, she began laying the foundation for a new local (Local 96). She reached out to the Latina community through a bilingual radio program and a weekly paper called, The Organizer.

This work of organizing would not just be expanded into other cities, it would also result in cross-cultivation in other forms of civil rights organizing. As historian Kenneth Burt wrote:

In sections of the Bronx, in the West Side section of St. Paul, Minnesota, and in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles, Spanish-speaking Latinos replaced Yiddish-speaking Jews as the newest immigrant group.

“Organized labor often served as a bridge between these working-class, ethnic communities. Unions also provided a political voice for the emerging Latino community.

The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) served this function on the Eastside of Los Angeles. The ILGWU engaged directly in civic life. It also helped establish and worked through a variety of Latino and Jewish and organizations, as well as broad-based civil rights coalitions.

The groups in the ILGWU’s sphere of influence included the Jewish Labor Committee and the Mexican American-oriented Community Service Organization (CSO). Early CSO leaders included Maria Duran and Hope Mendoza from the ILGWU.

Directly and indirectly the ILGWU played a key role in the election of Edward Roybal to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949, and to the adoption of fair employment and fair housing laws in California in the late 1950s and early 1960s.”

The historic influence of the Community Service Organization (CSO) in Latino civil rights and politics cannot be overstated.

Founded in 1947 in the Los Angeles eastside, CSO was envisioned by Fred Ross, while inspired and funded greatly by Saul Alinsky. As well as later receiving essential financial backing from allied Jewish organizations – most notably the Community Relations Committee (CRC) – a Jewish organization founded originally in the early 1930s as an anti-fascist organization; dedicated to fighting antisemitism, pro-Nazi outreach and organized racism. [also see, “Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. Community Relations Committee (1933-), Special Collections & Archives”]

The Community Service Organization (CSO) was uniquely created to be a “Mexican NAACP.” Ross and Alinsky took notice that Mexicans were by far the largest and yet most ill treated minority. Mexicans still being the only minority group to not be widely organized. And also standing alone in having no political power or decision-making, with less than 10% of Latino citizens being registered to vote. [see “The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights.”]

In the words of Scott Washburn of CSO:

In 1947, in direct response to rampant police abuse, a lack of educational opportunities, widespread discrimination in government services, a strong culture of bigotry that allowed even people of good conscience to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbors, and ultimately, to the Zoot Suit Riots and Bloody Christmas, the Community Service Organization was founded by Antonio Rios, Edward Roybal, and Fred Ross, Sr. Quickly, the CSO became a training ground for the first generation of Latino leaders, including Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Gilbert Padilla. Recognizing the need for a unified Latino voice and for some semblance of political representation, the CSO initially concentrated on organizing voter registration drives in Latino communities all across California. In 1949, the CSOs efforts culminated in the election of Edward Roybal, the first Latino to serve on the Los Angeles City Council.”

cc_ross_cover_130318_mnRoyball would ride a wave of crucial Yiddish speaking political support in Boyle Heights, backing his ascent to City Hall and further still. The future Congressman Edward Roybal would later take his social causes to the halls of the US Congress with him as well.

Fred Ross would continue to expand CSO at the behest of Alinsky, helping establish their presence first in Oxnard and later in San Jose.  Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, trained by CSO in Alinsky style protest, would then take the cause directly into the local fields; thus founding the United Farm Workers, which is widely considered the most influential and visible Latino organization to date. The UFW is the primary historical and still active model for Latino activism to this day.

[Learn more about the discipleship of Cesar Chavez under the tutelage of Saul Alinsky’s, and the rise UFW as an outgrowth of CSO. See “Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa.”]

While today American Jews might not be the face of the working-class anymore, many Jewish community leaders have made it an activist goal to fight for workers rights and better immigration reform for Latinos. Maintaining a legacy of support for these and other progressive causes, due to the similar collective memory Jews have of their grandparents and great-grandparents being exploited as poor immigrants.

For more information, I highly recommend Kenneth Burt’s unpublished paper, Garment Workers as Bridge Builders: Immigrant Radicalism and the Search for Economic Justice.”

For further information regarding the UFW and Jewish activism, see a wonderful piece by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz: The Forgotten Story of Cesar Chavez and the Jews.” (HuffPost)

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The Jewish High Holidays 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 in the late 19th century, which also presents us with a historical twist.

This advertisement is from the Los Angeles Harold, September 23, 1889. This add announcing the season’s upcoming High Holiday 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 the 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 Holidays. 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 Holidays? 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 Holiday 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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