The Hidden Sparks of the Jewish Soul of South Central Los Angeles

Recreating the Jewish Legacy and Heritage of South LA

Havdalah in the West Adams District.

Havdalah in the West Adams District.

Over the past few years I have really grown to appreciate so much more about the community of South Central Los Angeles, often hitting up the blues and jazz clubs. Quite often coming out at night with a little circle of eastside friends to enjoy the music and social scene. However, we are quite noticeably among the very few Jews who venture into these neighborhoods today. And for this reason, our presence is always saluted.

This particular week I was invited to a little get together hosted by Ms Fae DC, near Hyde Park. Knowing a bit about her as a musician and for her lively vibe in the music community we frequent, I was glad to finally get a change to get to meet her personally.

As we made our way over to her neighborhood, the final hours of a summer’s evening burned red in the sky. And the air on the blocks buzzing with parties all around us. The sounds of R&B and Mexican music both charging the air, baring witness of the growing Latino community in this area today. With the many celebrations on these blocks overflowing into the yards.

Indeed, South LA has always been a magnet for minorities of every kind. Which makes the area one of the more vibrant places to be in the city.

As we arrive Ms Fae greets us with embraces. We then spend the next few hours exchanged in talk about music. Sitting under a clear sky. Under the a canopy of red berried pepper trees and  Bottlebrushes, and large eucalyptus. These old trees hint at how old her house is, the property still allowing trees which were once ubiquitous to old Los Angeles to grow tall. Trees which are only but a memory elsewhere in the city, often removed by the city as foreign nuances sadly enough. However, I appreciate the classic touch and the great shade from the blazing sun.

In the cool of the evening we sit and rolling around the dice for a while. And at one point I happened to ask, “So where do you find the Jamaican music around here?” Explaining that I’m a big fan of ska, rocksteady and reggae.

Ms Fae and her mom look at each other in excitement. Ms Faye explains, “I know exactly where to take you!” And asked if I wanted to swing by a nightspot with her. Though we were having such a good time, I hadn’t given much thought about it. Nor was I paying attention to how quickly time was passing. The evening quickly turning to dusk.

Normally on a Saturday nights all of my friends would be heading to the Sixth Street Bridge in Boyle Heights to perform Havdalah with me – the ritual for closing the Sabbath and welcoming a bright week to come. Weekly making our stand to keep the light of Jewish spirit alive there in the neighborhood. Then…. we most often head over to South Central to start our nightlife off with some blues!

Odd to some, but it is significant to my friends that I have taken Havdalah – where the words speak about separations and divisions: between light and darkness, Israel and the nations, sacred and profane, and we transform it into a moment of togetherness across the divide. [See “Havdalah as a Light to the Community: Reflections and Lessons from the Havdalah Circle of Boyle Heights.“]

However, being that it was getting late and we were enjoying the company, we didn’t want to disrupt the good vibes and fun conversation. So I asked Ms Fae if we could do Havdalah there at her house, in the West Adam’s district for a change. A suggestion which was enthusiastically welcomed.

So as darkness fell we took out the candles, the wine and spices. And we began the ritual. In full darkness we came together in circle to do the stirring and invigorating ritual. Lighting up the night with prayers and friendship.

My excitement and joy well up as I say the words, extending the joy and light of the Jewish people to everyone around to share in:

“’For the Jews there was Light, gladness, joy, and honor.’ (Ester 8:15) So may it be for us!”

ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששון ויקר כן תהיה לנן, תהיה לנו, תהיה לנו.

And for a while we share in the after-glow of a time of spiritual bliss. And discussing how I believe in inspiring trust and understanding in the inner-city, by just doing soulful Jewish acts to share. To exemplify Jewish values and culture, which few have ever seen here in our lifetime. To create a pleasant memory of Jewish people within the minority communities.

After a few hours of sharing the fine hospitality of Ms Fae, said she hoped I wasn’t on a rush to get back to the eastside. She reminded me that she had something to show me.

So we hop in the car and in short time I found myself walking arm in arm with her through Leimert Park. The buzz of art, music and culture drawing out many people to the district surrounding the park.

20150822_225802-01We make our way on and over to the “Divine Design Melchizedek Luv and Light Healing Center” – to the local Rastafarian and Ethiopian shop, which is also known as a lively music venue. We are here to enjoy some live Jamaican music – to hear some reggae!

I walked through the door with Ms Fae and pretty much most of the Jewish guys of East Los Angeles at my side, to be greeted warmly with cries of “Shalom!” and embraces.

The Rastafarians and the Ethiopian-roots movement, they are just one facet of the black community which greatly associates themselves with the story of the Israelites and Hebrews of the bible. Who identify with the slavery, persecution and diaspora of the ancient Israelites. Some who relate so much to hardships of the Hebrews, that they do indeed see themselves in the role of the Israelites.

Though we also quickly learned that were also a couple local African-American Jews ready to groove with us too, thrilled we were there to represent our people! This we learn as a proud black father throws his arms around his sons, and tell us about the background of his inter-racial family. Beaming to let us know that there are mamash Jews in the neighborhood.

For this reason, it seemed only fitting that we should be enthusiastically greeted with “Shalom.”

For a while I make some good conversation with the shop owner, King Ras. Listening to the history and the hopes of their little storefront mission of sorts there. Learning that they had also acquired land over in Ethiopia, hoping to one day start a communal settlement there.

He expressing to me that he wasn’t really sure what kept him here in diaspora sometimes, but something motivates him to keep this spark of culture expression alive here. He then with laughter points out that the house lighting and sound is being run off a generator out back, since they haven’t been able afford to get the electricity restored for some time.

We therefore long discussed the importance of reclaiming one’s roots and overcoming cultural assimilation. And the need for preserving the heritage of our respective diaspora communities; the customs, languages, art, music and unique religious expressions we have. Many of which are being neglected and lost as people immigrate away from the ancient diaspora communities. The culture of many unique ethnic communities becoming suppressed under hegemony, and quickly becoming in danger of being lost to the ages.

And we further discussed the life and culture of the 100,000 black Ethiopian Jews living in Israel today. There is this type of brotherhood which we do seem to have between our people, which transcends race and geography.

Though before long our host excuses himself to take the stage for the live reggae set.

Now being a fan of this form of music, this is where the night became truly magical for me. For a long time I have loved Jamaican music. But the best I knew to date, it was often listening to rare old records on my side of town and occasionally at retro bars. So it was amazing to have the excitement of the live band.

Before long Ms Fae had me to my feet dancing! Up on my feet stepping to those searing reggae down-strokes and the deep base. Caught up in ecstasy by the cries of the brass and the melodic voices, all coming together with what sounds like angelic choirs to my ears. Sending my spirits soaring, as we join the small crowd dancing.

After some time of dancing, I come and take a seat by my buddy Irv for a breather. For a while I give him a brief history about the evolution of Jamaican music, and its influence in the working-class subcultures.

However, what is clearly most striking to his Jewish ear are the words of the songs. May of them are familiar biblical psalms and words of the prophet. Being blending into folk songs, and carried over into songs which cry out for social enlightenment. Songs of freedom and liberation. Songs which are heavy with Israelite and Hebrew imagery, all of which is used to communicate the struggle of the black African experience. He relates how as a young child in Hebrew school he and his classmates were often taught to sing African-American slave spirituals talking about freedom and equality.

Though this was not a religious service, we were just out on the town enjoying a set of live music. There is no ritual or preaching. Just music and dancing. But even in the ecstatic spirit of it all, one cannot help but recognize that the energy seems nothing short of a euphoric religious celebration. The expressions of culture and faith, all coming together naturally and seamlessly.

But at this point I am also very interested in watching how my Jewish friends are receiving all of this.

Though I think they caught the message I was really hoping would come through that night: That the power of the persisting story of the Children of Israel is something which reverberates with many people the world over. People of all backgrounds and colors identify with this story of freedom and hope, expressing it in their own way.

That’s not to say that there is cannot be some level of awkwardness at times in making connection with people who are clearly reinterpreting very Jewish themes for themselves. Many of whom are re-envisioning and re-purposing the lessons of our bible for their life experience. When they consider our historical struggle, they feel they can relate and they consider themselves in those shoes.

And while it is true that sometimes this does manifest in some people with hostile dispensationalism – the belief that ones own sect or group should instead be recognized as the true Hebrews today – this is often less the case when these communities have living interactions with contemporary Jewish life and when there is a visible Jewish presence.

As the night goes on I begin to speak to one of the young men I had been introduced earlier. And he begins to tell me of his experience growing up in the black community there, as someone who identifies as Jewish. Being a black man, with a Jewish mother.

He then tells me this story with intensity and fervor. Of one time he went to church with his father at a historic black church. And how at one point the preacher at the pulpit began pontificate against those who follow the “dead commandments of the old testament,” that it shouldn’t matter because “none of you are Jews anyhow.” He said his father stood up right then and began to make the case that there are real Jews in their community – like his sons, even though they are black – who need to be encouraged to keep and honor the holy mitzvot (commandments). Which when articulated in this personal way was actually received with great reverence and respect by the pastors there, he tells me.

At that moment it hit me like a ton of bricks. That for all the hampering our Jewish institutions do regarding reaching the unaffiliated and inter-faith families, they have really done nothing to reach the Jews left behind in today’s ethnic communities here.

As the night goes on I start a spiritual discussion. To share some wisdom and inspiration from the Jewish tradition. For a moment I began to speak about the spiritual awaking of the month of Elul – how during the month leading up to Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur – we begin to awaken ourselves from our spiritual slumber.

20150823_000149I was just about to mention how we do that in the Jewish tradition. When just then, without even a cue, King Ras brings out a Shofar to demonstrate the lesson! Into the midnight air and into the streets which were still packed with partying crowds, our host blew the shofar: Tekiah, teruah, shevarim

Now I knew that not all of our buddies seem to know what to make of all this. It was something which they have never seen before. Non-Jewish people blowing a shofar. A mixture of curiosity and awe seem to come over them. While I receive this expression in kind, in a spirit of friendship and solidarity.

Yes, sometimes there can be a level of discomfort that sometimes we simply must lean into when doing cross-cultural work. But as best expressed by my friend Irv Weiser, “It is only uncomfortable when you see the other person as different, instead of as an alternate extension of your own heritage.”

Being here and seeing how anxious people are to share our commonalities, I cannot help but be inspired and challenged.

***

As a representative of the Jewish people on Los Angeles eastside, I am always trying to recapture the historic multi-cultural spirit of our city.

While ever mindful that my dedication and loyalties to my own community not be taken to an extreme. That I not sink into the complacency of my familiarity and closed-off from the rest of the culture to be found in our city.

Though my expertise is mostly regarding Boyle Heights and the Los Angeles eastside, I want to also stand in solidarity with other communities in our great city. Pardon me, as I also venture to take us down another path of cultural exploration today.

I want to call our attention to the other neighborhoods which many people seem detached from, by both some historical and geographical distance. Some neighborhoods which many just fear and neglect, simply because many people feel that they cannot relate to that place and those people there. All of which underlines the need to draw us all to closer together socially. To learn from one another and to find reasons to celebrate each other. For if we dare to notice, we will see we have a lot in common and experiences which can enrich us all.

Yes, there is this another area which to me feels like a sister community to my own East Los Angeles; that being the West Adams District. It may not seem apparent to many today as to why I would make that assertion. As today the eastside is mostly entirely Latino. While the West Adams district is the living heart of the westside African-American community.

Consider this. In the Los Angeles eastside the core of our community is Boyle Heights, the very crucible of Mexican-American expression. And in the West Adams this ground-zero of artistic, cultural, social and political expression of the African-American community is found in Leimert Park. They both stand as mirroring archetypal ethnic neighborhoods, within their own demographic.

Yet in means of culture and geography, they are worlds apart. Literally as far as the east is from the west. But they do have quite a bit in common under the surface.

We also need to remember that historically during the first half of the 20th century both of these areas were officially designated as minority communities. In an age of legalized racial segregation in housing under the guise of “housing covenants,” these communities took in many racialized minorities and immigrants.

The housing market at the time had “redlined” neighborhoods, effectively baring minorities from buying or renting in Downtown and the center of the city. And successfully pushing minorities into the communities east of Boyle Avenue into East LA, or south of Adams Blvd on into South Central.

Therefore it should not be surprising to us that Jewish community thus sprang up in many of these outlying area. Though we all seem to know about the rich Jewish history of Boyle Heights and City Terrace, it’s curious that very few give much consideration of the Jewish history of greater South Central LA.

Especially considering there are a few very notable congregations founded in the area. These are a few which readily come to mind:

  • Congregation Beth Jacob: formerly known as the “West Adams Hebrew Congregation.” Over the years since they have grown to become the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Western United States. In their own words, the shul later relocated to the “exclusive area” of Beverly Hills in 1955.

  • Seraphic Temple Tiferet Israel: popularly known as the “Santa Barabara Ave Temple,” before their final relocation to Westwood in the 1979. Of course in 1982 the street name was changed to Martin Luther King Jr Blvd – in honor of the civil rights advances of the African-American community which thrives in this area today.

  • The Sephardic Hebrew Center: 55th and Hoover, yet another synagogue and cultural center founded by Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) speaking immigrant families from Rhodes, then under the military occupied as territory claimed from Turkey.

And there are many others still. Other synagogues which have long since been forgotten, even though their remnants remain. A half-dozen additional old synagogue sites come to mind, many of which remain as celebrated churches dotting the South Los Angeles communities. Not just to the west; but also on the east of today’s 110-freeway, into the core of the Central district. The sight of which make me marvel each time I pass by them.

In Dr. Max Vospan’s definitive work titled “The History of the Jews of Los Angeles,” he mentions the existence of a Jewish presence in the Central corridor. Identifying these people as related to the shmata business – the garment trade. Which is still clearly evident even to this day, as the garment trade still has a major presence here. However, he did not go so far as to document the life of the Jewish communities there. To present the history of the synagogues in the area, which he did so famously for the rest of the city.

SouthLA

(L-R)Tiferes Jacob/Cong. Talmud Torah (Central); Chevrah Mishnah (Vernon); Agudas Achim Anshe Sephard (West Adams); Sephardic Hebrew Center (55th/Hover); Sephardic Tiferet Israel (MLK/Normandy); Agudas Achim Anshe-Sfard (Central); B’nei Emunah (Central Grand); Knesset Israel (Vernon/Western); Mogen David (Arlington)

In my own research and through the aid of old  city directories I have located many  old synagogues which have been long forgotten. I have further come across the evidence of many mere shteible congregations synagogues operating out of small houses and storefronts throughout the area.

The fact that there were so many congregations in South Central testifies of a significant Jewish presence in the region at one time. Something which is almost hard for many to imagine, as the white working-class and most other minorities have migrated elsewhere.

Before desegregation and the Fair Housing Acts allowed many to escape these neighborhoods in mass. And before the Watts riots of 1965 noticeably sped up the trend both scholars and layman can only seem to define as “white-flight.”

In my lifetime this side of town has only ever been known as the core of the black community. As the black community was almost all that remained when the dust of the mass migration finished settling (very much in the same way Mexican-American’s were left on their own, and to swell to predominance in Boyle Heights).

The question I have is this, why is it that we know so little about the Jewish history of the South Central though? Why has this history been so neglected? Or has all this been willfully forgotten by people who moved-on and never looked back?

An even better question yet, why is it that we do not have real and dynamic inter-community relations between the Jewish and the African-American community of the area today? Because revealing that there was a large Jewish presence here at one time begs the question, then why do we have so little interaction with the people of this area today?

Again, I say real interaction and inter-community exchange. Not just attending federation conferences on racism or engaging in the trite galas where people discuss inner-city disparity over some $1500 a plate dinner, to get a photo-op in the newsletter with some token minority leaders. As many of us claim concern and compassion for minority communities, which almost none of us ever care to step a foot in ourselves to even try to begin to understand and appreciate the living dynamics of.

We like to talk so much about the great Jewish contribution during the historic civil rights movement of the 1960s, as we should. However, that was now almost two generations ago. Today’s generations have never seen us truly exemplify those values or take on those causes in that way, and therefore cannot see a reason to naturally credit the collective us with this. We have done very little ever since to reach people of color. To reach out to ethnic people, in contrast to merely accepting those who might socially climb to meet us in more exclusive settings.

No, this will not do. We need to stop fooling ourselves, and start making natural relationships with our local historically disadvantaged communities today. As all signs reveal, our Jewish forebears here in Los Angeles also once hailed from these inner-city neighborhoods here as well. Revealing that our historical struggles are not all that dissimilar.

Today we really need to transform the nature of inter-community exchange. We need to rekindle the relationship, because it has grown cold. We need to come-back and reconnect. And I think I have a bit of room to say this… as I’m among the few Jewish people who ventures to make a visible presence in these minority communities.

I’m not the type of person to merely call for a study, focus group or conference about considering cultural exchange. I believe we need to just jump into doing outreach and bridge-building between the communities.

The last thing the inner-city needs is just more experts, talking about the Judaism of the area and the diversity of the past as a dead subject. I am not content to become some sort of expert pathologist doing an autopsy on Judaism here, I insist on being the cardiologist with my finger on the pulse of today’s Jewish life here and nursing it back to health.

I’m on the start of another mission which I never expected to take on, though this is but another way for me to further reclaim our shared history. And to restore Jewish expression and inter-community fellowship within the inner-city. To create a positive memory of Jewish interaction here.

I hope many of you will join me in this task to recapture our shared heritage!

Shmuel Gonzales, East Los AngelesWelcome to “Barrio Boychik,” my name is Shmuel Gonzales (a.k.a. “Shmu the Jew”). This newest blog of mine is an open slate for various topics of interest I encounter as a community organizer, activist historian and spiritual leader from the Los Angeles eastside. To share the unique cultural experiences I encounter daily.

This project is less formal than my more scholarly blog, Hardcore Mesorah – dedicated to Torah and Jewish prayer.

I am also a proud member of Congregation Beth Shalom of Whitter – a progressive traditionalist Jewish congregation – where I also teach “Introduction to Judaism” and coordinate Spanish language programming for our growing Latino Jewish community here in the Los Angeles eastside and the San Gabriel Valley.

Recommended articles by Shmuel Gonzales:

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Havdalah as a Light to the Community

Reflections and Lessons from the Havdalah Circle of Boyle Heights

Repost from December 29, 2014

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Havdalah at the 6th Street Bridge, overlooking the city. Dare to make anyplace a sacred space! Punk rock Havdalah with Shmueli Gonzales and Jesse Elliott. Los Angeles.

As Shabbat comes to an end, I always make my way back towards the town and people I love. Towards the arches which over the years have become know as my station and post. And leaning against the metal arches of the bridge, high upon the Los Angeles Sixth Street Viaduct, I bask in the final and lingering rays of the Sabbath’s sun. And then I wait. Wait for the sun to set. I wait, for my buddies to count the stars and declare that it’s time. “One… two… three stars… it’s time!”

And then out from my ubiquitous bag I take these items. A Hebrew prayerbook, a dried etrog and clove bundle as a D.I.Y. “spice-box,” a kiddush cup and a multi-braided havdalah candle.

Havdalah – the ritual for closing the Jewish sabbath – has always been one of my favorite Jewish traditions. And over the years I have always tried to make pause to observe it with the people I care for the most. There is something very warm and loving about the ritual. Something which has always captivated me, and has interestingly drawn my friends in along the way.

Indeed most of my local friends are not Jewish, and consider themselves firm atheists. I am one of the less than a half-dozen Jews who are currently connected to Boyle Heights. And among them few Jews, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who is strongly religiously observant. Nonetheless my friends – Mexican-American, Anglo, African-American, Asian, and especially my older Jewish friends of mine who were born in classic Boyle Heights – they all encourage me to do Havdalah. And they also love to include themselves in this ritual, which is so part of my life. Even the occasional homeless Jewish person.

In a very fundamental way, over the past few years my adventitious return of Jewish rituals such as this back to this historical multi-ethnic neighborhood – one which itself has such a deep and rich Jewish history – has really touched people. These are symbols that the light of Jewish life and expression has not been fully extinguished here. It reminds the community that we haven’t forgotten those who went before us here, who also embraced these enrapturing acts.

“Hinei el yeshuati eftach v’lo efchad! – Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear! – for G-d is my might and my praise – Hashem – and He was a salvation for me.”

“Hinei el yeshuati eftach v’lo efchad! – Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear! – for G-d is my might and my praise – Hashem – and He was a salvation for me.”

A revelation of how much a part of my routine and how meaningful it has become to others came when I ran out of supplies recently, and my punk rocker friends went scavenger hunting to find me items to make havdalah with on the spot. Knowing that my joy would not be complete without this moment, they just had to find a way to improvise! A very sweet and revealing moment for me.

To say the least, I learned after that to never be caught without supplies again. This week we will use a new candle. A long bees-wax candle with nine wicks all braided together.

Standing at the observation point overlooking the skyline of Los Angeles. Lingering at what could well be considered the gates of the city, we make our stand. My prayerbook placed upon a decorative niche of the bridge as a shtender. As I stand there above the train tracks and the water of the river, suspended between heaven and earth. There I light the wicks. I wait for the flames to take hold, until it comes to a roaring flame like a torch. Before I hand it over to one of the guys, who are ready to take it in hand and hold it high.

Overlooking the city I can’t help but be reminded of the Talmud section from which we get this most ancient custom of using candles as a torch. In Pesachim 8a this conversation takes off with the sages calling attention to why we use bright lamps and lights, namely to search. Our sages draw from the prophets, on how G-d will search the city of Jerusalem with lamps, in order to punish the complacent; those who are indifferent to realities of good and evil. (Zepheniah. 1:12) With a light that is meant to search out for justice.

And furthermore the Talmud suggests to us that this light represents our need to extend a light to search out for other precious souls, drawing from the scriptures:

“The human spirit is the lamp of Hashem

searching

all the most deepest parts of ones being.”

נֵר יְיָ, נִשְׁמַת אָדָם; |

חֹפֵשׂ, |

כָּלחַדְרֵיבָטֶן. |

Proverbs 20:27

So among this most motley crew of eastsiders, among the most unlikely of circles I make my stand, and I bless from this place. From this cultural corner of Los Angeles my heart calls home, I stand with other diamonds in the rough. Among other unique souls worth searching for. This tradition challenges me to search people out as with a penetrating light, looking deep into their souls to find their worth.

Havdalah Candle, Spice Bundle, and Hebrew PrayerbookI love the symbolism of this candle. Braided it represents the separations between the spiritual and physical wolds, and mystically symbolizes how they come together; to be intertwined. It represents the separations between the sacred and the secular, and also how they come together. That they are both needed in our lives. A symbolism which is poignant as we step out of the sacred joy of Shabbat, and into the secular workweek which we have before us. As we stand at the cosmological gates between the sacred and the secular.

And it also represents the souls of people, who are distinct; we are each our own flame, but in unity we must intertwine ourselves for the purpose of a mitzvah. Together our small and single flame becomes a roaring torch; for we are much better together and united.

As we stand I see the flames of the candle reflected in the awe of the guys faces and in the twinkle of their eyes. As Jesse exclaims, “Look how brightly you can see it, even from far away! It really is like a torch!”

As he says these words I keep in mind what the Talmud further relates to us as to why this is the best way to make havdalah, with the use of a torch:

“Surely Raba said: ‘What is the meaning of the verse: “And his brightness was as the light; he had rays coming forth from his hand: and there was hiding of his power.” (Habbakuk 3:4) To what are the righteous comparable in the presence of the Shechinah? To a lamp in the presence of a torch.’ And Raba also said: ‘[To use] a torch for havdalah is the most preferable [way of performing this] duty.’”

והאמר רבא מאי דכתיב (חבקוק ג) ונוגה כאור תהיה קרנים מידו לו ושם חביון עוזו למה צדיקים דומין בפני שכינה כנר בפני האבוקה ואמר רבא אבוקה להבדלה מצוה מן המובחר:

Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 8a

The sages then call attention to our own souls, in the light of this mitzvah. It says to consider ourselves as though we are search lamps. But as for this torch, to consider it as comparable to the presence of G-d. That our souls are as bright as lamps, standing next the presence of G-d – in the most radiant light of the Holy One, blessed be He. As the true torch, the most beaming of lights, the Shechinah – it is as thought the surrounding presence of G-d is made manifest among us as we stand with this light.

When I extend the lights of this multi-wicked candle I am welcoming the presence of the Shechinah – the presence of G-d to this place. Welcoming the all-encompassing spirit and the life of all the worlds to this place. For a moment spirituality becomes an almost tangible atmosphere.

“Shalom and Son’s,” a kosher food and wine distribution business operating in the Boyle Heights Flats.

“Shalom and Son’s,” a kosher food and wine distribution business operating in the Boyle Heights Flats.

The Talmud further instructs us upon this subject of havdalah. That we need to include at least three distinct blessings, but adding no more than seven; not more than the days of the week, whose cycle we are renewing with this act.

I take my drink in hand as the ceremony begins. Today we are without wine or kosher grape juice, which is a shocking thing. Considering that underneath us, and just a few hundred feet to the east of us, right in the Flats of Boyle Heights, on Anderson sits a kosher food and wine distribution plant with their Kedem trucks parked in their gates. One of the few present-day Jewish businesses of Boyle Heights is “Shalom and Son’s,” which by way of this neighborhood supplies so many Jewish tables in Los Angeles with this staple of wine as a liquid symbol of joy. Yet we are all out after days of celebrating, and they are closed for shabbos. So the wine-cup goes away and a beer is placed squarely in the palm of my hand.

And then I begin to rhythmically chant the words of the prophets and psalms which begin the ritual of havdalah (in the western Jewish tradition):

Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear – for G-d is my might and my praise – Hashem – and He was a salvation for me. You can draw water with joy from the springs of salvation. (Isaiah 12:2-3) Salvation is Hashem’s, upon your people is your blessing, Selah. (Psalm 3:9) Hashem, Master of legions, is with us, a stronghold for us is the G-d of Jacob, Selah. (Psalm 46:12) Hashem, Master of legions, praised is the man who trusts in you. (Psalm 84:13) Hashem save! May the King answer us on the day we call. (Psalm 20:10)”

הִנֵּה, אֵל יְשׁוּעָתִי אֶבְטַח, וְלֹא אֶפְחָד, כִּי עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ יְיָ, וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה. וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי הַיְשׁוּעָה. לַײָ הַיְשׁוּעָה, עַל עַמְּךָ בִרְכָתֶךָ סֶּלָה. יְיָ צְבָאוֹת עִמָּנוּ מִשְׂגָּב לָנוּ אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב סֶלָה. יְיָ צְבָאוֹת אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם בֹּטֵחַ בָּךְ: יְיָ הוֹשִׁיעָה, הַמֶּלֶךְ יַעֲנֵנוּ בְיוֹם קָרְאֵנוּ:

As we stand upon this massive chunk of concrete and metal, I chant the words in Hebrew. For me, the words become more alive here, at this spot and among these friends of mine. This is our “mishgav lanu” – this is our stronghold, our fortress, our hideout. It is only right that I come here to make such a mitzvah. The rain has just passed, so the river is filled with water. You can hear the faint rushing below, as my soul draws water with joy from the springs of salvation. The sights and sounds are all so vivid.

20141220_174240Aside from the sound of an occasional train below and the rush of a bus at our side, the only other sounds are from the cars passing over the bridge to and from downtown. And the faint and distant rumbling of the freeways which are integral to this viaduct. Though this is the choice spot to observe this city from the eastside, we are among the few people who come here, as mostly its just locals and homeless people. More often these days the occasional hipster does come out of the arts district, but sadly they usually take one look at us edgy punkers standing upon the bridge and nervously turn around instead.

Indeed, this viaduct it is the most picturesque location in the city. But for those people who are more of a boutique style of urbane, this is not a regular destination. It’s a wild adventure, because its lodged right in between the infamous Skid Row and the much ignored ethnic community of Boyle Heights. We are standing on the main artery through the “rough neighborhoods.”

But still we hold the torch high, and with full conviction in my voice I declare in the holy tongue: “Hinei el yeshuati eftach v’lo efchad / Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear!”

And for a moment, walkers take pause as they pass. And the drivers who are weary, my friends say they can catch a glimpse of the awe on their faces as well as they pass. No fear nor even dreary eyes for just a moment. Just awe and wonder as people witness this amazing sight. As we perform the ceremony cars honk at us as they go, joining in like urban “amen”s.

I can hear Zero-Renton say, “Look, those westsiders standing at Mateo are pointing towards the torch! They see it all the way over there!”

And then we continue with the next words, which I say in Hebrew and English. These words which are meant to be repeated by the participating crowd. An all-inclusive and universal phrase which extends the light and joy of Judaism to all who dare to embrace and befriend it:

For the Jews there was light, gladness, joy and honor (Esther 8:16), so may it be for us!

“I will raise the cup of salvations, and I will invoke the name of Hashem:”

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשׂוֹן, וִיקָר. כֵּן תִּהְיֶה לָּנוּ:

כּוֹס יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא, וּבְשֵׁם יְיָ אֶקְרָא:

So I then lift my drink. Today day we need to brown-paper bag it, since we are out of the kosher grape juice. We will have to exchange out one the blessing for wine with the appropriate blessing for beer (she’hakol).

As I lift my drink and at the right moment along with the words of the ritual. And I say the words of respect and reverence: “Savri maranan ve-rabanan ve-rabotai / By your leave my masters, teachers and gentlemen…” Words which ask permission of my guests for me to bless before them.

Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

But also mystically, when we say the savrei maranan – it is meant to symbolize a deferring of reverence to our Jewish sages, rabbis and masters who have gone before us. We acknowledge that through their teachings and traditions they gave us, that they still are living to us and with us. I show respect to them before I proceed.

Standing here I raise my drink as I also make a toast to my friends, family, my city and the historical Jewish heritage of Boyle Heights. And as I say these words, even my non-Jewish friends show their comfort and familiarity with this custom and respond with the traditional response: “L’Chaim! To life!”

Now it is the Jewish custom to bless, over a cup which is filled as near as we can to overflow. So that our joy should be the same, spilling and running over. (Psalm 23:5) And it really seems to, as I say the blessing over the drink.

Next we take the bundle of spices. Made from an etrog – an Israeli citron used during the Sukkot holiday for the mitzvah of Lulav right here in the eastside community – which was dried with cloves, as a spice-box. I say the blessing over the basamim; the fragrant species, the spices and herbs.

The Jewish tradition says that an extra soul is given to each Jews for the celebration of Shabbat, an additional soul to have twice the joy! But when the sabbath leaves us, so does this extra soul. This transition from the hight of joy to the lowly place of mundane life can be deflating. But in order to awaken our spirits anew, to rouse them to attention we use these spices. They are our traditional smelling salts, but they are instead intended to help arouse our common soul to life once again. Pleasantly reanimating us after our long day of Shabbat celebration. We each take a moment to deeply inhale this fragrance, passing it around the circle.

Next Jesse draws the candle low, within reach of us all, as I say the next blessing; “borai morai ha’aish.” As I bless G-d who creates the illuminations of fire. Tradition says that fire was created on the first Saturday night, at the end of the week of creation. (Pesachim 53b) When G-d gave Adam, the first man, the knowledge to rub stones together and create fire. We recall this act now, commemorating that very moment in order to reenact the wonders of creation, in which we are also active partners. I meditate upon this hope now, that G-d may likewise continue to give us the knowledge to continue to do awesome works of creation in this world.

20141220_174405And now near the flames we all hold our hands close and cup them, to see the light passing through the tips of our fingers. Not between them, but shinning through the translucency of our fingertips. For a movement I consider how the spiritual world and the Divine, it is hidden from view. We can only merely perceive this realm of spirit as a flame, the reality of which shines through from within our own holy being, as through good deeds this holy light emanates outward from within us all.

So for a moment I again make a mystical reflection as I look at these hands which I try so hard to use for good deeds. The Zohar, the main mystical text of Kabbalah which interprets the Torah, it tells us that when G-d first created man we were beings of pure light, translucent bodies which were “clothed in light.” And that from the depths of us, our souls would shine brightly to the surface from within. But that after the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the consequence was that people lost their vestiges of pure light and became beings of mortal flesh. However, this tradition tells us that G-d let humans keep a reminder of our former state, in the translucency of our fingertips.

When I hold my fingers close I remind myself of this truth, that I am a being of light. A light in this world and this community, a light which will shine through to the outside world through my tireless work I perform with these very hands. This is a truth I strive never to forget.

The streaming passers still taking notice as we huddle together into a warm circle for these moments. Then once again we raise the candle and the cup high! And I begin the concluding words of the ritual (which are the same in all traditions, Ashkenazi and Sephardi):

Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who distinguishes between holy and secular, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labor. Blessed are You, Who distinguishes between holy and secular.”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל, בֵּין אוֹר לְחשֶׁךְ, בֵּין יִשְׂרָאֵל לָעַמִּים, בֵּין יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי לְשֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה, בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל:

I really consider these words deeply each and every time. The word that stands out to me is the key word of this ceremony, hamavdil. The word hivdil – in Hebrew, it means to distinguish.

Punk Rock Havdalah, in Los Angeles. Shmuel Gonzales and Jesse Elliott. Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefec

Punk Rock Havdalah, in Los Angeles. Shmuel Gonzales and Jesse Elliott. Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefec

We draw our understanding for this word from the Torah, from the book of Leviticus which contains the holiness code; there we are told to be holy, and to be distinguished people. There we are told to separate ourselves and stand apart, to be holy by keeping the Torah laws which keep one sanctified (i.e. keeping kashrut; Leviticus 20:25; 10:10; 11:47). This word likewise brings to mind how on Shabbat the Jewish people are to separate from the world’s secular activities and all its toils and embrace the joy of the sabbath. That it is as different as the difference between light and dark, this embracing of the sacred over the “profane.” And so too, as a people who keep these ways we are distinct and unique because of these practices.

Lately, I feel that far too many times when religious people speak regarding this they focus far too much on the idea of separating themselves from that which they feel is “profane.” From people and a society which they feel are less than kosher; less than sacred. But I don’t believe that is what it should actually mean to us, here and in this place. In this place with this mixed assembly of people; Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, cultured and counter-culture.

The word hivdil means to distinguish. It’s often used in everyday speech to contrast one thing to another, not to really compare as there is no real comparison. As they aren’t really meant to be compared against. But it doesn’t just mean that, it also means that you can tell something apart from the rest. You can tell what it is, as it stands apart and is recognizable for what it is. I remind myself that I am special as a distinct person as a Jew, and so is each of these friends of mine distinct in their own way.

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Zero-Renton Prefect, Shmueli Gonzales, and Jesse Elliott.

Again, I bring our attention back to the candle. To recognize that life and the world is like this braided candle. There are certainly distinctions in the world and between people, but in our own ways we are unique lights in the world; just like each wick upon this braided candle. Though we must allow ourselves to be intertwined! Just like Shabbat is intertwined with the work-week, we must have one in order to have the other! We need to have a partnership between the sacred and secular. We could not have the joy of the sacred, without the labor of the week and its secular duties. So too, the sacred and the secular both have their place and their time to shine.

But now as this joy of Shabbat must come to an end, we must hivdil – we must separate – from the radiant light of a most holy Shabbat and begin our toils anew. And as the blessings of havdalah come to an end, I drink from the cup and I extinguish the candle with a pour of drink over the flames. Putting out the light of Shabbat until next week.

And as we make our way back home to the eastside over the bridge I begin to sing the traditional songs. Among them are “Am Yisrael Chai” and “David Melech Yisrael.” Songs of life! And as we pass the old Jewish sites, we remind ourselves that the works of the Jewish people and the joy of Jewish life are still flickering to life here. And keep in mind that the spark of this Jewish heritage needs to remain alive, to continue to contribute to the diversity which has enriched Boyle Heights for the past century. To show some continuity in the community, where change and modernity seems to quickly be making many things around here all but a memory.

The canopy of beams and girders of the Sixth Street Bridge, by daylight. She is set for demolition in 2015.

The canopy of beams and girders of the Sixth Street Bridge, by daylight. She is set for demolition in 2015.

But sadly, even this last-stand act of havdalah is going to change for my circle in the near future. After all these years of hanging out at the Sixth Street Viaduct, I’m sorry to announce that the bridge is being demolished.

This iconic bridge which has graced the Los Angeles landscape since 1932, she is suffering an alkali-silica reaction in the concrete (called “concrete cancer” by engineers). This reaction creates cracks in the concrete, which are now seen covering all over the body of the structure. With a 70% probability of coming down in the next major earthquake, this most famous of Los Angeles sites is being demolished. It will be closing this Spring of 2015 and demolished in the following months, to make way for a newly designed bridge which is expected to open in late 2019.

So where will we perform havdalah in the future? I don’t know. Now, it’s not that we haven’t tried other spots for havdalah. But they don’t feel the same, and this is where people know to come and join in if they want to. It’s going to be interesting to see if I can recapture this spirit elsewhere.

A Touching Personal Experience from This Past Week

Let me give you one last precious story, from this past week. A special havdalah which really touched me.

This past week my dear friend Irv Weiser calls me while I’m on the bridge. He calls right as the boys are heading back, because as non-Jews they had plans for a ham related holiday feast! Oy, what a dilemma! I was sure I was gonna miss havdalah on the bridge this week, the ceremony which closes the gates of Shabbat. In the face of the rare occurrence of not having any participants, I was thinking I’d have to do it back at the house on my own.

But Irv calls me and says to stick around. That he was just a few blocks away having coffee with a Mexican Jewish man, a homeless friend of his from the eastside. They were wondering if they could join me for havdalah. So we went up and they said the blessings of havdalah with me.

Irv, was born and raised Orthodox Jewish in the neighbourhood of Boyle Heights. And educated at the Breed Street Shul and local yeshivot. He says he’s agnostic now. But as I begin the ceremony he starts to join in the Hebrew prayers. And tell me touching stories of his parents, who were holocaust survivors and who came to Boyle Heights after the war to join a relative already here. He related to me how his parents used to perform the ceremony, and how they pronounced the words in their Eastern European accents.

He then takes a look at the skyline and across the bridge, which he hasn’t seen that way since he was young… now he’s in his 60s. But all the more he’s in awe of the sight after all these years.

For a few moments I also got to talk about the significance of the ritual up there on the bridge with this new friend I’ve met through him, as my buddy Irv gets thrilled by my knowledge and passion. And willingness to take the time. (And in a caring manner nagging me why I don’t study for the rabbinate already, that’s the story of my life!)

As we completed the ritual with song and stories, Irv thanked me for keeping Jewish tradition alive here in this way. As a means of keeping the memory of the legacy of classic Boyle Heights alive, even today after the once predominate Jewish community started migrating away from the neighborhood some 50 years ago.

Irv also expressed his gratitude to me, for investing myself into nurturing the future Latino Jewish community on the eastside. A growing community of Jewish Latinos, who are noticeably becoming integral to the future of Jewish expression here and in our local synagogues.

Irv’s been texting me since. And he keeps telling me, interestingly and touching coming from a self-proclaimed “cynical” and “bored” Jewish agnostic, “Havdalah… the prayers… and that place on the bridge. Now that is really spiritual, and most memorable.”

How to perform Havdalah with alternative items:

  • Though it is most common to make havdalah over wine or grape juice which requires the blessing “pri ha-gafen,” (fruit of the vine) one may also say havdalah over any type of pleasant drink if kosher grape juice is not available; anything except for water or a common drink like soda (according to Rav Moshe Feinstein), which is meant mainly to quench thirst. One should pick a drink which is considered a sociable drink. This can include even coffee or tea (with or w/o milk), or other fruit juices. However, Sephardic rabbis such as Rabbi Ovediah Yosef suggest that the use of intoxicating drinks such as wine, beer, etc. is choicest. One should say the appropriate blessing for what ever drink you choose, in place of the blessing for “pri ha-gafen” (fruit of the vine) when noted in our siddurim.

  • If you do not have a havdalah candle, all you need to do is find two candles and hold the wicks together. Pick a couple of friends out and have them hold the candles with the wicks touching through-out the havdalah ceremony. This is also a great way to physically display how our individual lights are so much stronger when people come together in unity.

Shmuel Gonzales, Barrio BoychikAbout the Author:

My name is Shmueli Gonzales, and I am a writer and religious commentator from Los Angeles, California. I dedicate the focus of my work to displaying the cultural diversity within Judaism, often exploring the characteristics and unappreciated values of Chassidic and Sephardic Judaism. Among my various projects I also produce classical liturgical and halachic texts for free and open-source redistribution.

I am a proud member of Congregation Beth Shalom of Whitter – a modern-traditionalist Jewish congregation – where I also teach “Introduction to Judaism” and coordinate Spanish language programming for our growing Latino Jewish community here in the Los Angeles eastside and the San Gabriel Valley.

 

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