Sounds of the Jewish High Holy Days in Classic Boyle Heights

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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 Holy Days.

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 of the congregations.

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

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

In the film a wayward Jewish son who had become a jazz singer would by chance come across a concert featuring Cantor Rosenblatt, who would move the young man’s heart with familiar melodies like those his father sang from the bima of his childhood shul. Stirring his soul and ultimately bringing him home to become the cantor himself.

Interesting, the concert scene in the film was staged as taking place in Chicago, even though it was most certainly filmed right here in Los Angeles.

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 modern-day 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 rumbling 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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The Jewish High Holy Days 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 during the High Holy Days in the late 19th century, which also presents us with some historical twists.

This advertisement is from the Los Angeles Harold, September 23, 1889. This add announcing the season’s upcoming High Holy Day 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 a 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 Holy Days. 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 Holy Days? 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 Holy Day 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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