“Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto” Documentary

A film celebrating the Jewish history of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles

meetmeatbrooklynandsotofilmIn 1996 director Ellie Kahn premiered a wonderful documentary called “Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto,” about the old Jewish community of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles. It is still one of the most well-known and most loved documentaries about the history of the neighborhood.

This documentary was released at a unique turning point in history. As a community which once was a vibrant home and business district for tens of thousands of Jews, dwindled down to only a handful of Jewish people remaining. It also came at a unique time when good old Brooklyn Ave was giving way to Cesar E. Chavez Ave, bearing witness to the transition of the area into a noteworthy Spanish-speaking neighborhood.

This documentary was created for the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, the parent organization for the Breed Street Shul Project. Which had begun to restore the grand and beloved synagogue just a few years before.

This film weaves in so many gorgeous old pictures as it tells the story of the neighborhood. Showing glimpses of some of these notable sites as they once looked in the old days. It gives us a good view into the social aspects of the neighborhood. And presents us with wonderful testimony of an active community, rich in Yiddish culture and leftist organizing, as recounted by former residents.

What I love so much about this film is the personal stories from people who grew up in the area. I think it is one of the most heart-warming documentaries you will find.

Back in 1996 when the film was first released, it was shown on PBS. The Los Angeles Times reported it as the center piece of a 90-minute KCET special with Huell Howser in October of that year. The special featured a brief chat with Kahn and “ends with his own walking tour of a vastly different Boyle Heights than the one memorialized by her.” (Los Angeles Times)

This documentary by Kahn was released on VHS, and became an instant favorite in the area. Being passed down from person to person in the neighborhood, until the tape has worn out. I have even shown worn out copies of it a few times at back-yard screenings in the neighborhood.

It has never been released before in DVD to my knowledge. So people have been anxious to see this film for many years now.

Recently I was amazed to see that some Boyle Heights residents were sharing a digitized copy of this film on social media, uploaded into several parts due to it’s length. Though this might not be an authorized copy, I think that given the fact that after 20-years this has not been re-released in a digital format, we can turn a blind eye in charity!

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 1 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

First Clip:

  • The Early History of Boyle Heights
  • And the rise of the Jewish community until the 1920s
  • The establishment of the Jewish communal institutions

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 2 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Second Clip:

  • The establishment of the Jewish communal institutions (cont.)
  • The 1930s and the Great Depression, Jewish social responses
  • The Synagogues of the Eastside, and the Breed Street Shul
  • The intrusion of the Hebrew Christian Synagogue
  • The Jewish Community Centers
  • The secular Yiddishist cultural centers

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 3 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Third Clip:

  • The Yiddishist community culture of the Eastside
  • The Yiddish socialists and labor organizing
  • The Jewish businesses of Boyle Heights

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 4 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Fourth Clip:

  • The Jewish businesses of Boyle Heights (cont.)
  • The Jewish underworld, gangsters, bootlegging

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 5 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Fifth Clip:

  • The Jewish underworld, gangsters, bootlegging (cont.)
  • The social life of the neighborhood
  • The social clubs and gangs

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 6 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Sixth Clip:

  • The social clubs and gangs (cont.)
  • The multiculturalism of the neighborhood
  • The rise of Nazism and World War II

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 7 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Seventh Clip:

  • The exodus from Boyle Heights
  • The transition of the neighborhood
  • The need for the restoration of the Breed Street Shul

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 8 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Eighth Clip:

  • The living legacy of Jewish Boyle Heights during the 1990s

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto 9 from Milly Hock on Vimeo.

Ninth Clip:

  • Parting words from former residents
  • Credits

Social topic for further discussion:

It is not infrequent that Latino residents of Boyle Heights have related to me that they have sometimes felt that historians of other ethnicities have been overly nostalgic and have tended to avoid the harsher realities of life here. And sidesteps the coarse racial issues which were historically present and which still linger in Boyle Heights.

The above cited Los Angeles Times article by Howard Rosenberg noted: “Kahn says that a couple of former residents she contacted worried about the film’s nostalgia softening reality. But the ethnically mixed Boyle Heights depicted here is not one of constant harmony, even though we do hear stories of connections made between diverse cultures.”

Resolving Conflict and Preventing Racial Violence, in the Classic Eastside

How the Jewish and Latino Communities Resolved Conflict in Post-War Boyle Heights (1940s-1950s)

How can we revolve conflict and prevent violence in our changing eastside communities? What can we learn from history regarding this? What should the community keep in mind as we see the demographics changing here once again? What should we consider as we see an uneasy integration taking place here?

fredross_CSO-voter-registration-1948

Voter registration, during the historic 1948 voter drive in which 15,000 new voters from the barrios were registered by the efforts of the Community Service Organization (CSO). This is what really provided the democratic muscle to help Edward Roybal, our first Mexican-American local representative, get elected to the LA City Council. The CSO received its essential funding and mentoring in organizing from Saul Alinsky, and his Industrial Areas Foundation, under the guidance of his local representative Fred Ross Sr. (see photo,far left). As well as financial support directly from the local Jewish Community Relations Committee (CRC), today known as the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The reality is that this type of turbulent change, it has happened all before. Community change being met with racial conflicts and classist fears, this has all come around before.

However, it’s important to remember that the people of this community have a profound history of forging inter-community partnerships to conquer prejudice and racial tension.

This was especially true in the late-1940s through the mid-1950s, in the partnerships between the shrinking Jewish community of the area and the growing Mexican American community of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles.

Recently when discussing notable history of the area I had talked with people a lot about the cooperation of Jews and the minority community in the fight against the Nazi fascism during the 1930s and through the 1940s. Of the Jewish and non-sectarian organizations which they founded to fight fascism, and how many went on to be essential backers of minority empowered organizations in the fight against Jim Crow. [see “The Anti-Nazi Parade, Boyle Heights 1938: How Our Multi-Ethnic Community Responded to the Jewish Refugee Crisis.”]

During the years leading up to and then through World War II many Jewish people and minorities had a lot in common still, because the nature of prejudice and the persistence of segregation in that age. In those days their partnerships were essential and seemed quite natural.

Though I believe that history clearly shows us that the partnerships between Jews and Latinos becomes most interesting in the post-war years. Though sadly, most people write off the history of the Jewish eastside after the war. During a time when such partnerships could be considered counterintuitive to many.

The reality is that telling the story of inter-community relations becomes much more complicated after the war, so many just avoid it at all cost. As Jews and Latinos begin to have less in common with each other, which does result in increased friction. Frictions which were not uncommon before the war, and the specter of which fearfully hung over the Jewish community with even greater concern following the war.

In the decade following the wartime riots, the general population was genuinely afraid of a resurgence of riots. And the larger population even fearful of Mexican residents taking vengeance on them, expecting an eminent explosion of Mexican rage in the form of riots.

So what did the Jewish leaders of the area do post-war to fight racial conflict and prevent violence in the changing community? How did they overcome the issues of having to deal with the communal bitterness felt by the growing racial minority groups regarding housing and job market inequity? How did Jews react with even being perceived as exploiters and absentee landlords controlling these older neighborhoods?

The fact is scape-goating of Jews in the eastside has existed as far back as any of us remember. And it is something that the Jewish community out of necessity realized they had to address more assertively when they found themselves in the role of being the smaller minority here after the war.

We need to more honestly tell the story of the communal challenges of that era. Instead of avoiding the hard truths which culminate at this point in history. We need to recognize the reality that even in the “good old days” of the historic interracial community of Boyle Heights of yesteryear which many are prone to idealize today, even then the established community of Jews of the area had to put a great deal of work and invest a lot of money into dispelling racism, classism, antisemitism and preventing misdirected violence.

The reality is that inter-cultural and inter-faith respect of classic Boyle Heights was not just a given. Living next to people of other races and cultures, it did not necessarily integrate people to one another, nor effortlessly create mixing and understanding.

Again, it took real effort and true intention to accomplish this sense of community cohesion with a diverse population of residents here. Which begs me to ask: So why is it that today people expect it to just happen all by itself? Why is the current establishment of our community federations really doing nothing to support direct inter-community cooperation and inter-racial socialization? How is that today they do not see fit to really contribute anything to mitigate a long history of tensions which are revisiting us here?

I dare say that my fellow community, cultural, religious and interfaith leaders of today really need to learn some pages from our local history. And reflect on how to help our community of today resolve the currently rising tensions, in tried and true ways.

I ask us to consider these selected pages of history here:


“RESOLVING CONFLICT, PREVENTING VIOLENCE”

from Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century

By Shana Bernstein

The Zoot Suit Riots’ legacy factored prominently into postwar calculations about the value of cooperating across community divides, especially as the mounting housing crunch and employment discrimination escalated racial tensions in minority areas. As tensions threatened Angelenos’ safety, they stirred Jews’ and Mexicans’ — along with the rest of Los Angeles’ fears that violence would once again erupt in their city. The American Council on Race Relations’ 1945 study titled The Problem of Violence: Observations on Race Conflict in Los Angeles: explained: “There was general apprehension on the part of many who had seen the evidences of friction increasing and apparently cumulating, who had lived through the ‘zoot-suit’ riots.” These people, the study reported, “feared that post-war Los Angeles with its restricted employment opportunities for Negroes and Mexicans, its wretchedly inadequate housing facilities and its greatly increased population would become a battle ground on which Americans battled each other.” The threat of violence forced Angelenos to realize that wartime attempts to improve race relations in the city had fallen short.

Sometimes the tensions and competition for resources did result in violence, both between whites and minorities and among minority groups. Much of the violence was perpetrated against minorities, especially African and Mexican Americans, by whites….

[pg. 151-152; continuing selection with, pg. 154-156.]

These were the living conditions of the Mexican families, living in the settlements of FIckett Hollow, Boyle Heights. (1950)

These were the terrible living conditions of the Mexican families, living in the settlements of Fickett Hollow, Boyle Heights. (1950)

East Los Angeles Jewish and Mexican community, among whom relations were particularly strained as the two groups’ financial, social, and geographic distance increased, viewed potential violence as an especially salient issue. As Jews in Los Angeles, as elsewhere, confronted housing restrictions and employment discrimination, they, unlike Mexican Americans, also made economic strides, became increasingly integrated, and gradually moved toward the more affluent west side. The Mexican origin population, on the other hand, was “Southern California’s largest and, in many ways, most disadvantaged minority,” according to a 1949 report by Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. The group’s poverty, lack of networks to other communities, low voter turnout, and high percentage of non-citizens, according, to reports like these, impeded attempts at securing financial backing to pressure politicians to improve their conditions. A 1946 investigation of racial minorities’ conditions by the ACRR concluded that the Mexican-American community was in even more dire straits other than poor Los Angeles minorities.

Increasingly different class status distanced Jewish and Mexican Americans from one another. In the schools, the ACRR’s report The Problem of Violence observed, “The great barrier to the acceptance of Mexican children by Jewish children is the middle-class bias of the Jewish parents expressed in excessive concern over dirt and disease.” Divergent police actions towards the two groups also, it explained, served to “contribute to the increase of community tensions between middle-class Jews and lower-class Mexicans. The “class bias” was intertwined with a racial bias, too, as Jewish Americans were becoming increasingly integrated into American society and accepted as white, while Mexicans increasingly faced categorization as brown “others.”

Mexican-Americans saw their Jewish neighbors moving to nicer neighborhoods while their own conditions stagnated or deteriorated, breeding “frustration and bitterness.” Alinsky’s Industrial Area’s Foundation reported, “These, in tern, found expression in intergroup hostility and scape-goating with particular reference on the Eastside to the adjacent Jewish community.” Jews who moved west frequently kept east side businesses and retail properties, which sometimes provoked charges of exploitation from their former neighbors. Associating Jews with exploitation stemmed in some cases from anti-Semitic assumptions, since many non-Jews also became absentee landlords.

This growing divide between two communities that seemingly had little in common after the war counter intuitively helps explain their interest in collaboration. Because Mexican Americans’ daily struggle for survival left little money to fund organizations such as the CSO, they sought support from other Los Angeles ethnic communities, including Jews. The Jewish community’s motives for assisting a group increasingly distant from its own population seem less apparent. CRC [the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish community; the predecessor to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles] leaders, discussing the Mexican, American community, justified support for the CSO by explaining that it “deflects the hostility which exists in that community against the Jews, to constructive social issues of benefit to the Mexican-American and the Jew alike.” The CSO could “by its very existence, prevent race riots such as have happened before in this city.” CRC leaders claimed it already had “no doubt prevented serious repercussions which might have otherwise happened on the East Side.” CRC executive director Herzberg countered a member’s protest that the CRC should stop funding the CSO, since it was not “closely related enough to the activities of the Jewish community,” by explaining that its “prophylactic value” was “a relatively cheap investment” for the Jewish community. Herzberg’s comment that the CSO would help prevent “gang fights and similar anti-social acts” also reveals underlying assumptions about Mexican Americans’ violent potential. Fears of violence also shaped Jewish community interest in the African-American community. The CRC reported Jewish concern about the implications of demographic transformations in the Watts neighborhood, specifically the increasing African-American and Mexican-American populations. Mounting unemployment created a situation of “increasing problems of social relations” that “could be explosive as far as the Jewish community is concerned.” Many of the retail stores on the main street of Watts were owned and run by Jews, it reported, explaining that the year before, “a vigorous anti-Semitic campaign” arose as unemployed residents demonstrated their frustration about limited job opportunities. The report also identified mounting tensions between the African-American and Mexican-American communities in the neighborhood. In response to such tensions, the CRC expressed to the director of planning of the City Planning Commission that it was “deeply concerned about some of the conditions of living in the Watts area of our city.”

A colony on Fickett St. showing a number of bungalows built in a canyon in Boyle Heights. This was one of the poorest barrios in the neighborhood.

A colony on Fickett St. showing a number of bungalows built in a canyon in Boyle Heights. This was one of the poorest barrios, which impoverished Mexicans were relegated to; out of sight and concern to even people of good conscience.

Amidst these complex attitudes, which reflect some degree of prejudice and misunderstanding of each other, both Mexican-American and Jewish-American communities viewed bridge-building projects as critical for their mutual survival. The CSO particularly hoped to secure Jews’ participation since, as Ross explained, “this is the other large group on the East Side and Jewish-Mexican American relations have left a good deal to be desired for some time.” Ross attempted to obtain Jewish community support by emphasizing to the CRC how the CSO’S work improved “deplorable” East Los Angeles neighborhood conditions that “had been reflected in a history of hostility between Spanish speaking colonies and the Jewish Community surrounding the Jewish Community surrounding Temple Street.” The CSO reported in 1949 that two years of efforts had redirected the “scape-goating” of nearby “disadvantaged groups” (specifically the “adjacent” Jews) and had “pav[ed the way] for cooperation with other groups particularly with those in the Jewish Community.”

In short, memories of World War II-era violence and fears of its recurrence helped inspire postwar collaboration. In cases like the CSO, such fears even resulted in important new postwar civil rights initiatives which continued the earlier thrust of reform and demonstrate the continuity between 1935 and World War II era collaboration and its later Cold War incarnation.


In a previous post I actually went into great detail about the CSO, when talking about the connection between the early garment worker’s movement of the 1930s-1940s, and the rise of the CSO in 1940s-1950s, and the continuity of these social justice aims which eventually gave rise to the United Farm Workers in the 1950s-1960s.

However, I think it is import to revisit some of this important chapter in history:

The Importance of the Community Service Organization (CSO)

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 Sr., 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. [it would later become know as the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; 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 CSO’s efforts culminated in the election of Edward Roybal, the first Latino to serve on the Los Angeles City Council.”

Elect Roybal, LA CIty CouncilRoyball 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 Royball 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, and the rise UFW as an outgrowth of CSO. See “Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa.”]

Again, historian Shana Bernstein notes:

“While the CSO is represented as a Mexican-American activist group in much Chicano scholarship, it was an interracial endeavor from its very beginning and its membership was diverse well into the 1950s. The grassroots CSO drew its main support from a combination of older Mexican-American activist groups who had participated in the 1930s-era movement and newer ones who emerged out of the war as veterans. It also received significant support from other Angelenos, most importantly Jewish Americans. Its early organizers encouraged multiracial membership. “Although they great majority of CSO members are Mexican-Americans, we have gradually had members of other groups come in,” Ross Reported of its 1948 meetings. “At the last meeting, for instance, we had 15 reps from the adjacent Jewish community, 4 Negros and around 18 so called ‘Protestant Anglos’” In 1949 Ross reported to the CRC that “Orientals, Negroes, Jews and Christians” compose the approximately 12 percent of membership that was not Spanish-speaking. In the early to mid-1950s, the organization’s chairman Tony Rios reported that 15 percent of its more than 3,500 members (approximately 3,000 from three L.A. County branches and 500 from San Jose) were “from the Negro, Jewish, and the so-called Anglo-American communities.”

Community Service Organization meeting in 1955. Photo: www.fredrosssr.com.

Community Service Organization (CSO) meeting in 1955. Photo: http://www.fredrosssr.com.

The contributions in civil rights organizing which began here in Boyle Heights with inter-racial cooperation in establishing the CSO, it would bear fruit even beyond this community. Inspiring the pursuit of even larger gains of empowerment of working-class Mexican-Americans. Though it was a multi-ethnic endeavor. And their achievements of this era, they were attributed to their inter-community cooperation.

 Interracial Programming of the Eastside Jewish Community Centers

While Bernstein and I tend to often focus on the labor and political organizing history of this area, it is very important to note the more well known cultural and social activities which contributed to better race relations and for strengthening community cohesion.

The eastside Jewish Community Centers most notably provided programming for all of the community; it was open to Jewish and non-Jewish people alike. Indeed as much as 15% of the members of the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center were not Jewish, as well as about 3% membership of the more Orthodox Zionist-based Menorah Center in City Terrace. While these centers offered programming for the members of the local Jewish community, they also sought to meet the needs of all their neighbors as well.

“Students arrive for after-school activities at the Eastside Jewish Community Center on Soto Street, c. 195-. Formerly the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center… sponsored integrated sporting leagues as well as programs designed to introduce cross-cultural understanding, In the 1950s, center director Joseph Esquith was removed because his policy of keeping the facilities available to anyone, regardless of politics, was considered subversive. (Los Angeles Daily News Photographic Archive, Department for Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA)”

“Students arrive for after-school activities at the Eastside Jewish Community Center on Soto Street, c. 1950. Formerly the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center, the Eastside Jewish Community Center sponsored integrated sporting leagues as well as programs designed to introduce cross-cultural understanding. In the 1950s, center director Joseph Esquith was removed because his policy of keeping the facilities available to anyone, regardless of politics, was considered subversive. (Los Angeles Daily News Photographic Archive, Department for Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA)”

Though these numbers might seem modest, this did make a major impact in forging the community’s sense of interracial fellowship; offering after-school programs, sports and swimming. In an atmosphere free from the racial segregation which was common in most other neighborhoods and at many public facilities.

After the war, and after the steep decline of the Jewish population of the area in the decade to follow, these Jewish community centers began to refocus their efforts to further bring the causes of the current non-Jewish residents into their walls. And also giving space to socially progressive causes of the area’s working-class immigrants.

As we will further explore, this progressive stance eventually came with major consequence and persecution for the remaining Jewish community leaders here on the eastside. During the McCarthy era Red Scare which was feverishly consumed with the weeding out of communists. In a political atmosphere where promoting socialism, internationalism and labor progressivism made many people targets for being labeled communists enemies of the state.

Inevitably,  it was their open door policy to people of all backgrounds and political persuasions which would in the end doom these Jewish community centers later on in the 1950s.

To be continued…..

Related articles:

Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, founded in Boyle Heights

One of my favorite shops is Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, on Fairfax Ave. in mid-city Los Angeles. They are one of the shops on my list which I feel like I need to visit during the holidays, along with the Jewish bakeries and kosher food shops.

Over they years I have made this trek countless times, to bring all the essential items of Jewish life back with me this side of the river. Many times buying from shops in the Fairfax, which were once located in Boyle Heights when the eastside used to be the beating heart of the Jewish community!

Solomon’s Judaica was founded almost 80 years ago out of the Solomon family’s home living room on Chicago Street in Boyle Heights. Later opening a small shop on Brooklyn Ave (now Cesar E. Chavez Ave.). They then relocated to the Fairfax district, with the mass of Jewish migration which went westward some 70 years ago.

Solomon’s is among those handful of time-loved shops, which Jewish families have been coming to for generations. Over the years I have met many people who tell me that this is where their family came to buy all their religious Jewish items – a yarmulke, a tallis, a prayerbook, etc. To purchase all the items one needed for their special occasions – bris, bar mitzvahs, weddings, etc.

Read this fine history compiled by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles. with the help of the Solomon’s family :

Elimelech Solomon, the fourth generation of his family to be born and live in Jerusalem (in what was then Palestine) made a fateful decision in 1926. ElimelechChayaSolomonAt that time he owned a grocery store to support his family. During an Arab pogrom, his store was looted and ransacked and he was left with nothing. Hoping to find a better life for his family, Elimelech left for America, not unlike his ancestor Reb Zalman Solomon who, a century before Elimelech, left his native Lithuania for a better life and became the first Ashkenazi Jew to arrive in Jerusalem in 1812.

Elimelech settled in Boyle Heights where he was barely able to make enough money to sustain himself. First he worked as a m’shulach (fundraiser), collecting money for Talmud Torah religious school and Bikur Cholim, hospital care. Later he served as a mashgiach, inspecting kosher meats. Back in Jerusalem, Chaya, then pregnant with their fourth child and the three other children had to survive on what little money she could earn by helping neighbors with ironing and odd jobs.

Elimelech wrote home often, but it would be ten years before he had enough money to bring his family to the States. In 1936, Chaya and the four children (Masha, Pinchas, Moishe, and Naftali, a ten-year-old who had never seen his father), traveled from Jaffa to Marseilles by boat, then by train to the port of LeHavre, where they boarded a boat to New York. Eventually they arrived in Los Angeles by bus.

Solomonshome

The Solomon family home, where their front room became their first showroom.

To help with expenses, Chaya’s brother in Israel sent Judaic artifacts for her to sell to the growing Jewish community. Chaya placed a sign in their front room window and soon customers came to inspect her wares, displayed on a table in the living room where, at night, the three sons slept. People came to buy at all hours of the day. Often the Solomons were one of the first to learn about upcoming important events in the community–a marriage, a bris, a bar mitzvah–when families came to buy ceremonial items and gifts. From these humble beginnings was born one of the first Judaica businesses on the West Coast, Solomon’s Hebrew & English Book Store.

As they became more successful, Elimelech and Chaya moved the business out of the house and set up shop in a section of a butcher’s store and later a key shop. Eventually they expanded and moved into their own store on Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue). From Israel, they imported gift items such as olive wood objects and filigree jewelry. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that if anything religious was needed—a machzor, a tallis, a yarmulke—it could be found at Solomon’s.

The Solomon children helped out in the store occasionally doing whatever was needed: from waiting on customers or weaving lulavim to polishing the silver or cleaning. One more child, daughter Miriam, was born in Los Angeles. As a young girl, Miriam sat outside the store, selling Jewish new years cards and encouraging passers-by to come into the store. Chaya’s keen business skills complimented Elimelech’s gregarious nature. He loved to kibbitz with customers. He used to say, “King Solomon had a thousand wives, but I have only one wife and thousands of items in the store.” Bills for books the couple sold to synagogues and religious schools often went unpaid because of Elimelech’s generosity. Chaya would prepare dinner in the morning before she opened the store so the family would have dinner ready for them. Elimelech would come in later and unpack and price merchandise until midnight.

The couple’s ability to speak several languages, including Yiddish, English, Hebrew, and Arabic was vital to their success as shopkeepers. Chaya also spoke Spanish, which she learned from her Sephardic neighbors in Jerusalem. In an article published in The Jewish Journal when Solomon’s celebrated its 50th year in business, it noted that the store was “probably the only place in L.A. where good, old-fashioned discussion on culture, politics and life are more important than moving the merchandise.”

The Solomons attended the Breed Street Shul, but during High Holy Days, Elimelech served as a cantor at other synagogues. He passed down his skills to sons Nathan and Moishe who often performed holiday cantorial duties as adults. Their daughter Masha sang solos and duets with her father as she sat in the first row among the congregants.

After twelve years in Boyle Heights, as the Jewish population moved westward, the Solomons moved their store to its final location on Fairfax Avenue. The long narrow store was lined with shelves on each side. One side held candlesticks, spice boxes, and jewelry; the other side had wine and every imaginable book on Judaism from ancient texts to Jewish cookbooks and Jewish newspapers in many languages. Jews from around the world ordered items through their mail order business. Even after Elimelech’s death, Chaya and her sons Philip (Pinchas) and Nathan (Naftali) continued to run the flourishing business. The sons who were educated at a New York yeshiva, also answered phone calls received daily from people with questions on Jewish customs and rituals. Despite suffering from debilitating arthritis, Chaya continued to work well into her eighties.

Finally, in 1986, after being in business for more than 50 years, the family sold the store to Jews from Iran who retained the store’s name because of its good reputation. Though she no longer worked there, Chaya sometimes visited the store in her wheelchair, greeting old customers and answering the new owners’ questions such as how to price certain items.

Today, Elimelech, Chaya, and their two children Masha and Moishe are buried in Israel. Philip, Nathan, Miriam, their spouses, and many of the ten grandchildren fondly remember Elimelech and Chaya and the legendary bookstore known simply as Solomon’s.

This year I needed to buy an old school styled olive oil Chanukah menorah (chanukiah), to bring back home and to share the festival lights with the community in Boyle Heights! I couldn’t think of a better place to buy from.

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Solomon’s Hebrew & English Book Store. now at 438 N. Fairfax Ave.

Nor could I think of a better way to bring our shared history full circle.

Though my choice to buy from this store is not just based in tradition and the impulse to buy from a shop which is as familiar as an old friend. It is to show support a fine business which is falling on tough times.

In recent years, Solomon’s has been forced to downsize and restructure due to rent hikes. They have also moved storefronts a couple times over the past few years, and are now located on the other side of Fairfax from their longtime location. Now situated directly across the street from Canter’s Deli. In a storefront which used to be part of good old Simon Rutberg’s Hatikvah Jewish record shop, as revealed by the remnants of the old neon record sign out front.

Fairfax has for several years been feeling the stress of urban change; as the hip-hop street-ware scene has taken shape in the district, raising rents ever higher and displacing several older Jewish shops, a creating some frictions. And as gentrification has taken hold here, recently being most egregiously displayed in this very district.

Some people wonder if these changes are going to put the distinct Jewish character of this area in jeopardy.

I personally doubt that the Jewish flavor of the area is going to quickly disappear. As Fairfax Ave. is still home to many of our favorite cultural Jewish hot-spots and Jewish-style eateries, which maintain this areas own character which is distinct from that of the more orthodox community that has pushed ever westward into todays “kosher corridor” of the Pico-Robertson.

Though all this change going on does leave many wondering what the future is for the handful of religious Jewish shops and institutions such as these, as Fairfax has for some years been moving away from being the central focal point of religious Jewish life in LA.

While this shop has certainly never made the owners rich and has always been but a struggling little business, for generations it has enriched the Jewish community both in Boyle Heights and Fairfax. Let’s hope it’s legacy and charm lasts for many years to come!

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The original Solomon’s Hebrew Bookstore storefront location:

About the Solomon’s family and their early years in business:

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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Rediscovering “Congregation Tiferes Jacob,” of 59th Street, South Central Los Angeles

The former

The former “Congregation Tiferes Jacob – Congregation Talmud Torah.” 59th and Brentwood, just east of Broadway.

Every time I go through the middle corridor of South Central LA, I crane my neck as I approach the area around Slauson and Broadway. Since the first day I noticed it I have been filled with curiosity. As even from the Harbor Freeway one can clearly see it if you pay attention, a Star of David on a blue copula and a Christian cross on the other.

After spending much time wondering about this, I have finally started to uncover the history of this site as a former synagogue. An old Jewish religious site, which was converted into a church. I have spent the past few weeks returning to the site. Talking to residents in the neighborhood to get to know the history of the area. [See: “Unusual Sightings of the Star of David in South Central LA“]

And I have also been following-up on this further with some research at the library. Which has also provided some fascinating leads regarding the history of this congregation and the surrounding neighborhoods.

While at the Los Angeles Central Library going through old city directories – the forerunners to phone books – I got curious, and found myself thumbing through the pages looking for a listing of the old synagogues of the area. And in the 1930 through the 1942 directories, listed by name under “Congregation” I found a large listing of the old shuls of Los Angeles. The revelations left me stunned.

What was so significant about the revelation, was not just how many synagogues there were in the city of Los Angeles at the time. The most remarkable thing was where many of these Jewish houses of worship and study were located in South Central Los Angeles.

Though it was the very first address which my eyes rested upon in the 1938 city directory which caught my attention. It unlocked the mystery of this building I have been so curious about:

20150928_162515-2Now I have to tell you, this revelation was more than exciting. But it was also a bit curious. A curiosity which has been shared by just about every historian and religious leader I have shown this list to. Because these listings show that there was a larger Jewish presence in these older working-class communities than we are aware of today.

These directories do reveal some important information regarding this synagogue at 5972 Brentwood Street, near 59th and Broadway, in South Los Angeles. This old community had a name, and in was here listed as “Congregation Talmud Torah.”

This is an interesting discover, and certainly a fact I find fascinating. Being from the Los Angeles Eastside, the Congregation Talmud Torah which always comes to mind in my circle and among the historians is the Breed Street Shul – which was founded downtown, before moving to Boyle Heights.

However, here we find two others Los Angeles synagogues which also used this designation as part of their name in the 1930s.

The third being the Sephardic Hebrew Center (founded by immigrants from the isle of Rhodes as, “Sociedad, Paz, y Progreso” in Ladino) which as just over on 55th and Hoover, here listed as the “Congregation Talmud Torah of Peace and Progress.” This is from the 1935 directory:

Los Angeles City Directory, 1938While this might confuse some people, we need to understand that in reality none of these congregations were really called “Congregation Talmud Torah” by people in their day. The Hebrew term “Talmud Torah” means that such a congregation is a place of Torah learning, and is the normative term used for shuls which facilitated Jewish education.

It was also just a frequently reoccurring, yet generic title used by Los Angeles Jewish congregations in old Los Angeles. Whether they had a formal building, or where just meeting loosely. This naming was frequently employed. In doing research going back to the 1880s, I have discovered that several talmud torah congregations have existed since then.

Is it therefore possible that this congregation’s roots may date back to this time? I don’t know, but it has also been suggested to me that this is a real possibility. [See: “The Jewish High Holidays in Los Angeles (September 1889).”]

What is known with some certainty is that none of these congregations listed here would have been popularly known as “Congregation Talmud Torah.” Just as in the case of the more familiar Breed Street Shul of Boyle Heights, it has instead always been known by it’s more popular name.

But what might the commonly used name of the 59th Street shul have been? The answer is found in the 1942 city directory:

Los Angeles City Directory 1942Listed side-by-side by alphabetical order are two congregations listed here. The first being the “Congregation Talmud Torah” at 5972 Brentwood Street. The following being “Congregation Tiferes Jacob,” with the address listed as 211 W. 59th Street. Yet, these two addresses lead us to the same location!

From what I’m gathering, sometime in the 1930s two Jewish congregations met at this site. One with their mailing address as Brentwood, and the other with their 59th Street address; two different doors and thus twice listed in the old city directory, even though it’s simply one location.

The two congregations, probably reflective of distinct minyans and factions of one community. With eventually both congregations seeming to have completely merged sometime in the 1940s, to form one larger shul. From then on the congregation was simply known as “Congregation Tiferes Jacob” – as their name was accented, by the Eastern Europeans immigrants who would have been its members.

So what does the historical record say about the origins of this congregation? Though the published facts on this are few, we do have a couple interesting historical accounts regarding the founding of this congregation which are worth exploring.

According to the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles, this congregation began this way:

“Congregation Tifereth Jacob began in 1922 with fifty families, rented space at first, and in 1925 purchased a building at the corner of 59th Street and Brentwood in the southern part of the city. After two years, the old building was replaced by a new and larger one, which served 1500 families.”

This would have made this synagogue one of the most significant Jewish religious sites of the area at the time. Which would have been a very active site up until the 1950s, when it was sold to an African-American church.

The building was purchased by the Evening Star Missionary Baptist Church in 1952. It was then refurbished and redecorated in 1964. Now for over two generations this site has operated as a celebrated and historically honored African-American church.

I know of no other historical accounts regarding this location. The only other account I know of which mentions a Jewish congregation by the same name from South Los Angeles, is this history of a congregation which still exists to this day:

Congregation Tikvat Jacob is the result of two long-established community institutions — Congregation Tifereth Jacob of Manhattan Beach and B’nai Tikvah Congregation of Westchester… Congregation Tifereth Jacob was chartered in October 1925, beginning operations out of a West Adams storefront. In 1976, the synagogue moved south to Manhattan Beach.”

I’m not sure if these old congregations are one and the same. Either the historical record is a bit confused regarding the details of their founding and the geography of the old community, or this is a different congregation all together. But I do wonder. Could it be possible that this old shul still has a living legacy, which today embodied in a still active Los Angeles area synagogue?

[Update: Immediately upon posting this I was contacted by one of my best and oldest friends, Jason Dubov. He recognized the building as his family’s old shul, where they remained active members until the congregation moved to Manhattan Beach.]

To be continued…

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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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.

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