Post-election Vigil Brings People Together in Boyle Heights

Faith communities of Los Angeles come together in resistance after the Trump election

Shmu and Squared at the I Am America Vigil at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, on this rainy day we packed into the parsh church and sat on the floor with the other people coming in to be part of this time of renewal.

Shmu and Squared at the I Am America Vigil at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, on this rainy day we packed into the parsh church and sat on the floor with the other people coming in to be part of this time of inspiration and renewal.

On Sunday morning the people of the city of Los Angeles came together for an interfaith vigil at Dolores Mission Catholic Church in our working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Hundreds of people came out and lined the pews, the walkways, floors and spilled out the door of the church despite the cold rain pouring outside.

People of all backgrounds came out this day to unite and join our voices as one, to find strength in faith and in each other, to overcome the fear that has gripped us in the post-election season. To unite as one as we see the rise of Trump and racial nationalism threatening the security of us all. We came together – Latino, African-American, Japanese, Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and LGBTQ – to stand united. Standing with all our brothers and sisters who feel threatened.

This event was organized by LA Voice – a local interfaith and community based organization. Dedicated to giving voice to all people of faith and advancing the pursuit of dignity for those in greatest need in our community. Co-sponsoring and in attendance at this event were the people of:

* ACLU Southern California
* All Saints Church
* American Muslim Professionals (AMP-LA)
* Asian Americans Advancing Justice LA
* Bend The Arc
* Beth Shir Shalom
* CAIR-LA
* CLUE
* Guibord Center
* Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace
* Islamic Center of Southern California
* IKAR Synagogue
* ILM Foundation
* Islamic Shura Council of Southern California

* Jewish Voices for Peace
* Japanese American National Museum
* La Asociación Latina Musulmana de América
* Little Tokyo Service Center
* Muslim Public Affairs Council
* Muslims for Progressive Values
* New City Church of Los Angeles
* Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress
* Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center
* Pico Union Project
* Temple Isaiah
* Sahaba Initiative
* South Coast Interfaith Council
* St. Camillus Catholic Center
* Steven S Wise Temple
* Temple Israel of Hollywood

As we joined in prayer and song, gave testimony and spoke of resistance, we also committed to doing more than just cry out. We committed to organizing together as one people.

As I came in out of the rain dripping eves and slipped in through the crowd I heard the words of Deacon Jason Welles of the Dolores Mission Parish: “We are here today to lament, and to share our lamentations together. We are here together to form solidarity. We are in solidarity to encourage each other and to ignite a new work. Because our work did not end of November 8th, our work begins now in solidarity.”

This event was also joining in solidarity with other communities across the nation who were also holding #IAmAmerica rallies in their hometown.

Haru Kuromiy spoke of her memories as a 12 year old girl of being interred with he family at Manzanar during the detention of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. She spoke in “opposition to the proposal to register American Muslims. I do not want to see any community suffer like we did.

Haru Kuromiy spoke of her memories as a 12 year old girl of being interred with he family at Manzanar during the detention of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. She spoke in “opposition to the proposal to register American Muslims. I do not want to see any community suffer like we did.”
During this meeting people of all faiths and backgrounds vowed to in the face of Muslim registry, we will ourselves register as Muslims.

As I looked across the crowd I was touched by the sight of people I know from across the city, who instinctively came out to join in solidarity. Though I was even more deeply moved to see walls of people who I have never seen in my neighborhood before, all coming out to give and find strength in each other.

Seated on the floor in front of me was Eric A. Gordon, author and director emeritus of the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) in Southern California. He wrote an excellent article about the event, in which he rightfully mentions the contributions of each faith community to this event, titled: “Faith communities find a new voice in resistance after election.”

In his article Gordon, an expert on leftist organzing, described this event as filled with “courageous, militant speeches and songs.” I wouldn’t say “militant,” but maybe “radical.” And even then the only thing radical about this event was that it drew people together from across all ethnic and religious lines to stand together against injustice; much like the early political organizing of Boyle Heights from the 1930s through the 1950s. Congregates committing to unite as one people and as part of a single goal, to protect the rights of each person in America. And vowing to neither stand alone nor leave each other alone in the struggle. Something that has been so lost for almost two generations, that it may again seems radical at this point in history.

However, Gordon did a great job on detailing this event journalistically.

So I just want to take a few moments to point out what really touched me and what I felt as member of this very community of Boyle Heights.

Crouched on the floor right next to us was Craig Taubman, Jewish sing-songwriter and founder of the Pico Union Project, who I have worked with for the past year in Pico Union. I was so surprised and glad to see his presence in my own backyard.

When LA Voice had begun to plan the event they had first considered using the fascilities of the Pico Union Project (the oldest standing synagogue in Los Angeles) and the Breed Street Shul (the historic “Queen of the Shuls in Boyle Heights), both located in historically significant, multi-ethnic, immigrant communities. Before choosing Dolores Mission, which would normally accommodate a larger crowd, had it not been for the rain.

As we embraced Craig asked, “Hey, I’m in your hood right?”

I responded, “Yeah. Actually my family was one of the first Mexican land owning families here in the Flats. My great-great-grandparents had their market at the end of this block, at First and Gless, when this neighborhood was still known as Russian Flats. I’ll tell you the truth though, I’ve never in my lifetime seen this diverse of a crowd coming together here in this neighborhood before. This is inspiring!”

Shortly after Craig would be called out of the crowd. He would get the congregation engaged with asking: “How do you say love in Spanish? Amor. How do you say love in Hebrew? Ahavah. How do you say love in Russian? Just checking!” Long had the Russian community left the area and our Mexican families taken root, but he just had to check to make sure no one was left out.

And in the way that only Craig can do, he got the crowd joining in song and motion to the words: “We can build this world with love.” Leaving the crowd glowing in inspiration.

Rabbi Ron Stern from Stephen S. Wise Temple addressed the crowd next. Gordon notes that Stern took to the podium: “remarking about ‘a lot of Hebrew being spoken in Boyle Heights,’ a reference to the fact that this area was at one time the largest Jewish community west of Chicago, and the epicenter of much social activism. He taught the audience the importance of the line from Deuteronomy, ‘Tsedek tsedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ ‘We’ve always said that,’ as he recalled not just Jewish history but the history of all oppressed people. ‘We’ve picked ourselves up, buried our dead if we had to, and we’ve said Tsedek tsedek tirdof. We will not stop. History tells us we cannot give up. We want to make sure that the world we dream of is the world we will live in.’”

I’ll tell you the truth. Rabbi Stern’s astonishment at hearing Hebrew words being spoken in Boyle Heights that day was none less than my own. And it was really moving to me. Though my amazement was more related to seeing people from the Jewish community coming out to be more that just tourists of their grandparents history, but to actually be part of a living movement and to join in direct social action in the present; and that was something I had never experienced like this before in this neighborhood.

This neighborhood of Boyle Heights is one of Los Angeles’ most historic immigrant communities. And as a large immigrant community of mostly Mexican-Americans today, this community is feeling even more vulnerable and also fearful in the wake of this election.

Though this event had deep impact in that it brought to the forefront the struggles of so many of our other neighbors and friends we need to be mindful to support in the face of Trump’s demagoguery.

Marta Galadery, from La Asociación Latina Musulmana de América.

Marta Galadery, from La Asociación Latina Musulmana de América.

People like Marta Galadery, from La Asociación Latina Musulmana de América. As a convert to Islam, who helped found the association decades ago to find fellowship among other Latina Muslim women. I’m glad that she was there to speak up for Latina Muslim community, which is most vulnerable in that many people in our community don’t even know they even exist. It was important to hear from her. She spoke of finding herself in fear of discrimination on two fronts, as Latina and as a Muslim. Addressing the crowd she asked and asserted, “How are we all together going to help each other?… G-d has the last word, but we have to act.

And she’s right we as people of faith and social action we need to act. And we need to consider how we are going to do it, and do it together.

And that was really the important thing about this event, it was all about doing it together as one people.

Rahuldeepgill of the local Sikh community addressed the crowd. Talking about how in his tradition, they had faced the rise of tyrants and persecution. And in the early days their leaders were even eventually put to death for standing up for the rights of others.

Rahuldeepgill passionately stated, “But that is the lesson of my tradition. We take it for one another. The days of standing up for ourselves are long gone. The days of standing up for each other are our future. We need to continue to act.” He words met with cheering and thunderous applause.

He made an even deeper point. That many “confused people” tell him that in the wake of hate crimes that turban wearing Sikhs should go out of their way to let people know that they are not Muslim. So as not be the victims of mis-direct violence, but that it isn’t right. We are in it together.

Preacher André Scott also spoke, saying “Donald Trump, if you make us rally together. G-d bless Donald Trump!” Scott was a former gang banger and also faced the corrections systems, and now ministers to those who are also coming out of those hardships.

Though what gave me the chills was to hear Brother Scott say these words I’ve been waiting for any community leader to have the courage to say: “It’s not about black power, or any of that anymore. It’s about us power!

That needed to be said. Especially here and now.

One of the realities is that this most vulnerable neighborhood of Boyle Heights has long felt isolation because of prejudice and injustice, but also because it has long been obsessed with simular “brown power.” A neighborhood which has all but forgotten their rich history of inter-cultural social and political activism, and has long been gripped in sole pursuit of our own ethnic and nationalistic self-interests ever since the Chicano rights movement.

The fact is that we can’t counter the rise of the white nationalism as seen in this election with any other form of racial nationalism. We cant counter white power with brown power. In fact it is plainly obvious that all racial nationalism only feeds into the likes of racial separatism and exclusivity. That all needs to end.

So I now repeat what needs to be stated, what is long overdue to be said: It’s not about brown power. Those days are over. It’s about us power now!

And that was the power of that event, to me. That on that day we came together to commit to stand as one. We have risen above self-interest and divisiveness. Above religious, racial and nationalist exclusivity. Not about brown power or black power anymore, but about us power. We stand united.

One thing that the locals and even the organizers of the event didn’t know was that they vigil they were having that day mirrored another monumental event in Boyle Heights history, which had taken place almost 78 years ago to the day on November 22, 1938. When Los Angeles groups organized a parade protesting the Nazi’s rise to power and their wave of violence against Jews in the events of Kristallnacht. And to raise their voices on behalf of  Jewish refugees, who were being denied entrance by the US and the world powers.

On that night came together people Jewish and non-Jewish, brown and white, black and Asian, adult and children; to show support and stand in solidarity with the Jews who were facing Nazism not just in Europe, but also in Los Angeles.

I had many times heard first hand stories from my friends who were there at this most notorious protest parade. At that key moment in the advancement of social activism and civil rights organizing, which would directly inspire inter-community and interfaith cooperation for decades to come. I often wished I had myself been so lucky to see such a diverse movement of people come together and rise up as one. [“The Anti-Nazi Parade of November 1938. – Local civil rights activism born out of the Jewish refugee crisis.”]

I think in this event I got a prevision of that experience. It’s now up to us to continue to come together to make our actions into a movement, in our days and in our time.


Check out these videos of the event, posted on Facebook by the Dolores Mission. They capture about the first two hours of the event.

Some of my favorite footage is from when Pastor Delonte Gholston of New City Church of Los Angeles address the crowd and lead us in songs of resistance. I was deeply moved by his song based on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “Night cannot turn back the night, only light.” That is also the right message for these darkening times. I’ve had this inspirational melody stuck in my head ever since.

Enjoy!

Video #2:

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Rekindling our Jewish holiday spirit in Boyle Heights

The story of the new menorah from an old Jewish shop founded on the eastside

20151208_174952The joy of the holidays are found in that warmth we get from remembering holidays past, and the magic of the season is found in how we rekindle these memories anew.

During the winter months the cultural and religious traditions of the area seem to shine the brightest. When during the winter months people of our various cultures display their festive ways to bring brightness to the darkest time of the year. When the days and short and the night are longest, the spirit inside of us just longs to brighten up the darkness.

Catholics brighten up these winter nights in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights with las posadas (processions) and bright nativities; from Christmas time and through Three Kings Day. Protestants as well, with their stirring candlelit Christmas vigils. And our Armenian neighbors too, with their celebrations of the eastern orthodox Feast of the Nativity and Epiphany also on January 6th; when their churches will light lamps and the faithful will hold candles according to their ancient custom, symbolic of the presence of the holy spirit in their lives (yes, we even have an Armenian Catholic church in the area as well!).

These are commonly shared themes in many faith traditions.

And the holidays are nothing if not about tradition! If you haven’t noticed, I’m a pretty old school cat. So I get a lot of joy out of keeping the old traditions alive.

Olive Oil Chanukah Menorah (Chanukiah)One of the ways I have been connecting to our old school Jewish heritage of the area over the past few years has been to light old classic style olive oil Chanukah lights with my friends in the community of Boyle Heights. To share the celebration of the miracle of the oil lamps – commemorating when in ancient times Jewish rebels recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, relighting the Menorah’s sacred oil lights that were miraculously sustained for eight days on one day’s oil, until more sacred oil could be made.

This is a bright celebration of culture and faith, overcoming imperialism and hegemony. And as the haftarah reading from the prophets for this holiday reminds us: “Not by might, nor by power but by My spirit says the L-rd of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6); this is a festival when we celebrate the power of spirit over militaristic might.

This is a message many of us around here can identify with culturally, if not religiously. Among my friends it has been a time to share Jewish traditional holiday treats and stories of our warmest memories of years gone by, sometimes joined by a few local Jews who grew up in the area and who are still found in these parts.

This year we were intent on lighting the Chanukah lights up on top of the Sixth Street Bridge for the last time, before the bridge comes down. As the viaduct is set for demolition over the next few weeks. Ordinary I do havdalah on the bridge, so figured I could pull it off with Chanukah lights. So I brought with me a most beautiful, silvery chanukiah to light – a traditional Chanukah menorah, and lit it on the Boyle Heights side of the bridge just east of the river.

Maybe you had seen me and my friends out there in the first few nights of the festival (before the rain came in), lighting the menorah in view of the bright Los Angeles skyline:

In previous years, I have brought travel sized menorahs and done guerrilla-style lightings around town. Though last year I had promised that I would buy a new, big boy’s sized menorah, to add some beauty to the mitzvah of lighting with olive oil lamps; one which is reminiscent of what many Jewish families of the area would have used in the classic days of the Yiddish eastside.

The question is, where do you find such a thing around here? Are there any Jewish bookstores or Judaica shops in the area? Aside from the small gift-shops at our local synagogues, where does a local find their religious Jewish items?

One of my favorite shops is Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, on Fairfax Ave. in mid-city, but was originally founded right here in Boyle Heights. In fact, I often find myself buying from shops off Fairfax which used to be located right in our own eastside community when Boyle Heights was then the heart of the LA Jewish community!

Solomon’s was founded in Boyle Heights almost 80 years ago, operating a shop on Brooklyn Ave. (now Cesar E. Chavez Ave.) just a couple of doors down from the original location of Canter’s Deli. They were among the businesses which later relocated to the Fairfax with the mass migration of Jewish families heading that way some 70 years ago.

Today as both Boyle Heights and Fairfax are once again going through tremendous changes which seem to be jeopardizing the classic and cultural character of these neighborhoods, it’s nice to know that some family run businesses like these are somehow managing to remain in loving service to our changing communities.

Learn more about the history of Solomon’s and the rent hike issues being faced in Fairfax see: “Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, founded in Boyle Heights.”

After having a wonderful time lighting the new menorah on the old Sixth Street Bridge in it’s final days, people keep asking where I’m going to do a public lighting for Chanukah next year.

The suggestion I really like the most is that maybe next year we should do a public lighting off of old Brooklyn Ave. itself, where the story all started. To really bring this cultural history which we share together completely full-circle!

Happy holidays and a blessed new year to one and all!

Some nice shots of the Chanukah menorah from the LA eastside:

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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Kosher Food Businesses Displaced for New Sixth Street Bridge

The Final Days of the Kosher Food and Wine Business of Boyle Heights

One of the leasts known facts about the community of Boyle Heights, is that until recently it remained a very relevant hub in the daily Jewish life. Up until the past month, our kosher wines and foods used to be mostly distributed from right here in the lower industrial section of the Flats.

In the shadow of the classic Sixth Street Bridge, sat two special Jewish business. Which were located in the lower industrial section on Anderson Road.

The larger of the kosher food plants used to be run by Teva Foods:

“At Teva Foods, we bring together the goodness of nature and the flavors of fine Mediterranean cuisine in every pack of our Hummus, Dip and Salad. We use only the freshest ingredients, handpicked by our team of experts, to make sure that what you eat is healthy and tasty.”

Many of our local residents were employed at this plant, doing jobs like peeling the raw garlic for their products. Processing natural products under the supervision of the Orthodox Union.

The other the business has been my favorite by far, Shalom and Son’s Wholesale Foods:

“Shalom & Sons is a family owned full service direct store delivery distributor of kosher and health food products in Los Angeles, California. As a company, we are dedicated to providing outstanding service, while responding to the every day needs of the retail and institutional industries. We currently service the greater Los Angeles area, as well as the cities of Orange County, Santa Barbara County, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Arizona and Las Vegas.

“Shalom & Sons represents some of the largest food manufacturers in the kosher and health food industries, and is the exclusive west coast distributor of many kosher product lines…”

Though I had not met the owners of these business until recently, I have appreciated their presence here in the community for years.

Their facilities have long sat right along my favorite path I walk towards home. They have been a familiar presence for as long as I can remember. So you can only imagine my shock when I walked by one day and saw the Teva plant entirely demolished and hauled away.

Shalom and Son's Wholesale Foods, Anderson Street.

Shalom and Son’s Wholesale Foods, Anderson Street.

It was just the day after the groundbreaking for the new Sixth Street Viaduct that I noticed the demolition beginning in the area surrounding the footprint of the bridge.  Already busy were the sounds of tractors and hauling trucks. Contractors scurrying about. Electrical crews rushing as they redirect the old power cables.

In concern I went into the offices of the Shalom and Son’s to inquire of them.

“How is our business being effected? We’re being forced to move!” responded Shalom, the owner, in exasperation. “We don’t want to move. We’re very happy here, but the city has bought our land. We have to move now.”

Shalom explained that his business had been in the neighborhood for over 20 year. Growing from a small family business to becoming a major stakeholder in the kosher food and natural food industry at this site.

Their operations had take residency on both sides of Anderson Street. Their business offices and cold storage facility, being located at 638 S. Anderson Street. And across from them on the  west side of the street at 631 S. Anderson Street, was located their kosher wine storage.

“It was only the larger facility across the street that they wanted at first. Over there is where we actually keep the Kedem and all that.” Shalom said. Referring to the special kosher grape juice by brand, a necessary staple for making sacramental blessings over wine.

The cold storage facility of Shalom and Son's

The cold storage facility of Shalom and Son’s

This is something that I totally appreciate hearing about, as kosher wine is very special part of the Jewish tradition. It is a liquid symbol of joy, which is used in every religious celebration and life-cycle event in our tradition.

It is also something which requires special care in preparation and handling to maintain its kashrut – meaning it’s ritually appropriate status. This special care taken by Jewish producers and distributors also makes this a premium product of the highest order.

“In the end, we also had to get them to buy this building too.” Shalom explains, referring to the small offices and cold storage facility. Explaining that without their larger wine storage across the way, the smaller facility could no longer suit the needs of their mainstay business. Their operation was being divided.

He explains that with the compensation from the city they are planning on relocating to Vernon with tension in his voice. Like he’s painfully imagining the notorious density and congestion of that area.

I had to appreciate his sentiments. He is situated right here in the middle of the East Los Angeles Interchange of freeways, which sends traffic in every direction. Close to every on-ramp. Ideal for a distribution business like his. And also located in a less dense area, here in an almost sleepy underside of the Sixth Street Bridge.

Shalom, owner of Shalom and Son's. In his office on Anderson Street.

Shalom, owner of Shalom and Son’s: “Money isn’t the issue. When they give me money to set-up elsewhere in Vernon, I’m no better off. Because this is where I want to be. I’m happy here.”

Expressing even though they did buy out his property, he’s still not any better off than any other displaced person. Namely because this is where he wants to be. Stating if he wanted to move he would moved years ago. Holding his arms out he says, “Who would want to leave this? I’m happy here!”

As I looked at the amazing view just outside the doorway, I had to share his sentiments.

As I was visiting their site the business was in the middle of their biggest rush of the year. Everyone is rushing about their operation. We were just weeks before the Passover holiday. When their products are in highest demand.

Wanting to get out of their hair, I asked Shalom if I could snap a photo of him for my historical archives. He smiled for the camera. And I shuffled on my way.

See my very impassioned video, taken immediately after my visit:

This area of the surrounding the Sixth Street Viaduct is going to continue to change dramatically in the weeks to come. As businesses are finished being cleared to make way for the upcoming bridge demolition of the bridge above. The changes are breathtaking.

The location of the kosher food and wine fascilities: In red are the sites which have already been demolished.

The location of the kosher food and wine facilities: In red are the sites which have already been demolished.

The lots where Shalom and Son’s and Teva used to operate will become the storage and processing sites for the rubble from the bridge demolition. As the city agree to restrict the processing to the Boyle Heights side of the river, and not on the already gentrified downtown Art’s District side.

It should also be noted that this is not the only lopsided concession to the downtown Art’s District. which secured an amphitheater and some sort of arts park feature in their area’s redevelopment.

The land here on the much larger east side will remain greatly undeveloped as open fields and bike paths. With only an afterthought of an soccer field feature being planned for the empty field left in and near the footprint of the bridge. [See “The Inequity of the New Sixth Street Bridge Plan.“]

In the most typical fashion and according to the way this community has always been treated, the city is taking what it wants for its roads here and is carelessly tossing aside the rest.

And so we see right before our eyes, the past revisiting us. As the major Jewish businesses of the area are once again leaving the neighborhood, for no other reason than being displaced by road works.

Shalom and Son's Wholesale Foods, Anderson Street, Boyle Heights Flats. The larger building on the left of was the kosher wine facility, on the left is their old offices.

Shalom and Son’s Wholesale Foods, Anderson Street, Boyle Heights Flats. The larger building on the left was their kosher wine facility (now demolished), and on the right is their old offices.

For many years the subject of Boyle Heights had fallen out of the public consciousness. Few people seemed to remember the old neighborhood until recent years. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a Jewish presence proudly doing business here all along.

Often times I have traveled all over Los Angeles, to enjoy and also lead Jewish ritual. And most often as I introduce myself, people have seemed shocked that I come hailing from Boyle Heights

A neighborhood which is tarnished, if not discounted entirely as less than “kosher” (on many levels) in many people’s minds.

In retort I always was armed with, “Boyle Heights is plenty kosher! You’re wine here for this simcha (joyous occasion), makes its way to this and every table in the area by way of our neighborhood.”

I’m really going to miss saying that!

Thank you to Shalom and Son’s and Teva Foods. For over twenty-years of service to the Boyle Heights community.

To see what the area was like before the demolitions, see “Under the 6th Street Bridge (LA Bridge Series – Part I).”

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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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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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