The Racial Politics of Americanizing the Barrio Diet (1920s)

Is what you eat political? Do you accept the claim that your food choices determine your social order in this world? And do you accept that conforming to white American norms in eating is important in transforming people of color into better citizens? Will assimilating ones food choices make people of color less prone to crime and revolutionary tendencies?

AmericanizationThroughHomeMakingPearlEllis

Believe it or not, this is something that has been explored and well discussed in our communities for over a century.

In the 1920s in Southern California there were social reformers who were sent on transform the eating choices made by the public, especially among the immigrant working-class.

One of the most notable reformers to arise in this era was a lady by the name of Pearl Idelia Ellis, of the Department of Americanization and Homemaking, of Covina City Elementary Schools. She was the author the guide “Americanization though Homemaking” which was published in 1929, detailing her work.

Ellis’ work was based in Southern California, which put her in contact with local Mexican American homemakers. Where she would set an agenda for transforming their food choices into ones which made them more like the Anglo Americans they were expected to model.

In 1915 the California state legislature had passed the Home Teacher Act, which would allow school districts to employ teachers “to work in the homes of the pupils, instructing children and adults in matters related to school attendance,… in sanitation, in English language, in household duties,… and in fundamental principles of the American system of government and the rights and duties of citizenship.” This legislation was largely born out of an Americanist panic which arose at that time, as nativists insisted that society demanded that these so-called uncultured immigrants be Americanized.

This legislation enabled reformers like Pearl Ellis to take her work directly into the homes of the people she was trying to effect, with the official authority of state and local government behind her. While the work of Ellis extended into modeling almost every form of homemaking, she took special attention to food. She spent much time and energy with special concern for the nutrition of families and trying to influence their food choices.

PearlEllisPrefaceShe would encourage certain food choices for Mexican American mothers: giving up tortillas, and replacing them with sandwiches on store-bought white bread, made with mayonnaise and “commercial spreads,” and minced meats. They were further encouraged to give up essential staples of their diets like beans, and replaced them with lettuce and mixed salads (example: boiled spinach with mayonnaise, mixed fruit with mayonnaise, cherry-topped banana with mayonnaise, and even “pineapple and avocado salad with mayonnaise to carry out the color scheme”.)

In this manner she instructed mothers in making what she determined to be affordable and suitable food choices. She even went as far as to provide menus for their school lunch choices: “One glass of milk; one cheese sandwich; one lettuce sandwich; one graham cracker sandwich; one apple or pear; one cooky [sic]”.

She would set for people a top-down approach in how to transform Mexican homes into Americanized homes, starting with their choice for a child’s lunch. And based on the assumption that the dietary issues of the community was not based on a lack of food, but rooted in their poor choices of foods.

Professor George Sanchez of USC sheds some light on this for us:

“Food and diet management became tools in a system of social control intended to construct a well-behaved citizenry. A healthy diet was seen not only as an essential for proper health but as fundamental for creating productive members of society. In the eyes of reformers, the typical noon lunch of the Mexican child, thought to consist of “a folded tortilla with no filling,” became the first step in a life of crime. With “no milk or fruit to whet the appetite,” the child would become lazy and subsequently “take food from the lunch boxes of more fortunate children” in order to appease her or her hunger. “Thus,” reformers alleged, “the initial step in a life of thieving is taken.” Teaching immigrant women proper food values would keep the head of the family out of jail, the rest of the family off the charity list, and save taxpayers a great amount of money.”

(Mothers and Motherhood: Readings In American History; “Go After the Women: Americanization and the Mexican Immigrant Woman, 1915-1929)

The ideas of Americanization would not just be taught to mothers, but it would carry over into the education of girls in the school system. As young Mexican American girls were taught these values in order to model them for the home. With the idea that gradually one could transform the tastes of the family into more Americanized ones; which was further reinforced by the school lunch system.

The very table and every meal plate thus became battlefields for cultural assimilation.

Though make no mistake about it, their proposed model American-style diet was even intended to do nothing less than help maintain social order itself.

In her work titled “Americanization though Homemaking,” published in 1929, Pearl Ellis contended:

“The old adage, ‘ As a man thinketh so is he,’ might be easily translated to, ‘As a man eatest, so is he,’ for his thinking is controlled to a greater extent. Than we are wont to realize by his eating and digestive processes… Employers maintain that the man with a home and family is more dependable and less revolutionary in his tendencies. Thus the influence of the home extends to labor problems and to many other problems in the social regime. The homekeeper creates the atmosphere, whether it be one of harmony and cooperation or of dissatisfaction and revolt. It is to be remembered that the dispositions, one angelic, become very much marred with incorrect diet and resultant digestive disturbances.”

Yeah… how about that take on dietary pseudo-science based in classism.

Now think about that, vato, next time you find yourself eating your bologna and mayo, on white bread, that somehow found its way into your face!

And seriously, I also hope people give this all some real good consideration before you even listen to some politicians suggest replacing a big part of our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with “Blue Apron” type meals sent down to us from a government-based central planning, developed by the current administration and rolled-out by private corporate contractors. Think of how bad it could go, if our food is directly chosen for us by them; with food being sent to us regardless of our specific dietary needs and cultural customs.

History tell us that people who lack cultural sensitivity take the reins, they do more damage than just make culturally inappropriate food choices. They also tend to want to change our diets as a form of maintaining the social order.

Topics of further discussion:

  • The social pressure to Americanize ones diet was also experienced by other immigrants as well, especially among the Jews in the “corn beef belt” of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles. The dietary choices of Ashkenazi Jews from the east were often considered too exotic and rich; they were expected to conform to a more Americanized diet. In some cases Jewish social service organizations even encouraged what they considered cheaper and more mainstream treif (non-kosher, religiously inappropriate) foods. When the Los Angeles Council of Jewish Women in 1928 published their “Helpful Hints for Jewish Housewives,” they included recipes for Virginia ham, pork chops, oysters and other non-kosher recipes as well as advertisements for Best Foods Mayonnaise, Maxwell House Coffee, and branded canned vegetables and other processed foods.

  • Lunchtime social pressure to assimilate. In Fred Okrand’s interview for the UCLA Center for Oral History Research, “Forty Years Defending the Constitution, Oral History Interview” Tape 1 side 2 – Feb. 4th, 1982, Okrand speaks of his classmates at Lorena Street School in Boyle Heights: “… The kids would make fun of me…because they would be eating sandwiches on white bread, on what we would call kvachehdikeh, soft white bread. But my mother was a Jewish woman; she would go to the varshehveh bakery on Brooklyn Avenue and get good Jewish rye bread. And I remember being ashamed somehow, that I was eating rye bread and the other kids weren’t….” He was shamed for eating cheaper and darker Jewish rye bread, instead of grocery store-bought white bread.

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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:

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)

Related articles:

Unusual Sightings of the Star of David in South Central LA

Getting off the bus, and on to the streets. A metaphor for inter-community engagement.

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

The religious and cultural history of our lesser known neighborhoods always intrigues me. I learn something new everyday. And I see amazing sights nearly everyday. However, what I have learned the most has come not from tour bus excursions. It’s from getting off the public buses, and by making my friends pull over to see something usual which catches my eye.

A few days ago as I was taking the express bus north towards Downtown Los Angeles I found myself staring over the rooftops before Slauson Avenue. Looking for the landmark which has kept me intrigued for a while now. Until I spot it. And as I exit the bus at Slauson Metro Station – disembarking at the station right in the middle of the 110-freeway – I keep my eyes on this almost gleaming beacon.

Just east of the 110-freeway, beyond the rows of speeding freeway traffic in front of me, and down in a residential community below, I can clearly see this great building with two blue copulas, one bearing a Star of David and the other a Christian cross.

After spending much time wondering about this, I have finally started to uncover the history of this site as a former synagogue. Following leads from old city directories and oral histories.

So I have spent the past couple weeks returning to the site. Talking to people in the neighborhood, to get to know the history of the area. Also collected some pictures and video of the local sites. This day, my unplanned stop is spurred on by pure impulse and curiosity.

This object of my curiosity is just a couple of blocks away, which is easily walkable. So I descend the freeway’s Metro station platform, making my way over to Broadway.

Here in this area right here off of Broadway, there are a lot of churches right on this thoroughfare. Some of these house of worship are really impressive, like the Greater New Canaan Church of G-d in Christ – just a block over on Brentwood Street, she’s a real beauty!

Though most of the churches here are more humble – being just converted storefronts and former commercial buildings. Small make shift congregations, as it seems to have been in this area since its earliest days.

Though churches of today are more dense. Several of them are directly next door to each other, all smashed up together on the very same corner in some cases. Side-by-side storefront churches, reflective of the diversity and divergence in religious thought found in fundamentalist sectarianism common to the area.

Just at the corner of 59th and Broadway alone, there are two interesting churches. They are just in eyesight of an old synagogue.

The first is the very dispensationally named Concilio de Iglesias Pentecostales “La Nueva Jerusalem (sic).” Which seems to have been a African-American church which has more recently changed their signage to Spanish, and which is now seemingly renting back space from their own meetings from the Spanish congregation. A striking example of the more recent demographic changes in the area.

Spanish church sign with Star of David and Menorah

Now notice that even though this movement feels comfortable co-opting Jewish elements and symbolism, their sign shows the tension of the duplicity: “Cien porcento trinitaria. Pardre, hijo, espitu santo.” (Translation: “100% Trinitarian. Father, son, holy spirit.”).

It’s the second church – the one right next to it – which really caught my eye. “Iglesia Cristian ‘El Dios de Santidad.‘” A fundamentalist holiness church. More precisely, my attention was grabbed by their proudly placed sign emblazoned with a Star of David, that is morphed with a menorah.

Now notice that even though this movement feels comfortable co-opting Jewish symbolism, their sign shows the tension of the duplicity: “Cien porcento trinitaria. Pardre, hijo, espitu santo.” (Translation: “100% Trinitarian. Father, son, holy spirit.”).

The reason a sign like this is necessary, is because in many Latino and black churches Trinitarianism is not just a given. Indeed, the Apostolic” subbranch of Pentecostalism (aka: Oneness Pentecostalism, or “Jesus only Pentecostals.”) does not believe in the trinity. There are those who follow their biblical fundamentalism to their logical end, and therefore reject any blatant form of plurality in the godhead. This is a tension for many fundamentalist people and holiness congregations which strain on the issue. (See a mainstream evangelical critique of this fundamentalist movement: “What is Oneness Pentecostalism?”)

Many of these churches are outgrowths of church-splits over such doctrinal differences dividing them. This well positioned signage here therefore serves as a notice and warning for people entering the door of this congregation’s firm doctrinal stance.

This artifact revealing that the range of religious thought and questioning in this area is more nuanced than many mainstream white people expect.

Now I notice that the first church, “Nueva Jerusalem” Pentecostal Church, they had a person standing in the doorway. A young black gentleman holding religious tracts and doing some street preaching.

So I ask him if he has lived in the area long. As this has historically been known as a black neighborhood for many years, I ask if his family might have a bit more historical connections to the area than the people I’ve been talking to so far.

I begin relating to him that I’ve been speaking to a lot of the Spanish-speaking residents lately, but that most tell me they are quite recent immigrants. Many of them being central-American families – may of them from Guatemala – who tell me they don’t have enough time living in the area to know the history. Families telling me if I learn the history here, to come back and share the story with them!

The young man says that he’s lived I the area his entire life. And says he knows a bit of the history, which other locals have related to him. Saying that he might be able to help.

As I lift my hand and gesture towards the old building with a Star of David just a block away he quickly blurts out, “Oh, that used to be an old synagogue! It started out way back in the day as a Jewish temple. Today it’s a Baptist church. It’s really old and awesome looking on the inside!”

Without me even doing so much as making a suggestion as to what the site used to be, he instead begins to tell me the story of the site. Telling me in brief how the church purchased the old synagogue building in the 1950s, and then later remodeled it in the 1960s.

He insists with excitement, “You really need to visit on Sunday, to see the inside and talk to the pastor.” Saying that he had once been given a tour and told the history by the church pastor.

I tell him that I find this all fascinating. And that I’d love to hear about the old Jewish history of the area.

And then I mention that for me to hear all this from a non-Jewish person really is even more fascinating. As the Jewish community really seems to be unaware that this site is here and seems to have forgotten the history of this community.

I relate to him that the very thought of this area once being home to a sizable working-class Jewish community really touches something within me, both as a Jewish person and as an ethnic person of color. And that witnessing it, even from the outside, really moves me. Explaining how I’ve been by several times recently with other Jewish friends of mine.

When he hears I’m Jewish his ears perk up. He then asks me: “Have you ever considered Christianity?” Of course, he’s a street preacher so this response does not come as a surprise.

I respond with the same confidence he’s showing in the marketplace of faith: “I do consider it quite often, but honestly, I more often discuss the topic with people who are converted from Christianity to Judaism. And with inter-faith families who are exploring faith.” And I begin to tell him how much of my work is related to helping a diverse spectrum of people return to their historic Jewish faith. And also teaching Judaism to new converts, who are seeking out the Jewish faith.

The guys jaw drops. Surely, he’s never received this answer from someone before! He’s never gotten a response this chutzpadik. So for a while he was just stunned and listening. But I could see that he began to become intrigued hearing of the diversity of race, nationality, language and cultural expression in Judaism. Something he said he had never heard of or considered before.

I tell him how I appreciate the philosophy and teachings of Christianity. And though I love to talk about this faith, I don’t believe it is the path for me. And begin to remind him that the bible says Jews are to be true to our own G-d and not follow after the gods our ancestors did not know. (Deuteronomy 13) That it’s important for me to be faithful and true to the Torah of my G-d, which the scriptures call an eternal covenant between the Divine and the Jewish people. (Genesis 17:7)

He then related to me that he knew a few Jewish people. And that he had several Jewish coworkers. But that his impression of them and their families, was that they didn’t know much about the bible. And so they didn’t really seem Jewish enough to him, as far as he could see. Having a disconnect in his mind between his Jewish acquaintances, and what he understood Jews to be from his reading of the bible.

And he was further troubled and unable to understand how less than pious people could still consider themselves Jewish.

Screenshot_2015-09-17-17-12-43So I took a moment to hear him out. And to consider where he was coming from. In this case, standing literally in the doorway of a “holiness” church – a church which fundamentally believes that even most Christians aren’t really “saved” from hell, because they believe they are lax regarding sin. A group which especially preaches against people who drink, smoke, or even those who listen to secular music. This group has especially become fixated with castigating gays and lesbians in more recent years.

For these people, sin is all around. And to give in to it, means loosing your salvation and place in heaven. This is an old school doctrinal position, which is still quite common in the hood.

So I begin to speak to him one-on-one as a person of faith doing outreach in the inner city. To show him that I both appreciate his beliefs, and truly believe that the power of faith needs to be shared with a society so badly in need of hope. But that I believe we need to transform the way we communicate our faith to people.

And for a while, I begin to make the case that our relationship with our faith and G-d is not an all-or-nothing affair. And that to have this type relationship with G-d is unhealthy, as it would be in any relationship.

I relate to him how I have always been taught by my rabbis that the Jewish faith is not all-or-nothing, it is choosing to embrace holiness one mitzvah at a time. Making inspired and righteous choices, one little act of goodness at a time.

For a while I begin to talk about the realities of society, and our very inner city communities here. Pointing out that there are so many people in need of faith in their lives. Especially here, where life is so very hard for many. And yet for some reason when people can’t live up to some standard of perfection, they are rejected. Shunned and tossed out of their faith communities.

I begin to relate to him the stories I hear from people in these neighborhoods, how many faithful and soulful people feel rejected by their religion. How many who cannot live up to such high ideals are often ejected into a world with no moral guidance. Sent lost and stumbling into an underworld of real danger.

I tell him that many religious people always complain how so many have no moral compass, when we tend to be the very ones taking it away from people and sending them wandering into a wilderness of doubt.

I began to speak to him about my passion for faith and righteousness. And that I feel we need to open the doors wide, to welcome people back to reclaim their spiritual core. And to even rediscover faith anew.

And from there we begin to talk about religion and the bible for about the next hour-and-a-half. For some time him asking questions, and me responding with patient answers. To which he responds with signs of agreement and nods, to his noticeable surprise and delight.

Having heard me mention righteousness and holiness before, he says that he notices that I use these words differently than he’s ever heard before. So I spent some time talking with him about demystifying words of the bible, and understanding them by their clear and obvious meaning.

How righteous is when people decide to do the right thing, not if they believe the right thing. How righteousness is when we do right by G-d and man. As that is the true and literal meaning of righteousness.

And how holiness is not attaining some sense of ethereal perfection. But how kedusha – holiness as described in the Torah – is when something is set-aside for a divine purpose. When we take something that is mundane and ordinary, and we do something extraordinary with it.

I express how I feel it’s very important to understand that when the words of the bible are taken at face value, they call us to do right by others (which is righteousness) and to infuse spiritual inspiration into the ordinary things we encounter in our world (which is holiness).

However, there was one thing which still left him wondering. So he ventured to ask me, “What about salvation? Do you believe you are saved? What about leading people to salvation?”

So I ask him to really consider that word again. To really think about what that word means. To consider the words of the bible and contextualize its meaning. How salvation means saving people from harm and danger.

I ask him to consider how the Jewish people from the time of the bible until present have been troubled by so many hardships. Suffering enslavement, persecution, war, occupation, and near-annihilation; the Jewish people have always understood salvation as being saved from these calamities. For this is the word’s true meaning, and my people’s true reality as Jews.

Then I begin to relate to him in-depth about how my inner city experience has also reinforced this clear view of what salvation is for me. As a person of color, from a struggling working-class community.

As I see the need and challenges in our urban communities, I cannot help but be reminded of what salvation means. As salvation literally means saving, helping and rescuing people from their disparity. Salvation from sword (violence), plague (disease), famine (hunger) and woe (grief, sorrow, sadness).

I contented that leading people to salvation is not helping people attain some abstract religious and philosophical ascent. Insisting that is something which most of the common man here doesn’t really have the luxury to entertain and worry about anyhow. The people of these communities here need saving from real life troubles.

I begin to tell him how we all need to get back to the basics of faith and religion. And begin to remember salvation is in the true sense, and not just as a metaphor.

I see him continuing to nod his head in agreement. Smiling and laughing as I describe my faith in my own very urban and colorful fashion.

Then we get back to talking about people reclaiming their roots and about fostering communal interconnectivity. And about how exploring this history here can help us have more appreciation for the spirit of our historical working-class communities. Discussing my desire to uncover our shared history as a multicultural Los Angeles. With him agreeing that there is an important story to tell here in this community.

The gentleman then tells with excitement that he hopes I will return to see the inside of the old synagogue soon. Asking for my business card. so he could pass it on to the ministers of the church which owns the building.

And saying that he also wished to keep in touch, to talk again sometime. Before shaking my hand heartily, as I departed and continued on my way to explore the site.

One of the things that I could not help but be shaken from this interactions, is the fact that the story of Judaism is being told here. It’s just that so far we aren’t being part of that discussion.

Now all I need is more people to be willing to get off the bus with me. To be continued….

The Old Houston Street Synagogue and Burial Site

Remembering the Jews who have lived and now rest in peace in the LA Eastside

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The Young Israel Jewish Cemetery in Norwalk, founded in the 1938 by Congregation Bnei Israel of Los Angeles, the Houston Street Shul of old Boyle Heights.

Today I invite you to take a personal journey with me through Jewish life in the Los Angeles Eastside. I would also like to continue in the theme of recognizing smaller and lesser known Jewish sites of the area.

On this day we are doing something different, we are starting out our journey in reverse. Believe it or not, to date none of my historical videos have been planned out. I’m not a tourist, I’m a local. Usually a video comes about because I’m in the neighborhood and someone asks me to explains something as we are passing, and then we snap a video to capture my responses.

Today I am presenting my photos and a re-cut video with a bit of newly added audio commentary, documenting a recent visit to two special Jewish sites on the Eastside of Los Angeles County. One in Norwalk and the other in Boyle Heights.

Along the way we are also going to tell the untold story of the migration of Jewish people, deeper into the suburban eastside. Into the southeast cities of Los Angeles County and the San Gabriel Valley.

The Jewish Cemetery in Norwalk

This day I was actually in the dentist chair when I got a wonderful question from a friend from the southeast-side. His inquiry gave me a welcomed distraction and mission for the day!

He wanted to find out what I knew about a small burial site out in Norwalk. Knowing that I would be passing right next to there on my way home, I decided to make a quick detour into the neighborhood next the Metro Green Line Station in Norwalk to explore this topic a bit.

Crossing under the 605-freeway on Foster Road, I make my way through a broken-up and oddly shaped neighborhood. Over to the southernmost fragment and point of Curtis and King Road. And right there in between Briar and Tolly, there sits a small Jewish cemetery.

This cemetery is the Young Israel Cemetery in Norwalk, founded in 1938. This site holds approximately 500 Jewish burials. It is a well maintained site, run by the Chevra Kadisha Mortuary – the Orthodox Jewish sacred burial society.

The Chevra Kadisha also runs other well-known cemetery sites in the area. One of them being the Beth Israel Cemetery in East Los Angeles on Downey Road, near Olympic Blvd. And another being the Mount Carmel Cemetery, near the City of Commerce.

Though, it is important to note that this site here was not founded by the burial society which operates it today. In-fact, we are told by oral history that this site was founded by the Houston Street Shul in Boyle Heights. (Mort Silverman) And that it was later bought by the Chevra Kadisha.

[For a complete list of internments and photos for each grave, see the index at: “Find A Grave”]

So here we are, standing in front of an often forgotten cemetery, which was founded by a forgotten synagogue. We are also going to take a look at the shul along the way as well, as we make our way back to Boyle Heights.

But first we need to take this all in. One might wonder, why is it that a Jewish congregation in old Boyle Heights would have chosen a burial site all the way out here in Norwalk? And as most of the burials are more recent, so why would this remain an active site even after the closure of the congregation which founded it?

The answer to the first question of why here, this is only obvious to those who know about the complicated history of displacing cemeteries in the Los Angeles area. At the start of the 20th century nearly all the original cemeteries inside the city were displaced. They were forced to relocated their sites and bodies elsewhere: as most notably in the case of the original Jewish cemetery around Chavez Ravine.

The fear of this possibly happening once again compelled Jewish leaders to pick burial sites which were outside of the official city limits, into LA County territory. They located their burial sites in places this far out not just because there was open land here, but more so because they believed picking a site out here would be safe from future development. They began to put great attention into picking cemetery sites which would not have to be quickly uprooted and relocated. So that their dearly departed would not be disturbed.

[To get a quick and unofficial history of the displacement of Los Angeles cemeteries, please see my following video. Hopefully I can produce a cleaned-up version of this soon: “Cemetery walk to the Los Angeles Eastside (outtakes and first treatments)”]

As for the reason that this Jewish burial site would remain significant, it is clearly because Jewish people and their families had migrated into this area. Necessitating the continued operation and maintenance of this sacred burial site here.

As for the reason that this Jewish burial site would remain significant, it is clearly because Jewish people and their families had migrated into this area. Necessitating the continued operation and maintenance of this sacred burial site here.

“As for the reason this Jewish burial site would remain significant, it is clearly because Jewish people and their families had migrated into this area. Necessitating the continued operation and maintenance of this sacred burial site here.”

My friend who posed the question about this site is an Ashkenazi Jew, whose grandparents had left Boyle Heights to the southeast cities. My own Mexican-American grandparents from Boyle Heights and Compton, they would also eventually relocate to this southeastern corner of Los Angeles as it became developed with tract housing. This was the place for the up and coming, with a mixture of working-class and some professional families.

In the early years after World War II and the Korean War, this part of Los Angeles would attract many suburban aspiring people following government contract jobs. The area would also swell with prominence as this area became an important development and production area for the aerospace industry. Not far from here Rockwell Aerospace would later produce the NASA space orbiters.

However, as the cold war and the space program slowed down this also meant a great economic lull in the area. And then the neighborhood around here was further depressed by highway development in the area.

A view of part of the 105 Century Freeway corridor, rows of condemned houses and lots.

A view of a section of the 105 Century Freeway corridor in the 1980s, rows of condemned houses and lots. Photo by Jeff Gates, “In Our Path.”

When I was a kid much of this area was just rows of condemned houses. Houses which had been purchased by the county, left boarded-up and rotting for decades, then eventually razed in order to make a corridor for the 105 Century Freeway in the late-1980s. A demolition corridor which stretched through the struggling parts of the neighborhoods of Norwalk, Downey, Lakewood, Lynwood, Compton, Watts and on to LAX Airport.

When I was little my grandparents owned several business just across the street from the corridor. And I went to private school right up against the corridor for a while.

This corridor was the area featured in the most notorious punk-rock movie of all time,Suburbia (1983)” by Penelope Spheeris. Which is a story of gutter punks occupying a distressed and crumbling suburbia. Though a fictional movie which takes great liberties with the story in their nod to the historical narrative, it does actually capture much of the complaints of locals throughout the corridor and the media hype surrounding all of that at the time.

In order to grasp and visualize the impact of this on the area, I also highly recommend the exhibition titled, “In Our Path” by Jeff Gates.

The Young Israel Cemetery is near the San Gabriel River and high tension power-lines which segment this area as much as the freeways do. It's the proximity of this site to the river which catches my attention. This burial site was founded in 1938. The same year Los Angeles suffered one of the most destructive deluges in history, which devastated much of the river basin areas in the months of February and March, all the way down to Long Beach. Which leaves us with a mystery to explore. Does this site here exists in-spite of that dramatic flood or as a result of the literally sweeping changes which came to this area at that time?]

The Young Israel Cemetery is near the San Gabriel River and high tension power-lines which segment this area as much as the freeways do. It’s the proximity of this site to the river which catches my attention. This burial site was founded in 1938. The same year Los Angeles suffered one of the most destructive deluges in history, which devastated much of the river basin areas in the months of February and March of 1938, all the way down to Long Beach. It was this severe flooding which later that year caused the City of Los Angeles to adopt the policy of concrete paving the rivers. Which leaves us with a mystery to explore. Does this site here exists in-spite of that dramatic flood or as a result of the literally sweeping changes which came to this area at that time?

So here we are just near the widened 605-freeway, you can hear it. Near the interchange to the more recent 105-freeway, you can see it.

Quite honestly, we are very fortunate that this site still continues to exist after such sweeping changes around here. Had engineers planned a little bit differently, this site could have easily have been taken by one of our infamously controversial roadworks. Highway expansions which have repeatedly displaced so many people and places in less affluent neighborhoods; as had also been the case in the classic era of Boyle Heights.

But before I head back towards Boyle Heights, I pause to say a few prayers and pay my respects. And for a while I take comfort in seeing carefully placed stones on many of these graves, signs that there are local loved ones who have recently come to visit these graves. Paying respect to the dear souls who have come to rest here.

זיכרונם לברכה… May their memories be for a blessing.

The Houston Street Shul of Boyle Heights

So now we make our way back to the historic core of the eastside – to Boyle Heights. We make a journey in reverse, a journey that many of our parents and grandparents have made.

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The only noticable sign that this Spanish-speaoing church was once a synagogue are these Lions of Judah, guarding the two tablets of Torah. The raised Hebrew words of the Ten Commandments appear to have been sanded down entirely.

Many, if not most, local minority families have their roots in Boyle Heights. The area which was once the officially designated minority enclave and has remained a working-class community to this day. For many immigrant families, this was both their Ellis Island and first homestead.

The way the eastside generally works is this way: Everyone starts out around Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. But as a family becomes more financially secure and more integrated, they tend to migrate to the more suburban southeast neighborhoods.

Conversely for lifelong eastsiders, families falling on hard times sometimes moving back to these more affordable old neighborhoods when times become tough again. Migrating patterns up and down the eastside often closely related to one’s economic security. Unlike most of my family, I’ve lived in the rougher neighborhoods more often than not. Getting older, I have naturally wandered back to this my comfort zone.

But the path that we take these days is different from the ride I used to take in my childhood and teenage years. The 460 Express Bus no longer takes the scenic route through the greater eastside, with stops up and down the 5-freeway, then coming into town up Soto before crossing the Los Angeles River viaducts into downtown. The 460 now takes the 105-freeway corridor and 110-freeway through South Central LA on its way to Downtown, so now I go the long way around on my way up to the neighborhood.

One of the things which makes the neighborhood of Boyle Heights so special and worth the ride, is that it has all kinds of hidden treasures. All these interesting remnants of a diverse cultural and religious past in this old neighborhood. Still after all these years, I notice something new every time.

La Iglesia de Dios de la Profecía. The face of the building before the beautification.

“La Iglesia de Dios de la Profecía.” The face of the converted synagogue, before the most recent beautification.

And so it is on this day as we find ourselves in front of the old Houston Street Shul – formally known as Congregation B’nei Israel of Los Angeles, founded in 1932. This lovely little vernacular neoclassical style building was originally built to house an Orthodox Jewish congregation. It was one of over 30 synagogues in and around the area of Boyle Heights, which were most active in the first half of the 20th century.

This building sits amid a bustling neighborhood. Right below Wabash and just shy of the rumbling of the freeways which today curve painfully close to this area, here sits this charming little building.

Distinct in its style and sturdy in form, it catches your attention. Even more so on this day. The building has been recently repainted a classic golden color. No longer appearing dingy and musty as before, the building looks quite alive and cheerful again!

Also recently being brightened up with a new illuminated sign over the doorway, announcing the church which has for many years owned and operated this site: La Iglesia de Dios de la Profecía, a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal church.

As I begin to admire the building, my attention is immediately drawn to the only noticeable Jewish symbolism which is left on the building: Two Lions of Judah, guarding the two tablets of the Torah. This is all there is to explicatively tell us what this site once was. Yet even these signs are not well-preserved, as the church seems to have sanded down the Hebrew words of the Ten Commandments on these decorative Torah tablets.

As I move in closer with the camera to admire them, I notice the people in the neighborhood and the lingering Mormon missionaries all becoming curious as to what I’m seeing here. What looks so interesting up there, are they missing something?

As I get closer my attention is then drawn to the door-frames of the main entrance. On each side of the door are square indentations. Painted in and looking like exaggerative block molding. However, looking closely I could see the faint shape of the English and the Hebrew script of Yiddish in these spaces. Beneath thick brown paint are the memorial cornerstones honoring the founders of this site.

As much as I’m excited to seeing the building still exist and having better days. I’m also crushed over how little there is left to testify of its unique and celebrated past. This building is like most of the former Jewish religious sites, few of which have any remaining signs or homages to their honorable past.

Though the building in impressive in its own right, even aside from the religious symbolism. And while this building is not as imposing and dramatic as the other former synagogues of the area, sites such as this are significant precisely on account of their humble nature. This build has an honored past as being the realization of the aspirations of poor immigrant Jews. Bearing witness to the struggle and the sacrifice it took for new immigrants to establish this splendid site, all this during the lean years of the Great Depression!

It is strikingly clear that this site has been overwhelmingly changed since then. For this reason some feel that the historical significance of sites such as this has been irreversibly effected and in most cases lost entirely.

However, I am of the optimistic belief that as in the case of the 2nd Street Shul, there can be found a way to restore the hidden heritage of sites such as this. To honor their past glory, as well as testify of the historical diversity of this culturally rich neighborhood for generations to come.

I wonder, would this church ever embrace that heritage and restore the site if they knew the cultural significance and historical impact of it all? And might this church consider restoring the Hebrew to these tablets out of respect to the Ten Commandments and the “Old Testament?” As we have seen these type of inspired restorations in other places in this neighborhood already. Time can only tell.

As I go between gawking and speaking into my phone to document the site for quite a while, the people hanging out on the block get even more curious. Surely I’m not just interested in the new paint job!

So I strike up a conversation and share some pleasantries with a family next door, who is seemingly having tardeada on this warm day. They give me the lowdown on when the latest upgrades have happened on the building. And I also share with them a bit of the history I know about this site. History in this side of town is always a most engaging topic, as people love to reminisce about the golden era of this area to no end. And even more today people are genuinely curious as to how and why things have come to be in this old neighborhood.

But the questions which always remains are this, why did all the Jewish families of Boyle Heights leave? And the almost inevitable, “Why did they all move to the Fairfax?”

What the housing displacement caused by the freeways looked like. This raw example being more recent, from the southeast cities in the 1980s; the I-105 corridor. Photo by Jeff Gates, “In Our Path.”

Though that is a very complicated question to answer, I ask people to really consider at least one thing which has repeatedly displaced people and heaped hardship on this community. I point towards the freeways which are rumbling all around us. And ask people to remember how our neighorhood and our own families were fragmented, as well over 10,000 people were displaced here between the 1940-1950s to create the web of freeway interchanges which carved this community apart. Which came with sweeping displacement for Jews, Latinos and all other residents.

Many people eventually moved away because their grandma’s house was taken by eminent domain for yet another freeway project, and then their own. Some of our families even being uprooted more than once by the freeways here. Not just families, but many business holdings being ripped asunder by development. This made many people finally choose to move on to other more assured areas, including the surrounding communities.

I ask people to consider how our city and our own families were fragmented, as 10,000 people were displaced here between the 1940-1950s to create the web freeway interchanges which carved this community apart. Which came with sweeping displacement for Jews, Latinos and all other residents.

Consider the Freeways:  This marks the location of the old shul. I ask people to consider how our city and our own families were fragmented, as well over 10,000 people were displaced here between the 1940-1950s to create the web of freeway interchanges which carved this community apart. Which came with sweeping displacement for Jews, Latinos and all other residents. This image shows the impact of two of the half-dozen major freeways-highways which have encroached upon and even slice through this community.

For this reason I reject the one-direction narrative. And the assumptive ideas which lend to an over-simplified narrative which is crudely summarized as “white flight.” And it takes a native and lifelong eastsider to challenge that old suspicion – and often character judgments which comes with that – as it is most often posed by the younger eastsiders of today.

I ask our local people to also reconsider this: The favored narrative always follows the mass migration of Jews out of Boyle Heights to the Fairfax, westside and San Fernando Valley. However, there have been significant numbers of Jewish people who have continued to migrate further into the eastside.

Indeed as early as the 1920 Jews started migrating out of Boyle Heights and City Terrace, to places such as Highland Park and Montebello. There was no place else for most people to go in those days, but deeper into the eastside.

Then in the 1950’s after the end of housing discrimination, many more Jews migrated even further into the newly expanding suburban areas of the eastside. Founding several wonderful Jewish congregations and cultural centers on this side of town.

The southeast side of Los Angeles still has active Jewish communities here; my own shul, Beth Shalom of Whittier – formerly the “Jewish Community Center of Whitier” – services this area; as well as Temple Beth Ohr of La Mirada, and Temple Ner Tamid of Downey. And last but not least, Temple Bnei Emet of Montebello – formerly the “Jewish Educational Center of East Los Angeles.”

Each of these congregations growing out of far less than homogeneous communities, which has fostered a unique multicultural and progressive character for shuls on this side of town. Congregations which also notably attract many local bilingual Spanish-speaking families!

The Jews of the Los Angeles Eastside aren’t entirely gone, it’s just that the Jewish people of today’s eastside are much more spread out. And in recent years, many families are migrating even further yet into the San Gabriel Valley and also venturing into Orange County. Once again, migrating to newly expanding areas.

As time passes the Jewish history of the greater eastside area becomes more obscured. However, its important for us to note that significant amounts of Jewish people have come further into the eastside to live out their lives and also to rest in peace.

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2nd and Mathews Synagogue in Boyle Heights: An example of a small immigrant congregation, then and now

“Beit Midrash Srere” (בית מדרש שרירא)Beit Midrash Srere” (בית מדרש שרירא) of Los Angeles, founded in 1922. This modest old synagogue was once one of over 30-some Jewish congregations in and around the area of ‪Boyle Heights‬, east Los Angeles.

Though many of us know the larger shuls of the area, its important to keep in mind that many local Jewish congregations of the classic era operated from store-fronts and mere shteibles – little buildings, small houses like this. As struggling immigrants, that was the best many of them could afford at the time.

And so it is to this day in this community, that we have many immigrant churches operating from store-fronts and re-purposed synagogues.

Though small, each of these congregations have in their own way left a lasting mark on the area. Something which needs to be recognized and celebrated.

Beit Midrash Srere, founded 1922: The original face of the building, before the windows were changed and made smaller.

We are taking some video and pictures of this site today, because it has gotten a major make-over. This building is looking better than it has in years!

Though its sad to see that few of the original Jewish fixtures remain here.

I’m told by people who grew up on the block that many Christian groups have come and gone over the years, trying to change the gates and remove the Star is David from the building. And that city officials and Jewish groups didn’t let them.

One group had removed the gates with the Star of David on them.

Though the more recently crafted gates have been decoratively adorned with both crosses and Jewish stars, which are inlaid into them.

I think it’s really important to maintain these treasures of the past to the greatest extent we can, because these are living examples of our diverse past. Many of these sites have their Jewish elements historically registered, some of these buildings even come with the sales contract stipulating of them not to make changes which would jeopardize the historical integrity of the sites. But I’m learning that this is something which is hard to maintain when the building has changed hands so many times.

Today it is a Spanish speaking church, called “Iglesia Cristiana Roca de Salvación.”

Iglesia Cristiana Hebreos

Unbeknownst to many, Christian Messianism and Hebrew-Christians sects among Latinos have been growing in popularity since the 1970s. Most developing with no direct connection or relationship to the Jewish people, yet.

Interestingly, one of the Christian groups which occupied this site at one time was the “Iglesia Cristiana Hebreos,” a Spanish-speaking Hebrew-Christian congregation, a form of Latino messianic church.

It should be noted that there are actually a few Jewish sites in the neighborhood which have been well maintained by Messianic sects or churches which feel great affection for the Jewish symbolism.

Hopefully soon we will explore more of these sites together as well!

Shalom from the eastside!