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 Inequity of the New Sixth Street Bridge Plan

A community organizer’s account of the debut for the new Sixth Street Bridge Project – October 6th, 2014

The Classic Sixth Street ViaductBefore I went to the city planning meeting that day, I just had to take one more wide look of this Sixth Street Viaduct. Watching her from the distance of the Seventh Street Bridge, I somberly took in full view of the crumbling Sixth Street Bridge there in the middle of it all. I needed to see the activity and the interconnectivity she provides for this community, just to keep the subject in perspective.

The viaducts of the Los Angeles river are an integral part the city, more than many people realize at first. These structures here were created not just to traverse the river, but also to serve as essential corridors for our local freeways. And also for providing passage for all our local commercial and passenger trains; the Amtrak and Metrolink trains, being among them.

My personal favorite of them is the Sixth Street Viaduct. Almost everyone in the city commutes over, under and through this structure on a regular basis. And so it has been for as long as any of us remember, that we find our goings and comings from the city greeted by the glory of this bridge and her arches.

And this bridge has also become the primary hang-out for my friends and I over the years. A part of our city infrastructure we feel most connected to. Most often taking our spot at the observation point on the north end of the pedestrian walkway. From here we have always watched and reflected upon this great city. It is almost hard for us to imagine the city landscape without her.

The historic Sixth Street Viaduct which has graced the city skyline since 1932 has been scheduled for demotion and replacement. As for many years there have been concerns about the structural integrity of the bridge.

Broken Sixth Street Bridge BeamsIndeed, history tells us that within the first 20 years of the bridge being built the concrete of the structure began to suffer terrible damage. The consequences of badly mixed concrete in the construction, utilizing a poor choice of sand aggregate in the mixture. The grains of sand and the concrete-mix having a fatal reaction when repeatedly exposed to water over time, causing the mixture to produce a corrosive gel, as the sand grains swell with moisture. The concrete eventually becoming brittle enough to crack, separate and fall away. A condition called alkali-silica reaction, or “concrete cancer” by the engineers.

The bridge is literally crumbling and melting away. This is a serious crisis, for certain.

But I’ll tell you the truth: I have never seen anything as broken and damaged as the politics which surrounds the entire rebuilding project for the Sixth Street Viaduct. This has been what I have found most alarming here.

Let us consider the project, and all its implications. We are talking about a reconstruction project which when originally proposed it was estimated to cost at around $140-million dollars, which has since morphed and ballooned into over $440-million; a project which is consuming 2/3rds of the entire infrastructure development budget of the City of Los Angeles. And yet for all the money committed, this bridge project remains the most egregious symbol of inequity in the current city redevelopment.

Here we are at the start of another building project here which is wrong from the beginning. With the current failures of this project reflecting the deafness of both the civic and neighborhood council leaders. This all clearly demonstrating the complete failure on the part of our local leaders across the board to advocate for the needs our disadvantaged community which is most effected by this project; the neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

So here I gathered my thoughts here for a few moments. And then finally walked my way from the viaduct and over to the local magnet school which was hosting the community forum for the Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project. A much-anticipated update from the city and the contractors, regarding the demolition and rebuilding.

And as I walk up to the entrance I run into the Los Angeles City Council member for this district, Jose Huizar. We pass with barely a pleasantry, greeting and parting abruptly.

Actually I think the same can be said for his appearance at this meeting in general. His very presence at the community forum was short and abrupt. Excusing himself for another hearing after a few short words, and conveniently not having to be present to answer for any of the community concerns regarding the project.

As the community members began to pile in to a room mostly filled with suits and contractors, we also joined them; my local companions and I. This was not our first time at the rodeo, but even we were shocked by the fruitlessness of this forum.

Huizar came with his usual attempt at charm and carefully expressed sympathy over the loss of this iconic bridge, though in the end all he did was do political nodding and offered little of substance. He had a few nice things to say which I appreciated, about developing the art of the space and reusing materials from the historic bridge. The latter of which I believe is the most sincere.

What I found troubling was one of his last and briefest points to address, regarding the redevelopment of the underside of the bridge. In which he credits his office with securing $1-million for the construction of a “soccer park” on the cleared land underneath the bridge.

As he mentioned this my eyes were drawn to the diagrams and maps, to take notice how the businesses in the Boyle Heights Flats are effected. Only to notice many cleared away in the new renderings. I know the area very well. And every single business which they are replacing with just grass there in their diagrams.

In reality, they are not adding much more than white lines and adding two words to the remaining open field, and it thus becomes a “soccer park.”

Now how is that a community organizer like myself, in a Latino community, is opposed to this? My opposition is to a clearly mindless form of ethnic pandering here. And my scorn is for the cheap and token redevelopment feature aimed to pacify Latino objection to a highly unpopular redevelopment project. A typical move which is not just cynical, but also inequitable.

What completely amazed me was that just a year before at similar public briefing and forum hosted by Huizar’s office the city had warmed us all over with emphasizing that the bridge was to be transformed into a destination on both banks, with active artistic and cultural components. Stating that this all needed to be equitable and integral to the space, so as not to feel like an afterthought.

[Citation: See video of the December 11, 2013 meeting; citing Felicia Filer, Department of Cultural Affair. My favorite part is this, “There are so many different areas on the project in which public art happen. Where art can happen and future art programming. We wanted to look at the project holistically and cohesively, so that wherever opportunities are they tie together, so that it feels like a plan and not an afterthought.” Felicia Filer, Department of Cultural Affairs. I would say we are all in agreement with her, which is why it is shocking they have in the end planned nothing significant in terms of integrated programmable artistic and cultural space on the eastern side of the bridge.].

However, now what we had being presented to us was far less than carefully balanced. A revelation that would further be compounded as the city planners and engineers unveiled the model and animations for the new Sixth Street Viaduct. Complete with an amphitheater and an “arts park” to be constructed on the now gentrified Art District side of the bridge, on the western bank of the Los Angeles River.

While as for their plans for under the much larger Boyle Heights span, so far all they had to show for was an afterthought of a soccer field feature being represented by a piece of green construction paper under their model of the eastern span of the bridge; in the struggling minority community on the other end.

Very much an afterthought and point of disregard, as revealed by the words of Huizar himself: “We recently also awarded, through some of the advocacy of my office, a million dollars for a soccer field on the bottom of the Art’s District side, right?” To the solicited correction of his staff, he snapped back, “… Boyle Heights side. Right. Boyle Heights side.”

The viaduct of today is just about 2/3 of a mile long; 3500′ of bridge, with 400′ of twin double steel arches spanning over the river where the bridge slightly curves southwest as it extends towards downtown LA. The painted bluish-gray arches standing 40′ high, are the most beloved accent of the bridge.

The old bridge was designed at the height of the Art Deco era. The design shows both Art Deco and streamline Moderne themes, the first bridge of it’s kind. Indeed each of the bridges have a unique theme to them. Some of them neo-Classical like the First Street Bridge, and others are Gothic Revival like the nearby Fourth Street Bridge. All of them made to play off of and accentuate each other.

This motif has great historical significance to us locals, in providing functional and yet comfortingly classic atmosphere to our area. For these reasons, the Sixth Street Viaduct is designated as Historic-Cultural Monument #905 by the California Register of Historical Resources.

The bridge of the future is tremendously different. As the civil engineers spoke, we all stared eagerly at the scale model which took up the whole auditorium. This new design being a great departure from the current architectural theme of the area, and also from the previous design plans. Almost nothing of the original bridge and charms were retained, except for an embellished stream of integrated arches designed to span nearly the full length of the bridge.

20141006_180624-PANOThere is no doubt that the new bridge design is bold and breathtaking. However, it is more stupefying when we see that they have diminished the historical integrity of the surrounding area in ways which appears to push a wave of sweeping redevelopment and character changes upon this area.

Considering all the other options for the rebuild, this most certainly is the best design. Early on in the design planning for the new viaduct, reproductions of the bridge were considered. Reproductions of the old bridge without any arches, a lackluster redesign which would have done no justice to the original Sixth Street Bridge. This bridge design as least incorporates an homage to the original arches. Which is quite meritorious.

And the bridge also does comes with some impressive features. The new Sixth Street Viaduct is designed to have protected bike lanes and paths. As well as a safer pedestrian walkways, secured by dividers. And circling bicycle ramps which promise easy acceptability.

As the presentation continues, we hear of how the “Ribbon of Light” theme for the bridge will incorporate embedded LED lighting. State of the art lights which can be changed in color in order to enhance the bridge, thematically or according to artistic tone. Mood light streaming along the face of the bridge and walkways. An admittedly expensive, but beautifying feature integrated into the bridge.

Most impressive though are the integrated artistic and cultural space planned for much smaller, western span of the bridge; on the Arts District Side. The amphitheater which will meet up against the entrance to the service tunnel of the Los Angeles River. Re-envisioning the almost urban cathedral nature of the underside of the bridge there as a programmable space. With an arts park which also planned for the adjacent areas.

These type of features are not by accident. Indeed early on in the process of the redesign the now gentrified Los Angeles Art’s District had demanded a percentage – I believe at one point they wanted as much as 4% of the redevelopment money – in order to apply to artistic redevelopment of their area. In the end, some effective advocacy for their community resulted in the incorporation of these grand features, the amphitheater and arts park.

The Green Construction Paper signifies the after-thought soccer field feature

The green construction paper signifies the after-thought soccer field feature.

What I find starkly contrasting is that for all of this light and programmable space being planned here, the only thing that this massive model has presented for the Boyle Heights side of bridge – for the 2500-feet which makes up over 2/3rds of the length of the bridge – is a piece of green construction paper on the underside of the bridge just west of Anderson St. An ad-hoc representation of their trite afterthought of a soccer field. This green piece of paper being just as barren and honest as the reality of that plan, just an empty green space left on the dark underside of their bridge.

For the first time I really felt the full effect of the dissonance which the community members around me also felt in the face all this. Even I began to feel the tension.

The civic planners have made great use of space in their designs for artistic expression in the gentrified side of town. And it makes great concessions to the newly arriving yuppies who need to feel that their own contrived being is in itself artisanal, who see their very privileged lives as performance art.

But what about for the genuinely culture rich Boyle Heights? What for the side which has a well established historical tradition of folk and applied arts? The east side – which has great historical significance for it’s rich ethnic and cultural character – what did we get for tangible programmable arts space? Gornisht mit gornishtun montón de nada… a lot of nothing.

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

The former

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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 Jewish High Holidays in Los Angeles (September 1889)

While researching the history of the Los Angeles Jewish community, I stumbled across a most interesting surprise. Uncovering some listings which give us an intriguing look into the lives of Los Angeles area Jews in the late 19th century, which also presents us with a historical twist.

This advertisement is from the Los Angeles Harold, September 23, 1889. This add announcing the season’s upcoming High Holiday services, organized by “Talmud Torah Congregation.”

TalmudTorahMasonicSept1889Clipping

The add reads:

Talmud Torah Congregation will hold their services at Masonic hall, on South Spring street, commencing September 25th, 1889.

Notice the instructions:

Those wishing to secure seats can do so by calling on the Secretary at the White House Clothing Co., corner of Spring and Franklin Streets.

Which seems to reveal a bit about the lifestyles and trades of the mostly working-class Jewish congregation of the time.

It has been suggested to me through oral history that this congregation might have existed for some time downtown, before migrating to South Central Los Angeles.

This is an interesting revelation, and certainly something which I find fascinating. Being from East Los Angeles, the Congregation Talmud Torah which always comes to mind in my circle and among my historian friends is the Breed Street Shul – which was founded downtown in 1904, before moving to Boyle Heights a decade later.

TalmudTorah1888Herald

This is their High Holiday advertisement from the year before. Urging reservations, “…as no one will be admitted without tickets.” Los Angeles Harold, August 24, 1888.

However, the congregation listed in this add is previously unknown to me. And so far it appears to be unaccounted for in the historical record. Though this older congregation seems to have started sometime in the 1880s.

We really don’t know much about this congregation. We don’t know if they were a congregation which only met for High Holidays. Nor do we know much about their custom or affiliation. We don’t even exactly know how well established they were. For instance, did they not have a building of their own?

However, we can make some pretty good educated guesses based on the information provided.

In these advertisements we see that the services are being held at Masonic Hall on South Spring Street.

Now we need to keep in mind that this is not the original pueblo Masonic Hall on North Main Street (called “old” Masonic Hall in those days), which is still existent. This would have been a much grander and larger hall, built after Masonic Lodge No. 42 outgrew the old hall. The location of the newer Masonic Hall was on the west side of South Spring Street, near the corner of 1st Street. Just over near Los Angeles City Hall – for which it was eventually demolished to help make way for.

During the late 1800s it was very common for both civic organizations and social groups to rent meeting space in the spacious Masonic Halls. This was quite the respectable place to hold special events.

It should be noted that the first Jewish congregation in Los Angeles started meeting in the Masonic Hall on holidays. Congregation B’nai Brith –  the forerunner of todays Wilshire Blvd Temple –  renting the Masonic halls before moving into their own glorious building on Broadway, between 2nd and 3rd in 1872.

It should also be noted that many society Jews of the day were also very influential Masons. Including Rabbi Edelman of Congregation B’nai Brith, who served five times as Grand Master of this same Lodge No. 42.

When I look over these advertisements here, it reveals a lot to me. While leaving so many more things to explore which just puzzle me and beg for answers.

Was this congregation also just a holiday minyan? Or were they just renting the large hall to accommodate more people for the swelling High Holidays? Sometimes in the case of congregations meeting out of a houses or storefronts, to accommodate the flood of holiday attendees local minyans would often rent space in halls or theaters.

“At a recent meeting of the Talmud Torah congregation, the following officers were elected to serve for the ensuing year: B. Cohn, President; L. C. Cohn, Vice-President; Jacob Lyser, Secretary ; W. Harris, Treasurer; and M. Summerfield, S. Levy and S. Rosenbladt, Trustees.” Los Angeles Herald, October 21, 1888.

And what was the style and character of this community? So far there is no way to know precisely. But my guess is that this community would have followed the form of all the other Los Angeles synagogues before it, and have been traditional and just shy of Orthodoxy.

And almost certainly of the Ashkenazi tradition. Not just because Sephardim were few in those days. This is further suggested by the published names of the board of members elected by this congregation in 1888. [See image at right, “Election of Officers.”]

However, I would venture to say that this congregation taking hold in this area at this time must have some significance. The area already had a notable congregation just blocks away, that being “Congregation B’nei Brith.” A synagogue which had already begun to reform in many ways during the days of Rabbi Edelman’s leadership (1862-1885). And which completely embraced modern Reform after his tenure. [see “Rabbi Abraham Wolf Edelman, Jewish Padre to the Pueblo,” Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly, Vol. III, No. 4, July 1971, pp.193-226]

This other congregation here had to exist for a reason. It seems to me that it is quite likely that this “Talmud Torah Congregation” arose to meet the needs of a more Orthodox congregation. Most likely appealing to Polish Jews and the newly arriving Eastern European Jews who would have just started arriving in the 1880s, most of whom were more traditional than the earlier arriving German Jews. The newly arriving Yiddish speaking immigrants whom came from as far away as Russia, not having been familiar with the influence of German Reform and haskalah which was embodied at “Congregation B’nai Brith.”

We also need to remember that that the Eastern European Jews which started arriving in mass from the late-1880s through 1924 were also a different class of immigrant all together. These Yiddish speaking arrivals were far humbler than the German Jews which came before them. Coming dirt poor, after fleeing political massacres in the east. Over 2-million Eastern European Jews came to America in those years in total desperation.

We also need to keep well in mind that the influx of impoverished Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrants provided this country with a desperate and eager labor force. Many of these new immigrants going into the shmata business – the garment and dress-making industry.

And of course, the history of the way that these garment workers were treated is regarded as a national shame. The hazardous nature of those job and their sweatshop conditions, the details of these facts are notorious. This was about 20-years before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which would mobilize the Yiddish organizers for fair labor. [see: “Jewish-Latino Relations: Rooted in a Shared Immigrant, Working-class Experience”]

WhiteHouseLogoAs we see from our advertisement from 1889, in Los Angeles Jews were already establishing themselves in the garment trade. This is a clear look into their lives at the start of the industrial revolution. When already the relationship between Jews and the shmata business was so very well intertwined in Los Angeles. So much so that one had to pay a visit to the secretary of one of these garment buildings to reserve seats for High Holiday services in those days.

So what do we suppose became of this congregation? Did they disband or did they continue to meet? Did they eventually acquire a building that fully suited their needs in the end? If so, where did they eventually settle down?

If this “Talmud Torah Congregation” persisted, it is very likely that this community would have eventually settled in the Temple District or South Central Los Angeles. As these were the notable Jewish districts of the day, years before Jewish migration began moving towards the frontiers of Boyle Heights and West Adams later on.

My best guess has been that a successfully growing community would have most likely taken root in South Central Los Angeles – just off the Central Avenue corridor. Into the newest working-class area of the day.

All persons who do not, can not and will not pay $30 for a business suit, should by all means call at, The White House Clothing Company.

“All persons who do not, can not and will not pay $30 for a business suit, should by all means call at The White House Clothing Company.” Los Angeles Herald, October 13, 1888.

The history of the Jews of this area has never been told. Though in Dr. Max Vospan’s and Lloyd P. Gartner’s definitive work titled “The History of the Jews of Los Angeles” they do mention the existence of a Jewish presence in the Central corridor. Identifying these people as related to the shmata business. The existence of which is still clearly evident even to this day, as the garment trade still has a major presence in that area. However, they did not go so far as to document the life of the Jewish communities there. To present the history of the synagogues in this area, as they did so famously for the rest of the city.

The normal historical sources regarding Jewish Los Angeles do not give us much to work with. Therefore I have been turning to the public for source information and oral histories.

Interestingly, within hours of posting the first image of this add to social media I got a most promising lead from a friendly local named Tony Washington Shapiro. He stated that his research shows that there were many congregations forming downtown in those days. And that this congregation did indeed start in the 1880s. Then between 1900-1910 the Jewish community started to spread out more. Noting that his own father was a Jew born in South Central Los Angeles in 1922.

Shapiro stated that I should turn my eye back to the history of South Central Los Angeles. This advice actually confirms my own hunch. And also helps me attempt to give some context to another piece of historical documentation I came across the very same week.

While going through the city directories of Los Angeles from the 1880s-1940s, I found the existence of other congregations in South Los Angeles which also identified themselves as “Congregation Talmud Torah.” This is the Los Angeles city directory listings for Jewish congregations in 1938:

Los Angeles City Directory, 1938.It could very well be that this congregation did indeed come to rest in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. Hopefully with the aid of more historical sources and oral histories, we will be able to explore this further. And hopefully one day tell the story of these people.

To be continued….

Related Articles:

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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