The Hidden Sparks of the Jewish Soul of South Central Los Angeles

Recreating the Jewish Legacy and Heritage of South LA

Havdalah in the West Adams District.

Havdalah in the West Adams District.

Over the past few years I have really grown to appreciate so much more about the community of South Central Los Angeles, often hitting up the blues and jazz clubs. Quite often coming out at night with a little circle of eastside friends to enjoy the music and social scene. However, we are quite noticeably among the very few Jews who venture into these neighborhoods today. And for this reason, our presence is always saluted.

This particular week I was invited to a little get together hosted by Ms Fae DC, near Hyde Park. Knowing a bit about her as a musician and for her lively vibe in the music community we frequent, I was glad to finally get a change to get to meet her personally.

As we made our way over to her neighborhood, the final hours of a summer’s evening burned red in the sky. And the air on the blocks buzzing with parties all around us. The sounds of R&B and Mexican music both charging the air, baring witness of the growing Latino community in this area today. With the many celebrations on these blocks overflowing into the yards.

Indeed, South LA has always been a magnet for minorities of every kind. Which makes the area one of the more vibrant places to be in the city.

As we arrive Ms Fae greets us with embraces. We then spend the next few hours exchanged in talk about music. Sitting under a clear sky. Under the a canopy of red berried pepper trees and  Bottlebrushes, and large eucalyptus. These old trees hint at how old her house is, the property still allowing trees which were once ubiquitous to old Los Angeles to grow tall. Trees which are only but a memory elsewhere in the city, often removed by the city as foreign nuances sadly enough. However, I appreciate the classic touch and the great shade from the blazing sun.

In the cool of the evening we sit and rolling around the dice for a while. And at one point I happened to ask, “So where do you find the Jamaican music around here?” Explaining that I’m a big fan of ska, rocksteady and reggae.

Ms Fae and her mom look at each other in excitement. Ms Faye explains, “I know exactly where to take you!” And asked if I wanted to swing by a nightspot with her. Though we were having such a good time, I hadn’t given much thought about it. Nor was I paying attention to how quickly time was passing. The evening quickly turning to dusk.

Normally on a Saturday nights all of my friends would be heading to the Sixth Street Bridge in Boyle Heights to perform Havdalah with me – the ritual for closing the Sabbath and welcoming a bright week to come. Weekly making our stand to keep the light of Jewish spirit alive there in the neighborhood. Then…. we most often head over to South Central to start our nightlife off with some blues!

Odd to some, but it is significant to my friends that I have taken Havdalah – where the words speak about separations and divisions: between light and darkness, Israel and the nations, sacred and profane, and we transform it into a moment of togetherness across the divide. [See “Havdalah as a Light to the Community: Reflections and Lessons from the Havdalah Circle of Boyle Heights.“]

However, being that it was getting late and we were enjoying the company, we didn’t want to disrupt the good vibes and fun conversation. So I asked Ms Fae if we could do Havdalah there at her house, in the West Adam’s district for a change. A suggestion which was enthusiastically welcomed.

So as darkness fell we took out the candles, the wine and spices. And we began the ritual. In full darkness we came together in circle to do the stirring and invigorating ritual. Lighting up the night with prayers and friendship.

My excitement and joy well up as I say the words, extending the joy and light of the Jewish people to everyone around to share in:

“’For the Jews there was Light, gladness, joy, and honor.’ (Ester 8:15) So may it be for us!”

ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששון ויקר כן תהיה לנן, תהיה לנו, תהיה לנו.

And for a while we share in the after-glow of a time of spiritual bliss. And discussing how I believe in inspiring trust and understanding in the inner-city, by just doing soulful Jewish acts to share. To exemplify Jewish values and culture, which few have ever seen here in our lifetime. To create a pleasant memory of Jewish people within the minority communities.

After a few hours of sharing the fine hospitality of Ms Fae, said she hoped I wasn’t on a rush to get back to the eastside. She reminded me that she had something to show me.

So we hop in the car and in short time I found myself walking arm in arm with her through Leimert Park. The buzz of art, music and culture drawing out many people to the district surrounding the park.

20150822_225802-01We make our way on and over to the “Divine Design Melchizedek Luv and Light Healing Center” – to the local Rastafarian and Ethiopian shop, which is also known as a lively music venue. We are here to enjoy some live Jamaican music – to hear some reggae!

I walked through the door with Ms Fae and pretty much most of the Jewish guys of East Los Angeles at my side, to be greeted warmly with cries of “Shalom!” and embraces.

The Rastafarians and the Ethiopian-roots movement, they are just one facet of the black community which greatly associates themselves with the story of the Israelites and Hebrews of the bible. Who identify with the slavery, persecution and diaspora of the ancient Israelites. Some who relate so much to hardships of the Hebrews, that they do indeed see themselves in the role of the Israelites.

Though we also quickly learned that were also a couple local African-American Jews ready to groove with us too, thrilled we were there to represent our people! This we learn as a proud black father throws his arms around his sons, and tell us about the background of his inter-racial family. Beaming to let us know that there are mamash Jews in the neighborhood.

For this reason, it seemed only fitting that we should be enthusiastically greeted with “Shalom.”

For a while I make some good conversation with the shop owner, King Ras. Listening to the history and the hopes of their little storefront mission of sorts there. Learning that they had also acquired land over in Ethiopia, hoping to one day start a communal settlement there.

He expressing to me that he wasn’t really sure what kept him here in diaspora sometimes, but something motivates him to keep this spark of culture expression alive here. He then with laughter points out that the house lighting and sound is being run off a generator out back, since they haven’t been able afford to get the electricity restored for some time.

We therefore long discussed the importance of reclaiming one’s roots and overcoming cultural assimilation. And the need for preserving the heritage of our respective diaspora communities; the customs, languages, art, music and unique religious expressions we have. Many of which are being neglected and lost as people immigrate away from the ancient diaspora communities. The culture of many unique ethnic communities becoming suppressed under hegemony, and quickly becoming in danger of being lost to the ages.

And we further discussed the life and culture of the 100,000 black Ethiopian Jews living in Israel today. There is this type of brotherhood which we do seem to have between our people, which transcends race and geography.

Though before long our host excuses himself to take the stage for the live reggae set.

Now being a fan of this form of music, this is where the night became truly magical for me. For a long time I have loved Jamaican music. But the best I knew to date, it was often listening to rare old records on my side of town and occasionally at retro bars. So it was amazing to have the excitement of the live band.

Before long Ms Fae had me to my feet dancing! Up on my feet stepping to those searing reggae down-strokes and the deep base. Caught up in ecstasy by the cries of the brass and the melodic voices, all coming together with what sounds like angelic choirs to my ears. Sending my spirits soaring, as we join the small crowd dancing.

After some time of dancing, I come and take a seat by my buddy Irv for a breather. For a while I give him a brief history about the evolution of Jamaican music, and its influence in the working-class subcultures.

However, what is clearly most striking to his Jewish ear are the words of the songs. May of them are familiar biblical psalms and words of the prophet. Being blending into folk songs, and carried over into songs which cry out for social enlightenment. Songs of freedom and liberation. Songs which are heavy with Israelite and Hebrew imagery, all of which is used to communicate the struggle of the black African experience. He relates how as a young child in Hebrew school he and his classmates were often taught to sing African-American slave spirituals talking about freedom and equality.

Though this was not a religious service, we were just out on the town enjoying a set of live music. There is no ritual or preaching. Just music and dancing. But even in the ecstatic spirit of it all, one cannot help but recognize that the energy seems nothing short of a euphoric religious celebration. The expressions of culture and faith, all coming together naturally and seamlessly.

But at this point I am also very interested in watching how my Jewish friends are receiving all of this.

Though I think they caught the message I was really hoping would come through that night: That the power of the persisting story of the Children of Israel is something which reverberates with many people the world over. People of all backgrounds and colors identify with this story of freedom and hope, expressing it in their own way.

That’s not to say that there is cannot be some level of awkwardness at times in making connection with people who are clearly reinterpreting very Jewish themes for themselves. Many of whom are re-envisioning and re-purposing the lessons of our bible for their life experience. When they consider our historical struggle, they feel they can relate and they consider themselves in those shoes.

And while it is true that sometimes this does manifest in some people with hostile dispensationalism – the belief that ones own sect or group should instead be recognized as the true Hebrews today – this is often less the case when these communities have living interactions with contemporary Jewish life and when there is a visible Jewish presence.

As the night goes on I begin to speak to one of the young men I had been introduced earlier. And he begins to tell me of his experience growing up in the black community there, as someone who identifies as Jewish. Being a black man, with a Jewish mother.

He then tells me this story with intensity and fervor. Of one time he went to church with his father at a historic black church. And how at one point the preacher at the pulpit began pontificate against those who follow the “dead commandments of the old testament,” that it shouldn’t matter because “none of you are Jews anyhow.” He said his father stood up right then and began to make the case that there are real Jews in their community – like his sons, even though they are black – who need to be encouraged to keep and honor the holy mitzvot (commandments). Which when articulated in this personal way was actually received with great reverence and respect by the pastors there, he tells me.

At that moment it hit me like a ton of bricks. That for all the hampering our Jewish institutions do regarding reaching the unaffiliated and inter-faith families, they have really done nothing to reach the Jews left behind in today’s ethnic communities here.

As the night goes on I start a spiritual discussion. To share some wisdom and inspiration from the Jewish tradition. For a moment I began to speak about the spiritual awaking of the month of Elul – how during the month leading up to Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur – we begin to awaken ourselves from our spiritual slumber.

20150823_000149I was just about to mention how we do that in the Jewish tradition. When just then, without even a cue, King Ras brings out a Shofar to demonstrate the lesson! Into the midnight air and into the streets which were still packed with partying crowds, our host blew the shofar: Tekiah, teruah, shevarim

Now I knew that not all of our buddies seem to know what to make of all this. It was something which they have never seen before. Non-Jewish people blowing a shofar. A mixture of curiosity and awe seem to come over them. While I receive this expression in kind, in a spirit of friendship and solidarity.

Yes, sometimes there can be a level of discomfort that sometimes we simply must lean into when doing cross-cultural work. But as best expressed by my friend Irv Weiser, “It is only uncomfortable when you see the other person as different, instead of as an alternate extension of your own heritage.”

Being here and seeing how anxious people are to share our commonalities, I cannot help but be inspired and challenged.

***

As a representative of the Jewish people on Los Angeles eastside, I am always trying to recapture the historic multi-cultural spirit of our city.

While ever mindful that my dedication and loyalties to my own community not be taken to an extreme. That I not sink into the complacency of my familiarity and closed-off from the rest of the culture to be found in our city.

Though my expertise is mostly regarding Boyle Heights and the Los Angeles eastside, I want to also stand in solidarity with other communities in our great city. Pardon me, as I also venture to take us down another path of cultural exploration today.

I want to call our attention to the other neighborhoods which many people seem detached from, by both some historical and geographical distance. Some neighborhoods which many just fear and neglect, simply because many people feel that they cannot relate to that place and those people there. All of which underlines the need to draw us all to closer together socially. To learn from one another and to find reasons to celebrate each other. For if we dare to notice, we will see we have a lot in common and experiences which can enrich us all.

Yes, there is this another area which to me feels like a sister community to my own East Los Angeles; that being the West Adams District. It may not seem apparent to many today as to why I would make that assertion. As today the eastside is mostly entirely Latino. While the West Adams district is the living heart of the westside African-American community.

Consider this. In the Los Angeles eastside the core of our community is Boyle Heights, the very crucible of Mexican-American expression. And in the West Adams this ground-zero of artistic, cultural, social and political expression of the African-American community is found in Leimert Park. They both stand as mirroring archetypal ethnic neighborhoods, within their own demographic.

Yet in means of culture and geography, they are worlds apart. Literally as far as the east is from the west. But they do have quite a bit in common under the surface.

We also need to remember that historically during the first half of the 20th century both of these areas were officially designated as minority communities. In an age of legalized racial segregation in housing under the guise of “housing covenants,” these communities took in many racialized minorities and immigrants.

The housing market at the time had “redlined” neighborhoods, effectively baring minorities from buying or renting in Downtown and the center of the city. And successfully pushing minorities into the communities east of Boyle Avenue into East LA, or south of Adams Blvd on into South Central.

Therefore it should not be surprising to us that Jewish community thus sprang up in many of these outlying area. Though we all seem to know about the rich Jewish history of Boyle Heights and City Terrace, it’s curious that very few give much consideration of the Jewish history of greater South Central LA.

Especially considering there are a few very notable congregations founded in the area. These are a few which readily come to mind:

  • Congregation Beth Jacob: formerly known as the “West Adams Hebrew Congregation.” Over the years since they have grown to become the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Western United States. In their own words, the shul later relocated to the “exclusive area” of Beverly Hills in 1955.

  • Seraphic Temple Tiferet Israel: popularly known as the “Santa Barabara Ave Temple,” before their final relocation to Westwood in the 1979. Of course in 1982 the street name was changed to Martin Luther King Jr Blvd – in honor of the civil rights advances of the African-American community which thrives in this area today.

  • The Sephardic Hebrew Center: 55th and Hoover, yet another synagogue and cultural center founded by Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) speaking immigrant families from Rhodes, then under the military occupied as territory claimed from Turkey.

And there are many others still. Other synagogues which have long since been forgotten, even though their remnants remain. A half-dozen additional old synagogue sites come to mind, many of which remain as celebrated churches dotting the South Los Angeles communities. Not just to the west; but also on the east of today’s 110-freeway, into the core of the Central district. The sight of which make me marvel each time I pass by them.

In Dr. Max Vospan’s definitive work titled “The History of the Jews of Los Angeles,” he mentions the existence of a Jewish presence in the Central corridor. Identifying these people as related to the shmata business – the garment trade. Which is still clearly evident even to this day, as the garment trade still has a major presence here. However, he did not go so far as to document the life of the Jewish communities there. To present the history of the synagogues in the area, which he did so famously for the rest of the city.

SouthLA

(L-R)Tiferes Jacob/Cong. Talmud Torah (Central); Chevrah Mishnah (Vernon); Agudas Achim Anshe Sephard (West Adams); Sephardic Hebrew Center (55th/Hover); Sephardic Tiferet Israel (MLK/Normandy); Agudas Achim Anshe-Sfard (Central); B’nei Emunah (Central Grand); Knesset Israel (Vernon/Western); Mogen David (Arlington)

In my own research and through the aid of old  city directories I have located many  old synagogues which have been long forgotten. I have further come across the evidence of many mere shteible congregations synagogues operating out of small houses and storefronts throughout the area.

The fact that there were so many congregations in South Central testifies of a significant Jewish presence in the region at one time. Something which is almost hard for many to imagine, as the white working-class and most other minorities have migrated elsewhere.

Before desegregation and the Fair Housing Acts allowed many to escape these neighborhoods in mass. And before the Watts riots of 1965 noticeably sped up the trend both scholars and layman can only seem to define as “white-flight.”

In my lifetime this side of town has only ever been known as the core of the black community. As the black community was almost all that remained when the dust of the mass migration finished settling (very much in the same way Mexican-American’s were left on their own, and to swell to predominance in Boyle Heights).

The question I have is this, why is it that we know so little about the Jewish history of the South Central though? Why has this history been so neglected? Or has all this been willfully forgotten by people who moved-on and never looked back?

An even better question yet, why is it that we do not have real and dynamic inter-community relations between the Jewish and the African-American community of the area today? Because revealing that there was a large Jewish presence here at one time begs the question, then why do we have so little interaction with the people of this area today?

Again, I say real interaction and inter-community exchange. Not just attending federation conferences on racism or engaging in the trite galas where people discuss inner-city disparity over some $1500 a plate dinner, to get a photo-op in the newsletter with some token minority leaders. As many of us claim concern and compassion for minority communities, which almost none of us ever care to step a foot in ourselves to even try to begin to understand and appreciate the living dynamics of.

We like to talk so much about the great Jewish contribution during the historic civil rights movement of the 1960s, as we should. However, that was now almost two generations ago. Today’s generations have never seen us truly exemplify those values or take on those causes in that way, and therefore cannot see a reason to naturally credit the collective us with this. We have done very little ever since to reach people of color. To reach out to ethnic people, in contrast to merely accepting those who might socially climb to meet us in more exclusive settings.

No, this will not do. We need to stop fooling ourselves, and start making natural relationships with our local historically disadvantaged communities today. As all signs reveal, our Jewish forebears here in Los Angeles also once hailed from these inner-city neighborhoods here as well. Revealing that our historical struggles are not all that dissimilar.

Today we really need to transform the nature of inter-community exchange. We need to rekindle the relationship, because it has grown cold. We need to come-back and reconnect. And I think I have a bit of room to say this… as I’m among the few Jewish people who ventures to make a visible presence in these minority communities.

I’m not the type of person to merely call for a study, focus group or conference about considering cultural exchange. I believe we need to just jump into doing outreach and bridge-building between the communities.

The last thing the inner-city needs is just more experts, talking about the Judaism of the area and the diversity of the past as a dead subject. I am not content to become some sort of expert pathologist doing an autopsy on Judaism here, I insist on being the cardiologist with my finger on the pulse of today’s Jewish life here and nursing it back to health.

I’m on the start of another mission which I never expected to take on, though this is but another way for me to further reclaim our shared history. And to restore Jewish expression and inter-community fellowship within the inner-city. To create a positive memory of Jewish interaction here.

I hope many of you will join me in this task to recapture our shared heritage!

Shmuel Gonzales, East Los AngelesWelcome to “Barrio Boychik,” my name is Shmuel Gonzales (a.k.a. “Shmu the Jew”). This newest blog of mine is an open slate for various topics of interest I encounter as a community organizer, activist historian and spiritual leader from the Los Angeles eastside. To share the unique cultural experiences I encounter daily.

This project is less formal than my more scholarly blog, Hardcore Mesorah – dedicated to Torah and Jewish prayer.

I am also a proud member of Congregation Beth Shalom of Whitter – a progressive traditionalist Jewish congregation – where I also teach “Introduction to Judaism” and coordinate Spanish language programming for our growing Latino Jewish community here in the Los Angeles eastside and the San Gabriel Valley.

Recommended articles by Shmuel Gonzales:

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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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