Hard boiled in Boyle Heights

As soon as I finished Janice Steinberg’s new novel “The Tin Horse” (Random House, $26), I gave a copy to my 100-year-old Grandma Bea. Steinberg’s richly textured Jewish family narrative echoes my own Bubbe’s past — and that of so many other Jews who moved to Los Angeles in the first part of the 20th century.

“The Tin Horse” was inspired by an unnamed character in Raymond Chandler’s 1939 L.A. detective story “The Big Sleep.” In one scene, hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe shoves his way into the back of a Hollywood Boulevard bookstore and discovers a small, dark woman with “the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess” reading a law book. Marlowe and the woman match wits.

Steinberg found herself intrigued by this fictional woman’s backstory. “A Jewish woman reading a law book in 1939 had a profound sense of otherness. What was her Los Angeles?” Steinberg said in an interview. She began researching Jewish life in Los Angeles from the 1920s to the ’40s, and concluded that Chandler’s intelligent Jewess would most likely have come from the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights. “Boyle Heights was the Jewish neighborhood in the 1920s and ’30s, home to between 50,000 and 90,000 Jews, depending on the estimate,” Steinberg said.

To get a feel for the neighborhood, Steinberg visited from San Diego and walked the streets with her husband. At the library of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, she discovered the oral histories of Jewish men and women who had grown up in Boyle Heights during that era. “I took a cassette player and headset and spent hours listening to those two shoeboxes full of tapes. The stories were fantastic,” she said.

Steinberg found that she so enjoyed her research she could have spent months on it. “Research is a great way to avoid staring at a blank computer screen,” she said with a laugh. But eventually, the stories gave rise to her characters of Elaine Greenstein and her fraternal twin sister, Barbara. The novel begins with 85-year-old Elaine, a retired pioneer civil rights attorney, sifting through her papers with Josh, a USC grad student archivist.

Josh discovers Philip Marlowe’s business card in a long-forgotten box of papers Elaine’s mother had saved. On the back of the card, Marlowe had written a name and address. Could this be an alias used by Barbara after she ran away from home at 18, never to be seen again? Marlowe’s card stirs Elaine’s repressed sense of loss and evokes a flood of memories, renewing Elaine’s abandoned quest to find her missing sister.

A San Diego-based arts journalist, Steinberg has written frequently on dance and is the author of five mystery novels. She was raised in a predominantly Christian suburb of Milwaukee, where her family attended a Reform synagogue. “Our rabbi was at the forefront of the civil rights movement. I grew up with a strong sense of social justice but a weak appreciation for Jewish ritual. My parents’ generation wanted to be American,” Steinberg said. Now, 63, she moved to California in the 1970s and drifted away from Jewish practice. “As a feminist, I felt disconnected from the patriarchal quality of Judaism,” she said.

Steinberg’s re-engagement with Judaism began in 1995, when she attended her niece’s bat mitzvah and observed a distinguished female rabbi leading the service surrounded by a bimah full of women. Inspired by new Jewish traditions inclusive of women as spiritual beings, Steinberg began studying Torah, joined a Reconstructionist synagogue and became a bat mitzvah herself in 1999.

Strong, intelligent women and issues of Jewish identity form the crux of “The Tin Horse.” “One of the guiding principles in developing the characters was how they negotiate the hyphen of being Jewish-American,” Steinberg said. Elaine, the narrator, does so by embracing her Jewish identity and pursuing her American dream of becoming a lawyer. Barbara, however, feels stifled by family expectations in Boyle Heights and discards her Jewish identity to become more American. Danny, the twins’ mutual love interest, doesn’t feel safe as an American Jew and immigrates to pre-state Israel. Thus, Steinberg explores a broad spectrum of the Jewish-American experience through the lens of Boyle Heights. Her novel’s universal familial themes of sibling rivalry, love, loss and the enduring possibility for redemption transcend the neighborhood’s confines.