Boyle Heights and City Terrace: Musical bridge to East L.A.
As the Los Angeles-based klezmer band Mostly Kosher began a summer afternoon concert at the Skirball Cultural Center on Aug. 9, few in the audience knew that what they were about to experience had roots in the Jewish neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and City Terrace going back more than 75 years.
As Janice Mautner Markham, the band’s violinist and self-described yenta, comically set the scene by appearing with a shmatte covering her head and a circa-1930s radio by her side, she could have been tuning in to the era of her grandparents Eugene and Celia Mautner, who bought their first home in City Terrace in 1934.
Janice Mautner Markham and her grandfather Eugene Mautner on the porch of his City Terrace home in 1967. Photo courtesy of Janice Mautner Markham
For Markham, who grew up in Woodland Hills, klezmer music was not her first inclination; as a young adult, she preferred classical music, folk and rock. But after a klezmer gig with clarinetist and future bandleader Leeav Sofer, she found a musical style that connected her to her family’s tradition.
That August day, fiddling though Yiddish theater classics such as “Donna Donna” and “Dos Keshenever Shtikele” presented Markham and her audience an opportunity to embrace the culture of musicianship passed down from her grandfather and father.
“It was a different way of life then,” she said, recalling her visits to her grandparents’ home in City Terrace. For them, Markham said, “Music was not a choice,” and without those choices, “I wouldn’t be a musician today.”
Markham’s father, Ray Mautner, who grew up in City Terrace, remembered how it was important to his father, Eugene, that his sons have lessons because he was a self-taught violinist. To help achieve this, he drove a bread truck by day for the Davis Perfection Bakery, and repaired clocks and watches by night in their two-bedroom, one-bath, 1,000-square-foot home on Mandalay Drive.
“My family loved music,” said Mautner, who, along with his brother Arthur, became a teacher specializing in music for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
His father, who had been taught to repair timepieces by Jack Feldmar, the founder of the Feldmar Watch Co., then relocated downtown on Fourth Street and Broadway (today on Pico Boulevard), eventually opened Eugene’s Jewelry and Gift Shop in 1940, in a storefront next to Barbanell’s Pharmacy on Miller Avenue. Around 11 years later, he moved to a store in his own building on City Terrace Drive and Hazard Avenue, which also housed his new tenant, a branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.
“I always thought that my grandfather was extremely wealthy, richer than anybody, because most people only had one watch, and my grandfather usually had three,” Markham said. “It wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized he wore those watches because he was making sure they were keeping time,” she said.
At 16, Mautner started giving piano lessons to the Jewish and Italian kids in the neighborhood, some of whom he keeps in touch with today.
“One of my students was Zev Yaroslavsky,” said Mautner, who remembers his former student “Zevy,” the just-retired Los Angeles County Supervisor, “as a little on the distracted side.”
Mautner had been taught Hebrew at the nearby Folk Schule, where Yaroslavsky’s mother, Minna, was his teacher. “I had my bar mitzvah at their synagogue, right in the heart of the plaza of City Terrace,” Mautner said.
In his teen years, during World War II, Mautner worked as a soda jerk in nearby Boyle Heights, at Louie Abramson’s Soto Drug Co., at First and Soto. “I made great malts, sundaes and banana splits,” he said.In the drug store side of the business, he sold “everything from prophylactics to hair cream,” Mautner said.
He also recalled attending events at the Menorah Center at the corner of Wabash and Alma avenues (today, the Salesian Boys and Girls Club).
Speaking of the boundaries between Boyle Heights, a community where, according to “History of the Jews of Los Angeles” by Max Vorspan and Lloyd Gartner (Huntington Library, 1970), “Yiddish was freely used” and Saturdays and Jewish holidays were marked by “festive appearances,” and City Terrace, which “was well known as a Yiddish secularists enclave,” Mautner remarked that, at times, it was “hard to say where Boyle Heights ends and City Terrace begins.” Today, he placed his old neighborhood near where CSU Los Angeles now stands.
When Mautner goes back to the neighborhood to see his old house or to attend the yearly City Terrace neighborhood picnics, he exits the 10 Freeway at Eastern Avenue. “It was an amazing neighborhood to grow up in. We had Italians, Hispanics, Jewish, a real mix,” Mautner said.
Midway through the Skirball concert, which featured such classics as “Ikh Hob Dikh Tsufil Lib” (“I Love You Too Much”), Bruce Bierman, a Yiddish dancer who had been waiting in the wings, stepped forth to teach the audience the hand and arm motions that give expression to Yiddish dance. Moving to a slow-metered dance in a Chassidic style called a Khosidl, Bierman led the audience in steps that, for him, circled back to East L.A.
Bruce Bierman teaches the audience a Yiddish dance at the Skirball Cultural Center. Photo by Edmon J. Rodman
“[For] my bubbe, Fannie Newman,” who owned a candy store off of Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights, “music was so important,” Bierman said. “My mother played piano until her last breath.” He talked of his uncle, David Newman, who studied the accordion and became a klezmer musician before becoming a court reporter, and of his father, Frank, an electrical engineer by profession, whom Bierman said is a “total Borscht Belt comedian.”
In the late 1950s, the Newmans moved out of Boyle Heights and closed the store. It was at the family gatherings at his uncle’s home in Sherman Oaks where, Bierman said, he got his “first taste and love for Yiddish klezmer culture.”
Bierman’s first steps in his return to Yiddish culture came as a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, when he wrote his master’s thesis on a theatrical adaptation, complete with a live klezmer band, of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” which Bierman also produced. That, and discovering a recording by the klezmer revival band Klezmorim, helped awaken Bierman, who had grown up in WASP-ish San Juan Capistrano, to his Jewish musical roots.
After college and around five years touring with the Aman Folk Ensemble, Bierman realized that “with all the ethnic dances that we learned, ethnic costumes that we wore, we never did any Jewish dance.”
Realizing he was illiterate “in my own cultural dances” and not content with the Israeli dance that he had experienced while living in Israel for a year before he began college, in 1985, Bierman looked to Martin Buber’s “Tales of the Hasidim,” for a different approach. From these stories, he said, “I was blown away by the power of dance. Each
gesture was aflame with meaning.” After a meeting with Felix Fibich, who choreographed the dance sequence for the 1937 classic
Yiddish film “Der Dybbuk,” and studying with Steven Weintraub at KlezCalifornia, a Yiddish culture group in the San Francisco Bay Area, Bierman choreographed his first event — a friend’s wedding — using Yiddish dance.
In 1997, his mother, Marcella, took him to Boyle Heights to show him the neighborhood, including to the Breed Street Shul and the neighborhood of the family candy store. “It helped place the story of my family for me,” said Bierman, who occasionally returns there with his husband and co-Yiddish dancer, Gilberto Melendez. The duo even approached the Breed Street Shul, now a cultural center in mostly Latino Boyle Heights, about collaborating on projects between Latinos and Jews, Bierman said.
Back in the Sepulveda Pass, with Bierman gracefully leading the audience in Yiddish dance while Markham and the band, as well a contingent of younger players, including Markham’s two daughters, sat in on a lively rendition of “Simkhes Toyre,” it was easy to hear and see how far the beats of the old neighborhood have traveled.
Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at email@example.com