Jewish seniors share L.A. memories
In a floral-print jacket and bright-red lipstick, Dorothy Scott smiled as she thumbed through a plastic binder of photographs, letters and newspaper clippings. Among her modeling and acting headshots is one photo showing her flanked by none other than Frank Sinatra, who she opened for while singing on a USO tour. One black-and-white photo showed her with her late husband, Mark Scott, an actor and broadcaster who served as the announcer for the Hollywood Stars baseball team (which predated the Dodgers’ arrival to Los Angeles in 1958).
The 93-year-old Dorothy Scott was born in New York but spent much of her life in Burbank. “It was all dirt roads,” she recalled. She now serves as a chaplain at the Los Angeles Jewish Home in Reseda, where she’s lived for the last 27 years.
Scott was among several dozen seniors who attended a Jewish history fair at the Jewish Home’s Eisenberg Village campus on Feb. 21, organized by the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. They walked in with stories to tell and mementoes to share. They had been dancers, soldiers, accountants and teachers. They had lived in Boyle Heights, West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley. And now, they sat across from college students who listened intently and scribbled notes as the storytellers pointed to yellowed photographs, high school yearbooks and other artifacts of their lives. Those artifacts were scanned in and photographed and will be added to UCLA’s “Mapping Jewish L.A.” digital history project.
Shirley Singer (née Cohen), who has gone by the nickname “Bubbles” since she was a baby, brought along several keepsakes from Fairfax High School, including her 1942 yearbook and a student-poetry journal called “Colonial Voices,” to which she contributed the poem “The Vagabond.” She also brought a family photo book created by her granddaughter that includes images of her parents’ wedding and beach visits, with her and her sister in full-bodied bathing suits.
Born in Montreal, Singer moved to Los Angeles with her family in 1926 when she was 2 years old, settling in Edendale. “The studios were all there, and you could just go in and watch them shoot pictures. The gates were open. I remember seeing them shoot the Keystone Kops,” she said. Cohen also lived in Boyle Heights, the Fairfax area, Van Nuys, Northridge and Palm Desert. “I guess I lived in every Jewish neighborhood and went to every school,” she said with a laugh.
A persistent clacking sound came from another corner of the room. Hershl Hartman, 86, was demonstrating a refurbished sage-green Yiddish typewriter. Hartman used a similar typewriter when he worked as a reporter for the Morgen Freiheit, a communist-affiliated Yiddish newspaper in New York City. During his tenure from 1947 to 1951, Hartman covered major fires, murder trials and Israel’s admission to the United Nations.
Hartman continues to translate Yiddish texts. This specific typewriter, a Swiss-made Hermes 3000, had been owned by the Morgen Freiheit’s Los Angeles editor, whose son gifted it to Hartman. “Though I do my Yiddish on my Apple Mini, I have kept it just in case the computer crashes. Now that I have full confidence in my ability to keep the computer from crashing, I am presenting this to the UCLA Center [for Jewish Studies],” Hartman said.
The 15 students who interviewed the Jewish seniors are enrolled in a class at UCLA called “Jews in Los Angeles: Representation, Memory and History in the Digital Age.” Caroline Luce, the research and digital projects manager for the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, teaches the class. The students were trained how to digitize artifacts, use census records and maps, and capture oral histories.
The oral histories gathered at the event tell the stories of individual lives, but together, those strands form a tapestry of Jewish L.A. history. While some of the interview subjects who attended Sunday’s event were newer transplants to Los Angeles, many others shared a similar trajectory. The children of Eastern European immigrants, they were raised on L.A.’s Eastside, moving westward to the Fairfax District and West L.A. and gradually settling in the Valley.
Helen Burns (née Gousman), 92, grew up in City Terrace and remembers the house her father constructed in 1936. She went back recently for a visit. “I knocked on the door and I said to the lady, ‘You know, my dad had this house built for us.’ And she said, ‘Oh, come on in,’ and she showed me around. Exactly the same. The house is still the same,” she said. Burns later moved with her family to a duplex in Pico-Robertson, and after her husband returned from a military tour overseas, “we moved to the Valley like every other poor Jewish couple did.”
Luce said it’s typical of Jews she meets to connect their lives with those of others around them. There was a sense, she said, of a shared history between the people who participated in the Sunday event. “We were aiming for somewhere between ‘Antiques Roadshow’ and a high school reunion,” Luce said with a laugh.
The students also expressed a sense of gratitude for being able to hear stories of local Jewish history directly from those who lived it.
“It was cool to see what people brought to depict their journey, because it was very specific to each person,” Jackson Mercer, 21, said. He mentioned a World War II Air Force veteran, Jordan Berk, who brought his dog tags, honorable discharge letter and an Army-issued prayer book.
“It was really interesting to see the Jewish history from the books come to life with the living memories,” said Aviv Kleinman, 23. “Some of the people were like, ‘Wow, these are memories that I haven’t thought of in years,’ like, really digging up memories. I think a lot of people appreciated that. And I appreciated that.”
This article was made possible with support from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.