Jews share a sense of place in L.A. history

Coinciding with the run of the “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic” exhibition at the Autry National Center — and we hope, continuing well beyond — this issue of the Jewish Journal marks the beginning of a new monthly feature showcasing various aspects of Los Angeles’ Jewish history.
May 1, 2013

Coinciding with the run of the “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic” exhibition at the Autry National Center — and we hope, continuing well beyond — this issue of the Jewish Journal marks the beginning of a new monthly feature showcasing various aspects of Los Angeles’ Jewish history.

One doesn’t have to be an L.A. hater to share the commonly held notion that the words “Los Angeles history” are oxymoronic. While those of us who actually grew up here may have visited Olvera Street as third-graders and built California missions out of sugar cubes as fourth-graders, somehow we also picked up from our teachers that these were exercises in the perfunctory — this wasn’t a real history, or, moreover, a real city: it wasn’t old enough, storied enough, weighty enough nor city-like enough to merit a modicum of the attention deserved by the past of wherever it was those teachers came from. 

And if there’s truth to the conventional wisdom that Jews are just like everyone else, only more so, then most Jewish Angelenos’ connection with local Jewish history has been even more tenuous. “What history? Everyone came here after World War II,” responded the Los Angeles Hebrew High School principal when I proposed teaching a class on the subject for students some 30 years ago. (To his credit, despite his doubts he allowed the course to go forward.)

In fact, Los Angeles’ Jewish history can be traced back to the tailor-merchant Jacob Frankfort, who arrived here in 1841 and was the first Jewish resident of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles. Nevertheless, it was, indeed, the thousands of returning G.I.s, along with their families and friends, who launched one of the greatest internal migrations in Jewish history, ultimately tripling the 150,000 Jews living here at the end of the war and forever transforming this city and its Jewish community.

Los Angeles, with its unique confluence of climate and geography, seemingly unbounded economic and cultural opportunities and an unending flow of newcomers, is now home to between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews. With 10 percent of the U.S. Jewish population, it is the nation’s second largest Jewish center, after New York. But even as the city nurtures the aspirations of Jews as individuals, Los Angeles also challenges Jewish communal life and identity and is, perhaps, a harbinger of the American Jewish future. 

Today, after a relative dearth of scholarly interest, the study of Los Angeles history as a whole, as well as local Jewish history specifically — and the intertwining of the two — is finally flourishing, whether it’s to compare similarities with other major cities and their Jewish communities or to contrast the differences. (One focus being, for example, the presence and impact of Hollywood, the relationship of its movers and shakers to their Jewishness, the Jewish community and Israel, and how the industry shaped, and continues to shape, the image of Jews). 

No less than a minyan of professors, as well as community and family historians, will participate in the public “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic Symposium” to take place at the Autry on May 19. In other developments, UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies, in cooperation with a host of institutions, is in the process of creating a multimedia, digital archive called “Mapping Jewish L.A.” The Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program at California State University, Northridge, is starting a “Mapping the Jewish Valley” project. The recent “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews” at UCLA’s Fowler Museum included moving installations depicting Iranian-Jewish life in Los Angeles by artists Shelley Gazin and Jessica Shokrian. A new entry on the Jewish film festival circuit is “Once Upon a Time at 55th and Hoover,” a documentary short by professor Andrés Enrique-Arias, about Jews who arrived in Los Angeles from the Island of Rhodes during the first half of the 20th century and built a thriving community around their synagogue, Ohel Avraham, the Sephardic Hebrew Center, then located in South Central. 

To me, just as significant as these academic pursuits is the heightened sense of place increasingly demonstrated by rank-and-file yidLAch (translation: Jews of Los Angeles, not to be confused with gridLAch, the tormenting of the Jews of Los Angeles by traffic), congregations and organizations.

Who would ever have predicted that Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, moribund after the older Eastside neighborhood’s Jewish population began to diminish in the 1960s, would now be thriving, with many young families, a rabbi, religious school, and its 90th anniversary celebration planned for later this year?

Or, 10 years ago, during the meltdown of the Jewish community centers, that of the six JCCs then in existence, including several in more densely Jewish areas, the two surviving (and now bursting at the seams) centers would be the Silverlake Independent JCC and the Westside JCC? (Note to Silverlake JCC: It really should be spelled Silver Lake, to properly honor Herman Silver, the Jewish civic and community leader and water commissioner, for whom the reservoir’s lower basin, and surrounding neighborhood, are named.)

Or that in 21st century L.A. there would ever be a group called East Side Jews, self-described as “an irreverent, upstart, nondenominational collective of Jews living in Los Angeles’ East Side” and now teamed with Silverlake JCC? Or that the city’s largely unknown Yiddish cultural heritage would gain a new audience through the work of the organization Yiddishkayt? 

Across the city, several major preservation projects are underway, not merely to preserve historical landmarks as museums, but rather to lend them new meaning and purpose by reinventing them to serve contemporary needs. 

Last year’s reopening of the original 1915 Breed Street Shul — the last remaining of 30 synagogues in Boyle Heights and City Terrace, which had been closed since 1996 — has attracted standing-room-only crowds of Eastsiders, Westsiders and Valleyites for arts, culture, education and service. Programs offered there have ranged from an interfaith seder sponsored jointly with the Jewish Federation’s New Leaders Project and several b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. There’s also been a public conversation with Janice Steinberg, author of “Tin Horse,” a new novel set in Jewish Boyle Heights in the early 20th century (researched in the Jewish Historical Society’s archives), and a pre-Grammy concert and party for the Eastside band Quetzal, winner, the next evening, of the Grammy for best Latin alternative album. Probably the best evidence of the new enthusiasm is the fact that just four years ago, 6,000 Jews, Latinos and others gathered on the street outside the Breed Street Shul to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day at an event skeptics said no one would come to, since it was being held east of La Cienega Boulevard. 

Also in Boyle Heights, a coalition of Latino and Jewish activists saved the façade and a portion of the former Vladeck Center headquarters of the Jewish Labor Committee, as well as a 1964 mural highlighting neighborhood landmarks by noted Jewish artist Joseph Young, when both were threatened with demolition to build the LAPD’s new Hollenbeck Division police station. The Vladeck Center is now used by Hollenbeck’s Police Activities League youth programs, and Young’s mural graces the station’s community room. 

Notably, in the Mid-Wilshire district, the magni(n)ficent home of Wilshire Boulevard Temple is in the final stretch of the first phase of the restoration and redevelopment of its 1929 campus, which will ultimately include a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade Jewish day school, a tikkun olam (“healing the world”) center and additional space for programming designed to serve young Jews from the Wilshire Corridor, downtown, Silver Lake and Los Feliz.

And, most recently, in Pico-Union, musician and producer Craig Taubman has acquired the city’s oldest standing synagogue, originally built in 1909 for Sinai Temple but that served as the Welsh Presbyterian Church from 1926 until this past December. Taubman is in the process of creating there a multicultural and interfaith performing arts and worship space that will also provide culinary arts education and employment for underserved youth. 

We look forward to sharing memories and visiting together, in the pages of the Jewish Journal, the neighborhoods, personalities, events and institutions that make up this rich, colorful and special 160-year-old Jewish legacy found in our own backyards.

Stephen J. Sass is president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California and Breed Street Shul Project and is vice-chair of the L.A. County Historical Landmarks and Records Commission.

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