November 21, 2019

Jewish-Japanese seder honors Boyle Heights history

Tess Friedman passes Ethel Kamiyama a bowl of charoset, and Kamiyama spreads a spoonful of the fruit and nut paste onto her shard of matzah. Kamiyama leans over her plate as the small sandwich crumbles at her bite, and nods at Friedman, signaling that she finds this foray into Jewish culture quite tasty.

Friedman and Kamiyama, along with around 70 other senior citizens, enjoyed a seder together at Keiro Senior HealthCare in Boyle Heights on April 2.

Keiro, a residential facility for the elderly of the Japanese-American community, occupies the site that was the original home of The Jewish Home, and the seniors were together to mark The Jewish Home’s 100th anniversary.

In fact, the home was founded when the Boyle Heights community hosted a seder for five elderly men around 1911.

During Monday’s seder, Rabbi Anthony Elman, the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home, introduced the Keiro residents to the Exodus story and the symbols on the seder plate, and led the group in singing “Mah Nishtanah” and “Dayenu.”

Elman pointed out similarities between the two cultures — respect for the elderly, close-knit families, the importance of passing traditions from generation to generation, and a history of suffering.

“Today we are celebrating the season of our freedom,” Elman said. “In your community, you too have known the ugliness of bondage and internment, and of course the blessings of freedom.”

Hideyuki Watanabe, sitting at a table with two women from the Jewish Home, lived in three internment camps as an adolescent.

“But the persecution the Jews had was a lot worse,” he said, explaining that as a child he didn’t grasp the sense of betrayal his parents felt.  “We could sneak out. We didn’t get shot at if we left.”

Shawn Miyake, president and CEO of Keiro, said the Jewish Home and Keiro both grew out of a need to create institutions at a time when minorities were being excluded from the mainstream. Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, who grew up and still lives in Boyle Heights, attended the seder. He said inclusion is a point of pride in the neighborhood.

“One thing I know is we always welcomed everyone, no matter what part of the world you came from,” said Huizar, noting that Boyle Heights never had any restrictive covenants limiting who could reside in the area.

Miyake said Keiro owes its existence to the Jewish Home.

Keiro purchased the site from the Jewish Home in 1974, but while Keiro was able to raise $400,000 for the down payment, it was left with nothing for operations, Miyake said. The Jewish Home board, which had already agreed to very favorable terms, voted to loan back $150,000 to Keiro and also left much of its equipment.

“We have such deep feelings for the Jewish Home. If not for the Jewish Home and all the things they did for us 50 years ago, we would not be here today,” Miyake said.

The Jewish Home grew out of the Hebrew Sheltering Society, which in 1911 began helping the community’s downtrodden — the homeless, the indigent and the elderly. It purchased a small house in Boyle Heights in 1912, and soon acquired more property. The home opened a larger branch in Reseda in 1962, but kept the Boyle Heights site open until it moved the rest of its residents in the early 1970s. By that time most Jews had left Boyle Heights, which had been the center of Jewish life in Los Angeles from the 1920s to the 1950s. Only a handful of Jews remain in the area today.

Miyake said most of the Japanese community has also moved out of the area to places like Gardena, Monterey Park and Orange County.

Keiro and the Jewish Home have hosted Japanese and Jewish New Year celebrations for each other in the past. Molly Forrest, director of the Jewish Home, says she and Miyake have a close working relationship, sharing best practices and discussing common challenges.

The Jewish legacy is still visible at Keiro.

A large Japanese koi pond graces the front of the Emil Brown Auditorium, an old brick building with Brown’s name, flanked by two Stars of David, engraved into a large stone ribbon above the arched façade.

Brown was the uncle of philanthropist Annette Shapiro, a board member at the Jewish Home, and she told the crowd that she remembers her grandfather, David Familian, celebrating his 60th birthday in the very room the seniors sat in for their seder.

A five-story building, The Mary Pickford Building, was named after actress Pickford made a donation to atone for an insensitive comment about Jews that she had made to Carmel Myers, a silent-screen actress and daughter of Sinai Temple’s Rabbi Isadore Myers, according to Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Pickford hosted teas for the Jewish Home at her Pickfair Estate long after she became a recluse, and her foundation continues to support the home, Sass said.

The synagogue on the site was used for many years by a Japanese church, but was red-tagged after the 1987 Whittier Narrows Earthquake.

The Home was the last functioning Jewish institution in the area, though the nearby Breed Street Shul is now undergoing a revival as a multi-use facility for the Jewish community and the neighborhood. 

Joe Pavin, a Jewish Home resident who was at the seder, remembers High Holy Days at the Breed Street Shul. He grew up in Boyle Heights, and he said he had friends of Japanese-, Mexican-, Russian- and African-American descent, in addition to his Jewish friends.

Jewish Home resident Grace Friedman, 87, lived in a small duplex on Sheridan Street in Boyle Heights with her extended family until they moved west to the Fairfax area.

Today, she is back in Boyle Heights, and after the saltwater, matzah and wine are cleared away, caddies with soy sauce and chopsticks come out. The Keiro chef — who had once worked at a kosher restaurant — has prepared a celebratory bento box lunch and was careful not to include any shellfish or other ingredients that might clash with Jewish culture. Residents enjoy sushi, edamame, baked fish and rice out of black lacquered boxes.

Over lunch, the residents get to know one another. Several tables share stories of nieces, nephews or grandchildren who are in Jewish-Japanese marriages.

Watanabe, who came dressed for seder in a jacket and tie, his white hair combed into a perfect flat-top, says he hopes to be invited to the Jewish Home for a meal on Japanese New Year, something his flirtatious tablemates promise to make happen.

Kamiyama has taken some notes — how to spell seder and matzah, and contact information for her tablemates. She frets about the grape juice that has dripped onto her pad of paper, but is assured that wine stains are part of the Pesach tradition. And as she finishes up her bento box lunch, she keeps her hand on a few strips of matzah carefully wrapped in a napkin to take home for later.