August 19, 2019

Oral History of 1930s Boyle Heights

Jackie Waterman, Armory Share, Joyce Sindel, and Arlene Dunaetz, friends since elementary school, are featured in a new oral history about Boyle Heights. Photo by Leslee Komaiko

A new oral history video created by two Los Angeles librarians about growing up Jewish in Boyle Heights in the 1930s and ’40s is also a celebration of enduring friendship. 

The six women featured in the video — Helen Bialeck, Arlene Dunaetz, Joyce Sindel, Armory Share, Charlotte Gussin-Root and Jackie Waterman — are all 86 years old and are still fast friends. They first met one another at Sheridan Street Elementary School in the East Los Angeles neighborhood.

The 45-minute video, which was screened in May before a full house at the Studio City library, is the third collaboration for librarians Wendy Westgate, who works at the Los Angles Public Library’s Central Branch, and Kurt Thum, who is based at the Pio Pico branch in Koreatown. Thum, who does all of the filming and editing, is still putting the final touches on the video’s audio. Once that is complete (he says probably by late June or early July), the video will be available to view on YouTube along with the couple’s other two projects: an oral history with Japanese American Nancy Oda about the same period in Boyle Heights and “Getting Respect,” an extended interview with retired librarian Louise Redding McClain, the sister of legendary soul singer Otis Redding. Next, Westgate and Thum hope to turn their focus to the Mexican and Mexican American community in Boyle Heights.

“It’s a passion project for both of us,” said Westgate, who is Jewish and whose great-grandparents lived in Boyle Heights in the 1940s before moving west to the Fairfax neighborhood. “In librarianship, oral histories are a big thing,” she added. “Grasping people’s stories and making them available moving forward, I feel like it connects people within a city. When people of different cultures are able to learn these personal stories about another group, it just helps us understand each other. And understanding creates empathy.”

Thum shot over 10 hours of footage, with Westgate doing the interviews, to make “Six Jewish Girls in Boyle Heights.” In it, the women — who now live in various parts of the San Fernando Valley and meet monthly for lunch — talk about their family backgrounds and the work their parents did. But they are most animated talking about their day-to-day activities, including the businesses they frequented like Curries Ice Cream, Detroit Bakery and the original Canter’s Deli; the games they played, such as steps and over the wire (which involved throwing a ball over the telephone wires in the street); and the fashions they wore or coveted, like bell skirts with elaborate appliques, pencil skirts and sweater sets.

Waterman remembers her neighbor, the rabbi from the nearby Breed Street shul, regularly letting himself into their home. “Rabbi Zilberstein would come [over and] open up our door and walk in and turn on our radio,” she said. “Don’t ask me why but I still remember that. Well, he was king, you understand.”

In the video, the women recall a Jewish newspaper printed in Yiddish called the Forward and a Jewish hour on the radio. They talk about horse carts and ice wagons and streetcars — the B ran on Brooklyn Avenue and the P on First Street. Few households owned cars.

“It was like a small village,” Bialeck said.

But the memories weren’t all cheerful. Several of the women recounted learning about what was going on in World War II-era Europe. “I remember as a very young child when Hitler invaded Poland, because my mother was from Poland,” Dunaetz said. “I was so terrified that he was going to come here, too.”

Of the hundred-plus people who attended the first public screening of the film and subsequent Q&A session, at least a dozen used to live in Boyle Heights. One man shared having his bar mitzvah dinner at The Famous restaurant, which was owned by Sindel’s family.

The women seemed to enjoy their newfound celebrity and the chance to share their collective and individual stories. As Bialeck says in the video, “I think it’s a wonderful thing to have this sort of situation occur because a memory is something that can’t be reconstructed after a person dies, and after community elders pass away, they take with them a history that we can’t replicate any other way.”