November 17, 2018

Back to Boyle Heights

Jews, Mexicans and Japanese celebrate their common heritage in the East L.A. neighborhood.

What do an elderly Jewish history and fiction writer, a young Mexican playwright and a Japanese developer have in common? They all spent their childhoods in Boyle Heights.

Harriet Rochlin, an author of both fiction and non-fiction on Western Jewish history; Josefina Lopez, author of “Real Women Have Curves” and founder of a Boyle Heights theater; and Jon Kaji, president of the investment firm Kaji & Associates, shared a panel on Feb. 18 at a symposium of the Boyle Heights Heritage Joint Initiative, a collaboration between the Consulates General of Israel, Japan and Mexico. Titled “Boyle Heights Intersections: Israel, Japan and Mexico,” it was the first of a series of events considering a neighborhood that once was home to all three ethnic groups.

“In the Talmud, it says, in order to know where you are going, you must know from where you came,” Jacob Dayan, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, told an audience of community activists, politicians and dignitaries. George Sanchez a USC professor who has written extensively about the history of Boyle Heights, gave the keynote address, focusing on the theme of both past and future. The goal of the joint initiative, launched in November 2009, is to reinvigorate the bonds among the three communities.

During World War II, as Japanese students at Roosevelt High School were being sent to internment camps, fellow Jewish students wrote them postcards and visited them at Santa Anita racetrack, where they were being held, Rochlin recalled during her slideshow presentation of personal photographs. Rochlin was born and raised in Boyle Heights at a time when the Breed Street Shul was the center of a thriving Jewish community. One of the projects the initiative is supporting is the renovation of the Breed Street Shul, transforming it into a community center.

Lopez, who was born in Mexico and grew up in Boyle Heights, lamented the fact that the neighborhood is associated with gangs and crime. According to Sanchez, the population is now 98.5 percent Latino. “It’s an amazing place that gave me a wonderful childhood,” Lopez said, choked by emotions. “It’s time for us to take the ownership back.” Lopez’s play, “Boyle Heights,” was inspired by her memories, and she heads the Casa 0101 Theater Art Space, where she mentors a new generation of Latino artists.

“Boyle Heights is a touchstone,” said Kaji, who as a boy visited his grandparents in the neighborhood. “It’s an L.A. secret. There are so many people in Southern California who share a place in their hearts for Boyle Heights.”

“We need to remind the young generation that what makes us strong as a city is our diversity,” Dayan said, comparing Los Angeles to Israel, “a country of immigrants and enormous cultural pluralism.” As far as he knows, Dayan said, the Boyle Heights Heritage Initiative is the first joint effort by the three consulates.

Held at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles, the symposium was followed by an elaborate reception featuring Japanese cuisine by the Japanese Food Culture Association. The selection included fried surimi seafood, matcha green tea smoothies, a stew called oden, and more than 10 varieties of sake. Chefs also demonstrated yellowtail fish cutting and sushi-making techniques.