FIFTY YEARS AGO AT FIFTY FIFTH and HOOVER
by Arthur Benveniste
Temple Ohel Abraham was located at Fifty Fifth and Hoover, now considered south central Los Angeles. In the 1930s, 40s and early 50s almost all of the local Rodislis (Sephardics from Rhodes) lived around Fifty Fifth and Hoover. We thought then that we lived in West L.A.
We usually referred to our kihilah (synagogue) as; The Sephardic Hebrew Center. As the knowledge of English improved among our leaders, it was soon realized that Ohel Abraham (The Tent of Abraham) sounded like “Oh Hell Abraham.” From then on the Hebrew name was rarely used outside of the synagogue.
The older people spoke a language that we called Spanish. Many years later we learned that is was properly called Djudeo Espanola or Ladino. We young ones all had a perfunctory knowledge of the language. We needed it to speak to our grandparents and older aunts and uncles. This “Spanish” that we learned at home led to problems studying Spanish in school.
I remember my fifth grade teacher at Fifty Second Street School introducing her first Spanish lesson to us. “In Spanish,” she said, “the ‘J’ is pronounced like an ‘H’, for example the word for ‘woman’(mujer) is pronounced moo hair” “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” I thought. “I knew how to pronounce mujer it was moo zhair, That’s how we said it at home”. Thinking my teacher unqualified to teach Spanish, I tuned her out and ignored the rest of the Spanish lessons.
Other Sephardic students argued: a hat wasn’t a sombrero it was a chapeo, watermelon wasn’t sandia is was karpuz and a dress was a fustan not a falda. The teacher, who, I’m sure, had never heard of Sephardics or Ladino, must have been terribly confused . Here were students who seemed to understand Spanish contradicting most of what she taught. And these “Spanish” students called themselves “Turkinos” (Turkish). I don’t think she ever figured it out.
At John Muir Jr. High School most of my friends were Sephardic from around Fifty Fifth and Hoover. Stanley was an exception. One day three of us Turkinos were seated in the lunch area with Stanley. He asked us what we were. We replied that we were Jewish. “I’m Jewish too!” he said. We started speaking to him in Ladino. He didn’t understand. With sixth grade syllogistic logic I figured out: Jews speak Spanish; Stanley does not speak Spanish; hence, Stanley is not Jewish. He must have claimed he was Jewish in order to impress us.
I was aware of people who spoke Yiddish, most of the radio comedians used Yiddish at times, but it never occurred to me that they could be Jewish. The Yiddish were another people as were the Italians, Poles and Irish.
The Mexicans were another matter. They spoke Spanish, so they must have had some Jewish connection, but, somehow they were different. They didn’t attend our synagogue. I knew little about Catholicism.
In my first year at Dorsey High School I joined AZA, the organization for Jewish teen aged boys. Here I learned that I was in a distinct minority within the Jewish community. I was the lone Turkino in a club full of Yiddish boys. I learned to live with oy veh and chochkas and I shared latkas and Hammon Tashin on Jewish holidays. I had few friends with whom I could speak of kuzikas, boyos and bourmuelos.
At U.S.C. I joined Hillel, the Jewish students organization. Again, a lone Turkino.
Hillel rented a Presbyterian Church for High Holiday services. For the first time I went to Rosh Hashana services somewhere other than Fifty Fifth and Hoover. The leaders of the services spoke Hebrew in an accent I had never heard before and the melodies were completely foreign. Where were the quarter tones that I had associated with Jewish music? To me Jewish music had to be sung in a Middle Eastern scale by a room full of older men, each singing slightly off key. The effect was haunting. The music in the Presbyterian Church was too clean, like popular music, or Broadway music. It was pleasant, but it had no soul and the pronounciation of Hebrew was all wrong. My first assumption was that the Presbyterian minister was conducting the service for us.
By the time I graduated from college most of the Turkinos had moved away from the Fifty Fifth and Hoover neighborhood. We were concentrated around Crenshaw Boulevard. It was time to move from the grand old building on Fifty Fifth and Hoover. We rented the Crenshaw Community Center for a few years then, in 1966, we built a new synagogue near Slauson and Fairfax.
Today I see gourmet cooks on television selling brass “pepper mills” from the Middle East. I recognize them as the molinos that we had around Fifty Fifth and Hoover. Every home had two. One to pulverize coffee beans for strong Turkish coffee and one to grind rice for sutlatch (rice pudding). The molinos were made in Turkey and brought over by our parents when they immigrated after the turn of the century.
Every home also had its mortero, a mortar and pestle for grinding spices, and its cucharera. The cucharera was a small silver bowl, highly decorated, with indentations around the edge for hanging silver spoons. Each spoon having a unique design molded into it. The bowl was filled with dulces (sweets) usually of bimbrillo (quince) or orange. House guests when presented with the cucharera would take a spoonful of dulce and taste it after blessing their hosts and the other guests.
Today, when we speak Spanish, we pronounce a “J” as an “H”, our songs in the synagogue are sung in the western scale (most of us are still off key, however), the morteros and cuchareras are in museums displayed behind glass, the molinos are used to grind pepper and the kihilah on Fifty Fifth and Hoover is a Baptist Church.