Table of Contents
Visiting Boyle Heights
An Oral Interview with Hershey Eisenberg
by Sonia Hoffman
Photograph by Jeff Bock
All Rights Reserved. Do not copy without permission
Hershey Eisenberg was born at the Kaspare Cohn Hospital on Whittier Blvd. in 1927. The hospital later became Cedars of Lebanon, and much later, Cedars-Sinai. He and his wife Phyllis grew up in Boyle Heights and lived there after they were married. They took us on a driving tour of the old neighborhood and shared many of their memories of people and places.
Boyle Heights was the largest Jewish community west of Chicago, and about 75,000 Jews lived there between the world wars, most of Eastern European origin.
Many large homes surround the park – this was an affluent section of Boyle Heights. Hershey pointed out other sections of Boyle Heights where many Japanese families lived, sections where mostly Mexican families lived, and "the flats" where many Molokan Russians lived. Certain areas were nearly all Jewish. Two junior high schools, Belvedere and Hollenbeck, served the area. We drove around Hollenbeck (now a middle school), and Roosevelt High School, where many newer buildings obscure the old main building. Hollenbeck had a mix of nationalities, and provided many inter-group experiences for young kids. At Roosevelt High, the student body was about 60% Jewish, with large groups of Latino, Nisei and African-American kids. Although there was some fighting between gangs, most of the time people got along well. At the beginning of World War II, the students learned first-hand about discrimination when their friends of Japanese ancestry were sent away to detention camps.
Kids had a lot to keep them busy in the neighborhood. Besides public school, most of the boys went to cheder (religious school) after school, Hershey said, except for some from more leftist and less religious families who mostly lived in City Terrace. When Hershey grew up in Boyle Heights, in the 1930s and 1940s, everyone belonged to at least one social-athletic club, plus the Boy Scouts, and other organizations. His social club, the Wabash-Saxons, began around 1937 on the Wabash Street playground as an all-male group, divided according to age. Years later they decided to include their wives in the club. The Wabash-Saxons still hold meetings, with 120 to 150 people attending. They recently raised money to buy a fully equipped ambulance for Israel, named the “Spirit of Boyle Heights.” Some of the other clubs formed in Boyle Heights also still meet.
Hershey says only one of the old shuls in Boyle Heights was torn down, the Cornwell Street Shul, in order to expand Sheridan Street Elementary School. (Mickey Cohen and Wyatt Earp once lived on this same street.) Many of the synagogues were converted to other uses, mostly as churches, one was moved to the Fairfax district, and the largest, the Breed St. Shul (Congregation Talmud Torah) is now an historic landmark, waiting to be restored.
Hershey said all the congregations in Boyle Heights were Orthodox, except the Cincinnati Street Shul, which was the only Conservative congregation. When Hershey’s grandmother was run over by a car, his aunt asked that the funeral service be held in English, which started a trend for other funerals. The Cincinnati Street Shul is now the Variety Boys and Girls Club, and is about to be renovated and enlarged. At Ficket and Houston, we stopped at the Houston Street Shul, now a church. The building has not been altered much, though, and has two lions and a tablet over the entrance.
On Fairmont Street near Evergreen, the Fairmont Street Shul is also a church. It still has two menorahs, lions and Hebrew writing on the façade, and there is a large meeting hall attached. There is a plaque that it was founded in 1927.
The Wabash Shul, on Wabash Avenue, shows no sign of having been a synagogue, but is a well-kept bright yellow house with arches. It was one of the sites of the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order.
The Breed Street Shul was the largest, most ornate synagogue in Boyle Heights, and is now fenced off, a near-ruin with the roof partially missing. The tablets of the Ten Commandments that were on the façade fell off and cracked the front steps. Hershey said the synagogue once held ten Torah scrolls, all the benches were made of oak, and the windows depicted the tribes of Israel. It could accommodate 1100 people. The building was declared unsafe after the Whittier Narrows earthquake in 1987, but a smaller chapel at the rear of the building was used by a few men until 1994. The Jewish Historical Society of Southern California is raising funds to restore the building and to have it serve the residents of the community.
Another Jewish community building which still stands is the Menorah Center, now the Salesian Boys and Girls Club. This building is in good condition, with a dome in the center, painted white with blue trim and arched windows. This is a good example of a center built by the Jewish community to serve their children, but which now serves the children of the Latino community in the same way. Other community centers were not preserved, however, but Hershey pointed out the city and county libraries, playgrounds and smaller parks where he and his friends did their homework after school, and played basketball and football. He also pointed out the building which housed the very popular Monte Carlo Russian-Turkish baths.
Some streets in City Terrace and Boyle Heights are wide, and you can tell that the old streetcars ran down the center of these streets. You could get downtown in ten minutes. They called the streetcar the "dinkie" on the line that ran along Evergreen St. and City Terrace Dr. because of its small (30 ft.) car run by one motorman/conductor, but there were several streetcar lines that would take you all over town for seven cents.
City Terrace is adjacent to Boyle Heights, and City Terrace Drive is one of those wide streets. The City Terrace Folk Shule building is still there, not really changed much from the outside. The Folk Shule was founded in 1936. The larger Yiddish Folk Shule was located on Soto Street, and there were three Workmen’s Circle Schools also. The large Terrace Theater building is still standing on City Terrace Dr., but it is now a church. Hershey showed us many large homes in City Terrace, some of them in good condition, with interesting Spanish architecture. He said at one time all the houses had red tile roofs, and the merchants and business owners lived here – this was the "ritzy" area.
The main business district of Boyle Heights stretches along several blocks of Brooklyn Avenue, renamed Cesar E. Chavez Avenue in 1994. At the corner of Brooklyn and Soto Streets, the main intersection, Curry’s Mile High ice cream store once stood, and on another corner, was a pharmacy. Now there are pharmacies on both corners. There were several movie theaters in the neighborhood, including the Brooklyn, the Joy, the Wabash, the Meralta and the National. There are no theaters now. The Brooklyn site is an empty lot and a market has replaced the National. Some well-known businesses on Brooklyn were Canter’s Deli, Leader’s beauty shop, and the barber shop where Max Factor manufactured cosmetics. Ginsberg’s Vegetarian Restaurant was a gathering spot for heated political discussions. On summer evenings, crowds gathered on the street, and emotional arguments were heard. Most residents were Democrats, some were socialists or communists, and many Jews in the community were involved in unions.
Near the corner of Brooklyn and Breed there is a two-story building, which Hershey told us was the pool hall and bookie parlor. The back of the pool hall on the second floor overlooked the Breed Street Shul around the corner on Breed Street. Across the street from the Breed St. Shul is the Social Security Office, which used to be the site of the Julia Singer Day Nursery. Just around the corner, on New Jersey Street, we stopped at the little house where my parents were married in 1934 – just one example of the many frame houses that have not changed much. Many houses are Victorian in design, others are typical California bungalows, and some are simple Spanish-style duplexes. There are some apartment buildings, but the majority of people who lived here in the early 20th century, and still today, live in single-family houses and duplexes, from tiny to very large, with their own yards. There are more fences around the front yards and more bars on windows now.
Former residents say Boyle Heights was like a small town, where people cared about each other and helped each other. The Jewish community created organizations for all the essential services and there were many landsmanshaftn associations. Hershey’s father belonged to the Pinsker Aid Society. During the Depression, these societies loaned money, and many grocers extended credit so that no one would have to beg for food on the street. My mother liked to tell us that they had little to eat during this time, but when a hungry person came to the door, her mother gave away what food they had.
The younger generation of Jews moved away from Boyle Heights after World War II. Many businesses followed during the 1960s, though a few stayed longer. Today the former Brooklyn Avenue still has the "hustle and bustle" that Hershey remembers – it’s very crowded with people walking on the sidewalk and there are few parking spaces. The fruit and vegetable markets and shops with herring and pickle barrels that were open to the sidewalk are no longer there, but all the shops are rented and busy. Hershey said he remembers Brooklyn as a street of aromas – with many bakeries and food shops. Though it serves a different group of people now, Brooklyn/Cesar Chavez Avenue is the busy center of the community, with lots of colorful murals and good Mexican food.
Copyright © November 2002. All Rights Reserved
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