Table of Contents
A BOYLE HEIGHTS BOYHOOD
by Abe Hoffman
All rights reserved. Reprinted from the Western Jewish Quarterly Journal Winter 2002.
|In the late 1930s my
father rented a storefront and had "Coast to Coast Neckwear Co."
professionally painted on the window glass. We lived in the back of this
store that fronted on 2309 East Fourth Street near Soto Street in the
Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. I was born at the Lincoln
Hospital, a small private hospital less than a block away from the Fourth
Street home, on September 25, 1938. After my younger brother Jerry was
born, we moved to 1952¼ Brooklyn Avenue. We stayed there until the summer
Deborah Dash Moore has written of the Los Angeles Jewish community and what happened to it after World War II: "Boyle Heights, a poor neighborhood of average urbanization, acquired a local reputation as Los Angeles’s immigrant Jewish section," she said, with a pre-war population of some 15,000 Jews and a community that included several Orthodox synagogues, two Jewish community centers, and an active Yiddish culture. "Wealthy Jews lived in Hollywood and Wilshire, areas that contained private houses and multi-family dwellings. Middle-class Jews spread into a variety of sections—Beverly-Fairfax, West Adams, Jefferson, City Terrace—in the western, southern, and eastern parts of the city."(1)
Moore thus gives a scholar’s view of the Jewish community areas of Los Angeles, but it is not a personal one. Little research has been done at the grass-roots level about Boyle Heights, and its best-known treatment is a video documentary, Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto.(2) As an area for research as well as nostalgia, Boyle Heights offers a wealth of topics, including the synagogues and academies of Jewish learning, the Jewish Community Centers, the businesses, public schools, and, the why and how of Jewish migration from the area in the postwar period. My offering is modest; some recollections of growing up in Boyle Heights and experiencing a boyhood on Brooklyn Avenue between Cummings Street on the west and Soto Street on the east, with occasional visits to First Street to the south..
The 1952¼ Brooklyn Avenue address no longer exists. Around 1957 it became the third lane of the Golden State Freeway. Even Brooklyn Avenue is gone, replaced by a new name, Cesar Chavez Avenue, honoring a Mexican American activist who never lived in Boyle Heights but is an icon to the Hispanic community that replaced the departing Jews. The house where I lived from ages four to ten was one of three residences located behind a commercial building that fronted on Brooklyn Avenue. All of these structures were razed to make way for the freeway. As with the Fourth Street address, my father set up the Coast to Coast Neckwear Co. in the store immediately in front of the house. When work was done all he had to do was step out the back door and onto the porch of the house, and he was home.
Just to the east of us, behind another commercial block of stores, lived Mr. and Mrs. Love, a nice elderly couple. They owned a meeting hall that was located behind their house. Various organizations met there, most notably Zionist groups. At the end of every meeting they sang Hatikvah. I remember this quite vividly as I could hear their singing from my bedroom window. I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time, but there was a particular sense of history in their singing in 1947 and 1948 as Israel became an independent nation.
Although I didn’t know of it at the time, my father’s business was in a slow decline from World War II on. Many years later I found out one of the major reasons for the business reverse. In 1941 my father had entered into some business arrangement to market neckties in Manila, Philippine Territory. Apparently this was a considerable investment, and he did it at the worst possible time, just before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He lost everything that was in the Philippines. After the war he tried to recover his losses from Japan, but the U.S. government rejected his claim.
My father maintained the Brooklyn Avenue store until around 1947. Business continued to decline. He had a telephone but had to give it up because of the expense. When the lease came up for renewal he couldn’t afford the rent increase, so he moved the sewing machines, special tables, and other equipment to a small office he rented in an old downtown building. I believe he moved two or three times, but the one he stayed in the longest was at 312 W. Third Street—he printed up lots of Coast to Coast stationery with that address. He may have briefly set up shop in the famous Bradbury Building, and another place may have been the Fay Building at 212 W. Third Street. He liked that area quite a bit.
I had started kindergarten during World War II at Sheridan Street School, located by Breed Street a couple of blocks north of Brooklyn Avenue. It was about ten blocks from our house, but we thought nothing of walking to and from school. Except for the sixth grade, all of the teachers were women. Although my perception as a child was naturally to think that the teachers were old, I now believe that they were basically middle-aged women, few of them married. Jeanette Schwab was the principal. While I was at Sheridan Ms. Loucks taught first grade, Mrs. Van second grade, Ms. Barnett and Mrs. Strickler third grade, Ms. Syphers and Ms. Lavrich fourth grade, Ms. Bateman fifth grade. The only male teacher at Sheridan, Mr. McBride, taught sixth grade. Of course, no one at the time used "Ms." Long years and fading memory make it difficult to distinguish between the married and unmarried; so it’s easier for me to recall them as "Ms."
In the fourth grade I had a teacher named Miss Lavrich. This was in 1948, around the time that the United Nations granted Israel its independence. Almost all of us in Miss Lavrich’s class were Jewish; in fact, the school had an overwhelmingly Jewish student body. After school my classmates and I attended the Breed Street Shul’s Hebrew school. News of Israel’s fight against the Arab nations was constantly discussed in the Hebrew school, and no doubt our impressionable young minds were filled with stories of Israeli heroism. Glowing accounts of life on the kibbutz, and the intentions of older boys and girls to make their aliyah to Israel and join in the fight for freedom, also impressed us.
Miss Lavrich would have none of this. After hearing the students talking about Israel and the new nation’s future, Miss Lavrich talked to the class about the hard life in Israel. She said if anyone wanted to be a pioneer in another country, Mexico was the place to go. Mexico wasn’t at war with anybody, it was a lot closer, and the opportunities there were better than in Israel.
After discussing the pros and cons of Israel and Mexico, Miss Lavrich asked for a vote: Would you rather move to Mexico or Israel? This was basically a confrontation between public school and Hebrew school, a clear challenge to us to show our loyalties, hypothetical though they were. A few students, swayed by Miss Lavrich’s authority as a teacher, chose Mexico. Most of the class, however, stayed loyal to Eretz Yisroel.
To this day I don’t know whether Miss Lavrich was anti-Semitic (probably not, given the makeup of the students in her class) or if she was challenged by the idea that Israel could some day become a politically important nation rather than a minor one. In any event, she lost the class on this issue, and I don’t believe anyone trusted her very much after this. There was just too much contradiction between what she said about Mexico and what our Hebrew school teachers were telling us about Israel for us to believe her.
My memories of Sheridan Street School, as noted above, could be quite vivid. Unlike schools today, the students attending Sheridan were a very stable group. You could count on seeing the same kids in your class each year as you went through elementary school. Some students did come from other places, especially from New York and Chicago, and Sheridan was at times a crowded school. When I was in the fourth grade the school decided to make room by skipping some of the better students half a grade; in those days the Los Angeles School District had semi-annual promotions, a practice that finally ended in 1967. I went from the A4 to the A5, skipping the B5. Some of the brightest kids skipped a full year. By skipping a half grade I became a "winter" student which meant I would graduate from elementary school in January 1950.
In the fourth grade we went on a field trip to a very spooky place. It was a museum, and to get to it we all marched down a very long and dark tunnel. Set in the sides of the tunnel was a series of windows with diorama scenes of California Indian life. To get into the museum itself, we went in groups up a small elevator. The high spot of the museum trip was to see a real dead Indian in a cross-section of his grave. Not until many years later did I come to find out that this place was the Southwest Museum. Around 1971 Native American activists succeeded in having the dead Indian removed from exhibit.
I enjoyed drawing pictures, probably a bit too much for my teachers, with the exception of Mrs. Van, my second-grade teacher. She specialized in art projects. During the war newsprint was in short supply, so we did a lot of calcimine painting on the classified sections of the newspapers. The best artist in our class was Harry Blitzstein. His mother was an artist, and she passed the talent on to him. He was quite popular, not only for his drawing talent but because he had a great sense of humor and was a really nice kid. His parents moved to the West Side when he was in the third grade, and it wasn’t until almost a half-century later that I learned he became an artist professionally and had a studio and gallery on Fairfax Avenue.(3)
From our house on Brooklyn Avenue my older brother Herman and I walked to Sheridan Street School. When he moved on to Hollenbeck Junior High in February 1947, I was on my own. This was a walk of some eight to ten blocks. For a child in the primary grades to walk this distance unescorted would be unheard of today, with all the dangers of urban society, but at that time no one worried about kidnapers or drive-by shootings. Growing up in the 1940s was a different world in that regard, one that is surely missed, and not just for nostalgic reasons.
Walking along Brooklyn Avenue was an experience that grew in enjoyment as I grew older. Between the ages of five and ten I became well acquainted with Brooklyn Avenue between Cummings Street and Soto Street. Two sets of relatives, both on my father’s side, operated bakeries on Brooklyn Avenue. Uncle Sam, my father’s brother, was a partner in the Warsaw Bakery near St. Louis Street. My father’s cousins, the Rosners, had Rosner’s Bakery near Soto Street, directly across from the Canter Brothers’ Delicatessen, forerunner of the more famous Canter’s on Fairfax Avenue.
Other sights on Brooklyn Avenue included the Kartz Appliances, the hardware and appliance store across the street from our home. Early in 1948 the store began selling television sets. A timer on one of the sets turned it on in the evening after the store was closed. People would gather outside the store and look at TV as if it was the miracle of the age, which to a great extent it was. I had the good fortune to make friends with Norbert Rosenberg, a boy who lived on Cummings Street a block north of Brooklyn Avenue, very close to my home. Norbert had one of the first television sets in the neighborhood, if not in the city, and he had it in his room! He was very generous about sharing this treasure. I would go to his house after school, and we would watch "Cowboy Slim," with the host showing old Western films; "Time for Beany," "Sandy Dreams," and other pioneering TV shows. Alas, this early window on TV ended for me when we moved.
Many, many years later I had the opportunity to meet Stan Chambers, the veteran television reporter for KTLA whose career had effectively begun when commercial television arrived in Los Angeles. I mentioned to him my hazy memory of "Sandy Dreams," a show that none of my contemporaries could recall, possibly because they had no TV set in 1948. Chambers not only confirmed the existence of the show, he was still in touch with the actress who had played Sandy on the show.(4)
Meanwhile, Boyle Heights still had a half-dozen or so neighborhood theaters, though television would dramatically reduce that number in a very short time, so fast we didn’t know what happened to them. There were two theaters on Brooklyn Avenue, the National and the Brooklyn. The National was a fourth-run house that offered movies long past their theatrical runs. This didn’t make the pictures any less enjoyable. My parents frequently took their three kids to the National, and sometimes my older brother and I went to matinees. I recall seeing The Mark of Zorro (Tyrone Power version) and When the Daltons Rode at the National. These and other films were long past their original run but were still entertaining.
My parents had the odd habit of going to the movies when they left the house, without a clue as to when the movie was to start. I don’t know if other adults did this at the time, and certainly no one goes to the movies today without checking the starting time. We often came to the theater in the middle of a picture, saw it until the end, saw the entire next picture (all the neighborhood theaters showed double features), and then the first half of the picture we had come in on until the film got to the place where we had entered. "This is where we came in," said my parents, and out we went. I didn’t realize that movies were meant to be seen in their entirety, beginning to end, until I was a teenager.
The Brooklyn charged a higher admission price, though the amount of money really wasn’t much—25 or 50 cents—because the Brooklyn showed more recent films. Other theaters in the Boyle Heights area included the Meralta and the Joy on First Street, We seldom went there, but when we did we saw something the National and Brooklyn didn’t offer. The Joy ran the old serials in its Saturday matinees. When my family moved to the City Terrace area, the Wabash theater was just a block away from our house, and the Terrace, though too far to walk, was a streetcar (and later bus) ride away. Almost all of these theaters soon succumbed to television.
In addition to the theaters, Brooklyn Avenue offered a wide range of retail stores. Next to my Uncle Sam’s bakery was a dry goods store run by Blanche and Morris Abrahams, who were good friends with my parents for many years. Across the street from them Everybody’s Market provided groceries (we did make an occasional trip to the Safeway on First Street). A few modest fruit stands sold vegetables and fruit, never staying in business for long. Al Waxman published the Eastside Journal, the newspaper that covered Boyle Heights. A Bank of America branch was at the corner of Brooklyn and Saint Louis, and another branch was further east at Soto Street, right by the Rosner’s Bakery. I remember a kosher chicken market that sold live chickens that were kept in cages. The customer picked out the chicken; in the back of the market a shochet ritually slaughtered it, and an employee plucked off its feathers. The customer called for it later.
Irving Rael, who unsuccessfully challenged Mayor Fletcher Bowron in the mayor’s race in 1949, owned a furniture store at the Brooklyn-Saint Louis intersection. Woolworth’s had a store on Brooklyn Avenue. S. Shonholtz and Sons, a jewelry store, continued in business well after the Jewish community departed, as did Zelman’s which sold men’s clothing. I bought my first watch with my first teacher’s paycheck at Shonholtz’s store in March 1962. I recall Resnick’s as a combination meat market and deli. At Brooklyn and Soto Curry’s offered "mile high" ice cream cones. A malt shop on Brooklyn Avenue near Cornwell Street featured dozens of photographs of the young men of the community who entered military and naval service during World War II, and their pictures were on the wall well into the 1950s. I’ve wondered on occasion what eventually happened to those pictures. And no business section would be complete without barber shops, of which Brooklyn Avenue had several.
North of Brooklyn Avenue and a couple of blocks from Sheridan Street School was the Variety Boys Club. Around 1947 Tent No. 25 of the Variety Clubs of America sponsored the construction of this club in Boyle Heights. Although I didn’t feel underprivileged at the time, not having any basis for comparison with people who were over privileged, privileged, or underprivileged, the publicity that went out about the club heralded it as an opportunity to keep boys off the streets. Herman and I became charter members. There was no admission fee, and the club was open seven days a week.
The club offered a variety of activities. Games in the large rec room included shuffleboard, pool, and ping pong. There was a fully equipped gym, showers, and locker room. Upstairs, a workshop offered carpentry projects. A library for the more intellectually oriented had lots of boys’ adventure books. Boys joined in one of four categories according to their ages: Midget, Intermediate, Junior, and Senior. I started as an Intermediate. The club was initially presided over by a Mr. McKenzie, and his wife served as the librarian. Some years later McKenzie’s assistant, Louis Diaz, became the director.
On Friday evenings the club showed free movies on a 16 mm. projector. The evening started off with one of those old serials, such as "Flash Gordon." After the feature film ended, everyone helped stack the folding chairs, and I remember it as being fun rather than a chore to help flatten all the chairs and put them on the storage carts.
My favorite place at the Variety Boys Club was the library. Mrs. McKenzie was very friendly and nurturing. The library had a collection of Grosset and Dunlap reprints of Tarzan books and other adventure stories. Mrs. McKenzie provided drawing paper for the artistically inclined, and I drew many pictures as my personal illustrations of the stories, plus copying the drawings in the comic books the library also offered. The library had a record player on which we took turns playing the recently marketed LP records. I remember one in particular that everyone liked and played to death: Hopalong Cassidy was enjoying a resurgence of popularity thanks to TV, and the club had an LP record of Hoppy stories narrated by William Boyd himself.
Until around 1949 a streetcar ran along Brooklyn Avenue to Main Street in downtown Los Angeles. This was the B car, and it was my ticket to adventure and excitement, for a trip downtown was always special. The B car ran east along Brooklyn Avenue to Evergreen Avenue. The E car line ran north on Evergreen to City Terrace. B and E cars were the older models. The P car, a more modern design, ran on First Street west to downtown and eventually to Pico Boulevard and the West Side.
Since my parents didn’t drive, our transportation was mostly by streetcar. Around 1949 the Los Angeles Transit Lines, ancestor of today’s MTA, phased out the streetcars and replaced them with a hybrid called the "trackless trolley." This was an electrical streetcar that ran on tires but used overhead power lines as the streetcars had done—a cross between a streetcar and a bus. The one that ran on Brooklyn Avenue also went up Evergreen Avenue into City Terrace. It was called the No. 2 bus. Westbound, its sign read "Ascot Avenue and 51st Street," an intersection I have never visited, nor do I know exactly where it is to this day. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the Los Angeles Transit Lines sold tokens—three for a dime—and transfers were free.
I also recall the Los Angeles subway. On occasion my parents took us downtown to the Subway Building. From there we took a streetcar that ran underground for about a mile or so to Glendale Avenue and Temple Street or somewhere near there, and then went out to North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley. Basically, I grew up in the final years of the Los Angeles streetcar system. Almost all of my streetcar travel was on the Los Angeles lines. We seldom took the Pacific Electric because we seldom if ever went to places like Alhambra or Long Beach. When buses replaced the streetcars and trackless trolleys, much of the fun of traveling was lost. Buses didn’t have the bells the streetcars did. No wonder Judy Garland’s rendition of "The Trolley Song" was so popular. Of course, when the streetcars went, so did all those overhead electrical power lines.
My parents did not join a synagogue, and they attended services only during the High Holy Days. The most famous synagogue in Boyle Heights was the Breed Street Shul, also known as Congregation Talmud Torah, on Breed Street just south of Brooklyn Avenue. During the High Holy Days the Breed Street Shul had standing room only. As one proceeded down the block towards First Street, there was the Los Angeles Jewish Academy, a private day school that also had classes for children after public school ended. Next to the Academy was the Mount Sinai Clinic, offering low-cost medical services to the Jewish community.
Other synagogues included the Cornwell Street Shul, the Fairmount Street Shul, and some storefront synagogues whose names I don’t recall. These were Orthodox synagogues, with the women’s section kept strictly separate from the men’s. So far as I know, there weren’t any Conservative or Reform synagogues in Boyle Heights. The congregants at Breed Street Shul seemed primarily to be old men, lucky enough to have come to America before World War II. Even at a young age I knew that something terrible had happened to relatives I had never met, and the horror of the Holocaust would grow into my awareness, and public awareness, the way a cold chill slowly but inevitably seeps into one’s blood.
Although my parents did not belong to a congregation, they were determined that their three sons would all undergo Bar Mitzvah training as well as attend a Jewish school. They first sent me to a storefront school on Brooklyn Avenue that taught Yiddish, so my first experiences were learning Yiddish vocabulary words and the Hebrew alphabet letters. Many of my school friends attended this school. However, after Israel became a nation, a major shift occurred in my Jewish education, one that proved ultimately disastrous. My parents decided that my brothers and I should learn Hebrew instead of Yiddish. The letters remained the same, but the words became different. The Yiddish word for workbook, heft, became the Hebrew word machbir. This proved very confusing to me. My parents also reserved Yiddish as a language of communication between themselves when they didn’t want their children to know what they were saying to each other. As a result, the only Yiddish words that stayed with me were the curses my father hurled at us when he was angry. He could curse in English, Yiddish, German, Russian, Polish, and some languages I never could identify, but Yiddish was clearly his favorite as he accused his sons of being momsers and his wife a narishe nekava. In the long run this created a distaste for Yiddish in me that lasted far too long into my adult years before I recognized that it was a vibrant and important language, not just a reservoir of really gross curses.
Once out of the Yiddish school, my parents put me in the Los Angeles Jewish Academy’s after-school program, taught largely by Jewish men from Europe who had no idea how to control rambunctious American-born boys except by twisting arms, pinching, and yelling. Such pedagogy was not conducive to learning much about Hebrew or the Jewish heritage. Hebrew prayers remained in a secret code since the teachers never bothered to explain them; we learned them by heart without knowing their meaning any more than an Irish Catholic kid knew Latin. I suspect I was not the only child put through this form of Jewish education, such as it was.
Another form of building Jewish identity in Boyle Heights was far more constructive. This was the Jewish community center located at Michigan Avenue and Soto Street. After we moved to the City Terrace area I also was active at the Menorah Center. These centers provided a full program of activities, including clubs, day camp in the summer, gymnasium, athletic fields, and playground games. The Soto-Michigan Center sponsored a Boy Scout troop that my older brother joined and an AZA chapter, Strauss AZA, that he also joined. I probably started going to the Soto-Michigan day camp, Camp Manayim, when I was six or seven years old.
Beginning in 1946, the summer before my eighth birthday, my parents sent Herman and me to summer camp as well as day camp. Camp Max Straus was located in La Canada in the Verdugo Hills, at the time still an undeveloped area. The camp ran five or six two-week sessions, with counselors hired mainly from UCLA or USC. It was an extremely well-run camp, with crafts, hiking, and an awards program called the Order of the Arrowhead. The camp was run on an Indian theme. Each cabin was named for an Indian tribe. A huge mess hall provided three good meals a day. We called the punch "bug juice." The camp also offered a limited amount of horseback riding, lots of sports activities, and drama. The counselors always put on a hilarious special night of skits and songs, and each tribe did the same. I also went to Camp Max Straus in 1947.
In 1948 my parents discovered Uni Camp, sponsored by UCLA. This camp was located in the San Bernardino Mountains. Uni Camp offered ten days of what turned out to be a very nice time, except that it rained cats and dogs for a couple of days. It wasn’t until some years later that I learned these summer camps, like the Variety Boys Club, were for underprivileged boys. Actually, I felt privileged to go there and have ever since enjoyed camping out. While in college I worked as a day camp counselor for the Jewish Centers Association (JCA), so the experience stayed with me in many ways.
When I returned from Uni Camp my parents surprised me with the news that we were moving. Our family friends, Meyer and Theresa Freedline, had engineered the purchase of a home at 1023 ½ Sentinel Avenue, just off Wabash Avenue in the neighborhood between Boyle Heights and City Terrace. Mrs. Freedline, a vivacious and active woman, had learned of the joys of being a real estate agent, and she was very good at it. I never figured out just what Mrs. Freedline did on our behalf, since our parents never told us, but they provided the down payment for a house, and over the years my parents paid back the loan. I don’t recall going house-hunting in the Fairfax area, for with typical wrong-headedness my father misread what was happening to the Jewish community in Boyle Heights. On returning to public school after summer vacation, each succeeding year some classmates wouldn’t be there, having moved out mainly to the West Side. Not us. The move involved going from Sheridan Street School to a new school, though we tried to avoid this.
My brother Herman was attending Hollenbeck Junior High School, and my parents came up with an answer as to how I could remain at Sheridan. They had Herman buy student bus tickets for me. I would ride the No. 2 bus with Herman to Brooklyn Avenue and Soto Street and walk to Sheridan from there—about two blocks. This idea worked well for a few weeks, but someone found out about what we were doing—perhaps a teacher heard me telling someone, or something sent in the mail was returned. At any rate, the school found out about the move. If there was any idea of issuing a permit at the time, my parents didn’t know of it. All of a sudden my Sheridan days were over, and I was installed in the A5 at Evergreen Avenue School with Miss Azadian, a very nice teacher. I completed the fifth and sixth grades and was graduated from Evergreen at the end of January 1950.
Evergreen was more ethnically mixed than Sheridan; some Mexican American children attended there. I adjusted as well as could be expected to the new surroundings. There were several families on Sentinel Avenue with children of similar ages. Menorah Center was several blocks to the east, at the top of the hill where Wabash Avenue ended. The center also offered a Hebrew school program, though the quality of the teachers seemed no better than at the Los Angeles Jewish Academy—old Jewish men with little knowledge of how to teach restless boys.
The Sentinel Avenue address offered such amenities as the Wabash theater, a third-run movie house that by 1953 was out of business because of television, a fate that had already hit the National on Brooklyn Avenue. Three blocks to the west of us was the Malabar Library, and next to it was the Wabash Playground. I spent more time at the library than the playground. The library was small, but it offered a good selection of science fiction. By age eleven I was becoming a voracious reader, gobbling up just about every science fiction novel and anthology in the library.
No sooner were we settled in our new home than we were presented with another opportunity for Jewish recreational activity. This was the Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist youth organization that roughly paralleled the Boy and Girl Scouts in having such activities as crafts, social gatherings, camping, hiking, and so forth. The main difference was that Hashomer Hatzair expected everyone some day to go to Israel and be a pioneer. At age eleven I lacked such enthusiasm. I had discovered balsa wood model airplanes and would rather spend my free time building them than planning to make aliyah to Israel.
Menorah Center ran a day camp, Camp Hilltop, that I attended in the summertime, with time out to go to whatever resident camp my parents could find so they could be free of me for a couple of weeks (at least that was how I saw it). Summer 1950’s outing was to a Hashomer Haitzair camp, and the following summer I was back at Camp Max Straus, now with my younger brother Jerry along.
As an adult interested in Los Angeles history, I later learned that Menorah Center was considered something of a white elephant, never able to pay its way. Rabbi Moses Tolchinsky, remembered in Jewish community lore as "Mr. T" long before an actor appropriated the nickname, ran the Menorah Center, and he tried everything he could to keep the center going. Our family joined the center and supported it as much as possible. Mr. T conducted High Holy Day services and Shabbat services there, plus Hebrew school and Bar Mitzvah training. I studied for my Bar Mitzvah with one of the peripatetic old men as well as with Mr. T. Somehow Mr. T won a reprieve for the center and actually came up with the funds to construct a swimming pool there.(5)
But even a swimming pool couldn’t save the Menorah Center, and the days of a viable Jewish community in Boyle Heights were rapidly diminishing in number. Possibly no one in JCA really knew the demographics or wanted to face the reality of Jewish migration to the West Side and the San Fernando Valley. Within six years of my Bar Mitzvah Menorah Center was closed down for lack of Jewish families. The Soto-Michigan Center, reincarnated as the Eastside Jewish Community Center and open to everyone regardless of race or religion, lasted a few years longer before JCA gave it up as well. When I entered Hollenbeck Junior High in February 1950, I saw many of my former classmates from Sheridan, but many were also gone, over to the West Side. When I joined Menorah AZA in high school and traveled across town for social activities, I ran into some of them. They attended Fairfax, Hamilton, and Los Angeles High; we Jewish survivors of the Boyle Heights community went to Roosevelt.
The Jewish departure from Boyle Heights may be credited to a number of factors coming together in the post-World War II period. Large numbers of veterans recalled their time in southern California military and naval training camps and returned to the area with wives and baby boomer children. Jewish veterans were no exception in liking the climate and seeing postwar educational and occupational opportunities in southern California. Similarly, young Jewish men and women in Boyle Heights looked to the West Side and the San Fernando Valley for better housing and professional opportunities. A postwar housing shortage soon turned into a housing boom as new tracts opened up in suburban areas surrounding Los Angeles. The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948, ending racial and religious restrictions in home sales, enabled Jews to move to neighborhoods that had been off limits (the issue of minorities and housing would continue to be controversial, however, for many years). By the 1960s only the elderly seemed to be all that was left of the Jewish community in Boyle Heights. I recall the not uncommon comment, "My grandmother still lives in Boyle Heights, she won’t leave."
My parents remained at the Sentinel Avenue address until 1965. By then my brothers and I were grown and out of the house, and we were getting tired of ferrying them to the West Side where all their social activities seemed to be taking place. So they sold the house and moved west. The Menorah Center remained vacant for many years until another religious organization bought the property. One by one the old synagogues closed down and were sold to other churches. The Jewish Home for the Aged moved to new facilities in the San Fernando Valley and altered its name slightly to become the Jewish Home for the Aging. A few Jewish businessmen stayed in Boyle Heights, with Zelman’s men’s store being just about the last to go. Today Boyle Heights is known more as East L.A., the shtetl long replaced by the barrio.(6)
While attending college at Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles) I decided to become a school teacher, maybe to rectify for children some of the hard experiences my own teachers had given me at Sheridan, Hollenbeck, and Roosevelt. My first assignment for the Los Angeles Unified School District turned out to be at Hollenbeck Junior High. I began teaching there in February 1962, just nine years after graduating from the same school. Many "old" teachers were still there, and I got to know them from the other side of the fence, so to speak.
When I looked over my first classes that day in February 1962, I could identify only one student who was Jewish. Most of the children were Mexican American, some were Asian, a few were black. The professional educational bureaucrats were describing these students at Hollenbeck as "culturally disadvantaged," "culturally deprived," and other terms that today tell us more about the educators than the students. I couldn’t help but wonder how the bureaucrats saw the children when Boyle Heights was a vibrant, though ultimately transitory, Jewish community.
|Deborah Dash Moore, "Jewish Migration
and Community in Postwar Los Angeles," YIVO Annual, 1990, Vol. 19, pp.
Wendy Elliott, "The Jews of Boyle Heights, 1910-1950: The Melting Pot of Los Angeles," Southern California Quarterly, 78 (Spring 1986), 1-10.
"Deconstructing Harry," Jewish Journal (Los Angeles), January 19, 2001, p. 52.
Stan Chambers, News at Ten: Fifty Years with Stan Chambers (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1994), pp. 50-51, discusses some of the pioneering programs on KTLA.
Max Vorspan and Lloyd P. Gartner, History of the Jews of Los Angeles (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1970), p. 148.
Ricardo Romo, East Los Angeles: History of a Barrio (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983), pp. 63-65. Although Romo focuses on Mexican residents in the 1900-1930 period and does not clearly define East Los Angeles geographically, he does acknowledge the Jewish communities in Boyle Heights and City Terrace. Not so Rodolfo F. Acuna, whose A Community Under Siege: A Chronicle of Chicanos East of the Los Angeles River, 1945-1975 (Los Angeles: Chicano Studies Research Center, 1984) essentially ignores the presence of Jews, blacks, and Asians (primarily Japanese Americans) even though they overlapped and blended with Mexican Americans living there over a period of years.