April 27, 2006
Memories and Music
Before going inside, every visitor had to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue in case, say, a stray piece of wood or plaster fell on them. It felt, for a moment, like myself and the other members of the audience were embarking on a risky enterprise. But Boyle Heights' Breed Street Shul, though a hardhat area nowadays, held no such dangers.
We were here, on this April Sunday for a noon performance by The Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Three of the four members of the string quartet are Mexican Jews -- adding a fitting resonance to this location in a neighborhood that was once filled with Jews (living side by side with Japanese, Molokan Russians, Latinos and others) and is now a Latino enclave.
For many, the air was filled with nostalgia as well as music.
Gary Platt, 80, whose company manufactures casino furniture in Nevada, walked around the old shul -- now in the midst of reconstruction -- breathing it in, looking at it as if each piece of folk art and stained glass held a personal history.
"There were other, smaller shuls," Platt said, "but this was the queen bee. We moved to Boyle Heights in 1934, and I had my bar mitzvah here in 1938. I have wonderful memories of this place. We had all these big social events here. The place was jumping during those years. [This neighborhood] was a fun place in which to grow up."
Many Los Angeles Jews, often recently arrived immigrants, settled in Boyle Heights and surrounding areas in the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually, most would move to the Fairfax district, then to the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys and the Westside, as wealth and resources permitted, leaving Boyle Heights to other immigrants, often Latino, also seeking their fortune and future in America.
In Los Angeles, as in other American cities where Jews have moved out en masse from their old neighborhoods, they not only left dwellings behind, they also left behind synagogues, social centers, stores and street corners that connected them to a certain time in their lives and to a particular era in their collective past.
The Jewish community, it seems, is always wandering, though it's part of the human condition, as well -- always moving to the next area, the next neighborhood, always thinking that a better life awaits us, while at the same time remembering with profound nostalgia the old neighborhood we left behind.
Some Jews who once lived in Boyle Heights, or whose forebears did, and others want to preserve and celebrate those memories, which is the impetus behind the renovation going on at the Breed Street Shul, whose official name was the Congregation Talmud Torah. Even after nearly all Jews moved out of Boyle Heights in the 1950s, the shul continued to function.
"My bubbe and zayde were members of this shul," said Ethel Kaplan, 63, a member of the Jewish Historical Society. "Even after my family moved to the Westside, we would come here for High Holidays and sometimes for other holidays and Shabbat, as well."
But finally -- in 1996 -- the shul closed its doors. In subsequent years, it was subject to vandalism and decay.
Now the shul, the last remaining building in the neighborhood under Jewish auspices, is being rebuilt by the Breed Street Shul Project, a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Both organizations are headed by Steve Sass, vice president at HBO.
The project is funded by government and foundation grants, as well as by private donations. Supporters still need to raise $3 million to complete the restoration.
"In reconstructing the Breed Street Shul," Sass said, "we want to build bridges with the existing community. We want to bring in volunteers to teach English or do other community work, but we don't want it to be that it's all one way: We want to not only help the Latino community that lives here now, we also want to learn from them, to have them help us.
"That way we can engage one another and jointly learn from one another," he continued. "We want to be supportive neighbors, and we really don't have any models for this. So we have to devise our own models as we go along.
"In other cities where Jews moved out and left shuls behind, the old shuls, the historic ones, have sometimes been demolished, or else they've been renovated and turned into museums. We don't want either of those things to happen here....
"We want this place, the Breed Street Shul, to live again, not as a functioning shul, not as a museum, but as a space that respects its Jewish past [while also serving] the cultural and educational concerns of those who live in the community now. We want it to become an important gathering place for both communities."
With that in mind, Sass and MaryAnn Bonino, head of Da Camera Society's Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, devised a program to bridge the gap between Boyle Heights' Jewish past and its Latino present.
"Steve Sass and I are friends," said Bonino, "and we've talked about doing an event together for some time."
The Cuarteto Latinoamericano was scheduled to play a concert elsewhere in East L.A. in the middle of the afternoon on that same Sunday, April 9, so Sass and Bonino folded into the day's events -- in Sass's words -- a "forshpeiz," or appetizer: a miniconcert performed by the group in the Breed Street Shul.
The result was astonishingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.
The Cuarteto Latinoamericano played David Stock's "Sue?os de Sefarad," which means "Dreams of Spain" in Ladino, and the music did indeed weave traditional Ladino/Sephardic melodies into its musical fabric. The acoustics were lush and rich in the historic synagogue.
The sounds evoked the nostalgia felt by Sephardic Jews remembering the Spain from which they had been ejected. The crowd consisted of more than a few like Platt and Kaplan, for whom the walls resonated with their own nostalgia for the Boyle Heights neighborhood where they and their families had once lived.
For more information, go to www.breedstreetshul.org.
Roberto Loiederman, a native of Argentina, is a screenwriter and co-author of "The Eagle Mutiny."