August 1, 2002
Born in East L.A.
Through camaraderie and philanthropy, a group of friends stays connected to their past.
The East L.A. community of Boyle Heights has always been a neighborhood dominated by immigrants. Today, it's a poor Hispanic neighborhood. But Hershey Eisenberg, 75, remembers a different Boyle Heights: It was during the Great Depression, when the community was poor and Jewish, but the sense of community was very rich.
"We always went visiting," says Eisenberg, who slept on a Murphy bed in his modest house. "We didn't have TV. We were very provincial out here."
"Everything happened back East.... I'd get up and run down to the drugstore to see if DiMaggio got a hit that day. We were a big small town," he says.
Although the populace of that small town -- located just east of downtown Los Angeles -- changed dramatically after World War II when Jews migrated west and north, Eisenberg and his peers continue to keep memories of their childhood world alive through the Wabash Saxons-Spirit of Boyle Heights. The 125-member social club, which meets biannually, boasts a predominantly Jewish membership, but also includes members of Latino, Japanese and other ethnic groups that lived there at the time.
"You really get a warm feeling every time you meet your friends and talk to each other," says Jake Farber, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles chairman, who is a high-profile member of Wabash Saxons and once served as its treasurer. "It's a great thing for us. If Gene [Resnikoff] and Hershey did not keep this up, I don't know if we would have this kind of organization."
Eisenberg, the reluctant leader of the group, considers himself just another member and does not even assign himself a title. But in truth, Eisenberg and Resnikoff have organized Wabash Saxons events and fundraisers since the 1970s.
In 1988, the various Boyle Heights factions were brought together under the Wabash Saxons-Spirit of Boyle Heights umbrella. The group consolidated as an amalgam of Roosevelt High-spawned athletic leagues in the 1940s, which had names like the Cardinals, Stags, Jasons, Palavers and Saxons.
"We met at Salavatore's in Montebello, and we started with 25 guys," says Resnikoff, 78. "Since 1990, we have been meeting twice a year on the closest Friday to June 6, the invasion of Normandy, and Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor."
Judge Harry Pregerson of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a Roosevelt student body president in 1939, was the first Boyle Heights native to speak to the group. Others included Harold Williams, former executor of the Getty Foundation, and boxer Art Aragon.
It was only fitting that when the members and relatives of the Wabash Saxons-Spirit of Boyle Heights met in June for their biannual luncheon, the event was held at Taix, a restaurant with Depression-era roots -- a time when Caesar Chavez Avenue was Brooklyn Avenue, and when Brooklyn Avenue was the heart of Jewish Los Angeles.
"The Heights was very Orthodox," recalls Eisenberg. The Jewish borders spanned from First Street (bordering Little Tokyo) to State Street to the Los Angeles County Hospital. About 30 shuls -- from Breed Street Synagogue to Cornwall Street Shul -- served the area.
While Jewish neighborhoods built around Temple Street and Central Avenue predate it, Boyle Heights has become our city's definitive old Jewish quarters.
"It's the Lower East Side of Los Angeles," says Steve Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Los Angeles, which is currently restoring the dilapidated Breed Street Synagogue and turning it into a community center.
Sass notes that the continuity of the Wabash Saxons' ties are unparalleled.
"They had these newsletters," he says, "and while they were away during World War II, their wives would continue to publish their newsletters while they were away. It's like this big extended family."
While the synagogues were where Jewish teens would socialize, the playground and adjacent library on Wabash Avenue were big destinations for Heights youths. Wabash Playground was where Coach Lee Helsel, a USC graduate who was not Jewish, formed the Saxons in 1939. These teen clubs were grouped by age (Saxon Ones through Saxon Fours).
"The thing that motivated them all was athletics," Eisenberg says. "My cousin was a Saxon One; I was a Saxon Two. Then the war came, and almost all of us went to the service.
During World War II, 36 Boyle Heights youths served in the military, many of them stationed in Europe. Out of that number, 35 returned home. But one, Willie Goldberg, was killed in combat.
"Roosevelt High School was the melting pot," Eisenberg continues. "We had Japanese students. We had a big Malkan Russian population who lived in the Flats."
Eisenberg recalls occasional friction between Jewish teens and Mexican gang members. But overall, he says, "we all got along very well. The first year I went to Roosevelt, we had a black kid, Jesse Dumas, who was president."
Eisenberg's father made $18 a week working at May Co. on Brooklyn Avenue. "I always thought we were rich because I always had shoes," Eisenberg says, "The Mexican kids used to come to school barefoot."
"It was just a unique neighborhood that you didn't have to leave," Cardinal member Herb Rothner says. "We had social activities right there. It was like a shtetl."
Now a Tarzana resident, Rothner remembers his childhood in the early 1940s, running around with Wabash Saxons members Eisenberg, Jack Marks, Jack Standel, Dave Barris, Irving Weinberg -- all schoolmates and Aleph Zadik Aleph alumni.
For Rothner, the club is more than just nostalgia. "It brings back old memories and old friends," says Rothner, "but we do a lot of things in the community."
Indeed, the Wabash Saxons are very philanthropically focused and community oriented. American Red Magen David for Israel (ARMDI) has been a pet charity for the group. In 1973, the group purchased three ambulances for Israel bearing the slogans "Brooklyn Avenue Special," "Spirit of Boyle Heights" and "Wabash Avenue Cannonball." This year, members successfully raised the funds to purchase a new ambulance, which will be dubbed "Spirit of Boyle Heights II."
"We had a point where we had $50,000 and we needed $60,000," Eisenberg says. "One of the guys called up. He said, 'How much you need?' I said, '$10,000,' and he said, 'You got it.' The ambulance is being made right now at the Ford factory to ARMDI's specifications."
"Nobody says no," Resnikoff says. "Whenever we ask for it, we get it."
"I was in Israel many years ago," Farber recalls. "We were driving, and I told the driver turn around. We drove up to an ambulance that was one of ours. It said 'Spirit of Boyle Heights' on it. I was so proud, I took pictures, and when I came back, I told them, 'We really do have an ambulance there.'"
Today, few vestiges of Jewish life remain in Boyle Heights. Zellman's Men's Wear, which opened in 1921, finally closed its doors six months ago. Roosevelt High is predominantly Latino. Nevertheless, the Wabash Saxons still direct much of their philanthropic efforts to the Heights. Farber and his brother have set up college scholarships at Roosevelt in memory of their mother.
"There's a real generosity of spirit in the group," Eisenberg says. "Five years ago, when Roosevelt High needed football helmets, in one mailing we raised $8,500 in 10 days. Someone once asked me, 'How come you give money to Boyle Heights? There are no Jews there.' We never even think about it. We just give it away right away. We have no money in the treasury."
Members are happy to have this seven-decade connection to an era in Boyle Heights that now mainly lives on in the history books. Farber maintains a direct connection with the area. His business, Alpert and Alpert Iron and Metal Inc., is on the Boyle Heights border near Vernon.
"It's a great thing seeing these people," Farber says. "A lot of them I've known for 70 years or more. Hershey was a little baby living on the same street as we did."
Max Fine, who once worked as a reporter in the Kennedy White House, flew in from Washington, D.C., to reunite with his childhood cronies at the Taix event. Fine was raised by a single mother, who worked as a seamstress, during the worst economic conditions. Yet he still has fond memories of the Jewish social scene, which included Wabash Menorah Center, the Jewish community center at Soto Street and Michigan Avenue.
"You have to have grown up in Boyle Heights during the Depression to understand what brings me back here every year," Fine says. "It established a camaraderie as kids, and it's never ended."