July 13, 2011
Boyle Heights: Not yet forgotten
The old man ambled up the cement stairs leading to the small front porch of his wood-plank, single-story house on Bridge Street. And, like the house, Adolfo Finkelstein, 85, is a reminder of a previous time when he would have represented the predominant demographic in the area, a time when he would have been part of the large Jewish community that once populated Boyle Heights.
For now, all that remains of that once-vast population are a few scattered remnants of the past — a Star of David along Cesar Chavez (once Brooklyn) Avenue, the aging brick edifice that is the Breed Street Shul and a handful of aged Jewish residents. The once-vibrant Jewish community has faded, but the echoes of its legacy remain with a scattered few souls.
Finkelstein is uniquely suited to have stayed in the largely Hispanic neighborhood. Having survived the Nazi occupation of his native Romania during World War II, he then immigrated to South America (sponsored by two uncles), where he set up and ran several businesses, and learned Spanish along the way. He later moved to Peru, married and raised three daughters. But business interests drove him to neighboring Columbia, Panama and Mexico. He shares the story of his imprisonment in a Tijuana jail for failing to pay a bribe to the immigration police chief: “He put me in the Tijuana central prison, but it was OK. I sold goods to the prisoners and made good money!”
Eventually, he made his way to the United States and lived for a while in Los Angeles, in an apartment in the Fairfax district. But the loss of a roommate inevitably lead him to seek inexpensive housing in Boyle Heights, where he made a living selling goods in local swap meets. Now retired, he lives in his crowded home on Bridge Street, near the freeway. The house almost bursts with the goods he once sold — belts, ties, cameras and a various assortment of long-out-of-style men’s clothes. These articles, strewn across the floors, tables and chairs of his home, help solidify his image as the quintessential Jewish “soicher” (merchant) made famous in the writings of European Jewish authors.
The story of Eddie Goldstein is somewhat different. Goldstein, 78, was born and raised in Boyle Heights, where he has lived his entire life. He has lived in the same house on Folsom Avenue for more than 50 years, since he moved there with his mother and brothers after they were displaced by the construction of the Golden State Freeway, as were many other Boyle Heights residents in the 1950s. They used the proceeds from the government’s eminent domain actions to purchase their home. Goldstein attended Hollenbeck Junior High School and Roosevelt High School, though he says he was expelled from the latter before he could graduate, due to conflicts with teachers and other students. Long retired from the meat-packing business, these days he wiles away his time watching television and visiting with his children and grandchildren, and occasionally venturing onto iconic Ceasar Chavez Avenue to pay some utility bills or buy groceries.
Goldstein also has a strong connection to the predominant Latino community in the neighborhood. He married a Mexican-American woman and helped raise her children from a prior marriage. They adopted a child, Steve, who took his father’s last name. In his living room, Eddie displays the symbols of both cultures — a statue of the Virgin Mary and a replica of the flag of Israel. He says he feels quite comfortable sharing both cultures, though he straddles the edges of the two faiths. Since his children and grandchildren have been raised in the Christian traditions, he will attend church services for a family function, but makes it clear he cannot kneel before the symbol of Christ. “I’m Jewish” he says, “and we don’t kneel to Jesus.”
But he enjoys celebrating the special foods of Passover, eating matzah brought to him by Chabad missionaries, and buying horseradish and gefilte fish. The celebrations seem to have become more important to him over the years, especially since his beloved wife, Esther, died.
Goldstein’s uncle Louis Schwartzman once owned the Ebony Room on Brooklyn Avenue, one of the few bars on the street. The bar remained in operation until about 1980, according to Goldstein. For a time during his youth, Goldstein’s job was to stand lookout at the front door, keeping an eye out for the police, since the upstairs rooms were used sometimes for illegal purposes. He says that proprietor Schwartzman befriended some of Boyle Heights more infamous residents during the pre- and post-wars years –— known gangsters Mickey Cohen and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. The Ebony Room, like so many other landmarks of Jewish Boyle Heights, has long since faded into history. “We had a lot of crazy stuff going on in those days” Goldstein recalls with a sly chuckle.
Harry and Barbara Cooper, also known as the “OGs” (Original Grandparents) for their blog, were two of Boyle Heights’ more notable recent Jewish residents. According to their granddaughter, Kim Cooper, Harry passed away last year. Barbara, now 94, no longer resides in Boyle Heights, but she continues to dispense her personal advice via her blog, and appears as spry as ever in her YouTube videos.
Like fading embers of a once-bright fire, Adolfo Finkelstein and Eddie Goldstein remind us of Boyle Heights’ Jewish past. New to the neighborhood, on First Street, next to the post office, another Jewish resident, David Kipen, once a book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and literature director for the National Endowment for the Arts, has opened a bookstore/lending library to serve the community (see article on p. XX). Called Libros Schmibros, it takes its name from both Spanish and Yiddish words. Kipen was raised in West L.A. and educated at Yale, and has attracted the attention of many in the neighborhood. A modern inner-city urban pioneer, his shop joins other First Street denizens, such as the community center (Corazon del Pueblo) and Josefina Lopez’s Casa 0101 Theater.
Long gone are the smells of Cantor’s Deli, the fashions of Zellman’s clothing store and the iconic bathhouse near First and Chicago streets. Those symbols of Boyle Heights’ Jewish past, nevertheless, are examples of the evolution of the neighborhood, what professor George Sanchez has described as “creating multiculturalism on the Eastside,” the cooperation of the various ethnic groups that made Boyle Heights an example to the rest of America. “Few neighborhoods today in America are as ethnically dynamic, religiously and politically tolerant, and community proud” as Boyle Heights was more than 50 years ago, said Sanchez.
It’s not easy to identify more Jews currently in the neighborhood, and there don’t seem to be any current demographic studies on this subject — the U.S. Census does not identify residents by religion. For my study, I welcome the opportunity to meet Jews in the neighborhood and listen to their history. Perhaps this article will help uncover yet another long-time Jewish resident of Boyle Heights.
Irving Weiser was born and raised in Boyle Heights. He is an active member of the Boyle Heights Historical Society and has undertaken a personal project to find and document the last remaining Jewish Boyle Heights residents.