Jewish Journal

Growing up in Jewish Boyle Heights

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Jul. 13, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Talmud Torah class, circa 1930. Sylvia Lipson is the only girl in the class. Photo courtesy of Judy Toben Zatkin

Talmud Torah class, circa 1930. Sylvia Lipson is the only girl in the class. Photo courtesy of Judy Toben Zatkin

“Boyle Heights wasn’t just a geographical term, it was a mind-set.”

So says Abraham (Abe) Hoffman, and he should know.

Born and raised in Boyle Heights, a graduate of — and, later, a teacher in — its public schools, Hoffman is an academic and historian who at 72 serves as an adjunct professor at Los Angeles Valley College.

He is just off a 15-month project tracking down and compiling the reminiscences of 85 Jewish Boyle Heighters, now scattered across Los Angeles and points west, north and south.

The result of his labor of love is a special 326-page issue of the Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly, published by Gladys Sturman and David Epstein. The volume, also published in book form, is titled “Boyle Heights: Recollections and Reminiscences of the Boyle Heights Jewish Community in Los Angeles, 1920s-1960s” (Western States Jewish History Association, 2011).

For many years, Jews were the neighborhood’s majority ethnic group, but Boyle Heights — bounded by what is now the 10 Freeway on the north, Olympic Boulevard on the south, Indiana Street on the east, and Boyle Avenue on the west — was neither a ghetto nor a shtetl.

Depending on the year and the writer’s reliability, ethnic population estimates for Boyle Heights between world wars I and II fluctuated widely, but probably averaged around 40,000 to 50,000 Jews, 15,000 Mexicans and more than 5,000 Japanese, augmented by Armenians, Italians, Anglos, African Americans and Russian Molokans — a persecuted, kashrut-observant Christian sect that split from the Russian Orthodox Church. After 1945, a trickle of Holocaust survivors added to the mix.

Canter Bros. Delicatessen, 2323 Brooklyn Ave., Boyle Heights, circa 1938.  Photo courtesy of Len Canter

The boys and girls of all these groups met, played and formed friendships in the public schools and on the athletic fields.

The Rough Rider newspaper of Roosevelt High School ran a headline on Nov. 7, 1940, that read “Bees Triumph Over Favored Fremont Squad” when, naming two players, “Kitioka completed a forward to end Reznikoff, who went over the end zone for the second tally of the day.”

On Nov. 6, 1941, the newspaper noted that 23 seniors were in the honor society, six of them Japanese and 12 Jewish, and that the Japanese Club held a joint meeting with Los Caballeros.

George Masuki was elected president of the graduating class on March 12, 1942, just before the U.S. government ordered the evacuation of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast. In a farewell note, Masuki wrote, “I am rather confused as to what will become of me when I leave school.”

As publisher Epstein observed, the young people of Boyle Heights absorbed diversity before diversity guidelines existed.

Delving into the book’s pages is like diving into a pool of vibrant humanity, none rich, most poor but without realizing it.

People worked hard to make a living. Larry Goldman remembers that his father, the manager of a shoe store, left home every morning at 8 a.m. and came home at 8 p.m., seven days a week.

Jake Farber celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Fairmount Street Shul, and “after the service, my mother made very small bags of raisins and nuts for the kids. For those who attended the service, we had herring, challah and a bottle of whiskey. That was it. No party afterwards.”

Growing up in Boyle Heights, Shimona Yaroslavsky and her brother (now L.A. County Supervisor) Zev Yaroslavsky, were strongly influenced by the ardent progressive Zionism of their Russian immigrant parents.

Both father and mother were Hebrew teachers at the nearby City Terrace Folk Schule, sponsored by the Labor Zionist Organization, where students received a secular Jewish education in both Hebrew and Yiddish, Shimona writes.

The school was the center for Zionist activities, including meetings of the Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair youth groups, and, in one notable innovation for the time, held a communal bat mitzvah for 12-year-old girls in 1950.

Copies of “Boyle Heights,” the book, can be ordered for $25 each. Make checks payable to Western States Jewish History and mail to 22711 Cass Ave., Woodland Hills, Calif., 91364. In addition, editor Abe Hoffman can be contacted for speaking engagements by calling (818) 883-7991.

Even inside the enclave, not everything was homey family life and multiethnic high-school parties. “Celebrity gangster” Mickey Cohen got his education on the streets of Boyle Heights and his professional start robbing small stores.

On her walks, Shimona would pass the Breed Street Shul and the yeshiva next door, behind which rose “a huge neon sign on a roof put up by the Jews for Jesus people, which said: ‘Yehshua der licht fun di velt’ (Jesus the light of the world). It obviously annoyed the heck out of an awful lot of people,” Shimona comments.

The Brooklyn Theatre was the “prestige” movie house, which charged 10 cents admission, and for the same price the old-time candy store next door “served the greatest chili dog you’d ever want to eat,” Judy Hurwitz Chaikin recalls.

In April 1940, when Hollenbeck Junior High School held an open house, the announcement was printed in English, Japanese, Yiddish and Spanish.

In 1942, the Los Angeles City Directory listed 20 synagogues and congregations in Boyle Heights, and the Jewish teenage club, named the Wabash Saxons, met at the Menorah Center. Its remaining alumni still get together for reunions.

Newcomers arrived by different routes.

“My father came to America from Lodz in 1919 and my mother from Cracow,” Dan Hodes notes.       

“In 1932, because of the Great Depression, we moved from New York City to San Antonio, Texas. After nine months in Texas, we were headed back to New York. We left during a snowstorm and my father asked directions to New York.

“The person said, you should really go to California. Without hesitation, my father turned the car around and headed for Los Angeles. When we arrived at Mission and Macy streets downtown, my father asked where the Jewish section might be — Boyle Heights was the reply.”

With a Jewish infrastructure of synagogues, food stores and community centers, complemented by low-cost housing and a salubrious climate, Boyle Heights welcomed Jewish newcomers at a time when “No Jews Or Dogs Allowed” signs could be found in other parts of Los Angeles.

Yet, to employers downtown or in the Fairfax district, Boyle Heights was an unsavory “Jewtown,” and when the L.A. Chamber of Commerce hyped the attractions of the city, Boyle Heights remained unmentioned, Harriet Shapiro Rochlin writes.

Even inside the enclave, not everything was homey family life and multiethnic high-school parties. “Celebrity gangster” Mickey Cohen got his education on the streets of Boyle Heights and his professional start robbing small stores.         

Bookies did a thriving business at the local tobacco store, and, reportedly, the “official” Jewish bordello was located at the corner of First Street and Boyle Avenue.

“We also had some pretty tough gangs, who made the Jewish kids hand over their lunch money,” Hoffman remembers. “One difference was that the kids didn’t have pistols and AK-47s in those days.”

David Weissman, writing in 1935, took a particularly jaundiced view of the Boyle Heights milieu.

He scorned the Jewish residents’ lack of cultural interests, particularly in Yiddish literature and theater, stinginess in supporting local charities and the tendency to seek medical help “outside” — the poor at the Cedars of Lebanon free clinic in Hollywood, and the well-to-do at the “swanky Wilshire Boulevard medical zone.”

Yet, Weissman acknowledged the mouth-watering pleasures of “a good piece of Russian rye bread, a herring, a nickel pickle and a lox sandwich.” He also recognized the vibrancy of Boyle Heights as “a boiling, turbulent center of centrifugal force,” and, already in 1935, speculated that Jews would eventually move to “the more respectable” Jewish neighborhoods of the Wilshire-La Brea-Fairfax district, West Adams and even as far as “aristocratic” Beverly Hills.

The prediction was fulfilled at the end of World War II, which saw an exodus of Boyle Heights Jews to the “better” parts of the expanding city, including the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys and the Westside.

Among the new migrants were once-humble junk dealers, who became overnight millionaires during World War II, when scrap metal suddenly became worth its weight in gold. In 1945, they packed up and moved from B.H. to B.H. (Boyle Heights to Beverly Hills).

A few elderly gentlemen still remain to preserve the Jewish presence in Boyle Heights, and with the renovation of the Breed Street Shul, many Jewish Angelenos are rediscovering their historical roots (see related story at jewishjournal.com).

Others will share in the discovery when the Autry National Center mounts a major exhibit on the history of the Jews of Los Angeles, scheduled to open in April 2013.

In tracking down former Boyle Heighters and their descendants, Hoffman found that one contact invariably led to others, with any former resident linked to everyone else by only two or three degrees of separation, at most.

The experience, he said, reaffirmed his conviction that “history never really dies.”

For more information on “Boyle Heights,” the book, or to order a copy, visit this article at jewishjournal.com.

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