July 13, 2011
Growing up in Jewish Boyle Heights
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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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