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Jewish Journal

From pioneers, peddlers and politicians to cutting-edge community

by Stephen J. Sass

November 9, 2006 | 7:00 pm

A blast from Los Angeles' past: Looking east on Wilshire Boulevard to Wilshire Boulevard Temple circa 1930, on left. The congregation, which began downtown, was Los Angeles' first.Photo courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Southern California/Ralph Morriss Studios.

A blast from Los Angeles' past: Looking east on Wilshire Boulevard to Wilshire Boulevard Temple circa 1930, on left. The congregation, which began downtown, was Los Angeles' first.Photo courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Southern California/Ralph Morriss Studios.

Tell most visitors that L.A. Jewish history dates back before the Gold Rush, or that Southern California is home to the second-largest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel, and they usually look at you in astonishment.

But however entrenched the notion that Jewish life ends at the eastern banks of the Hudson River, Los Angeles has a rich, colorful Jewish past, an impressive Jewish present and a hopeful Jewish future. A unique confluence of climate and geography, unbounded economic and cultural opportunities and a seemingly unending flow of newcomers has created a region both nurturing and challenging to Jewish life.

El Pueblo de Nuestra Se?ora la Reina de Los Angeles, the Shtetl of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels, was founded in 1781 by the Spaniards.

Exactly 60 years later, Jewish life here began with the arrival of Jacob Frankfort. Frankfort, a 31-year-old tailor-merchant, single and native of Germany, lived in Taos, N.M., in 1841. Frankfort suddenly left town, along with others suspected of conspiring with a group of Texans to seize New Mexico. Making up the historic Rowland-Workman party, the group of 40 included an eight-member scientific expedition and three Mexican families and was the first American overland wagon train of settlers to come from New Mexico to Southern California.

Following the Santa Fe Trail used by trappers and traders before them, and crossing perilous desert lands, they first came to Mission San Gabriel and continued on from there to Los Angeles, population 1,100, arriving in December 1841. Because of his name, occupation and birthplace, Frankfort is believed to be the first Jew in Los Angeles.

Ten years later, after a year in Honolulu and some time spent in San Francisco and elsewhere along the coast, the itinerant Frankfort was back among the less than a minyan of Jews living in Los Angeles and counted among the 1,610 inhabitants in the first federal census taken following California's admission to the Union in 1850.

Of the eight, all but one were merchants; Frankfort, at 41, was the oldest; six were from Germany and two from Poland; all were unmarried men, and, like everyone else, armed. They lived and had their stores in the city's preeminent commercial building, a two-story skyscraper called Bell's Row, constituting Los Angeles' first Jewish neighborhood. One of them, Morris L. Goodman, from Germany by way of Cincinnati, was elected to the first City Council, convened in 1850, and was the only American citizen among them. Gradually, a few other adventurous Jews arrived to seek their fortunes in the rough-and-tumble town. Significantly, unlike most other times and places in Jewish history, Jews came to Los Angeles and the West because they wanted to. Their sense of exploration, discovery and innovation, their adventurous spirits, their exuberance, adaptability and openness to their new environment -- and the welcome they received, for the most part, from their non-Jewish neighbors, who appreciated their education, facility with languages, business skills and civic participation -- make the Los Angeles Jewish experience unique in the annals of Jewish civilization. These qualities continue to distinguish Jewish Los Angeles today.

Amid the frontier chaos, the tiny Jewish community of Los Angeles, following the pattern set in towns throughout the West, in 1854 established the Hebrew Benevolent Society (today's Jewish Family Service), the city's first all-purpose Jewish organization and the city's first charitable group of any kind. From the very beginning, as set forth in its charter, the founders were dedicated to providing for specific Jewish needs and also to helping all, no matter their belief or background.

In 1855, for the sum of $1, the city fathers deeded to the society slightly more than three acres of land for a cemetery near present day Dodger Stadium, in Chavez Ravine (or "Shabbos Levine," as the late Jewish historian Dr. Max Vorspan couldn't resist dubbing it). From the beginning, another indicia of Jewish Los Angeles was its diversity, mirroring the population of the city at large. The founders of the Hebrew Benevolent Society were from France, Germany and Poland, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The first president, Samuel K. Labatt, and his brother Joseph, were the first Sephardic Jews and among the few American-born Jewish adults in town.

During the pioneer period, anti-Semitism was the exception, rather than the rule. From 1850 to 1890, Jews were among the dominant group in the city, participating in every political and civic effort and heavily represented on the City Council and County Board of Supervisors.

The first religious services are believed to have been held in the front parlor of Ernestine and Ephraim Greenebaum's home, among the few Jewish married folks here. Because of his age, demeanor and religious training, Joseph Newmark served as patriarch and lay rabbi from his arrival in 1854 until he became first president of Congregation B'nai B'rith (now known as Wilshire Boulevard Temple, one of the largest Reform congregations in the world) upon its founding in 1862.

That year, Rabbi Abraham W. Edelman, a native of Poland and a San Francisco Hebrew teacher, was called to Los Angeles to become the city's first rabbi.

Congregation B'nai B'rith's first permanent synagogue was dedicated in 1873 on Fort Street, now Broadway, between Second and Third streets, following a decade of worshipping in such places as John Temple's saloon and Judge Ygnacio Sepulveda's courtroom. The Jewish population had reached 200. Fundraising was spearheaded by the women of the congregation, aided by a $1,000 contribution from the Jews of San Francisco, then the state's preeminent Jewish community.

And, setting a pattern that has continued to bedevil the L.A. Jewish community ever since, many chose not to participate in the benevolent society or the synagogue at all.

Notwithstanding some severe but temporary setbacks due to drought and economics, Los Angeles between 1880 and 1910 began to change from cowtown to boomtown. In 1900, of the 102,000 residents of the city, 2,500 were Jews. The turn of the 20th century was the blast-off point for Los Angeles and its Jewish community. And the growth was staggering. Events in Europe -- pogroms, famine, war -- caused many Jews to leave for the United States. After detours in the sweatshops of New York and Chicago, where some contracted tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments, they descended upon Denver and Los Angeles, communities ill equipped to cope with the deluge of the sick and destitute "lungers."

The Kaspare Cohn Hospital, named for the founder of what is now Union Bank, opened in 1902 to provide medical care for the growing numbers of tuberculosis sufferers arriving here daily from parts East for the clean air (gulp!) and warm, dry climate at a time when those were the only cures to be prescribed. The hospital evolved to become Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. In 1912, newly arrived Eastern European Jews, dissatisfied with previous efforts of old-line communal leaders, formed the Jewish Consumptive Relief Association. Raising tents in Duarte, east of Pasadena, for patients and staff, they gave birth to what is now the City of Hope.

This influx of Eastern European Jews was the catalyst for the expansion of social welfare services. Among the agencies founded during that period that still serve the community are Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services and Julia Ann Singer Center, the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging, Aviva Center, Jewish Free Loan Association and Jewish Vocational Service.

In 1911, the Federation of Jewish Charities, today's The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, was organized to provide united support for those institutions that would accept community discipline and forego independent fundraising. The first campaign was held the following year.

By 1920, Jews constituted 40,000 out of a total L.A. population of 576,000, and by 1930, 70,000 out of 1.2 million, exceeding even the boom rate of increase in the city at large. The Eastern European immigrants established their own schools and social welfare organizations, published newspapers and books, produced theater and held labor strikes -- all in Yiddish. Sephardic Jews arrived from Turkey, Greece and Rhodes and settled in south Los Angeles, founding their own congregations to preserve their unique customs and Ladino language.

These newcomers formed a substantial working class in a wide variety of occupations, as artisans and assembly-line workers, as peddlers, proprietors and professionals. Infinitely more glamorous, and potentially more lucrative, however, was a new industry called Hollywood, created by former clothiers, garment workers, junk dealers, furriers and nickelodeon operators -- now called moguls. The dream merchants, and the actors, writers, directors and others they employ, would change the world -- and the image of Los Angeles -- forever.

Despite (or because of) being Hollywood's ruling dynasty, the studio heads were concerned about anti-Semitism and downplayed their Jewish and immigrant origins, keeping Jewish names and themes off the screen. One exception was Warner Brothers' "The Jazz Singer," the first film with synchronized dialogue and music, starring Al Jolson, filmed here in 1927.

The Jewish population almost doubled between 1930 and 1940 and reached its maximum concentration in identifiable Jewish neighborhoods like Temple Street (now the location of the Music Center and Hollywood Freeway four-level); Boyle Heights, remembered with great affection as "The Lower East Side of Los Angeles"; and West Adams. After World War II, Beverly-Fairfax would replace these areas as Los Angeles' borscht belt.

The Depression sorely taxed the community's capacity to give to Jewish needs, just at the same time these needs expanded enormously. The local poor required compassionate attention; anti-Semitic fires fanned by Nazism had to be extinguished; discrimination in employment had to be fought; German and Austrian refugees (including musicians, writers, artists and academics who went on to have brilliant careers here) had to be welcomed and integrated, all while European and Palestinian Jewries, on the edge of the Holocaust, were crying out for help. Mass rallies were held, and a boycott of German goods was begun. Largely avoiding the debate raging in other American Jewish communities, L.A. Jews were united in support of Zionism.

Meanwhile, thousands of returning Jewish G.I.s, their families and friends began one of the greatest internal migrations in Jewish history, tripling the 150,000 Jews who were here at the end of the war. The ceaseless influx of newcomers needing housing made real estate and construction the principal industry of the region, with Jews playing an important role. Synagogues and community centers were developed in rapid succession throughout the metropolitan area; the suburban San Fernando Valley now contains about half of the city's Jewish population. At last count, there were more than 200 congregations in greater Los Angeles of every imaginable stream and then some, from storefront shtibel to Synaplex, with roughly a 35 percent affiliation rate. Some 30,000 children attend 150 Jewish schools, including 10,000 in 30 day schools.

Social concern, perhaps heightened in the wake of the Holocaust, McCarthyism and the turbulence of the 1960s, became a community priority, as individuals and groups have worked with other Angelenos in fighting discrimination in employment, housing and education. After many years playing a role behind the scenes, Jews have been elected or appointed in unprecedented numbers to positions at all levels of government.

Recent years have also marked the growth of higher Jewish education, including the ordination here of Conservative, Reform and trans-denominational rabbis by respectively, the University of Judaism, Hebrew Union College and the Academy of Jewish Religion, as well as the establishment of kollels, institutes of advanced study, in the Orthodox community. The Skirball Cultural Center, Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, West Coast Chabad, Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Jewish World Watch and the city's rabbinic, professional and lay leaders are admired throughout the Jewish world.

Internally, the Jewish community has grown strong and matured. Seeing large numbers of men wearing black satin kapotes strolling in the formerly restricted Hancock Park neighborhood on Shabbos is no doubt causing the earlier WASPy residents to spin in their graves, just as surfers up and down the coast are probably left scratching their heads each fall as groups from all Jewish persuasions gather at the beach to cast their bread crumbs upon the Pacific during the Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah.At the same time, struggles remain: the needs of 60,000 L.A. Jews living at or near the poverty level; providing for all segments of a diverse community, including singles, single parents, students, seniors and the differently abled; integrating newcomers, including large populations of Israeli, Persian, Russian, South African and South American Jews; engaging the interest and resources of the entertainment industry machers; and building relationships with our neighbors.

And population alone does not a Jewish community make. While an otherwise positive development, as elsewhere, the breakdown of social barriers, and dispersal over tremendous geographical distances, weaken identification with Jewish life, even as we attempt to harness new ways to stay connected with one another. The city's outward sprawl has resulted in what may be the greatest threat facing Jewish Los Angeles today: neither assimilation nor intermarriage, but traffic.

Why is the Los Angeles Jewish community different than all other Jewish communities? For one, in a media age, it is from Los Angeles that the image of the Jew goes forth to the world through film and television. But also because here, for the most part, Jews continue to talk with one another. The fabled Jewish ability to divide three opinions between two people hasn't changed. But perhaps nowhere else are individuals representing very different religious and ideological perspectives so willing to sit and discuss the issues. There is not always agreement, but there is usually respectful discussion and an ongoing, productive search for common ground.

Los Angeles' preeminence as one of the world's great cities is matched by its entry into the ranks of the world's great Jewish cities. Freedom unprecedented in Jewish history allows the more than 600,000 Jews of greater Los Angeles, about 6 percent of the local population, to be an integral part of our home, successfully intertwined with the region's growth and progress, enjoying with our fellow residents a place of challenges, pleasures and potentials. As we confront varied and complex issues, some faced by Jews wherever they live and some special to the Southland, may the angels and our pioneering spirit continue to be with us.

Stephen J. Sass is the president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.
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