November 9, 2006
From pioneers, peddlers and politicians to cutting-edge community
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.