When Canter’s Deli first opened in Los Angeles, it was not at its now-famous location on Fairfax Avenue, but in Boyle Heights. And though Canter’s and most of the neighborhood’s Jews have long since deserted Boyle Heights, it was forever touched by the culture of the Jewish community that once called it home. Later waves of immigration brought Japanese, Latino and Russian immigrants to the area, giving Boyle Heights a unique and vibrant ethnic vibe.
This summer, Grand Performances, which is celebrating its 25th year of bringing free, outdoor summer entertainment to downtown Los Angeles’ California Plaza, has decided to celebrate Boyle Heights with a cultural series highlighting the heritage of the Jews, Latinos and Japanese who have called it home.
Boyle Heights is “a neighborhood where real people live and work, where Catholic altars, Shinto shrines and [the Breed Street] shul are found within blocks of one another,” Grand Performances’ Director of Programming Leigh Ann Hahn said.
Hahn stresses that bringing people to Boyle Heights is part of Grand Performances’ “commitment to fulfill the best possible roles we can within this ever-changing city we call home.”
“My hope is that those who live in Boyle Heights will be proud of their neighborhood, and that those who aren’t as familiar will want to explore.”
The series will kick off June 18 with an evening put together by Tongue and Groove founder Conrad Romo. Tongue and Groove, a monthly fixture at Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe, presents poetry, spoken word, short stories and music.
The Boyle Heights evening will be a welcome trip down memory lane for Romo, who was born and raised in Boyle Heights. As a teenager, he worked at the Hollenbeck Home to earn money to pay for school. To honor his ’hood, Romo has brought together a diverse group of performers from Jewish, Latino and Asian backgrounds who will be “paying respect — tribute — to Boyle Heights.” From the Mexican American band Ollin, whose members, among their varied repertoire, perform a klezmer-influenced song called “Boyle Heights Boogie,” to Jewish visual artist Simone Gad, who was raised in Boyle Heights by her Holocaust-survivor parents, it promises to be a fast-paced mix of arts and culture.
The series will feature some more unorthodox fare as well. On July 21, Rabbi Shmuel Marcus of Chabad
of Cypress in Orange County will bring his highly popular “Traveling Pickle Factory” to California Plaza for an evening of history and a lesson on pickle making that’s sure to appeal to all who love a finely fermented cucumber. Hahn believes that the pickle is actually quite important. “The traveling pickle factory is ... a reflection of my belief that food is key to the building of civilization and that although we don’t all like the same things – like music, culinary traditions illustrate how similar every cultural community is to another.”
Marcus doesn’t doubt the power of the pickle either, as he’s seen it firsthand. “We had more people at our kosher pickle-making than I had at my Yom Kippur service, so I knew something was going on.” Rather than wonder why his congregants were more interested in pickles than prayer, Marcus decided to embrace the dill deliverance. He’s visited hundreds of places over the past few years, bringing the joy of the pickle to the masses.
Marcus describes the evening as a “very fun adult educational workshop. The unique coolness about the program is that ...we did tremendous research on the significance, on the history, on the origins of the (kosher pickle).” Marcus believes that learning about keeping kosher is more relevant today than ever. “The concept of kosher goes well with all audiences, especially today. Now, we’re super conscious of what we eat.”
Especially exciting for Marcus is the chance to present his Pickle Factory evening in honor of a locale like Boyle Heights. “There’s a woman here [in Orange County] who runs my senior program ... she’s from Boyle Heights. Everyone of a certain generation that I meet, they’re all from Boyle Heights. It’s very, very special.”
Also on tap for the summer series will be an evening with showman and humorist Charles Phoenix on June 24 celebrating the city of Los Angeles; a special musical fundraiser featuring Kinnara Taiko on July 9; a multimedia lecture with USC professor Josh Kun about Boyle Heights’ Phillips Music Co. on Aug. 4; a concert featuring L.A. singers Phranc and Exene on Aug. 20; and a closing show: “A Night at the Phillips Music Co.” on Aug. 27.
Performances all are free and take place at California Plaza downtown. For more information visit www.grandperformances.org.