Sat, May

Los Angeles and the Jewish Mosaic


AN OCCASIONAL SERIES-Who are the real Angelinos?  Latinos?  Blacks?  Whites?  Let’s take a look. 

Jews are something like the Russian legend of the Enchanted Wanderer—they are destined for both exciting and dreadful adventures, but will survive them all. 

Thus, during various diaspora periods, we witness the forced (rarely voluntary) expulsion/dispersion of Jews out of Europe to Asia, Africa (one “lost” tribe is said to have thrived there), Central and South America, and to North America where our history books speak of consequential figures who helped us win the American Revolution.  

To help win their “freedom” from England, Jewish people performed a variety of services for each of the thirteen colonies.  Polish-born Haym Solomon, a broker and auctioneer by trade, was a close friend of George Washington and was critical in helping to finance the War.  The final Yorktown victory turned the War permanently in our favor—something that would not have transpired had Washington not turned to Solomon for critical financial assistance to the Continental Army.  Solomon had obtained below-market loans from France and The Netherlands (footing the difference himself). 

Throughout their two and a half century history, Jewish men and women have played critical roles in shaping our nation.  Many eventually moved out West and quite a number settled in Los Angeles. 

Last year there was an exhibit at the Autry Museum entitled “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic.”  It reflected the many contributions made by this particular ethnic group. 

Jacob Frankfort stands out as being the first Jewish resident in our City way back in 1841.  When California was admitted to the Union in 1850, the Census indicated that eight Jews were living here, one of whom was elected to the City Council and eventually became its president.  Another Jewish resident headed LA’s first Chamber of Commerce. 

Sephardic Jews, who hail from around the Mediterranean region of southern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa, arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1850s.  Their skin tone tends to be darker and the language is a little different from that of the lighter-complexioned Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.  Some spoke Ladino, a language that evolved from medieval Spanish [think of the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 and the “coincidental” voyage by Christopher Columbus (Italian:  Cristofor Colombo; Spanish:  Cristóbal Colón)].  This language is written in Hebrew (and sometimes in the Latin alphabet—both scribed from right to left) and, after Jews were expelled from Spain, was often spoken by descendants of the diaspora. 

During the various European “Inquisitions” which forced Jews to leave their birth countries, many eventually immigrated to the Western Hemisphere.  Often they outwardly changed their religious identification to that of Catholicism (ironically, the very institution which had been mercilessly harassing and torturing them) in order to survive further persecutions.  Many became what we call The Marranos (the secret Jews)—outwardly Catholic but inwardly still Jewish.  Unfortunately and ironically, that name, frequently spelled Morano, also means swine. 

More often than not, they could not tell their children who they really were religiously in order to protect them [think of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright (a Jew turned Catholic turned Protestant) about whom I spoke before)].  Unfortunately, because many of these children were never told the truth, their descendants continued to follow Catholic practices (not that there is anything wrong with being Catholic—but it should be out of choice, not from coercion).  

Others were “luckier,” and maintained their inner Jewish identity.  Thus, in recent years, many Mexican Catholics are “coming out” as Jews.  Latinos, in general, frequently have surnames that end in “z,” like Gomez, but many Catholic Jews changed the spelling of the last consonant (forever to be a reminder of who they really are), so a name like Gomez became Gomes.  And now we have a very large group of people who may or may not know what their heritage really is.  It must present quite a conundrum for them! 

Along the historical way came a number of interesting characters and occurrences: 

Emil Harris (see photo above) was a Prussian-born Jew who became a police officer in LA.  During what is known as the Chinese Massacre in 1871, he made every effort to protect this vital minority group (who had done so much for California--building the railroad, for instance).  His acts earned their friendship and loyalty—helping to cement a Jewish-Chinese bond.  He later became Police Chief for Los Angeles. 

After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, many Japanese-Americansmoved to LA.  They transformed part of downtown which came to be referenced as Little Tokyo.  A decade later many moved to Boyle Heights where a relationship was also formed with the Jewish community. 

Many of the Russians that the Jewish community encountered in Boyle Heights had fled the Russian Tzar during the pogroms around the time of the Russo-Japanese War of the early 1900s.  Many Jews, themselves, had come from Russia and, thus, there was automatically a connection between the two groups. 

LA City ordinance at the time protected the Westside from industrialization but precluded such protections for Boyle Heights residents.  And the consequences ever after?  Growing pollution, overcrowding, lessening of home values in East LA—a situation which still burdens the area. 

Prussian-American Harris Newmark, historian and community leader, founded the City of Montebello where the Los Angeles Angels played before it moved to Anaheim.  

The Dodgers, as well, have an interesting history that is intertwined with the Jewish community. The first Jewish cemetery (1858) in LA was located in Chavez Ravine (named after Councilmember Julian Chavez).   It was “hidden” behind a wall.  This very location is now where Dodger Stadium stands.  

You might ask yourself. What happened to the buried?!  It seems that between 1902 and 1910 the bodies were relocated to a new cemetery.  A plaque at the original site has since been placed there in their honor and memory.  A chain-link fence currently surrounds the outline of the original three-acre cemetery which is silently waiting for restoration.  I wonder for how long?! 

Many scandals are attached to Chavez Ravine:  About 50 years ago the forced relocation of Latinos from their homes (so that newer, more modern developments could be built) caused quite a furor and standoff.  I remember one individual, in particular, who stood his ground for weeks, refusing to be moved out, but eminent domain prevailed.  None of these homeowners received more than pennies on the dollar for what their homes were worth. 

Can you believe that an elementary school is actually buried beneath the present Dodger parking lot (now owned by the controversial Frank McCourt?! 

In 2002 the group, Culture Clash, wrote a thought-provoking play that is still being performed, entitled Chavez Ravine.  I remember seeing it with my family a few years ago.  It is really outstanding and well worth reading or seeing in person! 

The Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Armory was built between 1938 and 1941 by the WPA and is located in front of what is now the stadium site.  It is currently a training center for the Los Angeles Fire Department. 

Sadly, this is the same center from which recruits armed with clubs and other weapons attacked young Mexican-American men who were dressed in stylish Zoot Suits (you can see the intense Luis Valdez play by the same name).  

The actions were so incendiary that it became known as the Zoot Suit Riots,a white-versus-  brown upheaval “that motivated a new generation of Mexican-Americans to become active in civil rights and political activism.”  One unexpected consequence. . . a rather strong Jewish-Latino political alliance that can be seen today at our City Council level (even our mayor, Eric Garcetti, makes proud claim to his Jewish-Latino roots). 

As more Jews began living in Los Angeles, there arose a need for an institution which would be an appropriate place to hold services and provide for the needs of the community.  Thus, the Benevolent Society of Los Angeles was born. 

After the death of Harris Newmark’s uncle, Joseph Newmark, the orthodox synagogue that Joseph helped found, eventually became the famous Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a reform congregation and leader in the civil rights movement. 

The temple, founded in 1862, was originally named Congregation B’nai B’rith (Sons of the Covenant).  Its members were among those that had held LA’s first Jewish religious service in 1851.  The building underwent many stylistic transformations and relocations.  First it was Gothic and then Victorian.  Now the style of the Wilshire Temple built in 1928, represents a brilliant Byzantine Revivalist style and is so profound in its magnificence that it has been given the status as both a national and Los Angeles historical landmark.  The renowned Rabbi Edgar Magnin presided there for decades and helped the once-orthodox congregation become one of the most progressive and revered reform institutions.  Magnificent murals abound, depicting “key moments in Jewish history.”  There is an outstanding rose window which is filled with important Jewish symbols including those of the Twelve Tribes (think also of the Marc Chagall windows in Israel). 

In the meantime, a group from the East Coast, called the Workman Party (after William Workman), came in search of new trading markets, particularly for the valuable animal-skin commodity.  Many of the search party settled in what is now downtown LA, a number of whom cultivated vineyards in the rich soil along the eastern banks of the LA River.  [Today, you can visit San Antonio Winery in Lincoln Heights (designated an historical monument), open since 1917, for wine tasting, a tour, and a light repast—great for an afternoon foray into the history of Los Angeles.] 

A neighborhood in the vicinity of Dodger Stadium is Boyle Heights. Over time, it became an amalgam of ethnic diversity—Latinos, Japanese-Americans, White Russians, and, of course, its large Jewish population.  Boyle Heights was developed by two Jewish men, Louis Lewin and Charles Jacoby, in the 1860s.  The area had previously been called Paredon Blanco (White Cliffs) during the period of Mexican governance.  

Andrew A. Boyle moved to what is East Los Angeles from San Francisco and bought a large area of land where vineyards were growing.  He was the first white man to live in the area among the Mexican- and Native-American populations. 

In 1875, William H. Workman, who had become Mayor of Los Angeles in the 1870s, named the district after Boyle, his father-in-law.  Multitudes flocked to East Los Angeles after that, people that included Workman himself and John Edward Hollenbeck (a park and a street were also named after him by Workman; later the Hollenbeck Division of the LA Police Department was given his name). 

A group called Workman’s Circle was founded and soon became a place for Jewish trade unionists and others to gather in order to vent their grievances and work on solutions for them.  It  served as well as a place to honor and promote the Jewish culture. 

Many Yiddish-speaking European Ashkenazi Jews had migrated to Boyle Heights in the early 20th century, becoming the largest Jewish community west of Chicago.  Thus, another important landmark in Boyle Heights became the Congregation Talmud Torah, popularly known as the Breed Street Shul.  The shul (a Yiddish word for synagogue—an orthodox “temple,”), also a landmark, was built in 1922 and became a meeting place for working-class Latinos as well as Jews.  

The shul still stands.  After some decades of neglect, the diverse community has come together to save it.  It has been renovated and proudly stands not only as an architectural wonder but as a place that welcomes everyone.  Jewish services are still performed there.  Of great importance as well is the fact that the building provides a center to air community concerns, to hold various meetings, and to sponsor many public events. 

The shul reminds me of the AME Church (see my earlier article) which has served as a community gathering place in what was once a mostly Black community but which is now shared with those of Latino heritage.  The Breed Street Shul was once considered “the heart of the neighborhood.”   

Taking up roots in Boyle Heights, the Jewish population easily mixed with White Russians (nobility and supporters of the Tzar) and Japanese-Americans.  This diversity generated an “era of good feeling” among the various ethnicities.  They grew to understand and appreciate each other, a situation which ignited a new form of cultural activity and diversity.  They worked together on similar goals. 

For instance, Jews and Latinos campaigned to get Edward Roybal elected as the first Latino LA City Councilmember in modern times.  The Edward R. Roybal Federal Building on Temple Street in downtown LA was named in his honor.  Temple Street itself got its name from the number of synagogues that once lined the avenue. 

Countless famous Jewish people have called Boyle Heights their home.  One example is Max Factor, make-up artist to the stars, who eventually offered cosmetics at a reasonable price to “everyday” women who were interested in “enhancing” their natural facial appearance. 

Many Black families lived alongside their Latino and Jewish neighbors.  Mike Garrett attended Roosevelt High School and became a Heisman Trophy Winner out of USC.  He went on to play for the Los Angeles Rams (before they went St. Louis, but I hear the team may want to return to its point of origin—is that an answer to my dream?) 

Harry Pregerson is another stand-out from the neighborhood.  He currently serves as a justice on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for the United States which is known for its many landmark progressive decisions. 

The less-famous Schlissel Family likewise homesteaded in Boyle Heights.  The patriarch, Hersch Schlissel, was stationed in San Diego during the World War I conflict.  After the war, he moved his family to Boyle Heights as did so many other Jewish families.  

His daughter, Gail Schlissel Riley, tells of her extended family’s adventures there.  All of her father’s male relatives changed their last name to Keys.  Name-changing was a common practice among Jews who thought “Christianizing” their last names would make it easier to assimilate. Other Jews had been forced to change theirs at Ellis Island where many Eastern European Jews with names difficult to spell, let alone pronounce, found their new last names had become Smith or Brown or Jones. 

Gail shares this thought with us:  “My memories of the area were the smells:  the bakery down the street at Passover time; the butcher shop with its lox tidbits and pickle barrel. . .sawdust on the ground. . . .  It makes me sad to think that my children will never experience those smells.”  (I personally remember the aroma of fresh bagels wafting through the shop where my dear grandma used to work in Detroit.) 

Gail’s grandparents eventually moved to Alhambra and founded the first synagogue there.  Other family members became residents of the San Fernando Valley. 

Because of the massive freeway construction which created immediate geographical divisions within East Los Angeles, many Jews moved elsewhere, leaving Boyle Heights as a largely Latino community. 

Many Jewish families began to move to the San Fernando Valley and other locations.  They were in pursuit of new careers and wanted to start new businesses.  They were intrigued by the promising frontiers that were opening up, and they wanted to be part of the innovations inherent to them. They wanted to send their children to different types of schools, often more demanding.  They were looking for different and yet the same. . . .

Among the Jews who moved to the San Fernando Valley were people like Isaac Lankershim.  He, along with partners, formed the San Fernando Valley Farm Homestead Association.  The acreage now covers what is now Woodland Hills, Tarzana, Encino, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys, and North Hollywood—essentially the southern portion of the Valley.  He first farmed sheep but eventually turned to wheat and came to be monikered as the Wheat King.  The wagon road he used to transport his crop is, in part, what is now part of the 405 (San Diego) Freeway. 

Victor Girard Kleinberger founded the town of Girard (he had earlier dropped his last name) which is now Woodland Hills.  He also built a series of façades near the nexus of Topanga Canyon and Ventura boulevards to imitate a style reflecting the Muslim minarets of the Middle East.

Francis Lederer, a European movie actor, came to the Valley and developed his acting career (even performing as Otto in the play, The Diary of Anne Frank).  His Spanish revival home on Sherman Way is another historical landmark in an area now called West Hills.

Our world-renowned Cedars-Sinai Hospital was once Cedars of Lebanon and before that the Kaspare Cohn Hospital.  This significant medical institution in our midst was founded by the cousin of Harris Newmark.  Cohn had been engaged in a number of enterprises over the years:  real estate, banking, utilities (promoting hydro-electric way back then), civic activism, philanthropy (helping to create the Jewish Orphans Home, located in what is now the more progressive suburb of Vista del Mar).  He was behind the formation of the Jewish Home for the Aging (currently called the Los Angeles Jewish Home). 

We are all well aware of the influence of the Jewish community on the development of the Hollywood film industry.  In the 1930s many Jews had come West for the more conducive climes for movie-making.  People like Zukor, Fox, Louis Mayer, the Warner brothers, Goldwyn, and Laemmle (its theatres still showing wonderful indies).  Irving Thalberg is one of the early outstanding producers whose name and work have been memorialized by the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award, given each year to “creative producers whose bodies of work reflect   consistently high-quality of motion picture production.”

The intimate Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City is entertaining us, in part, because of the legacy he wants to leave behind.  Douglas, born into seemingly hopeless poverty, is the son of a Russian immigrant.  His father supported his family as a rag-picker and junkman (Douglas, in recent years, wrote an autobiography entitled The Ragman’s Son).  Kirk later ventured into acting.  He received “the Academy Honorary Award for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.”  

Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch and later called himself Izzy Demsky.  He finally took on the name Kirk Douglas—an easier Hollywood name.  His family members were among the many who had to change their names.  For a Jewish person, this name-changing is no minor thing.  For Jews, historically, the name is one’s most important possession.  An anecdote will explain: 

While in university, I had a professor, Jonathan Smith, a brilliant multi-lingual man, who could lecture to us in English directly from his Sanskrit notes.  He once shared a beautiful story about his dying uncle. [The narrative reminds me of Spielberg’s An American Tail.  Yet, when I think of Spielberg, I also have to think about his production of Schindler’s List as well as of his dedicated work to preserve, through oral histories, the accounts of the Survivors of the Shoah (the Jewish Holocaust) Project.] 

While Smith’s uncle was suffering during his last days, he asked his nephew (my professor) to find out what his last name really was—certainly not Smith.  For Jews, there is much biblical and spiritual significance connected to the name that is bequeathed to the person at birth.  Often, the child is named after a beloved relative that has passed away (Ashkenazi) or a beloved person who is still living (Sephardic).  Professor Smith’s uncle could not bear to die without knowing the name he had been righteously given. 

Well aware of why his uncle was so anxious, my professor promised to find his proper last name even though he knew there would not be enough time.  He left and returned after a few hours and made up a good Jewish name from his uncle’s region of origin.  His uncle died in peace, and my professor believed he had performed a mitzvah (a morally good deed).  Would God punish a man for bringing such comfort to this elderly, beloved relative? 

That story has always touched me.  I thank my professor for sharing it.  Each year I related it to my own students as we were studying the Anne Frank story and the history surrounding it.

My little scholars all seemed grateful to having become more enlightened by such a vignette. 

Throughout history, Jewish people have always been in the forefront of political movements.  In fact, today many Jewish Congressmembers represent the Los Angeles area.  Brad Sherman and former Congressmember Howard Berman, and soon-to-retire Henry Waxman have all represented portions of the Westside and/or San Fernando Valley.  

Berman was largely responsible for the Conservancy of the Santa Monica Mountains and helped pass many progressive issues.  He sponsored legislation that protected the American Film Industry as well as obtaining the funding for a carpool lane for the northbound San Diego Freeway. 

Sherman, born in Monterey Park, still serves in Washington.  He is a consumer-rights advocate and, with his background as a CPA who once oversaw audits for many large businesses and numerous governmental entities, has consistently supported fiscal responsibility from Congress. 

Henry Waxman, himself born in Boyle Heights, pushed a number of major bills:  nutrition- labelling on food products, reducing pesticide use on fruit and vegetables, and being a major actor in getting the Affordable Care Act passed. 

The Jewish imprint on Los Angeles remains strong.  City Attorney Mike Feuer, City Controller Ron Galperin, and City Councilmembers Bob Blumenfield, Mitch Englander, and Paul Koretz are among its Jewish leaders.  Our mayor (as mentioned earlier) shares Jewish roots.  

Eli Broad, a wealthy entrepreneur (real estate and housing development) and philanthropist, is behind the development of numerous major projects, such as MOCA, the Disney Concert Hall, and the push for independent charter schools (strongly backed by his partnership with then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa).  Broad and his wife have committed to giving at least 75% of their wealth to worthy charities during their lifetime.  They are well on their way to making such contributions! 

Greater Los Angeles has long benefitted from the commitment of the Jewish community to make our city a better place, a City which draws people from all over America and the world because of what it has to offer. 

Isn’t it amazing just how overlapping our various ethnic histories are?!  

Thus, we can again ask ourselves, “Who are the real Angelinos?”  I have yet to find the clear answer. 

Other columns in this series: 

Black Angelinos: From Brick Block to City Hall  

Who are the Real Angelinos?  


(Rosemary Jenkins is a Democratic activist and chair of the Northeast Valley Green Alliance. Jenkins has written Leticia in Her Wedding Dress and Other Poems, A Quick-and-Easy Reference to Correct Grammar and Composition and Vignettes for Understanding Literary and Related Concepts.  She also writes for CityWatch.)





Vol 12 Issue 29

Pub: Apr 8, 2014





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