Jewish Boyle Heights: The Past Meets the Future

Our tour of the Breed Street Shul and historic Boyle Heights

Of all the places in Los Angeles I enjoy, Boyle Heights is my favorite. It’s the place where I spend the most time by far. My closest friends were born and raised here, and being ever in their element this is my neighborhood by proxy. Not that I don’t have sentimental attachments myself, the roots of my family are dug deep in the community too. My grandmother often tells lovingly of her being born and growing up here. I also spent the formative years of my life here. I now live a few miles down the road, but as this is the historic core of the Latino community it’s the place to be. This is beating heart of my native Eastside.

Congregation Talmud Torah, Boyle Heights. The Breed Street Shul, built in 1923.

Now don’t think low of us if we often define Boyle Heights as part of the barrio, or even dubbing it a “hood.” The community is 98% Latino today, so when we use such terms it is more lovingly and endearingly. In truth, we think of Boyle Heights as the Bel Air of East LA. Interestingly because the community is not exactly unaware of its history. The residents, never are they slow on correcting people who disparage their immigrant rich neighborhood, pointing out that this was once home to a prominent immigrant Jewish community as well.

Once people find out that I’m Jewish (which doesn’t usually take so long, all I have to do is talk for a while), people automatically ask their next questions of me. “So you know about the synagogue, right? Have you seen it?” I’m not exaggerating when I say with all my best friends in town, our first outings were to walk in front and admire the glory of Congregation Talmud Torah – or as we all lovingly know it, the Breed Street Shul. To us it is the jewel of Boyle Heights.

Over the years I have gone through the neighborhood countless times talking with people about the Jewish past of this side of town, piecing together information from stories told by friends that grew up here. Stories from both my own Latino family, and from the memories of many of my Jewish friends whose parents and grandparents were raised in Boyle Heights as well.

The corner of First Steet and Breed Street

The corner of First Steet and Breed Street

Boyle Heights has always been diverse. Not just home to Mexican-Americans and Jews, this side of town was also home to sizable Japanese, Russian, Polish, Italian and German populations. This was especially a heaven for people who weren’t allowed to buy land in other parts of the city, a fact few are aware of today.

My Hispanic grandmother talks of her grandparents doing business in trade and real estate with the Jewish families in the neighborhood, and also of her being named after the family’s sweet German housemaid. This is a side of town in which diverse segments of new immigrants became upwardly mobile.

Until recent years, when people have spoken of the Jews of Boyle Heights, it has mostly been in the past tense. The Jewish community which once thrived here has long since moved away. As the buildings which once served Jews are being reused to serve different minority communities now, the Breed Street Shul is widely considered the last link to the rich and interesting history of the Jewish residents of yesteryear.

It should be quickly noted that the neighborhood still holds many treasures to explore. But few of us locals are old enough, or have good enough memories, to really remember the locations of most things except vaguely. My friends and I have always wanted a chance to be led by people who know the way. And a couple of weeks ago we got that chance of a lifetime.

The Breed Street Shul, March 2014On a Sunday morning my friend Zero-Renton and I show up at the Breed Street Shul, drawn by an online posting and a buzz in the local synagogues. For a forum titled, “Boyle Heights Heroes: Conversations with Local Luminaries.” A discussion panel on what growing up in Boyle Heights meant to a few people, from both the Jewish and Latino communities.

We arrived early to see the gates of the shul open for once and a stream of mostly older people and their families. There was just a handful of younger people, two of them being these weird punk rockers; my friend and I. Greeted warmly we were asked if we wanted to go on a bus tour of the neighborhood. That day a bus ride had been graciously donated by the office of Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, for an hour-long bus tour to explore the area’s Jewish past.

People lining up to board for a bus tour of the historic Jewish Boyle Heights

People lining up to board for a bus tour of the historic Jewish Boyle Heights

No sooner were we in the bus and on our way when the President of the Breed Street Project Steven J. Sass began to brightly and frantically point out the sites to see along the way, asking different people to give their memories and connection to the site.

I have to say this was an unexpected and thrilling experience. You see, my friend and I are used to walking these streets. This is what we see everyday, the streets and buildings we far too often rush past without a thought. We consider it our home, we aren’t sight seers.

But neither is this group. No sooner does the bus roll in front of a location when the crowd excitedly yells out the name of what it used to be. People lovingly pointing out the details of each block as we pass. Their sense of excitement leaves both of us stunned, and their familiarity has us taking lessons.

It was truly impressive to have people briefly tell us about the sites of the former schools, hospitals, the history and legacy of the Los Angeles Jewish Home. The sites of the former community centers. The old synagogues, and the locations of the varied minyans (prayer quorums) throughout the neighborhoods.

Interior of the Breed Street Shul in her glory days

Interior of the Breed Street Shul in her glory days

But there was something that especially compelling about the guided tour. We were presented with a picture of the diversity of this old community. We got to see the truth that there wasn’t just one type of Jew here. We were impressed to hear some details of the varied social and political happenings of those days. The philanthropy and the activism started in that community, some of which people still benefit from today.

And it was even more illuminating because we got to revisit the obvious neighborhood sites to us, but hear people talk about them in ways that we have never heard before. Places we know very intimately, we got to hear people share their memories about them. And enrich them with something old to remember, but new for us to consider.

We got to imagine the smells of latkes in the hall of Hollenbeck Park and the picture of people doing tashlich at the water, with people who lived it. Simple flashes of memories which will forever change the way we see our favorite duck pond. I got to sit next to Zero-Renton on the bus, in front of Roosevelt High School, his own alma mater and hear people talk about their memories of going to school there.

Vandalism before the restoration of the beit midrash

Vandalism before the restoration of the beit midrash

And we got to hear a bit about the challenges of those days and the roles which race and war played in those neighborhoods, especially for the mistreated Japanese whose internment during WWII emotionally scars some to this day.

The bus tour was just an hour-long, and being rushed we were assured we got just a taste. Now I have to tell you, I normally do my best to keep up on the journalistic details. But this was such a unique and awesome experience, I was simply too excited to take notes or even have the good sense to take more pictures. But we were stunned. Just dumbfounded by how much we learned in one hour. And the main presentation hadn’t even started yet!

The panel was presented in the restored back hall of the shul. The group, titled “Boyle Heights Heroes: Conversations with Local Luminaries,” was moderated by Professor George Sanchez of the USC. The panel included notable guests Annette Shapiro, Daniel Hernandez, Donna Bojarsky and Gershon Lewis.

The talks that were given were invaluable, because the presenters really opened up about the people who once lived thrived here. And how starting from here, their loved ones built a legacy of social consciousness which still guides them in their pursuits.

All four guests brought something special to the table:

Annette Shapiro. For those of us in the wider Jewish community, she needs no introduction. One can’t help but be amazed by her philanthropic and loving personal involvement in the needs of the Jewish community, including the Beit T’Shuvah addiction treatment center. She can be found everywhere there is a Jewish or health and wellness cause. A legacy of community service she credits to her family. Among the notable family members of the Boyle Heights community is her grandfather of David Familian – of blessed memory – who served as president of the Breed Street Shul.

David Hernandez. He grew up in Boyle Heights facing all the various challenges of Latino youth, and today he is still facing them but now as the CEO of the Hollenbeck Youth Center. The youth center helps provide many programs which meet the need of the youth and teens in this densely populated and often harsh side of town. He presents us with a much-needed picture of the Latino community, his story being very common in that his experiences have been greatly influenced by his service in the US Armed Forces. Service to ones country, to this day it is still the only way many in our community can ever hope to afford a college education.

Donna Bojarsky. Her father Sol – of blessed memory – was a native of Boyle Heights and celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Breed Street Shul. She brought in tow his delicate little siddur which was presented to him at that time. Donna is a political consultant and active in various community forums. Among them being civic training programs for young Jewish leaders. She is also executive director of KCET’s Mosaic series, a program which gives a fresh and unique look at the diverse communities of Los Angeles.

Gershon Lewis. Now he has to be one of the most interesting people I have ever met. So much could be said about him from his success in his service in the army, business, finance and politics. However, to me he is most impressive as a native Eastsider and Roosevelt High School student, and leader among the Wabash Saxons. The Saxons started in the 1930s, organized by youth from Roosevelt and the other local youth centers. Among their aims and goals, raising money to fund the youth activities of Boyle Heights. He will once again be present to chair the upcoming Wabash Saxons reunion in June 2014.

After the presentation we took extra time exploring the back hall. It was filled presentations of the disrepair and vandalism which once covered the buildings, and commendations earned in the past 15 years of step-by-step preservation efforts. The start of a multi-layered restoration project to revive the entire facility for future active uses. A cultural center for the Jewish, Latino and the various minority communities.

To all involved, we have to say thank you! We are both grateful for this opportunity, and hope to visit with you again.

The restored beit midrash

The restored beit midrash

We also hope for more panel discussions. This type of talk was important not just for me but also for my friend Zero-Renton, who came along. Under the tattoos, leather and colored hair, is a person who tirelessly works for fair housing in Los Angeles. Assisting people at the Housing Rights Center, which works to enforce the Fair Housing Act. In his work he daily faces the challenges of the most needy in our community, and also most vividly sees the consequences of gentrification on the poorest sectors.

We all wonder, what is going to be the next demographic shift in Boyle Heights? We all worry about the future of our historic neighborhoods in which most of us have lived for generations, which are now getting settled by urban hipsters without children. People’s whose needs and means are vastly differently from our own.

In some ways this presentation puts us at ease, helping us realize that our town is just going through its own natural cycle. This was a side of town started by the working class of some means, the Latino community moved in the void left as Jews migrated to the westside. But now these decades later the white middle-class is returning in modest, but growing numbers. We might just have to accept much of this as being part of the the natural growth cycle.

But the questions remains for all of us who love and are dedicated to staying in the Eastside: What is the future for our community, what can we do to enhance and fortify the integrity of our resources as things begin their almost inevitable transition? As properties such as the historic Sears building with over 4.5-million gross square feet of space have been purchased to make way for a multi-use, loft based community, we cannot ignore this much longer. Even public housing is being subjected to urban renewal. Change is undoubtedly coming.

As president Steven J. Sass had to point out several times, the Jewish community in Boyle Heights fell apart because of a series of bad decisions, which together were terminal for the integrity of their once thriving district. The institutional hopes of consolidating and pooling resources led to their eventual collapse. Which further sped up the exodus to neighborhoods with more resources.

Even as I gazed at the exterior of the building which housed the main sanctuary many people reiterated this point to me. That the resources dried up, the people had to move out of necessity. Some were left shaking their heads, blaming themselves for quitting the community. Others a bit pessimistically point out their own truth, that there was also some racial and gang related issues which they regretted. Issues not unlike those we face today. Our side of town is still notorious for those problems to this day, and admittedly it’s much worse today as us Latinos have grown more insular and less accepting of other minorities moving in. This all comes as a social challenge which still very much needs to be addressed.

With all the challenges, the locals are optimistic. And we do see our future being here in Boyle Heights. And we also envision a glorious future for the Breed Street Shul.

Now a lot of the reason why Eastsiders see the Breed Street Shul as important is not just because it was important to the Jews who once lived here. We envision this as the site of where the new Jews of the Eastside will one day celebrate and worship. Not just Jews who will move this way with urban planning. But also for the Latino Jews of east Los Angeles. We want yidden coming back to Boyle Heights, to be greeted by a community of Latino Jews as well.

Latino Jews, we are a community that is growing as many convert to Judaism or discover their own historical roots to Judaism. When I was younger I was one of the only practicing Jewish Mexican-Americans in the area. Today you will find many locals from the area scatted in the synagogues throughout the San Gabriel valley, in shuls which often sport liturgy and services in Spanish.

For the Latino Jews of east Los Angeles, the Breed Steet Shul speaks of a Jewish future here which we too embrace. We also have a vision, of a vibrant Jewish community in which we are an integral part of as well.

The restoration of the main building, which houses the sanctuary

The restoration of the main building, which houses the sanctuary

So for people like me, the Breed Street Shul is important not just because I’m a Jew and this is part of Jewish history, but because I’m a Latino Jew and this is part of our future. Whereas in the past Jews and Latinos were often different sides of the coin in this community, now we are blending together. Today Jews of many different ethnicities are scattered around here, and I think we all tend to see the shul as a heritage and legacy we want to be part of. We are all enthusiastic about her, because this shul has something which charmingly brings us together.

And for the non-Jewish residents of the neighborhood it is also important that this be restored. In order to restore the pride of the community, to stand as a testament of an honorable and impressive past.

For people like my friends and their families. To serve as community center for the residents, so that the glorious halls are filled with celebrations again. And as a meeting and rallying spot for political and social activism, as it has been ever since it was made a national historical landmark by the Clinton administration in 1998. A notable event for the community, which drew First Lady Hillary Clinton herself. Now more recently the shul has even come to draw the entertainment community as well. Latinos also have a lot of reasons to need the “Queen of Synagogues” restored. People see a lot of promise in her.

As we left walking up the block on a stroll toward Brooklyn – excuse me Avenida Cesar Chavez, a slip that true locals don’t make by accident, Latino or Jewish we all still say it – we just grinned and sighed as we passed. Overwhelmed with the amazing stories we had heard.

Boyle Heights muralAs we wandered Gershon Lewis came and walked with us down a couple blocks for a bit. I got to express my thanks for his story and also for inspiring me with his example of community service. And I expressed how grateful we both were, Zero-Renton and I, because we don’t really get the chance to have a meeting of the generations in this way ordinarily. So we are willing to listen.

I asked him how us Latinos who are here now, how we can learn some of the spirit of social service that this side of town needs more than ever. What can we learn to build our own legacy. He pats me on the shoulder and says I need to come for the Wabash Saxons banquet and learn how it’s done.

He chatted with me about how many people talk about how much they love their Boyle Heights, yet few come. That it was nice for him to see a good crowd for a change. I joked with him, “Well, if I think about it, I also know enough local Latino Jews to bring together a minyan sometime. I can bring the party and a Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) if necessary.” Gershon laughed and shook my hand in delight, encouraging me to bring it on.

Tzedakah Opportunity: This Breed Street Shul Project is only in the first stages of the site’s restoration. While the back hall, the former beit midrash behind the large shul, has been beautifully restored the rest of the property is still in the early stages of renovation. The project has made great strides, such as bringing a ramp for disabled access to the hall, a first for this old site. At the same time they are still greatly challenged with having to remedy drainage issues which were never properly addressed before.

The project hopes to make this open house and discussion a part of a series. I think many of you will agree that these presentations and tours are an invaluable way to bring people together. We really need more people from the community to have the chance to learn about their neighborhood’s colorful history as well.

If this is something that you find meaningful. If you care about this heritage, and the future of Boyle Heights. If you would like to see more of these events. If you want to encourage more dialogue between the Latino and Jewish communities. If you want to help make the revivification a success, I urge you to donate to this project today:

PO Box 33411
Los Angeles, CA 90033-2902


About the Author: Welcome to Hardcore Mesorah! My name is Shmueli Gonzales, and I am a writer and religious commentator from Los Angeles, California. As a blog writer, I enjoy talking about the challenging topics of Torah and Jewish life. Weekly I take an in-depth look into the weekly Torah portion. I also tackle topics of personal struggle as learned through my current struggle with HIV/AIDS. I also dedicate the focus of my work to displaying the cultural diversity within Judaism, often exploring the characteristics and unappreciated values of Chassidic and Sephardic Judaism. Among my various projects I also produce classical liturgical and halachic texts for free and open-source redistribution.

More pictures from the shul:

The face and the black metal doors which guard her

The face and the black metal doors which guard her

Looking at the side of the main building, toward Breed Street

Looking at the side of the main building, toward Breed Street

The restored Aron haKodesh - the ark for the Torah scrolls. The murals also senselessly restored. It shows tablets of the Ten Commandents. Above is the words "Shivit Hashem Negedi Tadmi" which means "I will place [the name of'] the Lord before me at all times."

The restored Aron haKodesh – the ark for the Torah scrolls. The murals also seamlessly restored. It shows tablets of the Ten Commandents. Above is the words “Shivit Hashem L’Negedi Tamid” which means “I will place [the name of’] the Lord before me at all times.” Below is a depiction of the priestly blessing by the kohanim. The words “Keter  Torah” accompany the depicting picture of a crown for the Torah

On each side of this artistic display are two depictions of candelabras. This one says "Torah Ohr," or "The Light of Torah." The matching one says "Ner mitzvah," calling to mind the ritual lights of the sabbath and festival days.

On each side of this artistic display are two depictions of candelabras. This one says “Torah Ohr,” or “The Light of Torah.” The matching one says “Ner mitzvah,” calling to mind the ritual lights of the sabbath and festival days.

This says "HaRav" on it, so it must have been the rabbi's shtender - the personal stand from which he would pray or read.

This says “HaRav” on it, so it must have been the rabbi’s shtender – the personal stand from which he would pray or read.

Pictures from the neighborhood tour. This is Congregation B’nei Jacob on Fairmont street, originally a modern Orthodox synagogue. Today it is a church:

Congregation B'nei Jacob

Congregation B’nei Jacob the front doors to the main sanctuary

The side building of the Fairmont Street shul, looking towards Evergreen

Congregation B’nei Jacob – Est. Aug, 14, 1927

The Ten Commandments still hang above the main entrance. This is one of few former shuls which still has remaining remnants of it’s Jewish past after being converted.

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6 responses to “Jewish Boyle Heights: The Past Meets the Future

  • Jeremy Sunderland

    I think you misheard or misunderstood what Steve Sass may have said about the exodus of the Jewish residents of Boyle Heights. He has never said that there was a series of bad decisions. Jews left the working class, primarily immigrant neighborhood after returning from service in WWII. The GI Bill afforded them opportunities to live in less crowded neighborhoods on the West side or in the San Fernando Valley. The community was left as opportunities arose. It was then populated by a new immigrant community.

    Jeremy Sunderland
    Vice President, Jewish Historical Society
    Board Member, Breed Street Shul Project, Inc.

    • "Shmu the Jew"

      Dear Mr Sunderland,

      Thank you for your comment. First me state my sincerest respect, as I hope that even as a make-shift street historian I tell the story accurately.

      Please excuse my delayed response, as I wanted to check with the guys who attended with me to see if I was correct in what I had heard from Steve Sass. And if it was possible I was mistaken. We have come to the conclusion I was correct in what I heard in just those words, and that if I was mistaken then at least a couple of us were mistaken.

      I don’t feel I misheard. But I would like to know, why you take issue with this attribution? I am willing to amend, indeed I think I should because my family feels I also downplayed my own roots of growing up from very small here. So its could use a revision. But I feel that you at least owe me, and my readers, an explanation as to why. And what difference it makes in tone and context.

      I think that Steve Sass made the case very well to us, even if unintentionally, that there are many factors which led to the Jewish community migrating out of Boyle Heights. Among the points that stood out to us was that as institutions which serviced the community shuttered or consolidated other people also ventured to leave as well to where those services were. We understood an obvious message that people also moved to other places for practical reasons, such as better infrastructure. And others for more personal reasons, related to the fact that Jewish life was now just more conducive elsewhere.

      There are a lot of things that stand out to me as part of the many challenges to the community, some of which scared people away. The Red Scare, the politics, the freeways, the riots and the racial friction. Is that not part of what also made people want to move on? Certainly.

      One can stick only with the established narrative of the Boyle Heights experience you are placing before me. However, in my most humble opinion, if you place the whole or even the greater crux of the “exodus” on the GI bill and greener pastures you are telling a very uncompelling story. That story is one dimensional.

      I see the truth of how the benefit the GI Bill improved the the standing of many families, including my own relatives. I can appreciate that impact. As well as the progressive tones and values those BH GIs took with them when they moved to suburbia post-war. But it does not explain for a cross generational mass exodus shortly after restrictive covenants came down. Does one not see that this position is not even statistically probable, let alone logical? This not a full and proper view of history.

      And for a moment I want to speak primarily from my position as a local. Please try to understand me as a friend. Ask around in the community – be it Jewish or Mexican – and I think people will tell you how passionate, but how sincere I am. How attentive and even thirsty for knowledge I am. Malleable in though and wanting to be helpful. But understand I cannot divorce my reality of truth as a Jewish Mexican who happens to live his life primarily in Boyle Heights (I sleep down the street most of the time, but all my friends, shopping, eating, community service and socializing is all mostly done here). This is my observation, and I hope you can take it in kind. I think you are playing it safe, and its not necessary. But its not the first time I’ve seen it.

      What I have learned though personal experience is that the Jewish community often likes to wrap things up in neat little packages. And for the LA Jewish community, many do not like it when you disturb their rose colored view of history. Or suggest anything off the path of the direction they want to take you in exploring “before we were white” or even reminiscing of “when we were poor.” And the distorted equating of Boyle Heights to the Lower East Side of NYC, which is not exactly accurate because the Boyle Heights Jewish community was never nearly that equivalent in being that poor, slum-like or crowded.

      This is an easy view for Jews to have, and to say they left just because they weren’t poor anymore. To downplay the many community issues and tensions. To especially sidestep the issue of friction in our community between Jews and Mexicans (specifically) in this account. But it weakens the narrative, and is obviously employed to avoid the topic of racial friction and a decline in Jewish political power in the neighborhood which caused others to want to move on.

      In choosing the established narrative you suggest one unintentionally allows for the idea that Jews were only in this boat because they had to be, and left when they didn’t have to be anymore. In your own way perpetuating the concept of “white flight.” While at the same time causing a certain psychological harm for the remaining community by mitigating the commonly violent and nationalistic tendencies of the local Mexicans which others could not abide by (and which still plagues this area with urban decline).

      I think Jewish historical scholars are well meaning in wanting to only show the harmonious and cooperative moments they had with minorities in the past, to show the overall leftist and non-racist face of American Jewry. But their rose-tinting view of history exposes a level of privilege Jews have to sugar coat their urban history that way, which us racialized minorities do not. That we cannot, because we still abide here.

      You don’t like the tone I guess. I’m not really sure I understand why. Is it just Jewish awkwardness with talking about race at this point in history? Or is it just the naivety of the Jewish historians aided with book smarts which are long divorced from the physical reality? I dunno. But apparently history and scholarship is all about politics. Sorry, I’m not a politician or even a lettered scholar. I’m a community member.

      I understand that the program objective of your institutions is to promote unifying topics, help facilitate bridge building, foster inter ethnic cooperation, etc. But there is no reason to strike the record when it comes to things which inevitably reveal the historical difficulties and challenges. As there is nothing to be ashamed of, and no reason not to at least acknowledging that.

      I have to tell you, that I truly learn so much from the events and tours. I ask people to come and see them so they can appreciate the history of this community. So they can also make cross-cultural ties and appreciate the historical diversity. But I’m up against a lot of cynicism, by people who are outright opposed to “outside” people coming in and “trying to school us.” People even more suspicious that people are tinkering with history, because what they hear doesn’t always jive with what they actually know through life experience.

      I’m also facing the cynicism of my Latino people whose view of history is also quite often simplistic; that Boyle Heights was a mamash “ghetto,” which Jews were emancipated from, but not us Latinos. I’m also up against shockingly high amounts of anti-semetism; both caused by historical animosities, as well as the newer form of anti-Anglo sentiments and anti-semetism rooted in gentri-fear induced xenophobia.

      Let met back up for a second. This is another observation, one that needs to be called to attention. Your correction is not the first time that people have shown conspicuous discomfort over statements presented on that specific tour. Where people in tandem seemed to show awkwardness to someones own truth that I guess was seen as unbecoming.

      On the bus tour a woman was asked some questions while sitting in front of Roosevelt HS. The abrupt final question was regarding when she moved out of Boyle Heights. She said in 1937, after she went home and told her parents there were girls at school called pachucas and they kept razors in their hair. Her parents moved them out of the area right after.

      Her statements were met with gasps and or a dismissive tones of “oh, well.” Like she was being uncouth or senile, or at the very least embarrassing.

      But for me and my friends, it wasn’t embarrassing. Or at least it shouldn’t have been. It was probably one of the most credible statements made, even if it is not considered edifying in your view. We appreciated the reflection, because we and our families faced the same thing (for that matter, I even had family members who, by there own admission, were agitating and nationalist gang members in those days; my eldest great aunts were pachucas. So I’ve heard the long history of gang clashes and their proud use of intimidation my entire life).

      Yes her story was important and needed to be heard. Because it is just as relevant and worthy of acknowledging as the challenges of gangs us Latinos still face in the here and now. Her story is not just credible, its a common story which us Latinos know very well in this barrio. My own grandmother, she dropped out of RHS in 1953 because she was violently attacked by cholas (who evolved from the pachucas). She as then attacked on her way to Garfield on her first day, and never attended. Thus ending her educational career at 15 years old.

      The gang problem alone, it has had a tremendous historical negative influence on the health of the community since the beginning. The negative impact of Mexican nationalism, it has always been great. To deny it it is not actually tactful. Nor is silencing it wise. Avoiding the topic of race is not polite, its suspicious to locals. And helps perpetuate the racism here. Avoiding that racial discord existed and not wanting to talk about it leaves a lot of people to fill in the silence.

      Let me give you an example. In the Facebook forum “All Roads Lead to Boyle Heights,” one of the most active discussion groups for BH on-line, recently we had a mass of racist and anti-semetic rants. With people airing their view about Jews that have never been so private in this area.

      The topic of the Jews of Boyle Heights became popular again after the disgraceful Donald Sterling incident. Interestingly the local BH community did not in mass decry his racism as much, but instead often laughed it off as him just being caught red handed showing a typical eastside attitude (!). People confessing that growing up here people quite often said racist things behind peoples back, but now thats less common as many now just say it in the open in Spanish. One Latino middle-ages man admitted, “Growing up in Boyle Heights, even if you didn’t start out racist, it was the place to learn to hate black people.”

      But once people started bringing up the past things got really unhinged, and all the historical animosities and suspicions came to the surface. Slurs of antisemitism that no one – save myself and a friend or two – even ventured to repudiate. Let me show one comment, which still remains on the forum:

      “Sal Reyes: We bought our duplex from a Jewish guy named Jacobo… When my mom could not make the balloon payment at 15% interest after paying the loan for 25 years the fucker sent someone to burn down the garages. I wonder what he called my mother behind closed doors? Sterling and Jacobo win the Racist Puto Awards.”

      It should not surprise you this comment was well received because it went with a common local trope of the evil Jewish landlords of Boyle Heights. (see “A Boil is Lanced in Boyle Heights” Jewish Journal 2001)

      This was not at all repudiated by anyone except for me. With my own street credibility I was able to shut that talk down. How? By telling the other story, not just the touchy feely playground stories. By talking about how this area was gentrified for Latinos. Pointing out to people their hypocrisy when these very peoples families (because I know these people) grabbed up properties by the fistful, often at dirt cheap. How the local Mexicans greatly tolerated gang mentality and nationalism because people learned they financially benefited from them running others out. How many of our families became the Latino slumlords who very intentionally rented only to Latinos, and not ever to blacks. Even this guy agreed with my assessment of that.

      I can tell you for a fact this is true. And people know I’m right, as I point out how their own families still own 5, 8 or 12 properties. Duplexes and apartment units. My family benefited probably more than others. My great-grandfather Joe Garcia of 1163 Mott Street acquired 120 properties in this neighborhood as Jews migrated out. So when I tell people it wasn’t an isolated thing, I know for a fact.

      That day I put an end to the local slur of the villain Jewish landlord pillaging the Mexican poor. By addressing it and appealing to what people know is true. Not by segueing into friendship stories.

      Of course there was great multicultural character to the neighborhood. Unique blending of culture that needs to be highlighted. The history of the historical alliances. But one cannot always gloss over the history and say, “Oh, there was no race here. Racism really didn’t exist. We were all equals and friend.” Sure there were exceptionally beautiful relationships built here between the communities. But thats what makes these stories exceptional, because it wasn’t always the case. The bonds formed are not to be taken for granted.

      People well know the transition from a Jewish to a nearly completely Mexican neighborhood was not so cut and dry. And all these years later peoples kids and grandkids are still bitching about it.

      The reason why us Latinos cannot avoid that story is because the racial problems from those days still exist to this day. Deny racism and nationalism existed here. We still have to deal with White Fence and Big Hazard.

      Does not addressing this have consequences? Yes, we didn’t 20 years ago – it was denied and even hushed by the establishment, as the Los Angeles times pointed out – and for this reason today we have a resurgence of the locals burning blacks out again, as seen once again in Ramona Gardens quite recently. Being denied as it has always been denied for the past century.

      The problem is that people have always been apologists for the faults of the community. People for some unknown reason are too intimated by the topic of race, nationalism and power.

      I don’t know how to tell you, but you are going to have to start allowing for a fuller story. People are going to more often challenge the simple narrative. Mostly because scholars have now well shown the “we all lived together, there was no racism” model of Boyle Heights historians to be a myth. I suggest you read the 2010 paper by Su-Shuan Chen, of UC San Diego who points out how this narrative has propelled since the original “Boyle Heights” exhibit at JANM. The paper is titled, “History in the Making: The Construction of Community Memory and Racial Subjects in the Boyle Heights Exhibition.” (

      This piece by Chen is actually quite tame to the tone that is currently being used by young students who are revisiting our history. Historical fervor raised to help them battle in the discussion of gentrification that is straining this community. I have to tell you, my fellow young Latinos are not quite as tactful as her. We are often more passionate because we have the stake in this. But some people are coming at this more often, and with an agenda.

      I can understand that the institutions and historians have a certain goal at preserving the integrity of the community they represent. I can even understand that these topics challenge funding or are politically imprudent. But at least say so. But don’t silence people or engage people with a suggestion of their intellectual confusion.

      Whether you know it or not, people see the tours in the neighborhood has part of gentrification. People tweet and status update their discomfort with seeing “guedos,” which they suspect are their to take their homes. Other people even grossly suggesting that Jewish people are just coming to gawk at poverty like tourists. Accusing people nostalgizing an idealized past. And supposedly wanting to be told a story aimed at helping wealthy Jewish funders walk away feeling less than privileged. Ouch.

      So if those topics are off limits for reasons of creating harmony, state that. But people are confusing the politeness with avoidance.

      Help me make a better case for the merit of the tours. Being a friend means being honest with you. I don’t tell you this to upset you. But for you to understand what is really at stake. That this history is not just scholarship on the table. Please carefully consider that.

      Shmuel Gonzales
      Hardcore Mesorah

  • Jeremy

    I simply made a statement about what I know to be Steve Sass’s knowledge of the history of the neighborhood. JHS is not in the business of creating – nor do we have any desire to create – some mythical, idealized version of what the neighborhood was.

    The reason the neighorhood was mixed is simple: all ethnic groups could live in Boyle Heights, as there were not restrictive covenants, and people could buy lots on time. Once these restrictive covenants were held to be unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 1948, Jews and all others were legally permitted to buy property anywhere in the city (though, of course, they weren’t always greeted with open arms). This decision (SHELLEY V. KRAEMER , 334 U.S. 1 [1948]) in addition to the funds and opportunities of the GI Bill – combined with all the aspirations of seeking “The American Dream” of homeownership, etc. are among the primary reasons that Jews – and others – left Boyle Heights.

    Certainly, here may have been racism in certain individuals (and I don’t think Donald Sterling is really part of this story), but there is racism and bad behavior everywhere – in every nook, village, city, state and country. There are no rose-colored glasses here.

    I’m not sure why you’ve chosen to attack my personal integrity or that of the Breed Street Shul Project and JHS. We work closely with the Boyle Heights Neighbors Association and others to make sure our stories are told in a shared context of multi-culturalism. This is a good thing – I’m sorry you have a difficult time seeing that. (And, by the way, personally I don’t take a lot of stock in the old Fox News trick of suggesting that things are true because “Some say that….”).

    BSSP and JHS have one mission – to bridge communities of both time and ethnicity in understanding. We welcome your participation.

  • Bruce

    Shmuel! I can’t believe we haven’t met yet. My name is Bruce Bierman and I love what you are doing my brother! I am a theater artist and Jewish educator living up in Berkeley with my husband Gilberto. We both lived in L.A. for years and my family is originally from Boyle Heights. Ironically, there happens to be an article about my work with the band ‘Mostly Kosher’ and our East L.A. roots in this weeks Jewish Journal. I want to meet you! my contact e-mail is:

    • Shmuel Gonzales

      Thank you! I was just reading the article in the Jewish Journal. I am just floored by the details and the loving description of the neighborhood. I have actual been spending a lot of time trying to re-piece the story of Jewish City Terrace. I’ve been learning so much, but there are so many thing running through my head I’d love to ask you and share with you. I also am very surprised we haven’t met before! We do need to get together. And I’d realy love to hear your band perform. I’ll email you my detail. 🙂 Also I encourage you to check out my newest blog I started a couple weeks ago, Barrio Boychik….

      Gut shabbos!

  • Introducing Panadería Brooklyn: Mexican Black-and-White Cookies | Poppy and Prune

    […] Project; “Growing Up in Jewish Boyle Heights,” Jewish Journal (Tom Tugend, July 13, 2011); “Jewish Boyle Heights: The Past Meets the Future,” Hardcore Mesorah (Shmuel Gonzales, March 5, 2014); “Our Los Angeles Stories,” Jewish […]

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