Celebrating Art Culture in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles
After being extended a second week due to the excitement surrounding this exhibition, the latest open house of the Breed Street Shul Project cheerfully closes as a great success. Running from May 31st through June 13th, this gorgeous art show featured local Jewish, Japanese and Latino artists – representing three of the foundational historic communities of Boyle Heights.
This stands out as a major milestone in what has become a nearly 20-year restoration and revitalization effort at this historic site. With their hard work now being realized with such gorgeous and stunning results.
In recent years the Breed Street Shul Project has been celebrating the historical roots of the community of Boyle Heights through a series of special events ranging from lectures to historic banquets. And in celebrating life by hosting special events ranging from bar mitzvahs to pre-Grammy celebration parties. And welcoming festivities ranging from Israel Independence Day events like Fiesta Shalom, to the revelry of the Dia de los Meuertos celebrations. As well as giving guided tours of the historic eastside immigrant community.
This latest installment of Boyle Heights culture focused on art, and resulted in the stunning temporary transformation of the Beit Midrash – the original 1915 wood-framed study hall which first housed the synagogue, in the back – into a stunning art gallery. Professionally balanced in both light and tone.
The range of art and the subjects of inspiration also masterfully balanced. This show presented amazing pieces of mixed media art and fine painting. Using touching and striking images, to present the glory and the tragedies of the Boyle Heights experience.
Immediately on display, viewers are greeted by a large portrait of the Breed Street Shul. One of the oldest known images of the larger brick synagogue which graces the front of the property. This larger sanctuary opened for services in 1923. The shul is shown in all its original splendor, before southern California’s notorious earthquakes destroyed the ornamental brickwork and cast stones. However, if you look closely at the portrait one will see the portrait has been imaged over recycled Jewish liturgical texts by artist Lori Shocket.
This show, which ran up until the Father’s Day weekend, touchingly displayed the collaborative work of physician Lori Shocket, and her artistically acclaimed father and holocaust survivor Seigfried Knop.
The duo’s “partnership paintings” are breathtaking blends acrylic and pastels. Each baring the timeless words of the most holy Jewish confession in Hebrew script, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Eloheinu, Hashem Echad / Hear oh Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One.” (Deut. 6:4) Each depiction is of the grand stained glass windows of the shul. The abstract “Diffraction,” the somber “Defacement,” and the bright “Niggun for Hope.”
As impressive as the painting are, their mixed-media presentations also offered deep Jewish cultural and religious themes that should not be overlooked.
“Prayer for…” breaks the concept of canvas as a box display of the Kotel – the most holy Western Wall in Jerusalem. With a crack in the wall filled with prayers, as is the custom of the site. The surface of the wall is in the hue of Jerusalem Stone, met with a faint representation of a section of closely toned Torah Scroll parchment. This work pulls in the viewer, almost daring them to leave a hope and prayer of their own.
“613 Mitzvot” reminds us of the 248 positive and 365 negative commandments of the Torah; the do’s and do not’s of the scriptures which govern Jewish religious life. The partially covered magen david – the star of David – reminds us of the grand window of the shul once again. Raised from the canvas is the expression of a tallit – a ritual prayer prayer shawl. The four-cornered garment itself bearing a light display of handwritten Hebrew text, with the Torah prescribed tzitzit tasseling off the canvas. The four-cornered garment hints at the concept of being wrapped in the holy thoughts of Torah, whereas the tzitzit represent the commandments of Torah put into practice and action. We must have both the meeting of thought and action to accomplish mitzvot – good deeds.
Local Latino artist and muralist Fabian Debora also connects with the Jewish character of the site in the truly amazing and richly painted “Graffittied Rabbi,” which layers themes of urban Jewish life and barrio artistry. The chassid facing a wall of graff-styled Hebrew.
Fabian Debora was raised in Boyle Heights and created his first artwork as a young gang member on the walls of the Breed Street Shul itself. He has since grown, rehabilitated himself and gone on to become one of most well-respected of the local artists to take their inspiration from the Chicano muralist tradition. In addition to his professional artistry he is also active with Homeboy Industries Inc., as a drug counselor and helping others also emerging from the hardships of gang life. It seems only right that his evolution as an artist and resident is celebrated in this exhibition. And that his art once again return to these halls in a positive way.
It is important that viewers take notice that it was not just synagogue and Jewish themed art which took the spotlight at this art show.
Fabian also joined fellow Boyle Heights resident Mike Saijo in delivering themes apropos to the surrounding neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Some of these works bringing to remembrance times of hardship and social upheaval significant to all members of this community.
Mike Saijo is a well-respected and recognized local artist, as well as the artistic brainchild who helped bring this group of diverse artists together for this unique show. Siajo’s work often touches on issues of diversity and racial prejudice, focusing on the experiences of the Japanese, Jewish and Latino communities circa WWII. He once again delivers a wonderful presentation of ethnically diverse themes.
Saijo’s work “Evergreen” is a framed piece of layered mixed-media art, depicting the eerie beauty of the Japanese section of the local Boyle Heights cemetery just blocks away. It is one of the most beloved of cemetery sections in the local community.
The piece “Portrait of Natasurah Family,” is a gleaming and classy presentation of mixed-media art. The handsome family portrait is imaged over the pages of “Story of an Issei Pioneer.” This piece gives us a small glimpse into the lives of the people who struggled as first generation Japanese-Americans from the 1880s through the 1940s.
Fabian Debora delivered another homage to the Japanese community of Boyle Heights, while touching on one of the most darkest points of this community’s history; the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. His use of canvas and paint to carry this story is nothing short of tremendous, here in his pieces titled “In Torment.”
The internment of the Japanese-Americans. It cannot be overstated just how much this event scarred those who lived through it, and how this episode tore at the fabric of our community. Especially traumatizing the youth of the community who saw their classmates taken away and placed behind fences. Calling into question for each immigrant group their own safety, by seeing people as American as themselves taken away under suspicion.
This historic tragedy is something many people in Boyle Heights still discuss, as for some this event still calls into question the veracity of ones own American citizenship to isolate them from injustice and xenophobia. However, so traumatic and so great were the losses of both pride and property that I know local Japanese families who do not ever talk about their experiences with their children so as not to cause them to think ill of the USA. Not all the wounds have healed yet.
The Japanese community here was never fully restored to its former glory after the war, and is much smaller yet today. It’s important we do not forget them and tell their story. And that we express just how shared this pain was for the rest of the Boyle Heights community.
This is not the only shared pain which is vividly presented in this art exhibition, Mike Saijo present us with, “Orpheum (Theater of War).” He uses a mixed-media once again, along with mechanical motions, to tell the brutal story of the Zoot Suit Riots which ripped through the minority communities of Los Angeles 1943.
While the riots are part of the oral history of the area, and central to the foundation myths of the Chicano street culture, few young people today understand the details of this deeply traumatic time for both Latinos, and the many Jews of Boyle Heights.
In this piece we get to peer into the pages of history, to see the horror of US servicemen attacking Mexican pachucos in the historic Orpheum Theater. A shocking spectacle of violence inspired by populist rhetoric. Servicemen of the day were regularly incensed by the appearance of the lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII, all the while accusing Mexicans of making out well financially in industrial jobs they were called up to fill as the war raged. It only took the rumor of a gang stabbing and petty crimes to set in motion a brutal wave of violence against these young Latinos. (see “Fighting over the American Standard of Living, 1943-1945: Zoot Suit Riots, Wildcar Strikes, and the Supremacy of the Soldier.”)
The Zoot Suit Riots. As displayed in this piece, servicemen undressed and beat their victims. Defrocking Mexican youth of their infamous baggy dress suits and tearing them to shreds as a protest to the supposed appearance of excess and opportunism during the lean times of war. An orgy of violence against those they perceived as draft-dodging and disloyal, which spilled into all the minority communities of Los Angeles.
This series of brutal attacks were so severe it likewise traumatized Jewish community of the area, as many regarded the unrest and targeting of Mexicans as reminiscent of the pogroms inflicted against themselves in Eastern Europe. For this reason the Jewish community felt a great affinity with the cause of Mexican-Americans and for this reason threw their strong political support behind this other immigrant rich community.
The first vestiges of a viable Latino civil rights movement would emerge from the aftermath of the riots. The political unions made with progressive Jews at that time would also later help propel Edward R. Roybal to city council as the first Mexican-American council member of the City of Los Angeles in 1949. Kicking off a season of progressive advances in housing, education and healthcare access for the overlooked minority communities.
But at the same time this period also sparked the birth of the modern street-gang culture we know today. The pachuco gangs being the precursors to the cholos we know today. The lingering sentiments after the riots would further propel the rebellious impetus for national self-identity within the street-gang culture. A need to self-define and stand distinct in response to one’s feeling of otherness, which is still present in gang life today just as much as then.
Fabian Debora vividly and credibly takes us into an even more sublime thought. In his work “I’m a Pachuco Bastard,” which also looks back to the Zoot Suit Riots. His work is more than just a bold affirmation torn off the slur. It takes a look at one person, and tells a classic Mexican-American story of conflict for him. Conflict with the society which one would hope to embrace him, and the fear of being the victim of that society as well. As we all ask the same questions looking at this piece, is he going to be embraced or is he being handcuffed? And which does our subject really want for himself anyhow? Does his face show sadness, hardness or indifference?
Both “I’m a Pachuco Bastard” and the final piece of this collection titled “Meet on Brooklyn Avenue,” beautifully display how well Fabian can intertwine the elements of high art with graffiti texture. And he’s even more exceptional at using his images to tease a story into the imagination of the observer. As in this final piece, with the meeting of three men whom we cannot identify except by a cropped view of their suits. We are left to start building a story: is this a pachuco, a chassid and Japanese man on good old Brooklyn? And what do we think the news of the day was for the corner gossip? We are drawn into wanting to ask so many questions. This is one of the many reasons I find his work so captivating.
Now I’m not an artist, and I don’t really have any artistic knowledge. I’m just an eastide boy who knows I like and what moves me. I really think that all the pieces of this show are just bursting with sentimental feelings of heritage to share. I appreciate being able to go on this artistic journey through the history and spirit of Boyle Heights with these fine artists.
As I did my walk through I got a chance to grab a chat with Breed Street Shul Project Executive Director Sherry Marks, and she shared her deep excitement to finally see an art show at the shul. As this is one of the most expressive and dynamic of the events in this open house series. She also expressed how hopeful she is as they branch out into new areas of art and cultural expression as well. She mused of the idea of even possibly hosting drama and theater here one day! As there are so many wonderful possibilities that will open up for this site as it continues to be renovated to serve as a community cultural center.
Visiting the Breed Street Shul is always an exciting time for me. But I think more that just being appreciative of the beauty of the site and its rich history, I think one of the draws for me is how much I learn from the community interaction to be found at these really spectacular events hosted by the project. This site draws so many different people together. It is a meeting spot where both old and new Boyle Heights folk get the chance to exchange heartfelt stories and memories about the neighborhood they love.
One of the reasons we need the Breed Street Shul is this site charmingly brings people together and remind us that our various minority groups have been in this boat together for a long time. And that our historical pains, they have been shared pains. And this site also bears witness to how much we have all benefited from the diversity of our glorious past. And these events here, they help us remember and retain the multiculturalism and diversity of that Boyle Heights experience.
…To be continued, with a story of the Wabash Saxons Reunion! For more images or the art, see video below!
Recommended articles and points of interest:
- “Jewish Boyle Heights: Where the Past Meets the Future” (Hardcore Mesorah)
- “Parshat Bamidbar: Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving? A Jewish-Latino Torah reflection from Boyle Heights“
- “Intersection: at the Breed Street Shul” (Jewish Journal)
- History and Culture of Boyle Heights as explained by the Amoeblog (Amoeba Records blog)
- Boyle Heights History Blog
- Libros Schmibros: Lending Library and Worshop
- Selp Help Graphics & Art
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