Tag Archives: Gangs

Parshat V’Zot haBerachah (5775)


The Security of Dwelling on Your Own, Under Your Own Vine And Tree

We have now entered into a new Jewish year, and we today find ourselves in the middle of the holiday of Sukkot. The year is over but we still have some more Torah to read.

The Hollenbeck home, La Villa de Paredon Blanco, from Thompson and West's history of Los Angeles County (1880). This one one of the first residences  east of the river here in the paredon, the bluffs.

The Hollenbeck home, La Villa de Paredon Blanco, from ‘Thompson and West’s history of Los Angeles County (1880).’ This is one of the first residences east of the river here in the paredon, the bluffs.

However, normally this parsha does not get the same attention that we give the other parashiot. This Torah portion is regularly reserved as a final reading, meant to be paired with the start of the Torah cycle as we start over again at the beginning with Genesis. We don’t want this Torah learning to end, so we save this last reading for when we start over again with the celebration of Simchat Torah.

But consider for a moment how this reading is not honored or regarded among the weekly readings. It is often overlooked as utilitarian, something that just gets us from one point to another. To critical scholars, this final Torah portion is just a chance for the scriptures to wrap-up loose ends. It’s not treated as all that special. It’s the one most often overlooked, and purposely so. So every year I make sure to give special attention to this parsha, and dedicate it to those who feel ignored or left out. This one is for you. This is also further dedicated to my community, which often feels so ignored.

Today we will focus on the 6th reading, which is the second to the last reading. This reading is so short, it only contains three verse. We will focus on the middle verse, which is the second to the last spoken line attributed to Moses in the Torah. This is among the last words Moses gives us before he dies and the people move forward towards their destiny without him:

“And Israel dwelt in safely,

the fountain of Jacob alone,

in a land of grain and wine;

also, his heavens will drip dew.”

| Vayishkon Yisrael betach

| bedad ein Yaakov

| el-eretz dagan vetirosh

| af-shamav ya’arfu-tal

Deuteronomy 33:28

This statement is one of the closing lines after Moses gathers the people together and blesses them just before he dies. Just as Jacob – also named Israel – blessed his children on his deathbed, so too Moses blesses these children of Israel before he passes away. This connection is hinted at in his words, as well as through our rabbinic commentators who also relate this back to the similar blessings of Jacob.

However, here we have a break neck statement presented in this single line of the Torah. The first parts seems to be talking about something extending to them from the past, that Jacob dwelt safely and alone. Hinting that so too will they also be so blessed.

But then there is a statement about being blessed with life-sustaining dew from the heavens, that clearly appears to be talking about the future. That G-d will continue to bless them with the moisture of the dew they so badly need in their dry environment, to help sustain their crops.

I don’t want to get too much into this topic of tal just yet – of dew; but we are just coming out of the summer season where we pray for tal (dew). Now starting after the harvest days of Sukkot, we instead being praying in expectation of the coming of earth renewing ruach (wind) and geshem (rain).

We all know what the scriptures tell us regarding these things. We read it along with the Shema at morning and night, and with our prayers everyday. We are told that if we do what the Torah asks of us we will have all these things in their proper seasons, and be blessed with the resulting sustenance by our G-d. (see the Second Paragraph of the Shema; Deut. 11:13-21) I’ll touch on that again in closing, so keep this close in mind.

But for a moment I would like us to back up here and look at this first part of the verse: “Vayishkon Yisrael betach badad / And Israel shall dwell in safety and alone.” We really need to ask ourselves some questions. What type of blessing is this? And what are the implications?

There is one word that stands out to me, one that catches my attention because this whole verse can mean something different based on how we perceive this word badad – which simply means “alone.”

But this word not only means alone, the same root word in everyday speech means to be “insulated.” Do we seem to be talking here about being insulated and separate from others? We can see an example of the word used this way elsewhere in the Torah, when the wicked Balam says of Israel collectively:

“For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: look here, it is a people that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.”

כִּימֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ, וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ: הֶןעָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן, וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב.

Numbers 23:9

These are the words of Balam, the wicked prophet of sorts. Who didn’t have anything against Israel, but didn’t necessarily have anything for them either. Nonetheless in his many statements he shows how astonished and impressed he is with these people. Several times he mentions how lovely they dwell. (Numbers 24:5) Here in this statement he notices that this people dwell well on their own and alone among the nations, as they are destined to so dwell alone.

He makes the observation many people have made about the children of Israel, that they are not like everyone else and they are people prone to keeping to themselves. They live off on their own. People make this observation both positively, and sometimes negatively as well. But I would dare say, that while the Jewish faith empowers people to build a distinct sense of community, it does not encourage people to be isolated and devoid of pluralism. It demands we welcome and even love the stranger. (Leviticus 19:34)

So why does the Torah use this word here? Isn’t it a negative thing for a people to be “alone”? Is it really healthy for a nation of people to be alone and insulated from other peoples? Is that what the Torah is asking of us here? Is that what we are to be in pursuit of? Is happiness found only when people are just left alone?

In our verse we read that according to this promise of Moses we are to dwell, “betach, badad / in safety, and alone.” Betach means securely, peacefully and tranquilly. That we should dwell securely and alone. But there is one question that I can’t help but ask myself continuously as I consider this text, is peace and security only found when a people dwell alone? Is that what these scriptures are trying to tell us?

There are some who might actually read it this way. Certainly there are some people who do think this way, and who in light of their feelings cannot seem to help but read a verse this way. Projecting their isolationist sentiments in to their understanding of this text. That in order for their own people to have safety, be it physical safety or the security of resources, this people must dwell separate and alone. That the best way to be at peace and in tranquility is to be alone, without the bothers of clashing interaction and the threats of competition. Being at peace, by virtue of the absence of all others.

Now most of us notice that a lot has changed since the time of Yaakov, there are a lot more people in the world today. And the regions in which we live are now heavily populated. Most of us dwell in urban centers, filled with a diversity of people. We cannot be like Yaakov, all off to ourselves. We have to dwell with others. But in the desire of some people to have this sense of security of being “alone,” some people unfortunately do negatively voice how they prefer their vicinity to be made of people all like themselves; thus they are alone, and left alone by others.

Living Examples from the Community of Boyle Heights

Let me us give some real-life examples of this tendency in action, and at the same time address the needs of my community for a moment if you will. Because this topic hits home for me.

This is a theme which comes up often as I do community work in the local barrio of Boyle Heights, my most beloved neighborhood. People often talk with me about how our insulated, predominately Latino community, does today and has historically at times had, ethnic and economic related tensions. But going back further into our history, in the earlier half of the 20th century this was a place of tolerance and diversity for our residents, a blending of cultures found almost nowhere else. A tight historical bond of cooperation and camaraderie between diverse ethnic groups was modeled here in the classic era of this community.

So why now all the focusing on negativity of the past by the disgruntled locals? It’s just that today, more than ever, people feel threatened; both in the housing and job market as other races and classes slowly consider migrating towards our Latino working-class area we live in, with the fear of them displacing our own people. Economics is fueling a sense of isolationism. A bitter fight against gentrification, and also against any sort of progress or upgrades which would possibly make the neighborhood “too fancy” for us Latinos to sustain a future in. People threatened by new potential home owners and skilled labor, which many of our immigrant people are not. As our people badly need the home they rent and the livelihood of their unskilled mom-and-pop storefront job they have, plain and simple.

But being alone has its consequences, being isolated – today 98% Latino in demographics – has its downsides as well and comes with many negative elements. And with this in mind, a local man was pining upon the past of Boyle Heights as a mixed community. He outright asked in a public forum, when are we as a community going to be ready to return to that type of diversity and brotherhood? To make this place somewhere we can challenge the barriers once again.

I kid you not, it was a local preacher’s wife who was the first to chime in, “¡Chale! There’s too many of us here already.” That people need to leave our community alone. Followed with an us vs. them, nationalist argument. And a dismissal to the tune of, “I have nothing against them, it’s just economics.”

So as you see, even when people claim they have faith in G-d they can still have a lot of problems having faith in humanity. There are many people, who no matter what their persuasion, can still cling on to hardened ideas of tribalism. And we still have a lot of cultural religionists around here, who just don’t have faith in those of other cultures. I find that unacceptable, and totally against the scriptures.

So how do we help address these problems for people who feel like they lack a sense of security? For people who out of fear want us to be alone, and desire to build a bulwark around our community? I believe that the scriptures do give us some examples if we are willing to listen and learn.

The Security of Being at Home, Under Your Own Tree

Now as we turn back over to our scripture which we are studying today, I asked us to once again draw our attention to these words: “betach badad / in safety, and alone.” Remember how betach is also understood to mean securely, peacefully and in tranquility.

And again I ask the question, is peace and security only found when we dwell alone? Now I ask us an ever more direct question in this vein. Is security only found when we are amongst our own? Is our safety only secured by sheer numbers? When we are surrounded among our own kind in order to avoid the risk of all others? Our rabbis would say, no. That that is a sign of insecurity! That is a very sure sign of a community in danger.

If we look at our ever-present commentary by Rashi, he defines being secure and alone a much different way:

Safely and alone: Every single individual [will dwell safely] – each man under his own vine and his own fig tree. [And their security will be so sound, that] they will have no need to live together in one group, because of the enemy.”

בטח בדד: כל יחיד ויחיד איש תחת גפנו ותחת תאנתו מפוזרין ואין צריכים להתאסף ולישב יחד מפני האויב:

Rashi, Deuteronomy 33:28

Rashi describes security as a person being at home under his own vine and fig tree!

Then he also draws us a picture of what insecurity looks like, it’s when a people are forced to live together huddled in a group. “Yachad miphnei ha-oyeiv / together as one because of an enemy.” When people must be amassed and concentrated together for security, because of the risk of rivals or opponents.

Bario White Fence History as told by the gang themselves: White Fence is consider the mother of all Chicano gangs. The one most often modelled and portrayed in movies, videos and books. Indeed most of all popular cholo values and style originates from this very local gang. Notice how in their version of history, gangs were formed to protect themselves from the other minorities and whites who abused them. Still in the absence of these competing groups today, the violent impetus to keep others out still remains.

Bario White Fence History as told by the gang members themselves: White Fence is consider the mother of all Chicano gangs. The one most often modelled and portrayed in movies, videos and books. Indeed almost all of popular cholo values and style originates from this very local gang. The author contends,”I am not attempting to glamorize the hood or gangbanging but present an accurate picture of real and true barrio history.” Notice how in thier version of history, gangs were formed to protect themselves from the risk of other larger ethnic groups and the whites who abused them. To protect their small and isolated barrio (neighborhood). Yet still, these many years later even in the absence of any of these competing groups today, the violent impetus to keep others out still remains.

I can tell you for a fact that our rabbi here is correct, as I witness this type of reality in my own community. Indeed that is one of my biggest challenges, trying to stir our local people out of a collective nightmare in which our barrios were huddle masses of scared minorities and whose only reprieve from outside harassment was through the prevalence of racial gang violence which threatened outsiders away. It’s disheartening that even today, some people still tactically accept this as the cost worth paying to avoid cultural and demographic dilution. But the persistence of this for the past century has offered no security, quite the contrary.

Again, Rashi describes security as a person being at home under his own vine and fig tree! When a person is not stuck with the wagons circled. It’s under the shade and sustenance of a fruitful vine and fig tree. But if you consider it, there is one precondition to us having the benefit of such things. You need to have land! You need to have a place to plant your vine and fig tree, in order to persist and see them grow to fruition. One needs their own homestead, to put down roots. Where each man dwells in the safety and shade of his own home and livelihood, though a direct connection with his own land. Reaping the direct benefits of land ownership, which grants one self-dependence and the means for self-determination. With the security of living on one’s own, that’s how we should read this passage here.

All people need this sense of security. Especially here in this community where it is lacking, we need to turn our struggling renters into home owners. Helping find adequate housing for people in this crowded neighborhood, where often times even more than one family may struggle to live in a single unit already.

We need to help the anxious make a home for themselves, so as not to be blown around the neighborhood by the winds of the markets or tossed around at the whims of absentee landlords. Educating people on their rights and options.

We need to educate and empower people to put their money to use in gaining them equity as home owners, which also grants them security and resources in time of need. Helping people buy homes in this neighborhood of theirs. Instead painfully watching money slip through their fingers season after season, and year after year in the cost of rent. And of course more importantly, so a person can feel that they have their own place in the world and all the sweetness that comes with.

We also need to do more to help create new housing opportunities for low-income and struggling families. With new development which offers more safe housing options for all the various working-class people of this diverse city. Building new opportunities together, and restoring old alliances. Working together to fight displacement, homelessness and overcrowding!

What we really need around here is dedicated people who are less interested in descending into revolution, and more dedicated to bringing this community to fruition. People who are willing to bring this community together in peace, to reap the benefits of investing in our own community. Investing with both our resources and our efforts.

Closing the season of dew, entering the seasons of rains

I asked you to keep a thought in mind a while back there. So I want us to just touch on this in closing, this topic of tal. The future promise that is given to Israel by Moses, that we will have heaven-sent tal – G-d will send us His life-giving dew.

As I said we are just coming out of the summer season were we are asking for tal (dew) in our prayers, when it is much-needed to help sustain our produce with essential water and moisture through the summer heat. And now we will transition for the season and begin to ask for ruach and geshem, wind and rain; for the wind that will scatter seeds and pollen, and the rain that will water it. And likewise we are expected to sow, in line with the times and seasons. So that months from now in the spring we will see the results of this natural cycle of renewal of the land, when the spring harvest comes.

Blessing comes in the right season. But it comes through a mixture of action on our part, and living with a sense of promise and hope that we are aided by the blessings of our G-d. A mixture of effort, and faith.

We need to encourage people with the promise that our G-d will also help sustain us in our undertakings. As with the life-giving dew through which we and nature find ourselves sustained by our G-d. He will preserve us with His blessings, with His “tal” sustaining us in mercy. He will help us make this investment blossom and bear fruit when the season is right. But its time for us to get ready to sow!

I choose to encourage people with a message of hope, instead of resorting to fear and hysteria. I choose to embolden people to make this land their own and make it blossom for their families. I choose to stand apart from the people sounding like prophets of doom around the barrio. Hysterics talking of the coming changes with anxiety and disseminating a sense doom for our district.

I instead choose to raise the prophetic voice of the Jewish tradition, as found in the bible. I draw upon the words of the prophet Zechariah, one of the most dramatic of all the prophets. Yes, he was among them that foretold of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and exile of his people during the First Temple Period. But he also spoke in surety of the promise of their salvation, and with certainty of the restoration of his people. Zachariah gave hope, because that is what a prophetic voice is for! As the scriptures read:

“For the sowing is for peace. The vine shall give forth its fruit, and the earth shall give forth its produce, and the heavens shall give forth their dew – and I will cause the remnant of this people to inherit all these things.”

כִּי זֶרַע הַשָּׁלוֹם הַגֶּפֶן תִּתֵּן פִּרְיָהּ וְהָאָרֶץ תִּתֵּן אֶת יְבוּלָהּ וְהַשָּׁמַיִם יִתְּנוּ טַלָּם וְהִנְחַלְתִּי אֶת שְׁאֵרִית הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶת כָּל אֵלֶּה:

Zechariah 8:12

I ask people to sow into this community, both the Latino and Jewish people who love this neighborhood. Help us sow in peace, so we can cause the remnant of this people to inherit and fruitfully develop this land.

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Boyle Heights: Urban Heritage Vs. Urban Legend


Facing the past will help us face our future

Of all the topics I have explored over the years, none of them have I thrown more of myself into than dealing with the honorable history of the multi-ethnic Boyle Heights of yesteryear. The history of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles is the most fascinating blend of Old West and urban history. It is the topic I find the most captivating. Telling this history, the most fulfilling. But in the past couple years, it has also become the most challenging story to tell.

Boyle Heights’ Second Street Elementary School band in 1930, made up of Japanese, Jewish, Russian, Armenian and Mexican students.

This is our Multicultural Heritage: Boyle Heights’ Second Street Elementary School band in 1930, made up of Japanese, Jewish, Russian, Armenian and Mexican students.

The Los Angeles eastside neighborhood of Boyle Heights has some interesting stories to share with us. And that is how up until recently I have learned the most about Boyle Heights. Through the personal stories shared by Mexican-American, Jewish, and Japanese people who have grown up in this historically multi-ethnic area. Nearly every weekend I spend my time walking the neighborhood, talking with people and swapping stories.

More often these days I’m being joined by a diverse group of people, most often with current locals and former residents. And every so often, with the children and grandchildren of the old residents who return here to get in touch with their roots. As an eastside native with multi-generational roots in Boyle Heights, I can relate to the deep affection people feel for the area.

This area has historically been home to the many minorities, who because of segregation – both of an ethnic and of a religious nature – where not allowed to buy property in the then more affluent, white and protestant suburbs on the westside prior to the 1950s. These then considered “subversive” groups struggled through the hardest of times together. Among them also being the Great Depression and World War II. Yet through it all they together forged a remarkable community with a noteworthy legacy here. The remnants of which remain in the physical architecture of Boyle Heights; synagogues, temples, churches, cemeteries, house, hospitals and cultural centers. I love nothing more than exploring these sites with the people to whom they matter most! With people who have stories to share.

Of course along the way I have absorbed a few facts, so when I go wandering through through neighborhood I also try to give my insights and observations too. Growing up here as a child and being a descendant of one of the oldest Mexican-American families in the neighborhood, I have many reflections on what makes Boyle Heights magical for us Latinos. But also as an observant Jew who also attends synagogue with Jewish former residents of Boyle Heights, I find much joy in sharing in the preservation of the historical Jewish past enshrined here as well.

Having a heart that beats for both communities has always been a blessing to me. Being just as comfortable in my skin as Jew and as a Latino, and speaking the language of both communities, I often speak and interpret for people across the cultural divide. I have always been the local kid that everyone drags along through the eastside to read some inscription, and to uncover the story behind some plaque or monument. For explaining the historical significance of something in the community. People often asking me questions about classic Boyle Heights and its former glory as a multi-ethnic community. Boyle Heights had its better and most memorial days as a mixed community, and this a fact not contested by anyone. People love to talk about their fond memories of that. For this reason my work in Boyle Heights was always well received.

I never received reproof or objection from anyone until recently. When I clumsily touched on one topic of dispute and misunderstanding between many people within the communities. When I began to write about the exodus of the former non-Latino residents, including the large predominately Jewish population, out of Boyle Heights. (see, “Boyle Heights: The Past Meets the Future“) In this blog I unintentionally upset a tour giving historian from the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California with some statements. And then in turn also greatly upset my Latino landsmen, by first wanting to be apologetic regarding my unwelcome observations and citations; people telling me I was compromising truth.

Under the stress of it all I uncouthly lashed out, while still struggling to understand the points of each side. And I totally fritzed out when I couldn’t sufficiently satisfy either community. I dealt with it badly out of frustration. I was wrong to be so harsh, unloading the complaints thrown at me upon this historian. I don’t feel it was his place to repudiate these statements, which weren’t his own anyhow. Yet, I also recognize that I dealt with it entirely wrong, and I apologize.

Now after months of doing nothing more than reconsidering and listening to the stories of both my Jewish and Mexican-American friends I have come to understand why I can’t fully satisfy all parties. Frankly, because some of us have been telling our urban legends and projecting our own mythos which simply cannot be harmonized with a fair and honest historical narrative. And its on all sides.

The story is not as neatly tied up as its most often been presented up until now. But the story can be rectified. And it needs to be, for the healing of the community of today. And for the peace of the neighborhood of tomorrow.

How I upset an established Jewish narrative

The point of contention came a couple of months ago when in my blog comments I was rightfully called to point by a board member of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, as I did not sufficiently acknowledge how great the influence the GI Bill played in providing upward mobility for many young people returning from WWII. As this act provided many people the first-time buyer home loans, which helped them settle in the communities newly opened to them in West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley after the repeal of segregating “restrictive covenants.”

But he also took it upon himself to repudiate statement by another person who led a historical group tour through the neighborhood. Then made historical assertions that I am told are not entirely correct in light of real events and oral histories. And presented his much more politically correct story he prefers to tell. And in the end he very flippantly in tone dismissing my own observations as a native as some sort of propaganda and device from Fox News. Fighting words to use with someone like me who is a proud and active leftist in this community, not one of these people who is just left of the right. But I digress.

The point is, I built much of my original blog piece around the topic of community resources. How the decline of the institutions and the consolidation of resources within the Jewish community of the area rapidly accelerated their migration out of Boyle Heights out of practical necessity. I side-stepped all the issues of socio-economics, race, politics, the Red Scare, the riots, the levelling for freeways, etc. With the unspoken understanding of a local, that all these factors somewhat came into play in encouraging many people to move away from the area.

For reasons of tact I had quite intentionally tried to steer away from the topic of the historic racial frictions and even the inter-community conflicts. Only hinting at those things we all know well from history. I also decided not to directly bring up any of the issues of race, gangs or urban decline. Mostly because it has always been made well clear to me that the message which needed to be spread was one of friendship and brotherhood. I did my best, Yet I still upset the historian, and that really did perturb me.

Mostly because I had also gone to equally great lengths to sidestepped a competing local narrative, one often fed to our Latino youth. One that explains the demographic change much differently. A counter-narrative, one which is more well-known and most often blindly accepted on the streets of Boyle Heights. And that is what I need to address today. The conflict between two competing narratives .

The competing narrative of the local street culture

ChakaArtist

A few months ago in my weekly Torah study I talked about tribal and national symbols. And I then reflected on the growing tensions in Boyle Heights, and talked about the intentionally divisive and racially charged way art, murals and nationalist symbols have been utilized in the eastside. How they are purposely employed to intimidate others.; including the African-Americans which local Latino racists are trying to burn out of the projects. And I also reflected how and why we need to move beyond that. It didn’t take long for this most infamous of graffiti artist to validate my claims and understanding of this rhetoric for all of us.

The narrative being told today on the streets today is not a new one. The narrative I hear today is exactly like the ones I heard hanging out in front of the Bonilla’s store at 8th and Mott as a kid. The bigger guys and our primos would tell their epic founding myths regarding Boyle Heights. Filled with their explanations for how this side of town became so throughly Mexican in character.

The street culture has always told the same spun narrative. That Boyle Heights used to be a mixed community with many Jews and Japanese people, and all kinds of ethnic groups. Often being beaten on by the other ethnic groups, Mexican formed gangs out of self-protection because the kids weren’t even safe enough to walk home from school. But that after the Zoot Suit riots the local Mexicans began to rise up, and then us Mexicans ran out all the white people out. Taking back the town back as a Chicano refuge. As this used to be Mexico anyway, we were just taking back our own land. And that this is the lesson of that supposedly revolutionary history, showing us how to take back and keep the neighborhoods that are ours.

I’m not going to mince words, nor beating around the bush. This explicitly nationalistic narrative which praises gang violence and terrorism is a total crock. In this area we have always had an ample amount of people telling themselves and others glorious Zoot Suit fantasies of how they “won” the neighborhood for us Mexicans. And on some level we all know it’s a full-load when we hear it. Nonetheless this is the most often heard story, and the one that people most often resort to for their racially charged ranting.

This dumb narrative is the whole basis of gang and racial violence in the area today. And it’s time people grow up and realize that this is just a myth. And recognize that insensible people are exploiting the fragmented history they know to suit their racist purposes.

Nonetheless this twisted view of history is the most widely accepted narrative among our young Latinos today, therefore it is incumbent upon me to address it. Even if, and especially if, it’s not true. Setting it aside for a more honest and healthy view of history.

Truth is, I don’t really need to tell this side of the story to any of the Mexican-American locals. We have heard this before plenty of times. And we are still hearing it from people who are more often using their street credibility and following for encouraging racial discord and intimidation. It’s disappointing.

People like the infamous graffito legend Daniel “Chaka” Ramos. He is one of the most well-respected street culture figures that many look up to. He’s another local-celebrity who speaks and then with awe the kids and the sycophants fall in line out of respect. But not all of us are willing to tolerate this tone anymore. He has a right to his views, but the rest of us also have the right to call such rants out as baloney and utter foolishness. We need to begin to demand that the talking heads in the community show more respect for the area, instead of asking us to devolve and literally trash the community in hopes of keeping people’s rent lower. And in hopes of scaring away other people from moving in.

It all boils down to gentrification

For those of you who live Boyle Heights at street level, you know why this topic comes to mind now. Because there is not a single conversation or topic taken on in town these days which does not inevitably descend into a battle for or against gentrification. Today it seems every change met with dislike within our community is blamed on this bogeyman known as gentrification.

As a side note, it’s also interesting looking back now at the original blog. Even as hopeful as my tone was at that time, I was also already showing my discomfort with the topic of gentrification. I even revealed my own fears surrounding an ominous “hipster invasion.” I’ll admit that as an old school punk rocker, I’ve never cared for yuppie-ish hipsters. I can’t relate to them. And I also have most certainly had my own fears about changes in the community eventually pricing-out many of the people I care for in the area, despite the safety of rent control many enjoy. I still felt obligated to fight for the preservation of the nostalgic characteristics of my most beloved neighborhood.

But a turn (or at least a conflict) in my sentiments came when the gentri-fear based hysteria broke out in full-force. And when I saw what many people explicitly meant by fighting gentrification. When I saw the tone of the populace go outright racist and antisemitic. When it turned to witch-hunting, instead of just mere protest.

The local talk on the streets and online turned clearly and outright antisemitic, after a Jewish sounding real estate agent named Moses Kagan clumsily set off the now infamous issue of the gentrification bike-tour flyer a few months ago. (see, “Gentri-Flyer Sets Off Storm in Boyle Height.”) Quite predictably, that one incident has now also made every other like events in town –  be it the Mariachi Run, or even CicLAvia – be colored as an invitation for white people to come see and “steal our homes.” Even odd rumors that Jews are wanting to take over the town again. Since the gentri-flyer incident there has been a growing suspicion of Anglos coming into town to gentrify the area, which is very much misplaced. People are literally calling for violence against those they perceive as “invading hipsters.” (see, “CicLAvia and Gentrification: Eastside expansion troubles some residents”)

In the case of this guy Kagan, I really know nothing about him other than from his blog. But I’m quite sure I don’t appreciate his views of struggling communities. And at the same time as being appalled by his views, I cannot help but be dismayed by the response of the local community. As in this thread, in the image below:

crossburningKAGAN

In this Facebook thread from a very popular Boyle Heights discussion group, someone shares a commonly passed around picture of Kagan. The picture characterized and defaced. With the posting party asking the community what we think of Kagan. Notice, people were more than comfortable to say what’s on their mind. And it’s not pretty. Calls for violence, uprisings and even a bit of antisemitic conspiracy theory thrown in. Rants that would ordinarily be laughable, if it wasn’t for the fact that people are irresponsibly spreading a picture of this Kagan guy around. Even as others have been openly threatening him, we still have people spreading his picture around, in what is often considered the most dangerous neighborhood west of Chicago. The last thing we need is for some angry people to be going out looking for some white, Jewish guy they expect to see on a bike.

These types of barrio incitement are dangerous. Descending to racism and violence, really? Near every post in the realm of local social media being flooded with race bating, really? This soils the honor of our community and the ethnic minorities who dwell here. We need to do better than this. We need to think better than this. This needs to stop now!

Of course, one doesn’t have to support gentrification. People have a right to be concerned. But we should never support racial discrimination and segregation in the community. We must call out the people who are using a seemingly legitimate protest against gentrification as their guise to spew racism. We also need to call out the passive sympathizers of that form of prejudice. This is the 21st century. People who are holding on to the old nationalism that has characterized this area for the past 45-years are on the wrong side of history!

Putting history in context and understanding the importance of a narrative

The reason it is important that I tackle this topic is because the local street culture is more frequently retelling the story their distorted way. This other narrative, that the Jews and other whites were run out of Boyle Heights. A gloriously exaggerated Zoot Suit and cholo mythology is being revived; as a response and solution to the future risk of gentrification.

Believing this myth, on the part of us Mexican is foolish. And the denial by many Jewish people of the reality of this alternative narrative is blind. It’s both our failures in not properly addressing this twisted story which the gangs and racists use as their recruitment material. Old urban legends that are as false as they are disturbing. A marginalizing view taking center stage in the oral histories as told on the streets and kickbacks of today’s Boyle Heights.

Quite honestly. I’m tired of the loud Mexican protesters of our community, my immature and hot-headed brothers, constantly badgering me that people don’t really tell, “the real Chicano side of the story.” The fact is these epic sagas they want to hear of are mostly fantasies. Their supposed gang and revolutionary victories are mostly in their own minds. So this story cannot be weaved into the fabric of our Boyle Heights history to their satisfaction. I am one who cannot “show proper respect” to the level which some people expect for their barrio narrative, simply because it’s a sham.

Actually, I have often discussed the topic of the Zoot Suit Riots. I even wrote about these events recently, when I gave some commentary on pachuco themed art in an exhibit here in town. And that’s the irony. If people knew the history of these events and the neighborhood well enough they would also see how the aftermath of the riots was not a descent into violent ethnic revolution, but instead became a rallying point in history for progressives of this community. Mobilizing Jews behind the cause of civil rights for Mexicans! (see “Experiencing INTERSECTION: Artists at the Breed Street Shul“)

Let me set the record straight. There is no way to put it nicely. These hood mistrals don’t know their own history, and are betraying their own barrio roots. How most of the gangs started off as useful things. The historical gangs we know were almost all started at the encouragement and mentor-ship of priests and coaches. Simple social and athletic clubs, according to the founding charters. To support and protect the kids of the neighborhood from idleness and the more seedy elements outside. To have a sense of camaraderie within the neighborhood.

We know the names of these gangs: White Fence, Big Hazard, Alpine Street, East Side Dukes, Breed Street, Maravilla and Macy Street. Gangs that have been around since the 1920 and 1930s, some even much further back than that. These groups were often segmented according to neighborhood, and most often divided by race.

But there were also the proud exceptions to the ethnic gangs, like the Wabash Saxons; a group that today we don’t really think of as a gang because they have more fully model their founding values as a community building social club to this very day. Often raising money for our community. That is not to say, pardon the honesty, that they were also a gang themselves at one time; some really good brawlers when necessary, by all accounts. Yet they more ideally modeled street culture of the community of their age during late 1930s to 1950s, with their crew being of mixed Jewish, Japanese and Latino membership. Multiracial and across all the lines. (see “Born in East LA: Through camaraderie and philanthropy, a group of friends stay connected to their past“)

Indeed groups like the Wabash Saxons and Macy Street social clubs; whose members grew up from their youth and returned to their essential goals as a social club and community service group, instead of as a street gang, makes them stand out to me as my type of heroes. Any group that follow such a path, I will honor and praise.

As we clearly see, the claim that gangs are a new thing the young people are doing is false. They have been here as long as people have lived here. But the gangs as they operate themselves today, are worse than they have ever been. Today they are divided not just by barrio and race, but also by nationality. Mexicans against Central Americans, and vice versa. American born against the foreign-born, and vice versa. Dumb divisions and blind hatred that just rips apart our community.

If the cliques, gangs and crews want to return to a more authentic golden age of Boyle Heights, they need to dig deep into their roots and return to their former social club ideals. To a time before they decided to take up guns, and before they became terrorist in our community instead of guardians. Before the racial friction of our area descended into full-on nationalism. Fact is that more and more people of the world are abandoning nationalism and racism, so if they don’t they are on their way to eventually being fully irrelevant.

Plainly, the barrio story tellers need to grow up and wake up to reality. Realize they were never as menacing and as impacting as they want to believe their efforts of intimidation and agitation were. They didn’t ever really scare all the white people of Boyle Heights away. Yes, some did leave because of gangs, but its foolish to believe it was most. The truth is most successful people just grew up, earned a bit of money, and moved on. Sadly though, in the barrio a great deal of people just refuse to grow up and let it go. And move on to the next level of existence, instead of constantly stirring a simmering pot of racial discord.

To understand why and which ways people have suggest you read the 2010 paper by Su-Shuan Chen, of UC San Diego who points out how this idealized narrative has propelled since the original “Boyle Heights” exhibit at Japanese American National Museum. The paper is titled, “History in the Making: The Construction of Community Memory and Racial Subjects in the Boyle Heights Exhibition” in 2002. In this 98-page thesis she explores the why, and which ways, people have had to downplay the harsher realities of Boyle Heights history. Discussing how only putting forth an image of Boyle Heights as a harmonious and model example of interethnic community has been intentional, and the silences an necessary device in order to bolster support for the community of Boyle Heights and deem it worthy enough of celebrating. She also asks us to consider, “what do these silences reveal about the workings of racial socioeconomic positioning in American society.”

To understand why and which ways people have sidestepped the racial frictions, I suggest you read the 2010 paper by Su-Shuan Chen, of UC San Diego who points out how this idealized narrative has propelled since the original “Boyle Heights” exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in 2002. The paper is titled, “History in the Making: The Construction of Community Memory and Racial Subjects in the Boyle Heights Exhibition.
In this 98-page thesis she explores the why, and in which ways, people have had to downplay the harsher realities of Boyle Heights history. Discussing how only putting forth an image of Boyle Heights as a harmonious and model example of interethnic community has been intentional, and the silences a necessary device in order to bolster support for the community of Boyle Heights and deem it worthy enough of celebrating. She also asks us to consider, “what do these silences reveal about the workings of racial socioeconomic positioning in American society.”

And to be brutally honest, my dissatisfaction is not just with the immature way the Latino community often deals with this narrative. I also think the Jewish community needs be a bit more mature in allowing people to tell their story their own way. No longer just dismissing nor getting all “oh well” with these old Jewish people when they mention their hardships surrounding the historical gang and racial problems. They should be allowed to make their reflections upon their life challenges, just as much as us Latinos, who are actually quite often given the community limelight to tell our barrio stories. Avoiding this dialogue is dishonest and robs the larger community of needed observations regarding the implications of the historical racial challenges and misunderstanding. We need to learn what the problems were and how they worked to overcome them, and not be deprived of that for reasons of political correctness.

It’s foolish for any Jewish historians to deny the frank reality that is presented to anyone who sits long enough to listen to the old Jewish residents of Boyle Heights. Many of whom are very dear friends of mine and very open with me. People who explain to me that they left the community for many of the same reasons other people did. This is the reality of it. The awkward avoidance of these facts, put forth in order to avoid the possibility of being labeled racist or being accused of “white flight,” is illogical and defective.

As well-meaning as it is, there is something that is very wrong with people continuously saying, “Racism didn’t exist here. No one had any bad feelings about the other person’s color, their religion, their beliefs.” Because that wasn’t true for everyone, and it was less true for and towards us Mexicans.

Now, I’m not saying that the Jewish community should feel obligated to take on our urban crisis. They are not obligated to drudge up the junk of the past. They aren’t obligated to delve directly into that narrative. But when people do give their oral histories about how those elements negatively effected them, we need to not silence them or clam up. We should at least have the sophistication to not get all nervous, and just simply explain how gangs were something ubiquitous to the inner city immigrant experience of those days for all minority groups (Irish, Polish, Italian, Jewish, Latino, etc.). That while the gangs of today are deep-rooted in the history of this community, they are different in nature today. That yes, racial discord did sometimes exist, but that on the whole the community was actually more peaceful and respectful than people might imagine for such a community prior to the civil right movements. It’s an honestly simple and painless response.

As I’ve said it before, 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 sometimes rose-tinted view of history exposes a certain 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 have to abide here and live under the shadow of these things. So the respectful thing to do is at least recognize that. There is a limit to how much we can pretend and explain away these things for other people.

Furthermore, the excuses that are often given to apologetically explain away our gang problems here by most of the well-meaning white progressives has always been to just call the gang terrorism a manifestation of the given “social contract” of the barrio. Now that is just a bunch of over-thought nonsense long ago formulated by sociologists from a safe position of privilege. Fed to us minorities, with the sad consequence of leaving us to feel like we have no chance or responsibility to overcome that challenge of the hood. Simmering it all down to an abstract concept. It’s rubbish to talk of any community that way. Its patronizing and a bit offensive.

It’s not right for people to trivialize or apologize for the causes of the hate us barrio dwellers suffer. Just because the narrating people are too squeamish to hear anyone admit that our often insular community still has deep-seated racial and religious prejudices our people here have never really overcome. Suffering which exists for us today, in the here and now.

Respect and balance in the way we tell our history is something I’m learning myself, as a Mexican and as a Jew. I shake my fingers at both communities when necessary, because I am both Mexican and Jewish. I know that I am rough with my confessions. But its a tough spot I’m in, being stretched between the two communities sometimes. This is my reality, not my mere study. Being called on more often these days to give some perspective and calm to the community as we explore our roots together. People calling on me simply because they know I’ll be honest, if not always tactful. And because I truly care for the whole community, even our knuckle-heads.

Recently I was called upon by some people with whom I often have group discussions with. They were really upset because they had some explosive interactions with urban explorers coming to visit Boyle Heights. After what did seem to be spats initially started by local people making sharp remarks about the presence of these white tourists, these guys snapped back about how their grandparents were original Jewish residents of Boyle Heights, “before there were any Mexicans here.” When I heard this I hit my head against the desk, because i knew what was to come. Accusation that this is what the area tour groups led by “outsiders” are teaching people. Followed by a whole torrent online of Mexican nationalism and feverish attacks on the foundational stories of the Boyle Heights/East Los Angeles and the Jewish community; nasty things which people felt was the appropriate retort to such an error on the part of these sharp-tongued white youth.

My resolve has since been to at least try not be so sharp-tongued myself, lest my own pointed statements also be misconstrued. (Yeah, wish me luck on that one!). In response I instead decided to post and discuss old pictures going back to the early days of the community. And showing maps of how the land was settled over time. Showing how the making of Boyle Heights into the place we so love today was a joint effort on the part of all the diverse minorities who flooded into the area together.

And in response to the equally false retaliatory assertion that Jews were not actually a sizable majority during the early days of the Boyle Heights community, I presented this very compelling article. Not just to verify that simple fact, but to reflect on the goods points this author made. In 1955 when Boyle Heights was still mostly only on the map as a well-known Jewish community, a Mexican-American activist named Frances Lym wrote of the community this way:

Boyle Heights is a section of Los Angeles with a tradition handed down by ‘old timers’ who made it widely known as a center of many different cultural groups. While it was predominantly Jewish in the beginning, a rapidly growing Mexican community has grown up in the area. People’s struggles for a better life have been carried on jointly by those two groups. Today the community is changing. Many Jewish people are moving out, particularly among the younger generation. On the other hand, the Mexican community, which has always formed a part of the area, is expanding rapidly.”

Brotherhood in Boyle Heights: Inter-cultural activity of Mexican-Americans

with other groups in a section of Los Angeles furthers local democratic unity

by Frances Lym

Jewish Life Magazine, September 1955

There are a lot of things we can historically debate. But the deep historical roots of Jewish people in this area is not one of them. What I can say for sure is that a lot of people did dwell together in harmony as a mixed community in old Boyle Heights. Our community saw better days as a mixed neighborhood. With a unique blending of cultures found almost nowhere else. We have a long standing tradition and heritage of multiculturalism in this neighborhood. A legacy that needs to be preserved and encouraged. This is a picture of our community we need to foster now more than ever.

But still I cannot agree with the revisionists who make old Boyle Heights out to be a haven of equality, where inter-racial respect was just a given. Nor fully agree with those writers who make grand statements, such as the claim that Boyle Heights was a place, “where integration was a fact before it became a cause.” (David Kipen. “Tales of a ’hood: An American Multicultural Mecca in Historic Boyle Heights”) These statements makes people feel better about the area’s mixed up past, but it’s just wrong.

How do I dare say its historically wrong to paint old Boyle Heights that way? How do I have the gall to call this view foolish? The final paragraph of that article from 1955 by this old school Mexican activist Frances Lym read this way:

It would be folly to leave the impression that full integration has taken place in Boyle Heights. The area is no Garden of Eden of brotherhood. But a firm groundwork has been laid. The people are aware of their own national culture and are developing interest in and respect for peoples’ culture. These developments make for better relationships between the groups and provide favorable ground for joint activity in the interests of the community as a whole, whether through participation in inter-cultural or political activities.”

Jewish Life Magazine, September 1955

Of course full integration was never fully achieved, as everyone else left the area in the few short years following that article. As we see, that work was left incomplete and its now for us to take up that charge. She made her point clear as to what we need to do here. Namely, that we need to have cross-cultural participation in joint activities for the betterment of the entire community of Boyle Heights.

Why does understanding this point matter? Why do I feel the need to point out this view of history now? Because it has been 59 years this month since that article was published, and we still as of yet haven’t integrated. Our community is more segregated than ever. In fact, current events show that we are even less able to hold mixed events on the eastside without people getting hysterical and protesting based on lines of ethnicity. But we need to get to that place though. You gotta wonder; if not now, when?

Now I’m asking all in the community to embrace heritage over urban legends. I am also asking people to get involved and learn about our past. Engage it and teach it to our children. Read books and go to lectures. Get involved in the community events and programs. Encourage and participate in cross-cultural events and political activities here. And of course support invaluable projects like the Breed Street Shul Project, which hosts the most inspiring cultural exchanges around. And even the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, who I have so battered with my own responsive critique, as they are truly doing a good work; and in the bigger picture I agree with their vision and their aims.


My responses to the Facebook questions surrounding Moses Kagan

Who is he? This is the first I’ve ever heard of this guy. But based on the quote provided, I’m quite sure I don’t like his view of struggling communities. That said, it must be at least acknowledged that this quote is taken out of context. I assume that we are quoting this blog post of his?

Notice how in context he is talking about the Byzantine quarter between the westside and Westlake. This is the way he thinks of another community he’s not from, but not necessarily about us. He’s talking about people like us. Is it concerning that he has these views? Absolutely. But so far I see nothing more than a foolish guy that doesn’t get local charm or sentiments. By examination of his associations he seems to be a cookie-cutter liberal Democrat, not either a racist nor an extremist. By affiliation he’s apparently some sort of a typical well meaning anglo person who doesn’t have a clue that true racism exists in BH, so he thinks he’s helping. At first glance he appears to me to be a type of person that is unhelpful for this community because he is dispassionate about our problems of class and race and socio-economics, instead wanting to know how to help he thinks he has it figured out. But thats just my opinion and conjecture. As aside from his blog I just Googled, I know nothing about him. Has he been cited elsewhere? Has anyone spoken with him or even personally seen him out here in the community?

What is there to do about this guy other than engage him in a heavy discussion about his vision? Though notice that it doesn’t appear that this guy is an investor, buyer or seller. He appears to be a real estate agent, no? It’s not like we can bar him or people like him from the community, as that would a violation of the federal civil rights act and the fair housing act. Now I certainly don’t like the idea of real estate agents who sound like poachers coming into the neighborhood with half-baked and uppity ideas.

But I’m equally concerned at the lack of sense that locals are still showing in the face of this “threat” with their over reacting. In going after this guy you are essentially saying you would prefer that we went back to the real estate rules prior to 1948 and just have a “gentleman’s agreement” and “covenants” which pre-determine if the person is the right race to buy in our area. Are protesters essentially asking us to not allow real estate agents to show houses put up for sale in our neighborhoods to others unless we like the race (and religion, apparently) of that person? Like that doesn’t harm our proud homeowners! What makes this different from cross-burning?

We CAN respond to this in proactive ways which establish us and future generations. Maybe we need our own local real estate agents to help our locals and immigrant families become home owners. Help people buy the home they rent or elsewhere in this community of their choosing. In the past we had proud Latino organizations which offered a lot of help and mentor-ship in home ownership and small business making, like the American GI Forum. But since then those groups have faded into the background. Now maybe some friendly agents and agencies with some smarts in real estate can take up a charge in this time of need?

And btw, what is with all this antisemitic rant? You know what is really appalling is when we have people still running around with dumb conspiracy theories about Jews.

I can excuse that people don’t know much about the settlement of BH and how parallel the rise of Mexican-Americans was with the Jewish people in permanent residential settlement here. How shared our experience was. We all know the urban legend following people, who are living off some mythic golden BH past that never existed before the mid-to-late 19th century. But thats excusable as it’s far off. Thats beyond view of our own eyes and lifetime.

But it’s really inexcusable to be ignorant of how much the local Jewish community has done to help promote the equality of minorities in our own lifetimes. A community of Jewish progressives that were on our side even when no other group would help or fund our cause. Right here in this community. Before most of us minorities even had a clear vision of civil rights these people helped us rise to political reckoning by strongly helping us elect Roybal to office even over and against another Jewish candidate, understanding we needed a voice and sense of self-determination in our shared community as well. That’s their relationship to us. The Eastern European Jews have been our allies, its foolish to paint them as el cucuy.

Their contribution is not just the past. Laying the foundation of many of our youth centers. They are still funding many projects and providing for many needs in our community. You notice a Jewish sounding name when it comes to this guy, but do you ever notice on the donations checks and on the donor walls of our institutions? Who do you think RHS calls upon when they need new gear, because they know they will come through? It’s not because they are stingy. It’s because they have a religious mandate to give charity and to help the “stranger and immigrant” as the bible says. And even more so because of their horrible experiences as battered immigrants themselves all over the world, they have loudly promoted immigrants rights out of complete sympathy.

If you don’t know about the deep interdependence of the Jewish community with the Mexican-American community in Boyle Heights, you can pick up whole books on the subject. Also see “What’s Good for Boyle Heights Is Good for the Jews,” by USC Professor George Sanchez.

I am not unknown to take on someone from the Jewish community that is being insensitive and wrong, but that is not what we have here is it? I will happily engage a hearty discussion when the communities have misunderstandings, but this supposed influx of Jewish settler “hipsters” is a phantasm and therefore unaddressable. He is not some Jewish missionary coming into steal our lands. He’s certainly not affiliated with any Jewish projects or causes in the area. How is he representative of the Jews? What does one mean by profiling and going after this guy because he has an Eastern European sounding name? Do you hate him because of his race or his religion? Which do you think makes him evil and a money grubber? What type of bigots are you asking us to be?

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Parshat Bamidbar (5774)


Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving?

 A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by Chicano nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant’s rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

What do flags mean to you? Are flags uniting symbols, or are they emblems of division? It is obvious to us all that most often, to the people who hoist them, flags embody a symbol of nationalism. How do you feel about that? Because, as for myself, I’m not so sure sometimes.

Even when not used in the context of the actual nation-state, people often utilize state flags for other nationalistic reasons, such as ethnic and cultural nationalism. Can you think of some examples where these symbols are used well, and examples of when they are used poorly?

It is not that I am against people showing pride in their homeland and culture, but I do not believe in using these symbols as weapons. Furthermore, I do not believe in utilizing them in a way which does not call attention to a diverse fabric in that flag. As I completely stand against ethnic nationalism.

This is a topic that comes to mind in relation to current events, and upon reading our parsha for this week. First, let’s take a look at the text here:

‘The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.”

אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ:

Ish al-diglo ve’otot leveit avotam yachanu benei Yisra’el mineged saviv le’ohel-mo’ed yachanu.

Deuteronomy 2:2

I don’t want to overwhelm us with commentery this week, but I want us to just quickly discuss the interesting points made by Rashi, the master commentary. But it’s essential we first connect to the discussion of the ages.

Rashi in his commentary makes sure we know what we are talking about, these otot – these signs, these symbols – he understands them to clearly mean flags. Notice how Rashi also describes these flags, pointing at their construction, he referred to them in Hebrew as mapa – meaning a tablecloth. This is what these “standards” were. Colored banners of cloth with symbols embroidered into them, hoisted on polls.

Rashi describes the background of the flags, saying that the color and hue of each was inspired after the color of their corresponding stone in the Breastplate of the High Priest. Thus each flag had distinctive colors, according to their distinct tribal identity. As each of these twelve stones were different, so too were each of the flags.

12 Shevatim Flags, MosaicThen Rashi gives us further details as to the appearance of the flags, and why they are called otot here – why they are to be understood as signs, and what the symbols mean. Rashi explains that each of the flags had a symbol placed on them. What type of symbol? Rashi says it was a symbol given to each tribe by Yaakov Avinu (באות שמסר להם יעקב), before his death in Egypt at the end of Genesis. (see Genesis chapters 49-50)

I was recently reminded of this lesson after a friend asked me to review some pictures of the historic Breed Street Shul, in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. Some have noticed that around the interior of the main sanctuary there are 12 symbols circling the entire sanctuary. Upon first glance, one cannot help but notice that most appear to be zodiac symbols, yet some figures do not seem to exactly fit this theme. This is not a unique depiction in this shul, it is actually quite common in classical synagogues as well.

Midrash based on this week’s Torah reading sheds some light on this subject. Our traditional folklore credits Avraham Avinu – Abraham our Father – as being among the first to assign symbolism to the zodiac. He, and Yakkov his grandson, are said to have correlated the symbols of the classical zodiac with the descriptions of these 12 tribal patriarchs given at their time of blessing. This is something that is reaffirmed as a long-held belief even in the classical age, as accounted by 2nd century Hellenistic writer Vettius Valens.

However, these signs are not all so obviously connected to the heavenly constellations they correspond to today. Instead the midrash explains them slightly different at times. For example, Zevulen is symbolized by a ship, Naftali an olive tree, Binyamin a wolf, etc. Each of these were to symbols useful to describe something about the nature of those tribes and what they were good at. As with Zevulen whose tribe is understood to have become great sea merchants, thus the ship.

And then at the center there was the flag of the Levites, whose ensign was a depiction of the multicolored breastplate which represented the 12 tribes of Israel. Their multifaceted emblem understood to be a symbolic representation of all the many colors of the Israelites.

Even today, in synagogues like the Breed Street, you will see depictions of the Twelve Tribes in the form of these traditional symbols which are only loosely related to the Zodiac. Instead what they really are present for, is to symbolize the balance and harmony of the tribes of Israel, each dwelling peaceably with their own clan as described here in this week’s parsha. (see diagram at the bottom)

boyle_2994

Inside the historic Breed Street Shul, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. The symbols of the Twelve Tribes still remain. In fact, the round Star of David stained glass pieces are just place holders for 12 original pieces depicting the 12 Tribes of Israel. They are being kept in storage for safekeeping during the restoration. Please see more images and a correspondence chart below.

As described in Rashi’s commentary for this verse, Yehudah leads in the east, along with Issachar and Zevulen. The tribes are further laid out in orders of three. Three tribes in the east, three south, three west, three north. With the Levites then leaning towards the middle. This symbolizes each dwelling harmoniously in their camp, each tribe at peace with each other. The flags they originated from are a thing of the past, but their symbols remain enshrined in Jewish art and architecture.

Before we move on from addressing the actual text here, I would like us to take notice of one other important point that cannot be missed. We need to understand why these groups and tribes did not fall into isolation.

The answer is found in explaining why the tribes were matched with each other, three tribes placed at each side of the Israelite encampments. The tribes were purposely made to dwell with other tribes as part of a local community and unit. Sometimes the matches were clearly ideal, like Issachar and Zevulen – who according to Jewish tradition were historical partners in enterprise and learning (see “The Torah-Business Partnership” at Chabad.org). So at times we can see the tribes paired together according to their natural alliances.

Sure these groupings were often based on fraternal feelings, in the most literal sense. Example, the tribes born to mother Leah are all placed in the east and the south. Those tribes alloted inheritance through Yosef – including Ephraim and Menasheh – were encamped together, thus all the descendants of Rachel were placed in the west. As we can see, the tribes most often – but not always – were grouped to camp with those they were most related to.

But like all nations and communities, the people of Israel were not just a grouping of like people and families. No, they were a composite of naturally distinct people who were expected to come together as a unified people.

This is a good thought to have in mind as we consider the often sung words of the psalms, “Hineh mah tov umah naim, shevet achim gam yachad / Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

Though the individual tribes of Israel had their own distinct characteristics and autonomous camps, they were still united as one people. They dwelt not just as brothers among themselves in completely isolated communities, but also as extended brothers in unity as one complete nation – one united people. They are thus named Am Yisrael – the nation, or literally, the people of Israel.

So now that we got all the smart stuff out of the way, what does this all mean? And how do we actually feel about this?

Let’s really think about this here, and vent some of the natural criticism that us Jews have for this text.

We see the tribes abiding by their flags. Camped and grouped according to paternal line – but also by maternal lineage in division, each person and family among their own clan. Sure we agree that they dwelt harmoniously, thus enabling them to not just encamp in their formations but also move forward in their desert migration as a cohesive unit. But nonetheless, for most of us modern people, today most have a problem with a description of people dwelling in such communities, that by todays standards are quite restrictive. We have a problem with the appearance of segregation.

And even more so, many people have a problem with the suggestion of the scriptures and midrashic tradition praising vexillophilia – which is just a long word for the love of collecting and studying flags. Yet our texts seemingly does. Indeed our texts call the tribes to fashion them, after their own identity. And then to dwell by them, encamped by tribe underneath them. This does not sit well with many, be they progressive or orthodox.

Actually it’s interesting that I bring up the Breed Street Shul, mostly because I recently had an argument with a lifelong friend of mine after he started bemoaning the presence of the American and Israeli flags in that complex, which is today being used as a cultural center. It should be noted that the Breed Street Shul was the first location in Los Angeles to hoist the flag of the newly recognized State of Israel, upon the UN recognition of the Jewish state. The connection to the Zionist cause historically runs deep in this community. I felt the symbols to be wholly appropriate and historically accurate, in face of objections.

I heard what he was saying though. The arguments he made were familiar ones which are quite common among many young Jewish people today. His arguments were slightly modified versions of anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, mixed with his own theoretical sense of universalism – as opposed to restrictive nationalism.

Of course, our conversation came to an impasse when I could not condone the disparaging of the democratic tradition of America and the State of Israel. And more specifically when I would not trash the flag, nor be bullied into decrying the local custom of showing such symbols in public meeting halls and houses of worship.

But I’ll tell you the truth, the conversation set off a different journey of self-exploration on how I feel about flags and nationalism. Being challenged on this topic by someone I know very well, he appealed to my natural character to be opposed to nationalism. As I have always been a most aggressive opponents to ethnic nationalism and racism. Often finding myself verbally and physically opposing racial discrimination wrapped in a flag. He had a point that has been pricking in my side ever since.

Especially in the past few weeks. My own conflict on how I feel about nationalistic symbolism and their appropriateness was displayed in my feelings over recent communal celebrations in the area, such as Cinco de Mayo and the Israel Day Festival. On one had, I feel cynical regarding the celebrating Cinco de Mayo here in the USA. [It could be possible that my ill sentiments of Cinco de Mayo festivals are most derived from my childhood experiences, from before the city shut them down because of the violence at places like Lincoln Park, events which were often marred by the venting of racist nationalism of the worst nature.] Yet at the same time I do tend to feel somewhat welcoming to the recognition of Israeli Independence Day when it comes around. You would think as a Mexican-American I would feel the other way around. Or at least be consistent, and be completely opposed to the recognition of either celebration in diaspora.

I’ll admit, the inconstancy is something that has perplexed even myself. Even as I waved my little Israeli flag at the festival. I really thought about what it meant to me, and how it might also appear to outsiders who cannot internalize my love and support for the Jewish state. How can I seem to essentially promote Jewish nationalism? Does this not appear to compromise my core values which oppose exclusivity, racism and xenophobia?

I let my mind and heart wrestle with this, in hopes of coming to peace with this. Hopefully before the Fourth of July rolled around and I found myself struggling with this topic yet again. Before I unfurl the American flag and again begin to struggle with similar nationalistic sentiments and conflicts.

There is no way to avoid a certain truth about employing such symbolisms. When people begin to wave flags, most often they are making clear nationalistic statements. And nationalism seems to almost naturally have a tendency to result in chauvinism, which further leads to racism and xenophobia.

Nationalism, while it’s aims seem honorable in seeking to establishing people-hood and the building up of sound nation-states, it can also be a used as a very dangerous force. Nationalism can become a divisive and restrictive force. Often setting up barriers between regions and peoples. This is because nationalism is concerned with my people and my country – mine and not yours. Nationalism most often displays itself through regional struggles for resources, and even in senseless expansionism. And in senseless exclusion and persecution of others, simply for not being part of your tribe or people. Because your needs don’t really matter as much as mine, I can’t help you if I can’t help myself. That is how nationalism translates in the minds of many.

So how do I intellectually justify my own feelings of nationalism? How do I justify my own pride in and love for my country? Why not decry these structures all together?

I justify my support of the state in the same manner everyone else before me has, simply because that is the way things are. For now, this is the only way things can be. And like most citizens, I identify with the values and virtues of my country. I also accept the fact that at times nations must rise up to give life to their unique virtues. Nations and people seem naturally intended to rise to prominence to actualize a dream, and once accomplished they fade into the background. Disappearing into the larger fabric of history. That is how most of us understand the nature of nationalism.

Simply put, I support and identify with the western democratic tradition of American and the State of Israel because their vision and dream is still in the making. They are both young counties, who have yet to accomplish their goals before retiring themselves to the history books.

But even this intellectual justification does not completely set my mind at ease. Because I cannot deny the reality that nationalism can be a harmful force in any country or people.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

And this is probably where I’m going to upset everyone, but I must be honest. My own life experience, especially in light of the history of my community, makes me leery of nationalism.

Its well-known that I’ve traditionally been known to be an aggressive opponent of white nationalists – a.k.a. “skinheads,” but more precisely “white power” Nazi punks. Living my life in the punk rock scene it has been something that I have always had pushed in my face, naturally I’ve resisted and fought against such forces in the scene. In light of this it seems logical why I would so strongly oppose such things as ethnic nationalism. Because it’s an obvious offense to minorities such as myself.

But my opposition towards nationalism actually comes from somewhere closer to home. It is formed from my observations of nationalism gone awry in my own community – in the Latino community of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles; with “brown power” neo-nationalism. This is how I can say any type of nationalism can go wrong, even among disadvantaged minorities. My distaste for nationalism comes from seeing its divisive employment in my own minority community – among Latinos.

This topic comes to mind again, as recently racial and nationalistic tensions are once again begun to surface within this predominately Latino community (demographically, the area is 98.9% Latino). Most recently in the firebombing of four pubic housing units occupied by African-American families. (for details, also see: “Ramona Gardens Firebombing has some black residents fleeing the area,” LA Times)

I’m also finding it hard to ignore the obvious racism and chauvinism that is also being shown even more increasingly in the way people discuss the topic of gentrification and urban-renewal, along with the “white people” and minorities this is expected to attract to our communities. In the face of a perceived threat, some Latino people are once again trying to rebuild 1970s style nationalist protest movements to show dominance in this area.

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Here we are talking about tribal and national symbols. Let us reflected on the growing tensions in Boyle Heights, and really consider how intentionally divisive and racially charged ways art, murals and nationalist symbols have been utilized in the eastside. How they are purposely employed to intimidate others out other races and nationalties out of our vicinity. We really need to reflect on how and why we need to move beyond this racial extremism, exclusivity and cultural hegemony. Notice it didn’t take long for this most infamous of the local graffiti inspired artists to validate my claims and understanding of this rhetoric for all of us.

As people of other races move in to the area one can’t help notice the rush to cover everything with a Mexican flag, armed revolutionaries or the Virgin of Guadalupe increases. Joining outdated slogans like, “Viva la raza” (meaning, long live our race) and the like which still theme this area. This all sits really badly with me, and I’m not at all quiet about it.

I challenge people on this. How can we attempt at being an open community in Boyle Heights when we cover our public housing in those areas exclusively in nationalistic and racially charged Chicano art? And by constantly covering everything with a Mexican flag? It’s not that I’m opposed to our ethnic art and cultural symbols being expressed in public. But I ask my people to consider if we are not being foolish in hollowing throwbacks from the most radical points of the civil rights movement. Could it be that nationalistic excesses in this art is sending a message that all other races and nationalities are not welcome here? Would it not be better for us as we grow as a community to mature into more inclusive tones? Is it not time that our nationalistic sentiments finally retire themselves, as the greater society moves beyond the ethnic divisions?

I must begin to speak up, not just for my own community. But also out of concern and communal solidarity with the African-American communities who are being violently targeted and squeezed out of their historic neighborhoods in Los Angeles by nationalist Latino gangs. (see “Racial Hate Feeds a Gang War’s Senseless Killing” and “Attack on family in Compton latest incident in wave of anti-black violence”) On behalf of the concerned members of the Latino community, I challenge the embedding of nationalism into our communities, because it’s unwise and divisive.

This is especially relevant for our community here in Boyle Heights, just as much as it is in most other inner-city communities. In fact, the way our racial and ethnic problems is being played out on the eastside is being modeled elsewhere, as the gang lifestyle and themes export themselves from our neighborhoods to build syndicate gang franchises in the inner-cities across the country. Its essential we tackle this issue here, and now. (see “Ramona Gardens Overcomes Past,” for some background on local racist sentiments and those who are working to overcome it.)

I think it is also important for us Latinos to employ new symbols of pride, which are sensitive. As us Latino quickly become the majority by sheer demographic growth in this country many among us are talking about what the future of the country will look like in generations to come. But we need to do some really good thinking. We need to decide if we are going to embrace people-hood with the other tribes of this country, or if we are going pursue cultural chauvinism and dominion.

This is what is running through my mind as I read these words in the Torah portion for this week, “The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia.” (Deut. 2:3)

When we read about this topic of each tribe camping under their flags and tribal symbols in the Torah, I don’t see it as just majestic and lovely. On paper it looks nice. But I can also see where in the practical world, this can all go very wrong. When the use of flags and symbols is used to divide and distinguish, and not just as a mere symbol of pride. But can we tell the difference? I think that’s the problem, that sometimes people cannot.

Yes, I have a problem with the way some people in my community brandish the Mexican flag. Furthermore, I don’t just passively accept people reviving talk of a Mexican-American claim to the southwest and the expectation of social entitlement. This is the view which is most often paired with Mexican neo-nationalism. Along with a message for outsiders to stay out because this is ours, we should not have to share resources. This is the message being sent by many who aggressively embed the Mexican flag in our area. For me, this is wholly inappropriate, I just cannot do it. I cannot promote this type chauvinism in my community. From this, I feel I must have to abstain.

So how do I find it possible to raise other kinds of flags? Is this not hypocritical of me?

One of the reasons I can hold the American flag high is because I am an American. It is right for me to show my love for my own country, and in my own land. I see no problem with nationalism when properly expressed within the context of that nation. And because I stand proud in my identity as an American, which is not defined by any one color. We are all immigrant people, a nation of mixed heritage. A patchwork of cultures is sewn into the fabric of this nation. This flag does not just represent a sole nation built through the pooling of people of the same culture regionally, but of the gathering of people of many different traditions and origins to become a more perfect union. It is a country build upon the coming together of many people who value liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Likewise I can also proudly hold high the flag of the State of Israel. Because that flag is a symbol of the national aspirations of the Jewish people, who are not one color or specific race either. It is the flag of a state which is a refuge and home to Jews of many origins and ethnic backgrounds. It is the historic homeland and the modern refuge for many Jews, established through democratic and political realities. I can support and defend the fineness of that vision. I can show solidarity with this civilization grounded both in faith and culture; all of which is above color, race and national origins. A country which also promises full civil rights to all the various non-Jewish minorities – the people of the historic Arab, Muslim, Christian, Armenian, Druze communities – who also take shelter in her.

In their own merit, I feel both the flags of the United State of American and the State of Israel are two symbols, which when used in their proper spirit and place, can be used as symbols of inclusivity and diversity. I sincerely believe that these symbols still speak of national hopes which are above race and ethnicity. If only people would aspire to fulfill those values embodied therein.

Discussion: When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

Pictures of art from the Breed Street Shul, with correspondence chart:

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The following chart is an original creation, for a study I made on Jewish mysticism relating to the tribes and months. This at displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah. It also lays out the exact order for the different signs displayed on the walls of the shul:

This chart is an original creation, designed for a study I once did many years ago on Jewish mysticism – relating to the traditional meditations (kavannot) upon the tribes and months. This displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah (mysticism as explained by the Ari z”l). It conveniently lays out the exact order for the different symbols displayed on the walls of the shul, and the meditative elements which relate to them.

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