Tag Archives: Urban Exploring

Havdalah as a Light to the Community


Reflections and Lessons from the Havdalah Circle of Boyle Heights

Dare to make anyplace a sacred space!

Havdalah at the 6th Street Bridge, overlooking the city. Dare to make anyplace a sacred space! Punk rock Havdalah with Shmueli Gonzales and Jesse Elliott. Los Angeles.

As Shabbat comes to an end, I always make my way back towards the town and people I love. Towards the arches which over the years have become know as my station and post. And leaning against the metal arches of the bridge, high upon the Los Angeles Sixth Street Viaduct, I bask in the final and lingering rays of the Sabbath’s sun. And then I wait. Wait for the sun to set. I wait, for my buddies to count the stars and declare that it’s time. “One… two… three stars… it’s time!”

And then out from my ubiquitous bag I take these items. A Hebrew prayerbook, a dried etrog and clove bundle as a D.I.Y. “spice-box,” a kiddush cup and a multi-braided havdalah candle.

Havdalah – the ritual for closing the Jewish sabbath – has always been one of my favorite Jewish traditions. And over the years I have always tried to make pause to observe it with the people I care for the most. There is something very warm and loving about the ritual. Something which has always captivated me, and has interestingly drawn my friends in along the way.

Indeed most of my local friends are not Jewish, and consider themselves firm atheists. I am one of the less than a half-dozen Jews who are currently connected to Boyle Heights. And among them few Jews, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who is strongly religiously observant. Nonetheless my friends – Mexican-American, Anglo, African-American, Asian, and especially my older Jewish friends of mine who were born in classic Boyle Heights – they all encourage me to do Havdalah. And they also love to include themselves in this ritual, which is so part of my life. Even the occasional homeless Jewish person.

In a very fundamental way, over the past few years my adventitious return of Jewish rituals such as this back to this historical multi-ethnic neighborhood – one which itself has such a deep and rich Jewish history – has really touched people. These are symbols that the light of Jewish life and expression has not been fully extinguished here. It reminds the community that we haven’t forgotten those who went before us here, who also embraced these enrapturing acts.

"I will trust and not fear"

Hinei el yeshuati eftach v’lo efchad! – Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear! – for G-d is my might and my praise – Hashem – and He was a salvation for me.”

A revelation of how much a part of my routine and how meaningful it has become to others came when I ran out of supplies recently, and my punk rocker friends went scavenger hunting to find me items to make havdalah with on the spot. Knowing that my joy would not be complete without this moment, they just had to find a way to improvise! A very sweet and revealing moment for me.

To say the least, I learned after that to never be caught without supplies again. This week we will use a new candle. A long bees-wax candle with nine wicks all braided together.

Standing at the observation point overlooking the skyline of Los Angeles. Lingering at what could well be considered the gates of the city, we make our stand. My prayerbook placed upon a decorative niche of the bridge as a shtender. As I stand there above the train tracks and the water of the river, suspended between heaven and earth. There I light the wicks. I wait for the flames to take hold, until it comes to a roaring flame like a torch. Before I hand it over to one of the guys, who are ready to take it in hand and hold it high.

Overlooking the city I can’t help but be reminded of the Talmud section from which we get this most ancient custom of using candles as a torch. In Pesachim 8a this conversation takes off with the sages calling attention to why we use bright lamps and lights, namely to search. Our sages draw from the prophets, on how G-d will search the city of Jerusalem with lamps, in order to punish the complacent; those who are indifferent to realities of good and evil. (Zepheniah. 1:12) With a light that is meant to search out for justice.

And furthermore the Talmud suggests to us that this light represents our need to extend a light to search out for other precious souls, drawing from the scriptures:

“The human spirit is the lamp of Hashem

searching all the most deepest parts of ones being.”

נֵר יְיָ, נִשְׁמַת אָדָם; |

חֹפֵשׂ, כָּלחַדְרֵיבָטֶן. |

Proverbs 20:27

So among this most motley crew of eastsiders, among the most unlikely of circles I make my stand, and I bless from this place. From this cultural corner of Los Angeles my heart calls home, I stand with other diamonds in the rough. Among other unique souls worth searching for. This tradition challenges me to search people out as with a penetrating light, looking deep into their souls to find their worth.

Havdalah itemsI love the symbolism of this candle. Braided it represents the separations between the spiritual and physical wolds, and mystically symbolizes how they come together; to be intertwined. It represents the separations between the sacred and the secular, and also how they come together. That they are both needed in our lives. A symbolism which is poignant as we step out of the sacred joy of Shabbat, and into the secular workweek which we have before us. As we stand at the cosmological gates between the sacred and the secular.

And it also represents the souls of people, who are distinct; we are each our own flame, but in unity we must intertwine ourselves for the purpose of a mitzvah. Together our small and single flame becomes a roaring torch; for we are much better together and united.

As we stand I see the flames of the candle reflected in the awe of the guys faces and in the twinkle of their eyes. As Jesse exclaims, “Look how brightly you can see it, even from far away! It really is like a torch!”

As he says these words I keep in mind what the Talmud further relates to us as to why this is the best way to make havdalah, with the use of a torch:

“Surely Raba said: ‘What is the meaning of the verse: “And his brightness was as the light; he had rays coming forth from his hand: and there was hiding of his power.” (Habbakuk 3:4) To what are the righteous comparable in the presence of the Shechinah? To a lamp in the presence of a torch.’ And Raba also said: ‘[To use] a torch for havdalah is the most preferable [way of performing this] duty.’”

והאמר רבא מאי דכתיב (חבקוק ג) ונוגה כאור תהיה קרנים מידו לו ושם חביון עוזו למה צדיקים דומין בפני שכינה כנר בפני האבוקה ואמר רבא אבוקה להבדלה מצוה מן המובחר:

Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 8a

The sages then call attention to our own souls, in the light of this mitzvah. It says to consider ourselves as though we are search lamps. But as for this torch, to consider it as comparable to the presence of G-d. That our souls are as bright as lamps, standing next the presence of G-d – in the most radiant light of the Holy One, blessed be He. As the true torch, the most beaming of lights, the Shechinah – it is as thought the surrounding presence of G-d is made manifest among us as we stand with this light.

When I extend the lights of this multi-wicked candle I am welcoming the presence of the Shechinah – the presence of G-d to this place. Welcoming the all-encompassing spirit and the life of all the worlds to this place. For a moment spirituality becomes an almost tangible atmosphere.

"Shalom and Son's," a kosher food and wine distribution business still operating in the Boyle Heights Flats

“Shalom and Son’s,” a kosher food and wine distribution business still operating in the Boyle Heights Flats.

The Talmud further instructs us upon this subject of havdalah. That we need to include at least three distinct blessings, but adding no more than seven; not more than the days of the week, whose cycle we are renewing with this act.

I take my drink in hand as the ceremony begins. Today we are without wine or kosher grape juice, which is a shocking thing. Considering that underneath us, and just a few hundred feet to the east of us, right in the Flats of Boyle Heights, on Anderson sits a kosher food and wine distribution plant with their Kedem trucks parked in their gates. One of the few present-day Jewish businesses of Boyle Heights is “Shalom and Son’s,” which by way of this neighborhood supplies so many Jewish tables in Los Angeles with this staple of wine as a liquid symbol of joy. Yet we are all out after days of celebrating, and they are closed for shabbos. So the wine-cup goes away and a beer is placed squarely in the palm of my hand.

And then I begin to rhythmically chant the words of the prophets and psalms which begin the ritual of havdalah (in the western Jewish tradition):

Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear – for G-d is my might and my praise – Hashem – and He was a salvation for me. You can draw water with joy from the springs of salvation. (Isaiah 12:2-3) Salvation is Hashem’s, upon your people is your blessing, Selah. (Psalm 3:9) Hashem, Master of legions, is with us, a stronghold for us is the G-d of Jacob, Selah. (Psalm 46:12) Hashem, Master of legions, praised is the man who trusts in you. (Psalm 84:13) Hashem save! May the King answer us on the day we call. (Psalm 20:10)”

הִנֵּה, אֵל יְשׁוּעָתִי אֶבְטַח, וְלֹא אֶפְחָד, כִּי עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ יְיָ, וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה. וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי הַיְשׁוּעָה. לַײָ הַיְשׁוּעָה, עַל עַמְּךָ בִרְכָתֶךָ סֶּלָה. יְיָ צְבָאוֹת עִמָּנוּ מִשְׂגָּב לָנוּ אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב סֶלָה. יְיָ צְבָאוֹת אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם בֹּטֵחַ בָּךְ: יְיָ הוֹשִׁיעָה, הַמֶּלֶךְ יַעֲנֵנוּ בְיוֹם קָרְאֵנוּ:

As we stand upon this massive chunk of concrete and metal, I chant the words in Hebrew. For me, the words become more alive here, at this spot and among these friends of mine. This is our “mishgav lanu” – this is our stronghold, our fortress, our hideout. It is only right that I come here to make such a mitzvah. The rain has just passed, so the river is filled with water. You can hear the faint rushing below, as my soul draws water with joy from the springs of salvation. The sights and sounds are all so vivid.

Shmueli Gonzales and Jesse Elliott, Havdalah with Los Angeles in the backgroundAside from the sound of an occasional train below and the rush of a bus at our side, the only other sounds are from the cars passing over the bridge to and from downtown. And the faint and distant rumbling of the freeways which are integral to this viaduct. Though this is the choice spot to observe this city from the eastside, we are among the few people who come here, as mostly its just locals and homeless people. More often these days the occasional hipster does come out of the arts district, but sadly they usually take one look at us edgy punkers standing upon the bridge and nervously turn around instead.

Indeed, this viaduct it is the most picturesque location in the city. But for those people who are more of a boutique style of urbane, this is not a regular destination. It’s a wild adventure, because its lodged right in between the infamous Skid Row and the much ignored ethnic community of Boyle Heights. We are standing on the main artery through the “rough neighborhoods.”

But still we hold the torch high, and with full conviction in my voice I declare in the holy tongue: “Hinei el yeshuati eftach v’lo efchad / Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear!”

And for a moment, walkers take pause as they pass. And the drivers who are weary, my friends say they can catch a glimpse of the awe on their faces as well as they pass. No fear nor even dreary eyes for just a moment. Just awe and wonder as people witness this amazing sight. As we perform the ceremony cars honk at us as they go, joining in like urban “amen”s.

I can hear Zero-Renton say, “Look, those westsiders standing at Mateo are pointing towards the torch! They see it all the way over there!”

And then we continue with the next words, which I say in Hebrew and English. These words which are meant to be repeated by the participating crowd. An all-inclusive and universal phrase which extends the light and joy of Judaism to all who dare to embrace and befriend it:

For the Jews there was light, gladness, joy and honor (Esther 8:16), so may it be for us!

“I will raise the cup of salvations, and I will invoke the name of Hashem:”

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשׂוֹן, וִיקָר. כֵּן תִּהְיֶה לָּנוּ:

כּוֹס יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא, וּבְשֵׁם יְיָ אֶקְרָא:

So I then lift my drink. Today day we need to brown-paper bag it, since we are out of the kosher grape juice. We will have to exchange out one the blessing for wine with the appropriate blessing for beer (she’hakol).

As I lift my drink and at the right moment along with the words of the ritual. And I say the words of respect and reverence: “Savri maranan ve-rabanan ve-rabotai / By your leave my masters, teachers and gentlemen…” Words which ask permission of my guests for me to bless before them.

Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

But also mystically, when we say the savrei maranan – it is meant to symbolize a deferring of reverence to our Jewish sages, rabbis and masters who have gone before us. We acknowledge that through their teachings and traditions they gave us, that they still are living to us and with us. I show respect to them before I proceed.

Standing here I raise my drink as I also make a toast to my friends, family, my city and the historical Jewish heritage of Boyle Heights. And as I say these words, even my non-Jewish friends show their comfort and familiarity with this custom and respond with the traditional response: “L’Chaim! To life!”

Now it is the Jewish custom to bless, over a cup which is filled as near as we can to overflow. So that our joy should be the same, spilling and running over. (Psalm 23:5) And it really seems to, as I say the blessing over the drink.

Next we take the bundle of spices. Made from an etrog – an Israeli citron used during the Sukkot holiday for the mitzvah of Lulav right here in the eastside community – which was dried with cloves, as a spice-box. I say the blessing over the basamim; the fragrant species, the spices and herbs.

The Jewish tradition says that an extra soul is given to each Jews for the celebration of Shabbat, an additional soul to have twice the joy! But when the sabbath leaves us, so does this extra soul. This transition from the hight of joy to the lowly place of mundane life can be deflating. But in order to awaken our spirits anew, to rouse them to attention we use these spices. They are our traditional smelling salts, but they are instead intended to help arouse our common soul to life once again. Pleasantly reanimating us after our long day of Shabbat celebration. We each take a moment to deeply inhale this fragrance, passing it around the circle.

Next Jesse draws the candle low, within reach of us all, as I say the next blessing; “borai morai ha’aish.” As I bless G-d who creates the illuminations of fire. Tradition says that fire was created on the first Saturday night, at the end of the week of creation. (Pesachim 53b) When G-d gave Adam, the first man, the knowledge to rub stones together and create fire. We recall this act now, commemorating that very moment in order to reenact the wonders of creation, in which we are also active partners. I meditate upon this hope now, that G-d may likewise continue to give us the knowledge to continue to do awesome works of creation in this world.

20141220_174405And now near the flames we all hold our hands close and cup them, to see the light passing through the tips of our fingers. Not between them, but shinning through the translucency of our fingertips. For a movement I consider how the spiritual world and the Divine, it is hidden from view. We can only merely perceive this realm of spirit as a flame, the reality of which shines through from within our own holy being, as through good deeds this holy light emanates outward from within us all.

So for a moment I again make a mystical reflection as I look at these hands which I try so hard to use for good deeds. The Zohar, the main mystical text of Kabbalah which interprets the Torah, it tells us that when G-d first created man we were beings of pure light, translucent bodies which were “clothed in light.” And that from the depths of us, our souls would shine brightly to the surface from within. But that after the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the consequence was that people lost their vestiges of pure light and became beings of mortal flesh. However, this tradition tells us that G-d let humans keep a reminder of our former state, in the translucency of our fingertips.

When I hold my fingers close I remind myself of this truth, that I am a being of light. A light in this world and this community, a light which will shine through to the outside world through my tireless work I perform with these very hands. This is a truth I strive never to forget.

The streaming passers still taking notice as we huddle together into a warm circle for these moments. Then once again we raise the candle and the cup high! And I begin the concluding words of the ritual (which are the same in all traditions, Ashkenazi and Sephardi):

Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who distinguishes between holy and secular, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labor. Blessed are You, Who distinguishes between holy and secular.”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל, בֵּין אוֹר לְחשֶׁךְ, בֵּין יִשְׂרָאֵל לָעַמִּים, בֵּין יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי לְשֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה, בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל:

I really consider these words deeply each and every time. The word that stands out to me is the key word of this ceremony, hamavdil. The word hivdil – in Hebrew, it means to distinguish.

Shmuel Gonzales, Havdalah flames and downtown Los AngelesWe draw our understanding for this word from the Torah, from the book of Leviticus which contains the holiness code; there we are told to be holy, and to be distinguished people. There we are told to separate ourselves and stand apart, to be holy by keeping the Torah laws which keep one sanctified (i.e. keeping kashrut; Leviticus 20:25; 10:10; 11:47). This word likewise brings to mind how on Shabbat the Jewish people are to separate from the world’s secular activities and all its toils and embrace the joy of the sabbath. That it is as different as the difference between light and dark, this embracing of the sacred over the “profane.” And so too, as a people who keep these ways we are distinct and unique because of these practices.

Lately, I feel that far too many times when religious people speak regarding this they focus far too much on the idea of separating themselves from that which they feel is “profane.” From people and a society which they feel are less than kosher; less than sacred. But I don’t believe that is what it should actually mean to us, here and in this place. In this place with this mixed assembly of people; Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, cultured and counter-culture.

The word hivdil means to distinguish. It’s often used in everyday speech to contrast one thing to another, not to really compare as there is no real comparison. As they aren’t really meant to be compared against. But it doesn’t just mean that, it also means that you can tell something apart from the rest. You can tell what it is, as it stands apart and is recognizable for what it is. I remind myself that I am special as a distinct person as a Jew, and so is each of these friends of mine distinct in their own way.

Punk Rock Havdalah Circle

Zero-Renton Prefect, Shmueli Gonzales, and Jesse Elliott.

Again, I bring our attention back to the candle. To recognize that life and the world is like this braided candle. There are certainly distinctions in the world and between people, but in our own ways we are unique lights in the world; just like each wick upon this braided candle. Though we must allow ourselves to be intertwined! Just like Shabbat is intertwined with the work-week, we must have one in order to have the other! We need to have a partnership between the sacred and secular. We could not have the joy of the sacred, without the labor of the week and its secular duties. So too, the sacred and the secular both have their place and their time to shine.

But now as this joy of Shabbat must come to an end, we must hivdil – we must separate – from the radiant light of a most holy Shabbat and begin our toils anew. And as the blessings of havdalah come to an end, I drink from the cup and I extinguish the candle with a pour of drink over the flames. Putting out the light of Shabbat until next week.

And as we make our way back home to the eastside over the bridge I begin to sing the traditional songs. Among them are “Am Yisrael Chai” and “David Melech Yisrael.” Songs of life! And as we pass the old Jewish sites, we remind ourselves that the works of the Jewish people and the joy of Jewish life are still flickering to life here. And keep in mind that the spark of this Jewish heritage needs to remain alive, to continue to contribute to the diversity which has enriched Boyle Heights for the past century. To show some continuity in the community, where change and modernity seems to quickly be making many things around here all but a memory.

The canopy of beams and girders of the Sixth Street Bridge, by daylight. She is set for demolition in 2015.

The canopy of beams and girders of the Sixth Street Bridge, by daylight. She is set for demolition in 2015.

But sadly, even this last-stand act of havdalah is going to change for my circle in the near future. After all these years of hanging out at the Sixth Street Viaduct, I’m sorry to announce that the bridge is being demolished.

This iconic bridge which has graced the Los Angeles landscape since 1932, she is suffering an alkali-silica reaction in the concrete (called “concrete cancer” by engineers). This reaction creates cracks in the concrete, which are now seen covering all over the body of the structure. With a 70% probability of coming down in the next major earthquake, this most famous of Los Angeles sites is being demolished. It will be closing this Spring of 2015 and demolished in the following months, to make way for a newly designed bridge which is expected to open in late 2019.

So where will we perform havdalah in the future? I don’t know. Now, it’s not that we haven’t tried other spots for havdalah. But they don’t feel the same, and this is where people know to come and join in if they want to. It’s going to be interesting to see if I can recapture this spirit elsewhere.

A Touching Personal Experience from This Past Week

Let me give you one last precious story, from this past week. A special havdalah which really touched me.

This past week my dear friend Irv Weiser calls me while I’m on the bridge. He calls right as the boys are heading back, because as non-Jews they had plans for a ham related holiday feast! Oy, what a dilemma! I was sure I was gonna miss havdalah on the bridge this week, the ceremony which closes the gates of Shabbat. In the face of the rare occurrence of not having any participants, I was thinking I’d have to do it back at the house on my own.

Punk Rock Havdalah, in Los Angeles. Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

Punk Rock Havdalah, in Los Angeles. Shmuel Gonzales and Jesse Elliott. Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

But Irv calls me and says to stick around. That he was just a few blocks away having coffee with a Mexican Jewish man, a homeless friend of his from the eastside. They were wondering if they could join me for havdalah. So we went up and they said the blessings of havdalah with me.

Irv, was born and raised Orthodox Jewish in the neighbourhood of Boyle Heights. And educated at the Breed Street Shul and local yeshivot. He says he’s agnostic now. But as I begin the ceremony he starts to join in the Hebrew prayers. And tell me touching stories of his parents, who were holocaust survivors and who came to Boyle Heights after the war to join a relative already here. He related to me how his parents used to perform the ceremony, and how they pronounced the words in their Eastern European accents.

He then takes a look at the skyline and across the bridge, which he hasn’t seen that way since he was young… now he’s in his 60s. But all the more he’s in awe of the sight after all these years.

For a few moments I also got to talk about the significance of the ritual up there on the bridge with this new friend I’ve met through him, as my buddy Irv gets thrilled by my knowledge and passion. And willingness to take the time. (And in a caring manner nagging me why I don’t study for the rabbinate already, that’s the story of my life!)

As we completed the ritual with song and stories, Irv thanked me for keeping Jewish tradition alive here in this way. As a means of keeping the memory of the legacy of classic Boyle Heights alive, even today after the once predominate Jewish community started migrating away from the neighborhood some 50 years ago.

Irv also expressed his gratitude to me, for investing myself into nurturing the future Latino Jewish community on the eastside. A growing community of Jewish Latinos, who are noticeably becoming integral to the future of Jewish expression here and in our local synagogues.

Irv’s been texting me since. And he keeps telling me, interestingly and touching coming from a self-proclaimed “cynical” and “bored” Jewish agnostic, “Havdalah… the prayers… and that place on the bridge. Now that is really spiritual, and most memorable.”

How to perform Havdalah with alternative items:

  • Though it is most common to make havdalah over wine or grape juice which requires the blessing “pri ha-gafen,” (fruit of the vine) one may also say havdalah over any type of pleasant drink if kosher grape juice is not available; anything except for water or a common drink like soda (according to Rav Moshe Feinstein), which is meant mainly to quench thirst. One should pick a drink which is considered a sociable drink. This can include even coffee or tea (with or w/o milk), or other fruit juices. However, Sephardic rabbis such as Rabbi Ovediah Yosef suggest that the use of intoxicating drinks such as wine, beer, etc. is choicest. One should say the appropriate blessing for what ever drink you choose, in place of the blessing for “pri ha-gafen” (fruit of the vine) when noted in our siddurim.

  • If you do not have a havdalah candle, all you need to do is find two candles and hold the wicks together. Pick a couple of friends out and have them hold the candles with the wicks touching through-out the havdalah ceremony. This is also a great way to physically display how our individual lights are so much stronger when people come together in unity.

 
1896912_10152650980936110_1390575560_n About the Author: Welcome to Hardcore Mesorah! My name is Shmueli Gonzales, and I am a writer and religious commentator from Los Angeles, California. I dedicate the focus of my work to displaying the cultural diversity within Judaism, often exploring the characteristics and unappreciated values of Chassidic and Sephardic Judaism. Among my various projects I also produce classical liturgical and halachic texts for free and open-source redistribution.

I am a proud member of Congregation Beth Shalom of Whitter – a modern-traditionalist Jewish congregation – where I also teach “Introduction to Judaism” and coordinate Spanish language programming for our growing Latino Jewish community here in the Los Angeles eastside and the San Gabriel Valley.

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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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Jewish Boyle Heights: The Past Meets the Future


Our tour of the Breed Street Shul and historic Boyle Heights

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

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

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

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

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

The corner of First Steet and Breed Street

The corner of First Steet and Breed Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interior of the Breed Street Shul in her glory days

Interior of the Breed Street Shul in her glory days

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

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

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

Vandalism before the restoration of the beit midrash

Vandalism before the restoration of the beit midrash

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

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

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

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

All four guests brought something special to the table:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The restored beit midrash

The restored beit midrash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The restoration of the main building, which houses the sanctuary

The restoration of the main building, which houses the sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BREED STREET SHUL PROJECT
PO Box 33411
Los Angeles, CA 90033-2902
 

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

More pictures from the shul:

The face and the black metal doors which guard her

The face and the black metal doors which guard her

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congregation B'nei Jacob

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

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

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

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

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