LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Corinne Mosh celebrated the first night of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot like never before.
She feasted in a space embellished
with decorative Mexican papel picado, alongside a Chicano vocalist
singing folk music in Spanish and a Jewish and Mexican-American
spiritual leader who casually switched between Spanish, English and
“To me, it speaks to the diaspora of Jewish people all over the world,” said Mosh, 43.
Mosh and about 15 others gathered
Sunday (Oct. 13) in Boyle Heights — a working-class Latino neighborhood
on the east side of Los Angeles that was once a thriving Jewish enclave —
to observe the biblical holiday of Sukkot. This tradition celebrates the harvest and recalls the Israelites’ 40-year journey in the desert after they fled Egypt.
During Sukkot, which began Sunday and
ends Oct. 20, observant Jews spend time in a sukkah — a temporary
outdoor hut that signals the Israelites’ dwellings before they reached
the Promised Land. These structures are made out of thatch or branches that can provide shade and protection from the sun.
Mosh and others held their celebration in what is believed to be the first sukkah in Boyle Heights — a community with a strong Chicano and Mexican identity — in more than 30 years.
Shmuel Gonzales, a Mexican American and Jewish community historian, helped organize the Sunday feast inside the sukkah. Shiny wreaths in violet, gold and red colors hung from side to side. Banners of traditional Mexican tissue paper decorated the shelter’s white walls. Stuffed eggplant, chili peppers filled with meat and dried fruit, and squash stuffed with tomato and tamarind sauce were served for dinner. To keep with tradition, Gonzales shook the “lulav” — a palm branch bundled with myrtle and willow branches — and a yellow citrus fruit called an “etrog.”
The lulav and etrog are waved to represent “God’s presence in all directions.”
“We’re here making history,” Gonzales said on Sunday.
Gonzales, 42, said the tradition of celebrating Sukkot in Boyle Heights faded after the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake damaged the Breed Street Shul, the last of the Eastside synagogues that stayed open in the decades following the population shifts of the postwar era. Vandalism and neglect contributed to the final services being held in 1996.
“I decided a while ago that (if) we
were going to have the Jewish faith alive in the Eastside no one was
going to do it for us,” Gonzales said.
For Gonzales, preserving remnants of
the Jewish faith in the Eastside is personal. His family has roots in
Boyle Heights dating back to 1896. He said the Jewish community has
embraced him as a convert. It’s estimated that about 227,000 Latino
adults in the United States identify their religion as Jewish, according
to a 2019 report released by the American Jewish Population Project.
About 40% of Boyle Heights’ population was Jewish through the 1920s and ’30s, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy. While more upwardly mobile Jews established themselves in Hollywood and the Westside before World War II, the Jewish community in Boyle Heights was made up of mostly working-class families from Eastern Europe. They were mainly secular and politically engaged in the Eastside.
Gonzales held the sukkah gathering
outside a community space that hosts comedy nights and is the home of
Boyle Heights History Tours. As part of these tours, Gonzales takes
people on urban hikes and walks to explore the area’s Jewish history as
well as some of the lost cemeteries of Los Angeles. The money made
through that work helped pay for the Sukkot festivities, he said.
Sukkot is “one of these ancient
holidays that has been revived in so many different ways for us to find
relevance with it,” Gonzales said.
He tied the holiday to the homeless crisis in Los Angeles that has left more than 36,000
in the city without a home. He recalled seeing homeless people under
palm branches seeking relief from the heat. “These are homeless people
that need shelter,” he said.
He also thought of the immigration
crisis along the southern border and of the “refugees wandering through
the desert in hopes of getting to the Promised Land here.”
Sukkot, Gonzales said, is “not just
to celebrate how far we’ve come … but also to keep in mind all of those
who are still on that journey looking for their shelter.”
Gonzales also likened the sukkah to a Día de los Muertos altar, a sacred space where people honor their ancestors.
“With a sukkah, it also becomes a mystical space in which we are able to connect with our ancestors,” he said.
This is the kind of multiculturalism
that attracts Martín Olvera, who is Chicano with roots in Boyle Heights.
Olvera’s father was born in Boyle Heights and learned woodcrafting from
a Jewish man. His grandmother arrived in Boyle Heights as an immigrant
from Mexico in 1910. His New Mexican mother also made L.A. her home.
Olvera, a musician who was raised Catholic, said he values the Jewish community for standing up for immigrant rights.
Sunday was his first Sukkot, where he sang and played the violin.
“I thought it was really empowering,” said Olvera, 63.
Matthew Hom of Bend the Arc — a
Jewish, nonprofit working for social justice — also attended Sukkot in
Boyle Heights. He normally commemorates the holiday by going to services
at his synagogue and having a meal in the sukkah, but this time it felt
Hom’s grandfather was raised in Boyle
Heights, and celebrating Sukkot there was special “because it allowed
me to connect to my family’s history here.” He said he’s inspired by the
history of the community because of the “social justice work and
solidarity between Jewish and Latinx residents.”
Hom, 32, said Sukkot is a way for Jews to remember their history of migration and insecurity.
“It’s precisely why we commemorate
this narrative that we feel compelled to redouble our effort to secure
immigrant justice today,” Hom said.
For Mosh, Sukkot in Boyle Heights was
a learning experience. She’s not originally from L.A. and was unaware
of the Jewish history of the community.
Although she grew up going to
synagogue, Mosh said she is not particularly religious. She remembers
going to Sunday school and decorating the sukkah and wanted her kids to
experience the tradition. Mosh said she appreciated commemorating the
holiday through a social justice perspective, considering the housing
and immigration crisis.
“It felt refreshing and familiar,” she said. “That’s the Judaism I remember and was needing in my life.”
Alejandra Molina is a National Reporter covering Latinos and religion in the West Coast. She is based in Los Angeles. Previously, she was a reporter for the Southern California News Group where she covered cities, immigration, race and religion for newspapers like The Orange County Register, The Press-Enterprise in Riverside and The Los Angeles Daily News.
According to tradition, around 1,900 years before the Spanish Inquisition, a baby girl named Hadassah was born in the Persian Empire. She was orphaned at a very young age and her cousin Mordechai assumed custody of her. Under his tutelage, she internalized the spark of her Jewish identity.
After a few years, an opportunity presented itself, and Mordechai placed her in King Ahasuerus’ harem. He told her that her name was now Esther.
Mordechai told Esther that she was still a Jew, but that she must not let anyone know. If she was lucky, one day she could be the queen of Persia. It is said that she was a vegetarian, to avoid eating non-kosher meat. Queen Esther seemed to be fully assimilated, yet she never forgot who she really was. She hid her Judaism, and eventually married King Ahasuerus.
When the Spanish Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, many Jews converted to Catholicism outwardly. Inwardly, they kept practicing Judaism in secret, becoming anusim, conversos, or crypto-Jews.
Queen Esther was an inspiration to the anusim in that she modeled a way for them to remember and retain their true, hidden Jewish identity while integrating into the society around them. The conversos implemented a strategy to be able to continue practicing Jewish customs while hiding their observance by inserting a Jewish tradition into a Catholic practice or “syncretism” — the mixing of rituals from different religions.
When the Roman Catholic Church formally recognizes a person as a saint, this person is canonized. A person who has not been canonized may, however, still be referred to as a saint if it is believed that they are “completely perfect in holiness.” The crypto-Jews took advantage of this loophole.
Although Queen Esther was not canonized by the Catholic Church, the anusim transformed her into Saint Esther. They called her Santa Ester or Santa Esterica. They were able to continue honoring Purim by reinventing it as “The Festival of Saint Esther.”
Although Queen Esther was not canonized by the Catholic Church, the anusim transformed her into Saint Esther.
The Festival of Saint Esther originated in Spain. When Spain issued the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, many Jews and conversos escaped to Portugal, taking their traditions with them. Their respite was short-lived and in 1497 the Portuguese king Manuel I married Princess Isabella, the daughter of the Spanish Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand. A clause in this marriage contract extended the Spanish expulsion to Portugal, ousting the Jews once more.
The New World beckoned as a safe haven and the Spanish and Portuguese anusim were among the first settlers in the territories controlled by Spain in what is now Mexico. The Spanish Inquisition followed them to Mexico, however, pushing the conversos north.
The establishment of Nuevo León in the American Southwest is notable in that it was almost entirely carried out by crypto-Jews. Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva, a Portuguese converso, received a royal charter to settle this land without religious scrutiny of the pioneers who followed him. The Festival of Saint Esther was disseminated in the New World by these conversos. It was generally the women of the family who maintained this tradition.
The Festival of Saint Esther had two parts. The first part of the holiday was called the Fast of Queen Esther. The women fasted for three days. This fast replicated the fast Queen Esther asked of Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan before she approached King Ahasuerus.
Execution of Mariana de Carabajal at Mexico, 1601 accused of secretly being Jewish. Source: From Palacio, ‘El Libro Rojo’, reprinted in the Jewish Encyclopedia (public domain)
It was too risky to celebrate the Festival of Saint Esther publicly. This was because the Spanish Inquisition considered such an activity to be Judaizing, or the adoption of Jewish beliefs. However, the archives of Mexico’s Inquisition retain testimony about this fast.
In 1643, Gabriel de Granada confessed that in his family, the women divided up the fast between them. Each would fast for one day. The punishment meted out by the tribunal of the Inquisition for Judaizing was “relaxation,” which meant burning at the stake.
Fasting had a special significance for the forced converts. In “The Fast of Esther in the Lore of the Marranos,” Moshe Orfali explains that the conversos felt that they lived in a constant state of sin. Fasting helped them atone.
The second, celebratory part of the festival was the Feast of Saint Esther. In her article “Women, Ritual, and Secrecy: The Creation of the Crypto-Jewish Culture,” Janet Liebman Jacobs relates that the women lit devotional candles in honor of Saint Esther. It was an occasion of mothers bonding with their daughters. They cooked a banquet together. The mothers took advantage of this opportunity to teach their daughters special family recipes that adhered to the remembered laws of kashrut.
The festive, public Purim celebration was transformed into a private meal held at home. As a result, many Jewish traditions were transmitted from mother to daughter.
The crypto-Jews also had their own special way of honoring Esther year round by enshrining her in a piece of art.
All Spanish colonies had a special type of religious art form called santo. Santos were statues made of wood or ivory which depicted the Virgin Mary, saints, or angels. In Latin America and the American Southwest, these statues were called bultos. The bultos were carved from wood, and then coated with a mixture of glue and gypsum, called gesso. They were then painted with vivid homemade pigments.
In crypto-Jewish homes, Queen Esther was fashioned into an icon and transformed into a bulto of Saint Esther.
Santo art was also expressed as devotional paintings called retablos. Traditionally, these were executed on sheets of metal such as copper or tin. Since there was a shortage of metal in the New World, the retablos were made of wood. Like the bultos, they were coated with gesso and painted. The paints were made from natural materials such as plants, insects, ash, and clay. Then they were varnished with tree resins. Crypto-Jews also commissioned retablos of Saint Esther.
It is less common to find bultos or retablos of Saint Esther in the American Southwest today. This is the legacy of Archbishop Peter Davis, who was the Archbishop of Santa Fe from 1964 to 1974. According to Jacobs, the archbishop wanted to get rid of all the Jewish rituals in New Mexico. He told his parishioners that there is no Saint Esther in Catholicism. and explained that the celebration of Esther is called Purim, and that Purim is part of the Jewish faith.
Despite Davis’ best efforts, it is still possible to find bultos and retablos of Saint Esther in crypto-Jewish homes today. In “The Book of Esther in Modern Research,” by Leonard Greenspoon and Sidnie White Crawford, for example, Santa Ester is portrayed as holding “a hanging-rope in one hand, and a crown in the other, weighing the danger of execution against the safety of royal immunity.”
Charles Carrillo is a contemporary artist who creates Saint Esther icons. (courtesy)
There are also contemporary artists creating icons of Saint Esther. Charles Carrillo is one of New Mexico’s most prominent santeros, or artists that carve and paint saints. Carrillo earned a doctorate in archaeology from the University of New Mexico. While working on a dig, he became inspired by the work of the santeros. He conducted a lot of research, and became a self-taught artist whose mission is to preserve the homemade materials, techniques, and designs of the master santeros of 18th century colonial New Mexico. In 2006 he was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award.
According to Carrillo there is a large community of crypto-Jews in New Mexico.
“They came here in the 1500s,” he told me. “I haven’t done one in a long time, but sometimes I still get a commission to create a Santa Ester.” There is an old saying in New Mexico, “A cada santo llega su función,” meaning that there is a saint for every occasion.
“My Santa Ester always has dark hair,” Carrillo said. “It’s a New Mexico tradition. I want my artwork to reflect her attributes. Esther means ‘Hadassah’ in Hebrew. Hadas is a myrtle or fragrant plant,” he explained.
In Carrillo’s retablo, Santa Ester is wearing a crown adorned with myrtle. She holds a myrtle branch in one hand. The rosette at the top of the retablo is decorated with myrtle branches. Santa Ester holds a scepter in her other hand that marks her as a queen. Her scepter is decorated with a pomegranate, an ancient Jewish symbol of fertility, promise, and fulfillment.
The red curtains framing Santa Ester are traditional in a New Mexico retablo. They are an allusion to a stage and symbolize that this has been revealed to us, and that we had better pay attention before the curtains close.
The Spanish Inquisition was formally ended in 1834. It is rational to believe that crypto-Judaism was something that existed in the past and is no longer occurring. However, it has persisted, and there are many anusim that continue their secret practices to this day while living in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Latin America, and the American Southwest.
Several organizations have been established in recent years to help anusim conduct research about their family background. Name Your Roots was formed in Israel by a group of academics who hope to help facilitate research into converso family names and customs. Shavei Israel, was created to assist those descendants of Jews who wish to return to Judaism.
I wondered what it feels like for a devout Catholic like Carrillo to create an icon that he knows is for crypto-Judaic purposes. “I am honored to be asked,” he said. “Ultimately, we all believe in the same God. It is my tradition to paint the images so the story may be told.”
Project for this next year: I would love to commission the creation of a Saint Esther retablo for my small little Jewish community which meets in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles; and maybe even one day the creation of a mural! Are there any interested artists and local partners who are able to help me make this happen?
The story of the new menorah from an old Jewish shop founded on the eastside
The joy of the holidays are found in that warmth we get from remembering holidays past, and the magic of the season is found in how we rekindle these memories anew.
During the winter months the cultural and religious traditions of the area seem to shine the brightest. When during the winter months people of our various cultures display their festive ways to bring brightness to the darkest time of the year. When the days and short and the night are longest, the spirit inside of us just longs to brighten up the darkness.
Catholics brighten up these winter nights in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights with las posadas(processions) and bright nativities; from Christmas time and through Three Kings Day. For Catholics celebrations with candles begins at this time and continues though Día De La Candelaria, or Candlemas on February 2. Protestants as well, with their stirring candlelit Christmas vigils. And our Armenian neighbors too, with their celebrations of the eastern orthodox Feast of the Nativity and Epiphany also on January 6th; when their churches will light lamps and the faithful will hold candles according to their ancient custom, symbolic of the presence of the holy spirit in their lives (yes, we even have an Armenian Catholic church in the area as well!).
These are commonly shared themes in many faith traditions.
And the holidays are nothing if not about tradition! If you haven’t noticed, I’m a pretty old school cat. So I get a lot of joy out of keeping the old traditions alive.
One of the ways I have been connecting to our old school Jewish heritage of the area over the past few years has been to light old classic style olive oil Chanukah lights with my friends in the community of Boyle Heights. To share the celebration of the miracle of the oil lamps – commemorating when in ancient times Jewish rebels recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, relighting the Menorah’s sacred oil lights that were miraculously sustained for eight days on one day’s oil, until more sacred oil could be made.
This is a bright celebration of culture and faith, overcoming imperialism and hegemony. And as the haftarah reading from the prophets for this holiday reminds us: “Not by might, nor by power but by My spirit says the L-rd of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6); this is a festival when we celebrate the power of spirit over militaristic might.
This is a message many of us around here can identify with culturally, if not religiously. Among my friends it has been a time to share Jewish traditional holiday treats and stories of our warmest memories of years gone by, sometimes joined by a few local Jews who grew up in the area and who are still found in these parts.
This year we were intent on lighting the Chanukah lights up on top of the Sixth Street Bridge for the last time, before the bridge comes down. As the viaduct is set for demolition over the next few weeks. Ordinary I do havdalah on the bridge, so figured I could pull it off with Chanukah lights. So I brought with me a most beautiful, silvery chanukiah to light – a traditional Chanukah menorah, and lit it on the Boyle Heights side of the bridge just east of the river.
Maybe you had seen me and my friends out there in the first few nights of the festival (before the rain came in), lighting the menorah in view of the bright Los Angeles skyline:
In previous years, I have brought travel sized menorahs and done guerrilla-style lightings around town. Though last year I had promised that I would buy a new, big boy’s sized menorah, to add some beauty to the mitzvah of lighting with olive oil lamps; one which is reminiscent of what many Jewish families of the area would have used in the classic days of the Yiddish eastside.
The question is, where do you find such a thing around here? Are there any Jewish bookstores or Judaica shops in the area? Aside from the small gift-shops at our local synagogues, where does a local find their religious Jewish items?
One of my favorite shops is Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, on Fairfax Ave. in mid-city, but was originally founded right here in Boyle Heights. In fact, I often find myself buying from shops off Fairfax which used to be located right in our own eastside community when Boyle Heights was then the heart of the LA Jewish community!
Solomon’s was founded in Boyle Heights almost 80 years ago, operating a shop on Brooklyn Ave. (now Cesar E. Chavez Ave.) just a couple of doors down from the original location of Canter’s Deli. They were among the businesses which later relocated to the Fairfax with the mass migration of Jewish families heading that way some 70 years ago.
Today as both Boyle Heights and Fairfax are once again going through tremendous changes which seem to be jeopardizing the classic and cultural character of these neighborhoods, it’s nice to know that some family run businesses like these are somehow managing to remain in loving service to our changing communities.
After having a wonderful time lighting the new menorah on the old Sixth Street Bridge in it’s final days, people keep asking where I’m going to do a public lighting for Chanukah next year.
The suggestion I really like the most is that maybe next year we should do a public lighting off of old Brooklyn Ave. itself, where the story all started. To really bring this cultural history which we share together completely full-circle!
Happy holidays and a blessed new year to one and all!
Some nice shots of the Chanukah menorah from the LA eastside:
Getting off the bus, and on to the streets. A metaphor for inter-community engagement.
The former “Congregation Tiferes Jacob – Congregation Talmud Torah.” 59th and Brentwood, just east of Broadaway.
The religious and cultural history of our lesser known neighborhoods always intrigues me. I learn something new everyday. And I see amazing sights nearly everyday. However, what I have learned the most has come not from tour bus excursions. It’s from getting off the public buses, and by making my friends pull over to see something usual which catches my eye.
A few days ago as I was taking the express bus north towards Downtown Los Angeles I found myself staring over the rooftops before Slauson Avenue. Looking for the landmark which has kept me intrigued for a while now. Until I spot it. And as I exit the bus at Slauson Metro Station – disembarking at the station right in the middle of the 110-freeway – I keep my eyes on this almost gleaming beacon.
Just east of the 110-freeway, beyond the rows of speeding freeway traffic in front of me, and down in a residential community below, I can clearly see this great building with two blue copulas, one bearing a Star of David and the other a Christian cross.
After spending much time wondering about this, I have finally started to uncover the history of this site as a former synagogue. Following leads from old city directories and oral histories.
So I have spent the past couple weeks returning to the site. Talking to people in the neighborhood, to get to know the history of the area. Also collected some pictures and video of the local sites. This day, my unplanned stop is spurred on by pure impulse and curiosity.
This object of my curiosity is just a couple of blocks away, which is easily walkable. So I descend the freeway’s Metro station platform, making my way over to Broadway.
Here in this area right here off of Broadway, there are a lot of churches right on this thoroughfare. Some of these house of worship are really impressive, like the Greater New Canaan Church of G-d in Christ – just a block over on Brentwood Street, she’s a real beauty!
Though most of the churches here are more humble – being just converted storefronts and former commercial buildings. Small make shift congregations, as it seems to have been in this area since its earliest days.
Though churches of today are more dense. Several of them are directly next door to each other, all smashed up together on the very same corner in some cases. Side-by-side storefront churches, reflective of the diversity and divergence in religious thought found in fundamentalist sectarianism common to the area.
Just at the corner of 59th and Broadway alone, there are two interesting churches. They are just in eyesight of an old synagogue.
The first is the very dispensationally named Concilio de Iglesias Pentecostales “La Nueva Jerusalem (sic).” Which seems to have been a African-American church which has more recently changed their signage to Spanish, and which is now seemingly renting back space from their own meetings from the Spanish congregation. A striking example of the more recent demographic changes in the area.
Now notice that even though this movement feels comfortable co-opting Jewish elements and symbolism, their sign shows the tension of the duplicity: “Cien porcento trinitaria. Pardre, hijo, espitu santo.” (Translation: “100% Trinitarian. Father, son, holy spirit.”).
It’s the second church – the one right next to it – which really caught my eye. “Iglesia Cristian ‘El Dios de Santidad.‘” A fundamentalist holiness church. More precisely, my attention was grabbed by their proudly placed sign emblazoned with a Star of David, that is morphed with a menorah.
Now notice that even though this movement feels comfortable co-opting Jewish symbolism, their sign shows the tension of the duplicity: “Cien porcento trinitaria. Pardre, hijo, espitu santo.” (Translation: “100% Trinitarian. Father, son, holy spirit.”).
Many of these churches are outgrowths of church-splits over such doctrinal differences dividing them. This well positioned signage here therefore serves as a notice and warning for people entering the door of this congregation’s firm doctrinal stance.
This artifact revealing that the range of religious thought and questioning in this area is more nuanced than many mainstream white people expect.
Now I notice that the first church, “Nueva Jerusalem” Pentecostal Church, they had a person standing in the doorway. A young black gentleman holding religious tracts and doing some street preaching.
So I ask him if he has lived in the area long. As this has historically been known as a black neighborhood for many years, I ask if his family might have a bit more historical connections to the area than the people I’ve been talking to so far.
I begin relating to him that I’ve been speaking to a lot of the Spanish-speaking residents lately, but that most tell me they are quite recent immigrants. Many of them being central-American families – may of them from Guatemala – who tell me they don’t have enough time living in the area to know the history. Families telling me if I learn the history here, to come back and share the story with them!
The young man says that he’s lived I the area his entire life. And says he knows a bit of the history, which other locals have related to him. Saying that he might be able to help.
As I lift my hand and gesture towards the old building with a Star of David just a block away he quickly blurts out, “Oh, that used to be an old synagogue! It started out way back in the day as a Jewish temple. Today it’s a Baptist church. It’s really old and awesome looking on the inside!”
Without me even doing so much as making a suggestion as to what the site used to be, he instead begins to tell me the story of the site. Telling me in brief how the church purchased the old synagogue building in the 1950s, and then later remodeled it in the 1960s.
He insists with excitement, “You really need to visit on Sunday, to see the inside and talk to the pastor.” Saying that he had once been given a tour and told the history by the church pastor.
I tell him that I find this all fascinating. And that I’d love to hear about the old Jewish history of the area.
And then I mention that for me to hear all this from a non-Jewish person really is even more fascinating. As the Jewish community really seems to be unaware that this site is here and seems to have forgotten the history of this community.
I relate to him that the very thought of this area once being home to a sizable working-class Jewish community really touches something within me, both as a Jewish person and as an ethnic person of color. And that witnessing it, even from the outside, really moves me. Explaining how I’ve been by several times recently with other Jewish friends of mine.
When he hears I’m Jewish his ears perk up. He then asks me: “Have you ever considered Christianity?” Of course, he’s a street preacher so this response does not come as a surprise.
I respond with the same confidence he’s showing in the marketplace of faith: “I do consider it quite often, but honestly, I more often discuss the topic with people who are converted from Christianity to Judaism. And with inter-faith families who are exploring faith.” And I begin to tell him how much of my work is related to helping a diverse spectrum of people return to their historic Jewish faith. And also teaching Judaism to new converts, who are seeking out the Jewish faith.
The guys jaw drops. Surely, he’s never received this answer from someone before! He’s never gotten a response this chutzpadik. So for a while he was just stunned and listening. But I could see that he began to become intrigued hearing of the diversity of race, nationality, language and cultural expression in Judaism. Something he said he had never heard of or considered before.
I tell him how I appreciate the philosophy and teachings of Christianity. And though I love to talk about this faith, I don’t believe it is the path for me. And begin to remind him that the bible says Jews are to be true to our own G-d and not follow after the gods our ancestors did not know. (Deuteronomy 13) That it’s important for me to be faithful and true to the Torah of my G-d, which the scriptures call an eternal covenant between the Divine and the Jewish people. (Genesis 17:7)
He then related to me that he knew a few Jewish people. And that he had several Jewish coworkers. But that his impression of them and their families, was that they didn’t know much about the bible. And so they didn’t really seem Jewish enough to him, as far as he could see. Having a disconnect in his mind between his Jewish acquaintances, and what he understood Jews to be from his reading of the bible.
And he was further troubled and unable to understand how less than pious people could still consider themselves Jewish.
So I took a moment to hear him out. And to consider where he was coming from. In this case, standing literally in the doorway of a “holiness” church – a church which fundamentally believes that even most Christians aren’t really “saved” from hell, because they believe they are lax regarding sin. A group which especially preaches against people who drink, smoke, or even those who listen to secular music. This group has especially become fixated with castigating gays and lesbians in more recent years.
For these people, sin is all around. And to give in to it, means loosing your salvation and place in heaven. This is an old school doctrinal position, which is still quite common in the hood.
So I begin to speak to him one-on-one as a person of faith doing outreach in the inner city. To show him that I both appreciate his beliefs, and truly believe that the power of faith needs to be shared with a society so badly in need of hope. But that I believe we need to transform the way we communicate our faith to people.
And for a while, I begin to make the case that our relationship with our faith and G-d is not an all-or-nothing affair. And that to have this type relationship with G-d is unhealthy, as it would be in any relationship.
I relate to him how I have always been taught by my rabbis that the Jewish faith is not all-or-nothing, it is choosing to embrace holiness one mitzvah at a time. Making inspired and righteous choices, one little act of goodness at a time.
For a while I begin to talk about the realities of society, and our very inner city communities here. Pointing out that there are so many people in need of faith in their lives. Especially here, where life is so very hard for many. And yet for some reason when people can’t live up to some standard of perfection, they are rejected. Shunned and tossed out of their faith communities.
I begin to relate to him the stories I hear from people in these neighborhoods, how many faithful and soulful people feel rejected by their religion. How many who cannot live up to such high ideals are often ejected into a world with no moral guidance. Sent lost and stumbling into an underworld of real danger.
I tell him that many religious people always complain how so many have no moral compass, when we tend to be the very ones taking it away from people and sending them wandering into a wilderness of doubt.
I began to speak to him about my passion for faith and righteousness. And that I feel we need to open the doors wide, to welcome people back to reclaim their spiritual core. And to even rediscover faith anew.
And from there we begin to talk about religion and the bible for about the next hour-and-a-half. For some time him asking questions, and me responding with patient answers. To which he responds with signs of agreement and nods, to his noticeable surprise and delight.
Having heard me mention righteousness and holiness before, he says that he notices that I use these words differently than he’s ever heard before. So I spent some time talking with him about demystifying words of the bible, and understanding them by their clear and obvious meaning.
How righteous is when people decide to do the right thing, not if they believe the right thing. How righteousness is when we do right by G-d and man. As that is the true and literal meaning of righteousness.
And how holiness is not attaining some sense of ethereal perfection. But how kedusha – holiness as described in the Torah – is when something is set-aside for a divine purpose. When we take something that is mundane and ordinary, and we do something extraordinary with it.
I express how I feel it’s very important to understand that when the words of the bible are taken at face value, they call us to do right by others (which is righteousness) and to infuse spiritual inspiration into the ordinary things we encounter in our world (which is holiness).
However, there was one thing which still left him wondering. So he ventured to ask me, “What about salvation? Do you believe you are saved? What about leading people to salvation?”
So I ask him to really consider that word again. To really think about what that word means. To consider the words of the bible and contextualize its meaning. How salvation means saving people from harm and danger.
I ask him to consider how the Jewish people from the time of the bible until present have been troubled by so many hardships. Suffering enslavement, persecution, war, occupation, and near-annihilation; the Jewish people have always understood salvation as being saved from these calamities. For this is the word’s true meaning, and my people’s true reality as Jews.
Then I begin to relate to him in-depth about how my inner city experience has also reinforced this clear view of what salvation is for me. As a person of color, from a struggling working-class community.
As I see the need and challenges in our urban communities, I cannot help but be reminded of what salvation means. As salvation literally means saving, helping and rescuing people from their disparity. Salvation from sword (violence), plague (disease), famine (hunger) and woe (grief, sorrow, sadness).
I contented that leading people to salvation is not helping people attain some abstract religious and philosophical ascent. Insisting that is something which most of the common man here doesn’t really have the luxury to entertain and worry about anyhow. The people of these communities here need saving from real life troubles.
I begin to tell him how we all need to get back to the basics of faith and religion. And begin to remember salvation is in the true sense, and not just as a metaphor.
I see him continuing to nod his head in agreement. Smiling and laughing as I describe my faith in my own very urban and colorful fashion.
Then we get back to talking about people reclaiming their roots and about fostering communal interconnectivity. And about how exploring this history here can help us have more appreciation for the spirit of our historical working-class communities. Discussing my desire to uncover our shared history as a multicultural Los Angeles. With him agreeing that there is an important story to tell here in this community.
The gentleman then tells with excitement that he hopes I will return to see the inside of the old synagogue soon. Asking for my business card. so he could pass it on to the ministers of the church which owns the building.
And saying that he also wished to keep in touch, to talk again sometime. Before shaking my hand heartily, as I departed and continued on my way to explore the site.
One of the things that I could not help but be shaken from this interactions, is the fact that the story of Judaism is being told here. It’s just that so far we aren’t being part of that discussion.
Now all I need is more people to be willing to get off the bus with me. To be continued….
Remembering the Jews who have lived and now rest in peace in the LA Eastside
The Young Israel Jewish Cemetery in Norwalk, founded in the 1938 by Congregation Bnei Israel of Los Angeles, the Houston Street Shul of old Boyle Heights.
Today I invite you to take a personal journey with me through Jewish life in the Los Angeles Eastside. I would also like to continue in the theme of recognizing smaller and lesser known Jewish sites of the area.
On this day we are doing something different, we are starting out our journey in reverse. Believe it or not, to date none of my historical videos have been planned out. I’m not a tourist, I’m a local. Usually a video comes about because I’m in the neighborhood and someone asks me to explains something as we are passing, and then we snap a video to capture my responses.
Today I am presenting my photos and a re-cut video with a bit of newly added audio commentary, documenting a recent visit to two special Jewish sites on the Eastside of Los Angeles County. One in Norwalk and the other in Boyle Heights.
Along the way we are also going to tell the untold story of the migration of Jewish people, deeper into the suburban eastside. Into the southeast cities of Los Angeles County and the San Gabriel Valley.
The Jewish Cemetery in Norwalk
This day I was actually in the dentist chair when I got a wonderful question from a friend from the southeast-side. His inquiry gave me a welcomed distraction and mission for the day!
He wanted to find out what I knew about a small burial site out in Norwalk. Knowing that I would be passing right next to there on my way home, I decided to make a quick detour into the neighborhood next the Metro Green Line Station in Norwalk to explore this topic a bit.
Crossing under the 605-freeway on Foster Road, I make my way through a broken-up and oddly shaped neighborhood. Over to the southernmost fragment and point of Curtis and King Road. And right there in between Briar and Tolly, there sits a small Jewish cemetery.
This cemetery is the Young Israel Cemetery in Norwalk, founded in 1938. This site holds approximately 500 Jewish burials. It is a well maintained site, run by the Chevra Kadisha Mortuary – the Orthodox Jewish sacred burial society.
The Chevra Kadisha also runs other well-known cemetery sites in the area. One of them being the Beth Israel Cemetery in East Los Angeles on Downey Road, near Olympic Blvd. And another being the Mount Carmel Cemetery, near the City of Commerce.
Though, it is important to note that this site here was not founded by the burial society which operates it today. In-fact, we are told by oral history that this site was founded by the Houston Street Shul in Boyle Heights. (Mort Silverman) And that it was later bought by the Chevra Kadisha.
[For a complete list of internments and photos for each grave, see the index at: “Find A Grave”]
So here we are, standing in front of an often forgotten cemetery, which was founded by a forgotten synagogue. We are also going to take a look at the shul along the way as well, as we make our way back to Boyle Heights.
But first we need to take this all in. One might wonder, why is it that a Jewish congregation in old Boyle Heights would have chosen a burial site all the way out here in Norwalk? And as most of the burials are more recent, so why would this remain an active site even after the closure of the congregation which founded it?
The answer to the first question of why here, this is only obvious to those who know about the complicated history of displacing cemeteries in the Los Angeles area. At the start of the 20th century nearly all the original cemeteries inside the city were displaced. They were forced to relocated their sites and bodies elsewhere: as most notably in the case of the original Jewish cemetery around Chavez Ravine.
The fear of this possibly happening once again compelled Jewish leaders to pick burial sites which were outside of the official city limits, into LA County territory. They located their burial sites in places this far out not just because there was open land here, but more so because they believed picking a site out here would be safe from future development. They began to put great attention into picking cemetery sites which would not have to be quickly uprooted and relocated. So that their dearly departed would not be disturbed.
As for the reason that this Jewish burial site would remain significant, it is clearly because Jewish people and their families had migrated into this area. Necessitating the continued operation and maintenance of this sacred burial site here.
“As for the reason this Jewish burial site would remain significant, it is clearly because Jewish people and their families had migrated into this area. Necessitating the continued operation and maintenance of this sacred burial site here.”
My friend who posed the question about this site is an Ashkenazi Jew, whose grandparents had left Boyle Heights to the southeast cities. My own Mexican-American grandparents from Boyle Heights and Compton, they would also eventually relocate to this southeastern corner of Los Angeles as it became developed with tract housing. This was the place for the up and coming, with a mixture of working-class and some professional families.
In the early years after World War II and the Korean War, this part of Los Angeles would attract many suburban aspiring people following government contract jobs. The area would also swell with prominence as this area became an important development and production area for the aerospace industry. Not far from here Rockwell Aerospace would later produce the NASA space orbiters.
However, as the cold war and the space program slowed down this also meant a great economic lull in the area. And then the neighborhood around here was further depressed by highway development in the area.
A view of a section of the 105 Century Freeway corridor in the 1980s, rows of condemned houses and lots. Photo by Jeff Gates, “In Our Path.”
When I was a kid much of this area was just rows of condemned houses. Houses which had been purchased by the county, left boarded-up and rotting for decades, then eventually razed in order to make a corridor for the 105 Century Freeway in the late-1980s. A demolition corridor which stretched through the struggling parts of the neighborhoods of Norwalk, Downey, Lakewood, Lynwood, Compton, Watts and on to LAX Airport.
When I was little my grandparents owned several business just across the street from the corridor. And I went to private school right up against the corridor for a while.
This corridor was the areafeatured in the mostnotorious punk-rock movie of all time, “Suburbia (1983)” by Penelope Spheeris. Which is a story of gutter punks occupying a distressed and crumbling suburbia. Though a fictional movie which takes great liberties with the story in their nod to the historical narrative, it does actually capture much of the complaints of locals throughout the corridorand the media hype surrounding all of that at the time.
In order to grasp and visualize the impact of this on the area, I also highly recommend the exhibition titled, “In Our Path” by Jeff Gates.
So here we are just near the widened 605-freeway, you can hear it. Near the interchange to the more recent 105-freeway, you can see it.
Quite honestly, we are very fortunate that this site still continues to exist after such sweeping changes around here. Had engineers planned a little bit differently, this site could have easily have been taken by one of our infamously controversial roadworks. Highway expansions which have repeatedly displaced so many people and places in less affluent neighborhoods; as had also been the case in the classic era of Boyle Heights.
But before I head back towards Boyle Heights, I pause to say a few prayers and pay my respects. And for a while I take comfort in seeing carefully placed stones on many of these graves, signs that there are local loved ones who have recently come to visit these graves. Paying respect to the dear souls who have come to rest here.
זיכרונם לברכה… May their memories be for a blessing.
The Houston Street Shul of Boyle Heights
So now we make our way back to the historic core of the eastside – to Boyle Heights. We make a journey in reverse, a journey that many of our parents and grandparents have made.
The only noticable sign that this Spanish-speaoing church was once a synagogue are these Lions of Judah, guarding the two tablets of Torah. The raised Hebrew words of the Ten Commandments appear to have been sanded down entirely.
Many, if not most, local minority families have their roots in Boyle Heights. The area which was once the officially designated minority enclave and has remained a working-class community to this day. For many immigrant families, this was both their Ellis Island and first homestead.
The way the eastside generally works is this way: Everyone starts out around Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. But as a family becomes more financially secure and more integrated, they tend to migrate to the more suburban southeast neighborhoods.
Conversely for lifelong eastsiders, families falling on hard times sometimes moving back to these more affordable old neighborhoods when times become tough again. Migrating patterns up and down the eastside often closely related to one’s economic security. Unlike most of my family, I’ve lived in the rougher neighborhoods more often than not. Getting older, I have naturally wandered back to this my comfort zone.
But the path that we take these days is different from the ride I used to take in my childhood and teenage years. The 460 Express Bus no longer takes the scenic route through the greater eastside, with stops up and down the 5-freeway, then coming into town up Soto before crossing the Los Angeles River viaducts into downtown. The 460 now takes the 105-freeway corridor and 110-freeway through South Central LA on its way to Downtown, so now I go the long way around on my way up to the neighborhood.
One of the things which makes the neighborhood of Boyle Heights so special and worth the ride, is that it has all kinds of hidden treasures. All these interesting remnants of a diverse cultural and religious past in this old neighborhood. Still after all these years, I notice something new every time.
“La Iglesia de Dios de la Profecía.” The face of the converted synagogue, before the most recent beautification.
And so it is on this day as we find ourselves in front of the old Houston Street Shul – formally known as Congregation B’nei Israel of Los Angeles, founded in 1932. This lovely little vernacular neoclassicalstyle building was originally built to house an Orthodox Jewish congregation. It was one of over 30 synagogues in and around the area of Boyle Heights, which were most active in the first half of the 20th century.
This building sits amid a bustling neighborhood. Right below Wabash and just shy of the rumbling of the freeways which today curve painfully close to this area, here sits this charming little building.
Distinct in its style and sturdy in form, it catches your attention. Even more so on this day. The building has been recently repainted a classic golden color. No longer appearing dingy and musty as before, the building looks quite alive and cheerful again!
Also recently being brightened up with a new illuminated sign over the doorway, announcing the church which has for many years owned and operated this site: La Iglesia de Dios de la Profecía, a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal church.
As I begin to admire the building, my attention is immediately drawn to the only noticeable Jewish symbolism which is left on the building: Two Lions of Judah, guarding the two tablets of the Torah. This is all there is to explicatively tell us what this site once was. Yet even these signs are not well-preserved, as the church seems to have sanded down the Hebrew words of the Ten Commandments on these decorative Torah tablets.
As I move in closer with the camera to admire them, I notice the people in the neighborhood and the lingering Mormon missionaries all becoming curious as to what I’m seeing here. What looks so interesting up there, are they missing something?
As I get closer my attention is then drawn to the door-frames of the main entrance. On each side of the door are square indentations. Painted in and looking like exaggerative block molding. However, looking closely I could see the faint shape of the English and the Hebrew script of Yiddish in these spaces. Beneath thick brown paint are the memorial cornerstones honoring the founders of this site.
As much as I’m excited to seeing the building still exist and having better days. I’m also crushed over how little there is left to testify of its unique and celebrated past. This building is like most of the former Jewish religious sites, few of which have any remaining signs or homages to their honorable past.
Though the building in impressive in its own right, even aside from the religious symbolism. And while this building is not as imposing and dramatic as the other former synagogues of the area, sites such as this are significant precisely on account of their humble nature. This build has an honored past as being the realization of the aspirations of poor immigrant Jews. Bearing witness to the struggle and the sacrifice it took for new immigrants to establish this splendid site, all this during the lean years of the Great Depression!
It is strikingly clear that this site has been overwhelmingly changed since then. For this reason some feel that the historical significance of sites such as this has been irreversibly effected and in most cases lost entirely.
I wonder, would this church ever embrace that heritage and restore the site if they knew the cultural significance and historical impact of it all? And might this church consider restoring the Hebrew to these tablets out of respect to the Ten Commandments and the “Old Testament?” As we have seen these type of inspired restorations in other places in this neighborhood already. Time can only tell.
As I go between gawking and speaking into my phone to document the site for quite a while, the people hanging out on the block get even more curious. Surely I’m not just interested in the new paint job!
So I strike up a conversation and share some pleasantries with a family next door, who is seemingly having tardeada on this warm day. They give me the lowdown on when the latest upgrades have happened on the building. And I also share with them a bit of the history I know about this site. History in this side of town is always a most engaging topic, as people love to reminisce about the golden era of this area to no end. And even more today people are genuinely curious as to how and why things have come to be in this old neighborhood.
But the questions which always remains are this, why did all the Jewish families of Boyle Heights leave? And the almost inevitable, “Why did they all move to the Fairfax?”
What the housing displacement caused by the freeways looked like. This raw example being more recent, from the southeast cities in the 1980s; the I-105 corridor. Photo by Jeff Gates, “In Our Path.”
Though that is a very complicated question to answer, I ask people to really consider at least one thing which has repeatedly displaced people and heaped hardship on this community. I point towards the freeways which are rumbling all around us. And ask people to remember how our neighorhood and our own families were fragmented, as well over 10,000 people were displaced here between the 1940-1950s to create the web of freeway interchanges which carved this community apart. Which came with sweeping displacement for Jews, Latinos and all other residents.
Many people eventually moved away because their grandma’s house was taken by eminent domain for yet another freeway project, and then their own. Some of our families even being uprooted more than once by the freeways here. Not just families, but many business holdings being ripped asunder by development. This made many people finally choose to move on to other more assured areas, including the surrounding communities.
Consider the Freeways: This marks the location of the old shul. I ask people to consider how our city and our own families were fragmented, as well over 10,000 people were displaced here between the 1940-1950s to create the web of freeway interchanges which carved this community apart. Which came with sweeping displacement for Jews, Latinos and all other residents. This image shows the impact of two of the half-dozen major freeways-highways which have encroached upon and even slice through this community.
For this reason I reject the one-direction narrative. And the assumptive ideas which lend to an over-simplified narrative which is crudely summarized as “white flight.” And it takes a native and lifelong eastsider to challenge that old suspicion – and often character judgments which comes with that – as it is most often posed by the younger eastsiders of today.
I ask our local people to also reconsider this: The favored narrative always follows the mass migration of Jews out of Boyle Heights to the Fairfax, westside and San Fernando Valley. However, there have been significant numbers of Jewish people who have continued to migrate further into the eastside.
Indeed as early as the 1920 Jews started migrating out of Boyle Heights and City Terrace, to places such as Highland Park and Montebello. There was no place else for most people to go in those days, but deeper into the eastside.
Then in the 1950’s after the end of housing discrimination, many more Jews migrated even further into the newly expanding suburban areas of the eastside. Founding several wonderful Jewish congregations and cultural centers on this side of town.
Each of these congregations growing out of far less than homogeneous communities, which has fostered a unique multicultural and progressive character for shuls on this side of town. Congregations which also notably attract many local bilingual Spanish-speaking families!
The Jews of the Los Angeles Eastside aren’t entirely gone, it’s just that the Jewish people of today’s eastside are much more spread out. And in recent years, many families are migrating even further yet into the San Gabriel Valley and also venturing into Orange County. Once again, migrating to newly expanding areas.
As time passes the Jewish history of the greater eastside area becomes more obscured. However, its important for us to note that significant amounts of Jewish people have come further into the eastside to live out their lives and also to rest in peace.