Recreating the Jewish Legacy and Heritage of South LA
Over the past few years I have really grown to appreciate so much more about the community of South Central Los Angeles, often hitting up the blues and jazz clubs. Quite often coming out at night with a little circle of eastside friends to enjoy the music and social scene. However, we are quite noticeably among the very few Jews who venture into these neighborhoods today. And for this reason, our presence is always saluted.
This particular week I was invited to a little get together hosted by Ms Fae DC, near Hyde Park. Knowing a bit about her as a musician and for her lively vibe in the music community we frequent, I was glad to finally get a change to get to meet her personally.
As we made our way over to her neighborhood, the final hours of a summer’s evening burned red in the sky. And the air on the blocks buzzing with parties all around us. The sounds of R&B and Mexican music both charging the air, baring witness of the growing Latino community in this area today. With the many celebrations on these blocks overflowing into the yards.
Indeed, South LA has always been a magnet for minorities of every kind. Which makes the area one of the more vibrant places to be in the city.
As we arrive Ms Fae greets us with embraces. We then spend the next few hours exchanged in talk about music. Sitting under a clear sky. Under the a canopy of red berried pepper trees and Bottlebrushes, and large eucalyptus. These old trees hint at how old her house is, the property still allowing trees which were once ubiquitous to old Los Angeles to grow tall. Trees which are only but a memory elsewhere in the city, often removed by the city as foreign nuances sadly enough. However, I appreciate the classic touch and the great shade from the blazing sun.
In the cool of the evening we sit and rolling around the dice for a while. And at one point I happened to ask, “So where do you find the Jamaican music around here?” Explaining that I’m a big fan of ska, rocksteady and reggae.
Ms Fae and her mom look at each other in excitement. Ms Faye explains, “I know exactly where to take you!” And asked if I wanted to swing by a nightspot with her. Though we were having such a good time, I hadn’t given much thought about it. Nor was I paying attention to how quickly time was passing. The evening quickly turning to dusk.
Normally on a Saturday nights all of my friends would be heading to the Sixth Street Bridge in Boyle Heights to perform Havdalah with me – the ritual for closing the Sabbath and welcoming a bright week to come. Weekly making our stand to keep the light of Jewish spirit alive there in the neighborhood. Then…. we most often head over to South Central to start our nightlife off with some blues!
Odd to some, but it is significant to my friends that I have taken Havdalah – where the words speak about separations and divisions: between light and darkness, Israel and the nations, sacred and profane, and we transform it into a moment of togetherness across the divide. [See “Havdalah as a Light to the Community: Reflections and Lessons from the Havdalah Circle of Boyle Heights.“]
However, being that it was getting late and we were enjoying the company, we didn’t want to disrupt the good vibes and fun conversation. So I asked Ms Fae if we could do Havdalah there at her house, in the West Adam’s district for a change. A suggestion which was enthusiastically welcomed.
So as darkness fell we took out the candles, the wine and spices. And we began the ritual. In full darkness we came together in circle to do the stirring and invigorating ritual. Lighting up the night with prayers and friendship.
My excitement and joy well up as I say the words, extending the joy and light of the Jewish people to everyone around to share in:
“’For the Jews there was Light, gladness, joy, and honor.’ (Ester 8:15) So may it be for us!”
ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששון ויקר כן תהיה לנן, תהיה לנו, תהיה לנו.
And for a while we share in the after-glow of a time of spiritual bliss. And discussing how I believe in inspiring trust and understanding in the inner-city, by just doing soulful Jewish acts to share. To exemplify Jewish values and culture, which few have ever seen here in our lifetime. To create a pleasant memory of Jewish people within the minority communities.
After a few hours of sharing the fine hospitality of Ms Fae, said she hoped I wasn’t on a rush to get back to the eastside. She reminded me that she had something to show me.
So we hop in the car and in short time I found myself walking arm in arm with her through Leimert Park. The buzz of art, music and culture drawing out many people to the district surrounding the park.
We make our way on and over to the “Divine Design Melchizedek Luv and Light Healing Center” – to the local Rastafarian and Ethiopian shop, which is also known as a lively music venue. We are here to enjoy some live Jamaican music – to hear some reggae!
I walked through the door with Ms Fae and pretty much most of the Jewish guys of East Los Angeles at my side, to be greeted warmly with cries of “Shalom!” and embraces.
The Rastafarians and the Ethiopian-roots movement, they are just one facet of the black community which greatly associates themselves with the story of the Israelites and Hebrews of the bible. Who identify with the slavery, persecution and diaspora of the ancient Israelites. Some who relate so much to hardships of the Hebrews, that they do indeed see themselves in the role of the Israelites.
Though we also quickly learned that were also a couple local African-American Jews ready to groove with us too, thrilled we were there to represent our people! This we learn as a proud black father throws his arms around his sons, and tell us about the background of his inter-racial family. Beaming to let us know that there are mamash Jews in the neighborhood.
For this reason, it seemed only fitting that we should be enthusiastically greeted with “Shalom.”
For a while I make some good conversation with the shop owner, King Ras. Listening to the history and the hopes of their little storefront mission of sorts there. Learning that they had also acquired land over in Ethiopia, hoping to one day start a communal settlement there.
He expressing to me that he wasn’t really sure what kept him here in diaspora sometimes, but something motivates him to keep this spark of culture expression alive here. He then with laughter points out that the house lighting and sound is being run off a generator out back, since they haven’t been able afford to get the electricity restored for some time.
We therefore long discussed the importance of reclaiming one’s roots and overcoming cultural assimilation. And the need for preserving the heritage of our respective diaspora communities; the customs, languages, art, music and unique religious expressions we have. Many of which are being neglected and lost as people immigrate away from the ancient diaspora communities. The culture of many unique ethnic communities becoming suppressed under hegemony, and quickly becoming in danger of being lost to the ages.
And we further discussed the life and culture of the 100,000 black Ethiopian Jews living in Israel today. There is this type of brotherhood which we do seem to have between our people, which transcends race and geography.
Though before long our host excuses himself to take the stage for the live reggae set.
Now being a fan of this form of music, this is where the night became truly magical for me. For a long time I have loved Jamaican music. But the best I knew to date, it was often listening to rare old records on my side of town and occasionally at retro bars. So it was amazing to have the excitement of the live band.
Before long Ms Fae had me to my feet dancing! Up on my feet stepping to those searing reggae down-strokes and the deep base. Caught up in ecstasy by the cries of the brass and the melodic voices, all coming together with what sounds like angelic choirs to my ears. Sending my spirits soaring, as we join the small crowd dancing.
After some time of dancing, I come and take a seat by my buddy Irv for a breather. For a while I give him a brief history about the evolution of Jamaican music, and its influence in the working-class subcultures.
However, what is clearly most striking to his Jewish ear are the words of the songs. May of them are familiar biblical psalms and words of the prophet. Being blending into folk songs, and carried over into songs which cry out for social enlightenment. Songs of freedom and liberation. Songs which are heavy with Israelite and Hebrew imagery, all of which is used to communicate the struggle of the black African experience. He relates how as a young child in Hebrew school he and his classmates were often taught to sing African-American slave spirituals talking about freedom and equality.
Though this was not a religious service, we were just out on the town enjoying a set of live music. There is no ritual or preaching. Just music and dancing. But even in the ecstatic spirit of it all, one cannot help but recognize that the energy seems nothing short of a euphoric religious celebration. The expressions of culture and faith, all coming together naturally and seamlessly.
But at this point I am also very interested in watching how my Jewish friends are receiving all of this.
Though I think they caught the message I was really hoping would come through that night: That the power of the persisting story of the Children of Israel is something which reverberates with many people the world over. People of all backgrounds and colors identify with this story of freedom and hope, expressing it in their own way.
That’s not to say that there is cannot be some level of awkwardness at times in making connection with people who are clearly reinterpreting very Jewish themes for themselves. Many of whom are re-envisioning and re-purposing the lessons of our bible for their life experience. When they consider our historical struggle, they feel they can relate and they consider themselves in those shoes.
And while it is true that sometimes this does manifest in some people with hostile dispensationalism – the belief that ones own sect or group should instead be recognized as the true Hebrews today – this is often less the case when these communities have living interactions with contemporary Jewish life and when there is a visible Jewish presence.
As the night goes on I begin to speak to one of the young men I had been introduced earlier. And he begins to tell me of his experience growing up in the black community there, as someone who identifies as Jewish. Being a black man, with a Jewish mother.
He then tells me this story with intensity and fervor. Of one time he went to church with his father at a historic black church. And how at one point the preacher at the pulpit began pontificate against those who follow the “dead commandments of the old testament,” that it shouldn’t matter because “none of you are Jews anyhow.” He said his father stood up right then and began to make the case that there are real Jews in their community – like his sons, even though they are black – who need to be encouraged to keep and honor the holy mitzvot (commandments). Which when articulated in this personal way was actually received with great reverence and respect by the pastors there, he tells me.
At that moment it hit me like a ton of bricks. That for all the hampering our Jewish institutions do regarding reaching the unaffiliated and inter-faith families, they have really done nothing to reach the Jews left behind in today’s ethnic communities here.
As the night goes on I start a spiritual discussion. To share some wisdom and inspiration from the Jewish tradition. For a moment I began to speak about the spiritual awaking of the month of Elul – how during the month leading up to Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur – we begin to awaken ourselves from our spiritual slumber.
I was just about to mention how we do that in the Jewish tradition. When just then, without even a cue, King Ras brings out a Shofar to demonstrate the lesson! Into the midnight air and into the streets which were still packed with partying crowds, our host blew the shofar: Tekiah, teruah, shevarim…
Now I knew that not all of our buddies seem to know what to make of all this. It was something which they have never seen before. Non-Jewish people blowing a shofar. A mixture of curiosity and awe seem to come over them. While I receive this expression in kind, in a spirit of friendship and solidarity.
Yes, sometimes there can be a level of discomfort that sometimes we simply must lean into when doing cross-cultural work. But as best expressed by my friend Irv Weiser, “It is only uncomfortable when you see the other person as different, instead of as an alternate extension of your own heritage.”
Being here and seeing how anxious people are to share our commonalities, I cannot help but be inspired and challenged.
As a representative of the Jewish people on Los Angeles eastside, I am always trying to recapture the historic multi-cultural spirit of our city.
While ever mindful that my dedication and loyalties to my own community not be taken to an extreme. That I not sink into the complacency of my familiarity and closed-off from the rest of the culture to be found in our city.
Though my expertise is mostly regarding Boyle Heights and the Los Angeles eastside, I want to also stand in solidarity with other communities in our great city. Pardon me, as I also venture to take us down another path of cultural exploration today.
I want to call our attention to the other neighborhoods which many people seem detached from, by both some historical and geographical distance. Some neighborhoods which many just fear and neglect, simply because many people feel that they cannot relate to that place and those people there. All of which underlines the need to draw us all to closer together socially. To learn from one another and to find reasons to celebrate each other. For if we dare to notice, we will see we have a lot in common and experiences which can enrich us all.
Yes, there is this another area which to me feels like a sister community to my own East Los Angeles; that being the West Adams District. It may not seem apparent to many today as to why I would make that assertion. As today the eastside is mostly entirely Latino. While the West Adams district is the living heart of the westside African-American community.
Consider this. In the Los Angeles eastside the core of our community is Boyle Heights, the very crucible of Mexican-American expression. And in the West Adams this ground-zero of artistic, cultural, social and political expression of the African-American community is found in Leimert Park. They both stand as mirroring archetypal ethnic neighborhoods, within their own demographic.
Yet in means of culture and geography, they are worlds apart. Literally as far as the east is from the west. But they do have quite a bit in common under the surface.
We also need to remember that historically during the first half of the 20th century both of these areas were officially designated as minority communities. In an age of legalized racial segregation in housing under the guise of “housing covenants,” these communities took in many racialized minorities and immigrants.
The housing market at the time had “redlined” neighborhoods, effectively baring minorities from buying or renting in Downtown and the center of the city. And successfully pushing minorities into the communities east of Boyle Avenue into East LA, or south of Adams Blvd on into South Central.
Therefore it should not be surprising to us that Jewish community thus sprang up in many of these outlying area. Though we all seem to know about the rich Jewish history of Boyle Heights and City Terrace, it’s curious that very few give much consideration of the Jewish history of greater South Central LA.
Especially considering there are a few very notable congregations founded in the area. These are a few which readily come to mind:
Congregation Beth Jacob: formerly known as the “West Adams Hebrew Congregation.” Over the years since they have grown to become the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Western United States. In their own words, the shul later relocated to the “exclusive area” of Beverly Hills in 1955.
Seraphic Temple Tiferet Israel: popularly known as the “Santa Barabara Ave Temple,” before their final relocation to Westwood in the 1979. Of course in 1982 the street name was changed to Martin Luther King Jr Blvd – in honor of the civil rights advances of the African-American community which thrives in this area today.
The Sephardic Hebrew Center: 55th and Hoover, yet another synagogue and cultural center founded by Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) speaking immigrant families from Rhodes, then under the military occupied as territory claimed from Turkey.
And there are many others still. Other synagogues which have long since been forgotten, even though their remnants remain. A half-dozen additional old synagogue sites come to mind, many of which remain as celebrated churches dotting the South Los Angeles communities. Not just to the west; but also on the east of today’s 110-freeway, into the core of the Central district. The sight of which make me marvel each time I pass by them.
In Dr. Max Vospan’s definitive work titled “The History of the Jews of Los Angeles,” he mentions the existence of a Jewish presence in the Central corridor. Identifying these people as related to the shmata business – the garment trade. Which is still clearly evident even to this day, as the garment trade still has a major presence here. However, he did not go so far as to document the life of the Jewish communities there. To present the history of the synagogues in the area, which he did so famously for the rest of the city.
In my own research and through the aid of old city directories I have located many old synagogues which have been long forgotten. I have further come across the evidence of many mere shteible congregations – synagogues operating out of small houses and storefronts throughout the area.
The fact that there were so many congregations in South Central testifies of a significant Jewish presence in the region at one time. Something which is almost hard for many to imagine, as the white working-class and most other minorities have migrated elsewhere.
Before desegregation and the Fair Housing Acts allowed many to escape these neighborhoods in mass. And before the Watts riots of 1965 noticeably sped up the trend both scholars and layman can only seem to define as “white-flight.”
In my lifetime this side of town has only ever been known as the core of the black community. As the black community was almost all that remained when the dust of the mass migration finished settling (very much in the same way Mexican-American’s were left on their own, and to swell to predominance in Boyle Heights).
The question I have is this, why is it that we know so little about the Jewish history of the South Central though? Why has this history been so neglected? Or has all this been willfully forgotten by people who moved-on and never looked back?
An even better question yet, why is it that we do not have real and dynamic inter-community relations between the Jewish and the African-American community of the area today? Because revealing that there was a large Jewish presence here at one time begs the question, then why do we have so little interaction with the people of this area today?
Again, I say real interaction and inter-community exchange. Not just attending federation conferences on racism or engaging in the trite galas where people discuss inner-city disparity over some $1500 a plate dinner, to get a photo-op in the newsletter with some token minority leaders. As many of us claim concern and compassion for minority communities, which almost none of us ever care to step a foot in ourselves to even try to begin to understand and appreciate the living dynamics of.
We like to talk so much about the great Jewish contribution during the historic civil rights movement of the 1960s, as we should. However, that was now almost two generations ago. Today’s generations have never seen us truly exemplify those values or take on those causes in that way, and therefore cannot see a reason to naturally credit the collective us with this. We have done very little ever since to reach people of color. To reach out to ethnic people, in contrast to merely accepting those who might socially climb to meet us in more exclusive settings.
No, this will not do. We need to stop fooling ourselves, and start making natural relationships with our local historically disadvantaged communities today. As all signs reveal, our Jewish forebears here in Los Angeles also once hailed from these inner-city neighborhoods here as well. Revealing that our historical struggles are not all that dissimilar.
Today we really need to transform the nature of inter-community exchange. We need to rekindle the relationship, because it has grown cold. We need to come-back and reconnect. And I think I have a bit of room to say this… as I’m among the few Jewish people who ventures to make a visible presence in these minority communities.
I’m not the type of person to merely call for a study, focus group or conference about considering cultural exchange. I believe we need to just jump into doing outreach and bridge-building between the communities.
The last thing the inner-city needs is just more experts, talking about the Judaism of the area and the diversity of the past as a dead subject. I am not content to become some sort of expert pathologist doing an autopsy on Judaism here, I insist on being the cardiologist with my finger on the pulse of today’s Jewish life here and nursing it back to health.
I’m on the start of another mission which I never expected to take on, though this is but another way for me to further reclaim our shared history. And to restore Jewish expression and inter-community fellowship within the inner-city. To create a positive memory of Jewish interaction here.
I hope many of you will join me in this task to recapture our shared heritage!
Welcome to “Barrio Boychik,” my name is Shmuel Gonzales (a.k.a. “Shmu the Jew”). This newest blog of mine is an open slate for various topics of interest I encounter as a community organizer, activist historian and spiritual leader from the Los Angeles eastside. To share the unique cultural experiences I encounter daily.
This project is less formal than my more scholarly blog, Hardcore Mesorah – dedicated to Torah and Jewish prayer.
I am also a proud member of Congregation Beth Shalom of Whitter – a progressive 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.
Recommended articles by Shmuel Gonzales:
- Jewish-Latino Relations: Rooted in a Shared Immigrant and Working-class Experience
- “Experiencing INTERSECTION: Artists the Breed Street Shul”
- “Jewish Boyle Heights: Where the Past Meets the Future”
- “Boyle Heights: Urban Heritage Vs. Urban Legend” – addressing local gentrification tensions
- Parshat Shemot (5775): “When Immigrants and Migrants are Hated for their Success”