The former “Congregation Tiferes Jacob – Congregation Talmud Torah.” 59th and Brentwood, just east of Broadway.
Every time I go through the middle corridor of South Central LA, I crane my neck as I approach the area around Slauson and Broadway. Since the first day I noticed it I have been filled with curiosity. As even from the Harbor Freeway one can clearly see it if you pay attention, a Star of David on a blue copula and a Christian cross on the other.
After spending much time wondering about this, I have finally started to uncover the history of this site as a former synagogue. An old Jewish religious site, which was converted into a church. I have spent the past few weeks returning to the site. Talking to residents in the neighborhood to get to know the history of the area. [See: “Unusual Sightings of the Star of David in South Central LA“]
And I have also been following-up on this further with some research at the library. Which has also provided some fascinating leads regarding the history of this congregation and the surrounding neighborhoods.
While at the Los Angeles Central Library going through old city directories – the forerunners to phone books – I got curious, and found myself thumbing through the pages looking for a listing of the old synagogues of the area. And in the 1930 through the 1942 directories, listed by name under “Congregation” I found a large listing of the old shuls of Los Angeles. The revelations left me stunned.
What was so significant about the revelation, was not just how many synagogues there were in the city of Los Angeles at the time. The most remarkable thing was where many of these Jewish houses of worship and study were located in South Central Los Angeles.
Though it was the very first address which my eyes rested upon in the 1938 city directory which caught my attention. It unlocked the mystery of this building I have been so curious about:
Now I have to tell you, this revelation was more than exciting. But it was also a bit curious. A curiosity which has been shared by just about every historian and religious leader I have shown this list to. Because these listings show that there was a larger Jewish presence in these older working-class communities than we are aware of today.
These directories do reveal some important information regarding this synagogue at 5972 Brentwood Street, near 59th and Broadway, in South Los Angeles. This old community had a name, and in was here listed as “Congregation Talmud Torah.”
This is an interesting discover, and certainly a fact I find fascinating. Being from the Los Angeles Eastside, the Congregation Talmud Torah which always comes to mind in my circle and among the historians is the Breed Street Shul – which was founded downtown, before moving to Boyle Heights.
However, here we find two others Los Angeles synagogues which also used this designation as part of their name in the 1930s.
The third being the Sephardic Hebrew Center (founded by immigrants from the isle of Rhodes as, “Sociedad, Paz, y Progreso” in Ladino) which as just over on 55th and Hoover, here listed as the “Congregation Talmud Torah of Peace and Progress.” This is from the 1935 directory:
While this might confuse some people, we need to understand that in reality none of these congregations were really called “Congregation Talmud Torah” by people in their day. The Hebrew term “Talmud Torah” means that such a congregation is a place of Torah learning, and is the normative term used for shuls which facilitated Jewish education.
It was also just a frequently reoccurring, yet generic title used by Los Angeles Jewish congregations in old Los Angeles. Whether they had a formal building, or where just meeting loosely. This naming was frequently employed. In doing research going back to the 1880s, I have discovered that several talmud torah congregations have existed since then.
What is known with some certainty is that none of these congregations listed here would have been popularly known as “Congregation Talmud Torah.” Just as in the case of the more familiar Breed Street Shul of Boyle Heights, it has instead always been known by it’s more popular name.
But what might the commonly used name of the 59th Street shul have been? The answer is found in the 1942 city directory:
Listed side-by-side by alphabetical order are two congregations listed here. The first being the “Congregation Talmud Torah” at 5972 Brentwood Street. The following being “Congregation Tiferes Jacob,” with the address listed as 211 W. 59th Street. Yet, these two addresses lead us to the same location!
From what I’m gathering, sometime in the 1930s two Jewish congregations met at this site. One with their mailing address as Brentwood, and the other with their 59th Street address; two different doors and thus twice listed in the old city directory, even though it’s simply one location.
The two congregations, probably reflective of distinct minyans and factions of one community. With eventually both congregations seeming to have completely merged sometime in the 1940s, to form one larger shul. From then on the congregation was simply known as “Congregation Tiferes Jacob” – as their name was accented, by the Eastern Europeans immigrants who would have been its members.
So what does the historical record say about the origins of this congregation? Though the published facts on this are few, we do have a couple interesting historical accounts regarding the founding of this congregation which are worth exploring.
“Congregation Tifereth Jacob began in 1922 with fifty families, rented space at first, and in 1925 purchased a building at the corner of 59th Street and Brentwood in the southern part of the city. After two years, the old building was replaced by a new and larger one, which served 1500 families.”
This would have made this synagogue one of the most significant Jewish religious sites of the area at the time. Which would have been a very active site up until the 1950s, when it was sold to an African-American church.
The building was purchased by the Evening Star Missionary Baptist Church in 1952. It was then refurbished and redecorated in 1964. Now for over two generations this site has operated as a celebrated and historically honored African-American church.
I know of no other historical accounts regarding this location. The only other account I know of which mentions a Jewish congregation by the same name from South Los Angeles, is this history of a congregation which still exists to this day:
“Congregation Tikvat Jacob is the result of two long-established community institutions — Congregation Tifereth Jacob of Manhattan Beach and B’nai Tikvah Congregation of Westchester… Congregation Tifereth Jacob was chartered in October 1925, beginning operations out of a West Adams storefront. In 1976, the synagogue moved south to Manhattan Beach.”
I’m not sure if these old congregations are one and the same. Either the historical record is a bit confused regarding the details of their founding and the geography of the old community, or this is a different congregation all together. But I do wonder. Could it be possible that this old shul still has a living legacy, which today embodied in a still active Los Angeles area synagogue?
[Update: Immediately upon posting this I was contacted by one of my best and oldest friends, Jason Dubov. He recognized the building as his family’s old shul, where they remained active members until the congregation moved to Manhattan Beach.]
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….
Recreating the Jewish Legacy and Heritage of South LA
Havdalah in the West Adams District.
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!
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.
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:
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.
(L-R)Tiferes Jacob/Cong. Talmud Torah (Central); Chevrah Mishnah (Vernon); Agudas Achim Anshe Sephard (West Adams); Sephardic Hebrew Center (55th/Hover); Sephardic Tiferet Israel (MLK/Normandy); Agudas Achim Anshe-Sfard (Central); B’nei Emunah (Central Grand); Knesset Israel (Vernon/Western); Mogen David (Arlington)
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.