I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and like many Angelenos, I came here as an adult. At this point in my life, I have lived in L.A. much longer than my first eighteen years in Chattanooga. I have come to love the story of Los Angeles—my husband is a big hometown booster—and I have visited and learned to appreciate all that Los Angeles has to offer, from San Pedro to San Fernando to San Gabriel to Santa Monica.
A fascinating piece of the L.A. story is the history of the Jews who have settled and thrived here. From its earliest days, Jews have helped to build L.A. as we know it—whether as bankers, merchants, performers, teachers, builders, or Hollywood producers—and they continue to contribute to the fabric of the city through the arts, civic life, industry, and education. This ongoing story was brought vividly to life on a warm Sunday in June when fifty curious souls boarded a touring coach at the steps of the Skirball to spend a day exploring Jewish Los Angeles.
The catalyst for this day trip was Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage, on view at the Skirball for just one more month. The exhibition presents personal stories of growing up in Los Angeles and California through the use of cleverly edited home movies and wonderful added audio commentary. Visitors quickly learn of the challenges of moving to California in the 1930s and 1940s, adapting to a new environment, and encountering the various cultural groups that were also settling here.
The bus tour was ably conducted by Dr. Bruce Phillips, a professor of sociology at Hebrew Union College and Senior Research Fellow at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Bruce is a demographer: he studies patterns of settlement, affiliation, intermarriage, and immigration. He gathers the raw data and then attempts to deduce from it the stories of our lives. The ways he finds information are amazing. For example, by browsing the 1930 Los Angeles telephone directory, he was able to learn where Jews lived by pinpointing the houses of worship.
To prepare for the daylong bus tour, Bruce and I took the telephone directory records and headed out to find the long lost synagogues. We ended up as far south as 42nd St. and Grand Ave., where today we find the Greater Faith Temple, which was once called Congregation B’nai Amuna. Many of these old synagogues are now churches, but they all retain the original cornerstones with Hebrew dedications, as well as distinctively Jewish ornamental decorations on their facades. We were excited to bring our bus tour to these landmarks of Jewish homegrown history.
Our first stop was Greater New Vision Missionary Baptist Church on Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd, where Pastor Lucious Pope welcomed us. This building was the former home of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, which now sits proudly in Westwood on Wilshire Blvd. The church has retained the original designs in the sanctuary as well as the name in Hebrew on the front. As we peeked inside on a Sunday morning before regular services, the Greater New Vision congregants were warm and welcoming. Our visit to their church also gave us insight into the changing demographics of our city: the African American church now shares its space with a Spanish-speaking evangelical congregation.
From south LA, we headed east across the Los Angeles River to storied Boyle Heights, home of one of the earliest concentrations of Jewish life in the west. We stopped at Congregation Talmud Torah—more commonly known as the Breed Street Shul—where Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, gave us a tour of the venue and filled us in on its history. We learned that the congregation organized in 1904 and built its first synagogue in 1915. This building, as reported by the Jewish Journal, has now been restored and is being used as a community meeting space. The larger and more impressive synagogue was completed on the front of the property, facing Breed Street, in 1923. In its heyday, the synagogue was the largest in the area, serving as a Jewish center in one of L.A.’s first truly multicultural neighborhoods, whose residents were of Jewish, Mexican, Russian, Japanese, and African American descent.
One of the highlights of the bus tour took place when Sass asked our fellow travelers if any of them had stories to share of Boyle Heights. Two participants, a brother and a sister, came forward to recall growing up in the neighborhood. In fact they used to live in a small house just two doors down from the shul. The property is now behind a colorful neighborhood pre-school. They recalled the wonderful childhood memories of a warm, close-knit community centered around the shul.
Today the Jewish community of Boyle Heights is no more, but the Breed Street Shul Project is working to restore the main building to its previous glory, working with local community leaders of diverse backgrounds to establish the shul as a community center for all to use.
As Angeleno Jews began to move westward in the 1950s, many of the institutions and businesses moved, as well, including our next stop: lunch at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax Avenue. Canter’s moved with its clientele and today is a mainstay in the Fairfax neighborhood, the next center of Los Angeles Jewish life. What can I say? Canter’s managed to feed all fifty of us in about an hour with efficiency, good humor, and fine food. We had to wait while a few folks stopped at the Canter’s bakery counter for rugelach and other goodies to share on the bus.
Our final stop for the day brought us to a newer center of L.A. Jewish life in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Jewish life in this neighborhood has grown tremendously over the past thirty years and again reveals the diversity of the Jewish community. We were welcomed at the new home of L.A.’s oldest LGBT congregation, Beth Chayim Chadashim, by Rabbi Lisa Edwards. At this stop, Phillips loaded the PowerPoint and showed us how Jews have moved from one neighborhood to the next, always looking for places where they would feel welcome and not excluded, often moving into marginal areas and then working to make them thriving communities. His images of the businesses and institutions on Pico Blvd. gave us deeper insight into what was just outside.
Before heading back to the Skirball, several of us took a stroll up Pico Blvd, taking in the kosher markets, Persian and Israeli kosher restaurants, bakeries, Orthodox synagogues, and many Jewish-owned businesses such as the sign maker whose window boasts a sign in Hebrew stating “Hebrew signs made here.”
Pico today captures the continuing growth and diversity of Los Angeles Jewry. On this one street beginning at Fairfax Avenue and heading to the 405, one passes Orthodox, Yemenite, Reform, Hasidic, and Kabbalist synagogues, kosher bakeries, restaurants, and Judaica gift shops, Fox Studios (founded by the Jewish Fox brothers), Hillcrest Country Club (created by Jews who were denied membership in other country clubs), the Los Angeles Mikveh, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the Museum of Tolerance.
I couldn’t help but marvel at how the Jewish community has continued to transform and reinvent itself time and again and continues to thrive in new settings today. There are many home grown stories to tell. I hope you will stop by the Skirball before Labor Day to view Jewish Homegrown History and share your family story as well!