In 1996, the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California (JHS) produced a film titled Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto about Jewish life in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of the Los Angeles River that was once home to the highest concentration of Jews west of Chicago. The film marked the culmination of a years-long effort to preserve Boyle Heights's Jewish history, an effort that included an oral history project, photo collection events, and a community-wide campaign to save the Breed Street Shul-the "Queen of the Shuls" in the neighborhood-from demolition after structural damage wrought by an earthquake forced its closure. The film features interviews with former residents, archival photos and home movies collected over the course of the project, serving as a history of the neighborhood and of the experiences of Yiddishspeaking Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles more broadly.
The film opens with a voiceover of an older man who, in Yiddishaccented English, describes that, "Boyle Heights . . . was like a sbtetl in Poland or Russia." The narrator then provides a brief description of Jewish life in nineteenth-century Los Angeles, the founding of Boyle Heights, Eastern European Jewish immigration to America, and then westward migration, stating that, "like fellow pioneers before them, they [Jewish immigrants] left the East Coast, the Midwest and Canada and headed to California, the golden state in the golden medina." In Boyle Heights, the narrator says, they created a close-knit enclave where, "the warm, small town, beymish feeling of the community was undeniable." Former residents of Boyle Heights-most of them the American-born children of Jewish immigrants in their sixties and seventies-substantiate the narrator's claims, recounting their fond memories of the fish and pickle barrels on Brooklyn Avenue, old men with long beards and payot on their way to synagogue, the strong presence of Jewish unions and leftwing political parties, and the sounds of Yiddish in the streets, particularly at the corner of Brooklyn and Soto. The speakers also emphasize the neighborhood's diversity, including historian George Sanchez, who in his interview, characterizes it as "Los Angeles's Ellis Island," noting it was home to dozens of immigrant communities including those from Japan, Russia, and Mexico. Other interviewees speak with passion about their friendships with non-Jews and the devastating impact that Japanese internment had on the community. The narrative then moves into the postwar era when, as one interviewee describes, "the Exodus took place," when young Jews left the neighborhood after they graduated college or got married and then their parents followed, leaving only a handful of elderly Jews behind. The video ends with a description of the years of neglect and vandalism the Breed Street Shul suffered in the 1970s and 1980s and touts the work of the JHS to save and restore the building.
The stories shared in Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto are colored by nostalgia for a neighborhood that most interviewees hadn't lived in for decades and concerns that the Yiddish cultural life that once flourished there was at risk of dying out. In their descriptions of the neighborhood, they use strikingly similar words and phrases, revealing a clear set of symbols, myths and tropes upon which the film's narrative is built. Two overlapping motifs emerge most clearly: the first is that of "Jewish pioneers"-a melding of Jewish immigration and the myth of the American frontier which casts Los Angeles as a virgin territory for Eastern European Jews where, through their hard work and determination, they remade themselves as prosperous Americans. The second oft-repeated motif is "Boyle Heights as shtetl," an invocation of the Yiddish word used to describe small market towns in pre-World War II Europe. With all its loaded meaning and mythic connotations, the word shtetl designates Boyle Heights as an authentic Jewish space, the embodiment of a simpler, truer form of Jewishness in Los Angeles that was isolated to a specific time (roughly the 1920s through the 1940s), and a specific neighborhood. These tropes are interrelated and mutually reinforcing, used to authenticate the neighborhood's Jewish atmosphere and to describe individuals' own family histories and their flight from the neighborhood during "the Exodus." Comments about the neighborhood's diversity might seem to contradict these characterizations, but are instead employed to reinforce their central premise: that Boyle Heights was a site of otherness, a time and a place where Jews were not white folks but rather ethnic, immigrant outsiders, in direct contrast to their postwar integration into the white middle class. Accordingly, the decay of the Breed Street Shul serves as a metaphor for the tragic loss of that authentic Jewishness wrought by a host of causes (assimilation, secularization, geographical dispersal, modern materialism) that go unnamed.
These same symbolic motifs echo through the popular and scholarly imagination of Los Angeles's Jewish history, in part because of the tremendous scope of the work that the JHS did; the interviews they collected, along with the coinciding oral history project conducted by the Japanese American National Museum in conjunction with their project
"Boyle Heights: the Power of Place," provide such a rich portrait of the neighborhood that they have served as the foundation for nearly every study of the history of Boyle Heights, and of the Eastern European Jewish immigrant experience in Los Angeles more broadly, since. Historians have used excerpts from the interviews to offer evidence of Boyle Heights' "shtetl-like atmosphere" and its "Jewish ambiance," some going so far as to argue that the area around Brooklyn and Soto could "reasonably be called monoethnic" and to dub it, "the eastside Jewish ghetto." (1) Others use them to highlight the "pan-ethnic affiliations" that prevailed among Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors, casting them as a natural by-product of the neighborhood's diversity and the residents' shared status as working-class immigrant others. (2) Most often, these characterizations enable a juxtaposition between what George Sanchez described as, "the two poles of Jewish ethnic identity-the separate world of working-class ethnicity and the middle-class ideal of assimilation" that prevailed in other, more affluent neighborhoods west of downtown like Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and the sprawling suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. (3) But while the prevalence of Yiddish public culture in the neighborhood is cited as evidence in these comparisons, the actual Yiddish culture produced in Los Angeles has yet to garner any serious scholarly attention: to date, there have been no investigations of Los Angeles's Yiddish language press or the over six dozen Yiddish books, literary journals, and newspapers published in Los Angeles before 1960, only a very few local Yiddish writers have been translated, and there have been no in-depth studies of those local writers or the radicals and activists who built the city's Yiddish-based institutions. Instead of using these materials to probe the experiences of the Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants who came to Los Angeles, scholars and commentators alike have relied on popular memory and myth, repeating and reifying the tropes and symbolic motifs of the JHS's interviews, with prewar Boyle Heights serving as a metonym for Jewish ethnic otherness in contrast to the postwar suburbs where Jews "became white folks." (4)
This essay locates the origins of these symbolic motifs in the Yiddish literature produced in Los Angeles as a means of moving past metonymy to better understand the experiences of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Boyle Heights and throughout the city. I examine two works written three decades apart-Henry's Rosenblatt's epic poem "Tsum vildn mayrev zing ikh" (I Sing to the Wild West, 1925) and Gershon Einbinder's Yiddish travel narrative Zalmen der shuster (Zalmen the Cobbler, 1955)-each of which offered literary renderings of Los Angeles's past that incorporated the forms, themes, and archetypes traditional to the literature of the American West and reinterpreted them through the lens of Jewish collective history. Rather than simply evaluate the factualness of their accounts, I employ approaches from cultural studies to read them as constitutive cultural practices through which Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants negotiated their ethno-racial identities in the complex racial landscape of Southern California. (5) I am concerned here less with how Jews were perceived by others, and more with how Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants perceived of themselves, how they used history to define their own terms of inclusion and reimagine their own racial designations. I argue that both authors created histories that moved Jews from the margins to the center of the mythic saga of western migration and settlement in Los Angeles, and by doing so reconceived of the city as a site of Jewish belonging, where Jews could achieve integration and success without surrendering their ethnic consciousness and collective identity. But in those narratives, they also excluded significant details about the realities of their own lives, rendering "fantasy pasts" that emphasized the importance of Jewish otherness while distancing Jews from other marginalized communities. By critically examining these works in their original literary and historical contexts, this essay reveals how Yiddish-speaking immigrants in Los Angeles used cultural memory to construct a particular form of racial in-betweenness and to maintain it as they left Boyle Heights and "became white folks," offering a new perspective on Jewish identity and racialization in Los Angeles's Jewish history.
Henry Rosenblatt and the Yiddish Pioneers
Henry Rosenblatt (Khayim Royzenblit, 1878-1956) was born in a small village outside of...