- Yiddish Writers in Los Angeles and the Jewish Fantasy Past
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 Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles more broadly.
The film opens with a voiceover of an older man who, in Yiddish-accented English, describes that, “Boyle Heights . . . was like a shtetl 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, heymish 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 Sánchez, 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 [End Page 481] 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...