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Jews of East L.A. : The Boyle Heights Project will include a documentary and interviews with more than 100 former residents, as well as photographs and yearbooks from the 1920s to the 1950s.

January 03, 1993|MARY ANNE PEREZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dr. Pauline Furth remembers a bathhouse in Boyle Heights that was the center of the community when she was growing up there in the 1940s. Her mother would take her to the bathhouse on ladies nights, and the women would sit around playing rummy and other card games while wrapped in sheets.

Emanuel Zellman remembers the Cleveland Free Loan Society and the Chicago Loan Society and other institutions that lent money to people who had moved to Los Angeles from Midwestern cities. He recalls working for his father as a child and living in back of their first menswear store in Boyle Heights.

As recently as 40 years ago, the Eastside neighborhood that is now mostly Latino was predominantly Jewish. Their stores, temples and offices now are the Mexican restaurants, tortillerias and shops that cater to the Latino community.

Furth and Zellman are among those contributing their memories of Boyle Heights to a history project of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

The Boyle Heights Project includes a documentary and audiotape interviews of more than 100 people, as well as photographs and yearbooks from the 1920s to the 1950s. In the 1940s, the Jewish presence started declining as shopkeepers and residents moved to the Westside and other parts of Los Angeles, said society President Stephen Sass.

The project centers on Boyle Heights and nearby City Terrace, where the old Menorah Center now serves as the Salesian Boys and Girls Club.

Furth, 76, has practiced family medicine in an office at 1st and Soto streets since 1954. She has seen the changes in the ethnic backgrounds of the area's residents and in some local landmarks, such as the bathhouse, which is now condemned.

The Menorah Center on Wabash Avenue in City Terrace once held special ceremonies and was a gathering place for the Jewish community, she said.

The Breed Street Shul, or synagogue, is on the city's list of historical monuments but has been partially closed because of damage from the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake. Although the two-story frame building at the rear of the property is used for services about three times a week, there is disagreement in the Jewish community about whether to preserve the front structure or spend the money elsewhere, Sass said.

It is the people who have lived in the neighborhoods and taken up shop where the Jewish merchants once did business--as well as a sense of familiarity--that have kept Zellman and Furth in an area that others abandoned long ago.

Zellman, 73, still spends his days at the store, but his son, Dean, now owns the business. He said he often suits up the grandsons of men he knew growing up and it gives him the chance to share memories with the younger ones.

"People come up to me and say, 'You're still on Brooklyn Avenue? How can you still be there in that neighborhood?' " Zellman said. "To me, this is home. I have no regrets."

Furth, whose daughter, Julie Korenstein, serves on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, speaks fluent Spanish to converse with her mostly Mexican patients. The area has long been home to a large Mexican population, but when she was growing up there was also a mix of others, including Jews and Anglos, she said.

"All my life, I've been with Mexican people, and I like them and they like me," she said. "It's like my home. I'm comfortable there. I love my patients."

Filmmaker Ellie Kahn has logged 25 hours of oral history, which she will whittle down to one hour for a documentary about Boyle Heights. The historical society plans to hold an event this spring to screen the film and display the photos.

Some of the people she has filmed who were born in the 1920s and 1930s talk about their Communist Party activities and their social lives as immigrants in a new country.

"It was a real immigrant community," Kahn said. "There were a lot of Yiddish-speaking people and a lot from Eastern Europe."

Like many cities, Los Angeles has neighborhoods--such as Boyle Heights--that have become home to a stream of immigrant groups over the years for many reasons, Sass said. Families provided support to newcomers who then set up their own homes down the street.

"People want some familiarity in the languages and the customs and a sense of comfort that living together provides," he said. "I think that is what happened in Boyle Heights."

The people also had the sense that other parts of the city were off-limits to minority groups and they would not be permitted to buy land there, he said.

The documentary includes other groups who lived in Boyle Heights during what is considered the Jewish heyday there, Sass said. The project, he said, could provide some insight into today's immigrant communities.

"The Jewish aspect of the neighborhood is our primary concern, but aside from that, Boyle Heights was a point of entry for many people," he said. "There was a Jewish community, a Japanese community, a Mexican community, Russians and then there was Little Italy not too far away.

"There were all of these ethnic communities that flourished and most of Los Angeles didn't know about them--and from the way people described it, it seemed like they got along."

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