In the 1930s, Boyle Heights—with its main throughway, Brooklyn Avenue—was home to some 10,000 Jewish households, about a third of the Los Angeles’ Jewish population and the highest concentration of Jews west of Chicago. Jewish community life flourished with dozens of synagogues, charitable institutions, cultural organizations, schools, and community centers, not to mention Jewish-owned bakeries, kosher butcheries, delis, restaurants, and movie theaters. This vibrant Jewish community emerged in one of the most kaleidoscopic, multiethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles, called home by thousands of Mexican, Japanese, Armenian, Italian, Russian and African-American families. As such, Boyle Heights offers a vital point of access to both the history of Jewish immigration, westward migration and community diversity and to the convergence of transnational cultures in the American west.
In 2015, the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies initiated a multi-year project dedicated to documenting and preserving the neighborhood’s Jewish past. At its foundation is an ongoing effort to build the Hinda and Jacob Schonfeld Boyle Heights Collection, a research and teaching archive of artifacts and materials related to the history of the neighborhood. Made possible by a generous gift from Alan D. Leve, the collection is named in honor of his Romanian grandparents Hinda and Jacob, whose entrepreneurial spirit took them from Chicago to Denver, where they sold sundries at county fairs, then to Columbus, New Mexico, where they owned a mercantile store, and finally to St. Louis Street in Boyle Heights in 1925, where Mr. Leve was born. The Center has partnered with the UCLA Library to seek and solicit donations of historical materials to grow the Schonfeld Collection, and if you have memories or materials you would like to share – such as photographs, letters, yearbooks, scrapbooks, keepsakes from clubs, newspapers, or ritual objects – please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (310) 825-5387.
The following year, drawing on materials from the Schonfeld Collection and dozens of other partner institutions, the Leve Center and debuted its first physical exhibition, “From Brooklyn Avenue to Cesar Chavez: Jewish Histories in Multiethnic Boyle Heights,” at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Centered on Brooklyn Avenue – Boyle Heights’ main commercial thoroughfare (now known as Cesar Chavez Avenue) — the exhibition highlighted both the diversity of Jewish experiences in the neighborhood and the ways those experiences coincided with, and diverged from, those of the other diasporic communities that settled there. It emphasized five themes — Language and Literature, Religion and Community, Music and Arts, Education and Youth, and Labor and Activism— using digital technologies and archival materials to show how Jews and other residents participated in civic life, cultivated community, and in overlapping ways, created new American identities.
With support from the University of California’s Humanities Research Institute, the Leve Center also hosted a series of community events celebrating Boyle Heights’ past, present and future, each based on a theme from the exhibition. The event series culminated in a celebration of the installation of the exhibition at the Breed Street Shul, the largest (and only remaining) synagogue in the neighborhood, where it remains. Portions of the exhibition were also displayed at Los Angeles’ City Hill as part of the inaugural “Jewish Cultural Heritage Month” celebration in May 2017.
Production is now underway on an online version of the exhibition through the Leve Center’s public history website, Mapping Jewish Los Angeles (hyperlink). Anchored in a thick interactive map of the neighborhood, the eponymously named “From Brooklyn Avenue to Cesar Chavez” digital exhibit will offer users access to archival photos, documents and objects as well as scholarly essays about those historical materials in an explorable virtual space. It will enable users to “drill down” at particular places – including institutions like the Soto-Mission JCC, Home of Peace Cemetery, the Jewish Home for the Aged, and Mt. Sinai Hospital — and explore how those places changed as the neighborhood’s physical, social and racial landscape shifted in the years after World War Two. By bringing the many overlapping and syncretic layers of the neighborhood’s history into focus, “From Brooklyn Avenue to Cesar Chavez” aims to add texture and nuance to discussions about Boyle Heights’ past, present and future. The digital exhibition will be launching in the coming months as part of our 25th anniversary celebration – stay tuned!