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Folkshul: 420 N. Soto
The "National-Radical Club" and Yiddish Education in Boyle Heights
by Caroline Luce, Ph.D.
In 1908, many of the world’s foremost Jewish writers, educators, organizers, and scholars gathered in Czernowitz, Austria (today Chernivtsi, Ukraine) for a first-of-its-kind international conference about the Yiddish language. The delegates varied considerably in terms of their politics, education, and religious observance but shared a fundamental belief that Yiddish—as di folkshprakh (“the people’s language”) and mameloshn (“mother tongue”) of millions of Jews living throughout the global diaspora—had a valuable role to play in Jewish community life. While heated debates quickly engulfed their discussions, the delegates generally agreed on a broad set of needs: to create Yiddish schools for young people and train Yiddish teachers; to standardize Yiddish orthography, grammar, and pedagogy; and to support and elevate Yiddish literature, theater, and the press.
A few weeks later, on the other side of the world, a small group of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe gathered in downtown Los Angeles to discuss how they might work together to achieve these goals in their new home. They were, as one attendee described, “national-minded people, pervaded with socialist aspirations,” many of them already experienced community organizers who had been active in the revolutionary movement against the Tsar.1 Like the delegates in Czernowitz, they differed considerably in their politics, but shared affinities for a secular form of Jewish nationalism rooted in the vernacular folkways of the Jewish masses and a belief that by fostering a Yiddish cultural renaissance, they could improve the lives of Jewish workers in Los Angeles and across the world. Together, they founded the city’s first Yiddish organization, “the National-Radical Club,” in 1908, from which emerged local branches of the Socialist Party, Po’ale Tsiyon (“Workers of Zion,” a Labor Zionist fraternal organization), and the Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle, a socialist fraternal organization) in subsequent years.
Among the primary goals of the “National-Radical Club” was establishing a Yiddish school for children, so that like-minded Jewish parents could supplement the education their children received in local public schools. Advocates for the school included Dr. Leo Blass (née Lieb Isaac Shilmovich), a local physician who maintained a practice on Temple Street downtown, and whose devotion to Yiddish culture, and collection of Yiddish books, was legendary. Deeply influenced by his father, a rabbi and admirer of the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) who coordinated Jewish education in his region, Blass began teaching classes along with fellow members of the “National-Radical Club” at a private home near Michigan and Breed Street and later, used his savings to rent a space near his practice downtown to hold classes on the weekends. After World War I, newly arrived Yiddish activists joined him in his efforts, the school staff expanding to include three teachers and a half dozen board members. Along with the local leaders of Po’ale Tsiyon, Blass and the school board decided to launch a fundraising drive in 1920 to purchase a house at 420 N. Soto in Boyle Heights where they could transform the school into a Yiddish cultural center and organizing space, calling their new center the folkshul (“people’s school”). As one former teacher described, the building was, “one of the old single-family houses, in which the ‘front room’ and ‘living room’ were made into a meeting hall, where one could squeeze in 75 people – cheek by jowl.”2 But despite the new building’s limitations, the new space allowed the Yiddish school to grow: when classes began the following year, they had enrolled 120 students and hired a new principal, Shia Miller, a talented Yiddish writer who had previously taught at a Yiddish school in Cleveland.
The folkshul quickly became a popular destination for all kinds of organizations and events. The building hosted meetings of local Jewish unions, branches of the Arbeter Ring, and Labor Zionist groups including Po’ale Tsiyon and, later, the Farband (Yidisher Natsionaler Arbeter Farband or Jewish National Workers Alliance), fundraisers and bazaars for a variety of causes and relief efforts, and an annual Hasidism ball. Several Yiddish reading circles met at the folkshul, as did the “Dramatic and Literary Club,” and it was a popular destination for hosting events in honor of visiting speakers and Yiddish luminaries. But with so much activity of so many varieties, disagreements over access to and use of the space inevitably ensued and by the early 1920s, the folkshul had been beset by ideological conflicts between the various organizations and individuals that met there. Central to these conflicts was the curriculum of the Yiddish school for children and concerns among some parents, particularly those affiliated with the Arbeter Ring, that courses were tainted by religion (some of its teachers having previously taught at Talmud Torahs) and overemphasized Jewish nationalism at the expense of cultivating internationalist working-class solidarity.3 Connected as they were to both transnational political debates and interpersonal disagreements, the conflicts were by no means limited to the folkshul nor to the early 1920s. But they resulted in the fracturing of the folkshul community: the District Committee of the Arbeter Ring broke away to establish its own cultural center on St. Louis Street as well as its own Yiddish school for children (first on Cincinnati Street and later Evergreen Avenue), and linke (left-wing) Yiddishists established their own organizational space on Brooklyn Avenue known as the Cooperative Center.
In the wake of these departures, the leaders of the folkshul began discussions about a remodel and expansion of the building on Soto Street. The conflicts of the preceding years had convinced some that a larger space–one with more rooms for classes and meetings and with a larger hall with seats for several hundred–was required to meet the needs of the growing Yiddish-speaking population in the neighborhood. With the help of former principals Shia Miller and Henry Rosenblatt, two of the city’s foremost Yiddish writers, the fundraising campaign moved quickly and construction began just a few months later. The new folkshul had over 8,500 square feet of space and a central meeting hall with room for 400-500 people, then the largest in the neighborhood.4 Despite the conflicts of the 1920s, the building’s location–just a few steps from the corner of Brooklyn Avenue, the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare, where residents gathered to discuss news of the world, debate politics, and campaign for a variety of causes—also gave the folkshul enduring visibility within the Yiddish-speaking community.
In the 1930s, as Hitler’s ascendance to power in Germany inspired a wave of public displays of antisemitism in Los Angeles, the expanded folkshul became a central location for community organizing among the Yiddish-speaking population of Boyle Heights, including a seminal meeting in 1935 to discuss mounting a “united front” of neighborhood organizations to fight against fascism at home and abroad.5 In keeping with the calls for unity made at the meeting, the leaders of the folkshul (re)opened the building’s doors to organizations of a wide-variety of partisan persuasions, from Zionist groups to communist ones. The folkshul served as a collection site for clothing drives and relief efforts of the Jewish Labor Committee and, in 1938, a launchpad for the largest public protest in the neighborhood to date: a march of some 10-15,000 neighborhood residents, Jews and non-Jews alike, honoring the victims of Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”), at which Rabbi Osher Zilberstein of the Breed Street Shul and Rep. Charles Kramer, who represented Boyle Heights’ district in the U.S. House of Representatives, gave passionate speeches condemning antisemitism and Nazi terror. After Jewish organizations in the neighborhood erected a Victory House at the corner of Brooklyn and Soto during World War II, the folkshul became an important annex for the sale of war bonds and other campaigns to support the American war effort. And after the war, the folkshul community raised thousands of dollars to provide relief for displaced persons in Europe and to support resettlement of Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Palestine.6
During these years, the folkshul’s Yiddish school continued to grow, its classes so popular that its leaders opened a second location in the northern part of the neighborhood near City Terrace. Capitalizing on the sense of unity that the fight against fascism cultivated, school leaders joined with those from the Arbeter Ring’s Yiddish school to open a mitlshul (middle school) for older students in the neighborhood as well. In combination with the myriad Yiddish cultural events, performances, and organizing meetings hosted at the space, the schools ensured that the folkshul would remain true to the ambitions of its founders and serve as the epicenter of a Yiddish cultural life in the city.
Citations1 Sh. Neumov, “The Blessings of Concentration,” in Hayyim Shapiro in der opshaytsung fun zeine freint (Chaim Shapiro: Fifty Years of His Life), ed. Rose Nevodovska (Los Angeles: The Jubilee Committee (the Pacific Press), 1937), 37-38.
2 A. Babitsh [Avrom Babitsh / Abraham Babitz], “Der Yidish natsyonaler arbeter farband [The Jewish National Workers Alliance]” as appears in Kheshbn (The Reckoning), vol. 1 (1946): 107-110. Translated by Mark L. Smith.
3 Leyzer Meltser [Lazar Meltzer], “Twenty-Five Years of Arbeter Ring [Workmen's Circle] Schools in Los Angeles” as appears in Khesbn (The Reckoning), vol. 1 (1946): 89-93. Translated by Mark L. Smith.
4 Zunland, vol. 4 (1925): 90-91.
5 See Caroline Luce, "Visions of a Jewish Future: the Jewish Bakers Union and Yiddish Culture in East Los Angeles, 1908-1942" (PhD diss., UCLA, 2013), 225-230.
6 A. Babitz [Avrom Babitsh / Abraham Babitz], “Der Yidish natsyonaler arbeter farband [The Jewish National Workers Alliance]” as appears in Kheshbn (The Reckoning), vol. 1 (1946): 107-110. Translated by Mark L. Smith.