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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Israel Osman: Jewish Life in Former Los Angeles

"Jewish Life in Former Los Angeles" by Yisroyl Osman (Israel Osman) 
As appears in Khesbn (The Reckoning), vol. 1 (1946): 21-24.
Translated by Mark L. Smith.
[Translator's note: words underlined were written in English, but with Yiddish letters.]

Just thirty-two years ago, at the beginning of 1914, when I arrived in Los Angeles, I sensed immediately a pulsating Jewish life with all of its virtues and faults. Perhaps with a few more faults than virtues, but with the characteristic rhythm of the best of Jewish life in America. Already then, one could see that the great Jewish city was growing. The general population was then estimated at around four hundred thousand; the Jewish, between fifteen and eighteen thousand. I traveled the entire length of the United States, stopped in the most important Jewish communities and observed Jewish life everywhere. All the cities looked clearly alike — and yet Los Angeles was already much different. On the way, in Denver, Dr. Khaym Spivak [Chaim/Charles Spivak], said:
— You are going, after all, to Los Angeles, the future great Jewish community. Go, they need Jews there like you!
At that time, Denver had more than twenty thousand Jews, with a very fine Jewish intellectual elite, and yet one could see that it would not become the great Jewish community. In San Francisco, with its thirty-forty thousand Jews at that time, the traveling editor Dr. Yehezkel Vortsman said:
— The only Jewish newspaper in California and in the whole Far West you’ll find here, but the only corner of Jewish life you’ll find there, in Los Angeles.
The name “Los Angeles” was already known to me for long time. I heard it for the first time as a greenhorn in Hester Park from our local baker, Shmuel Hatskl. He returned from Los Angeles, where he had stayed with his only son for about a year but did not want to remain there. In the New York heat, in Hester Park, he could hardly breathe and longed for Los Angeles with its warm winter and cool summer, where it is warm in the sun — truly baking — but cool in the shade, a delight! And he said to me:
— As you well remember, your mother used to send you to me for bread. You remember very well how hot it was in my basement room by the oven on a hot summer day, and you know very well that I am an expert about heat. I’ll tell you frankly that there, in Los Angeles, it simply bakes. Mind you, it bakes, but it doesn’t fry like here. You know very well that I’m a baker and know what I’m talking about!
A short time later, Yehoash [the famous Yiddish poet, Solomon Bloomgarten] mentioned it favorably. He had returned from Denver [where, as a patient at Spivak’s tuberculosis sanitarium, he collaborated with him on a Yiddish dictionary], and settled in New York. But the sunny Far West remained dear to him and many times I heard him say:
— A fine Jewish community is growing in ever-sunny Los Angeles. My friends urge me to go there; it draws me ... but, the Land of Israel . . .
Having not even seen it, it became dear to my heart.

* * *

Jews were already in Los Angeles before it became part of the United States. Among the residents of the small village of Los Angeles, in 1850, we find six Jewish names. In 1851, we already encounter Jewish merchants there. In 1852, Joseph Newmark arrived, and with him Jewish life began. He had been ordained as a rabbi and, although he had not entered the rabbinate, undertook to build a Jewish life there. Through his efforts was founded the first Jewish organization, the “Hebrew Benevolent Society."Jews would gather each Sunday evening. There were no poor people among them, so it was a group for visiting the sick and also something of a burial society. In 1854, soon after it was founded, the Society bought a piece of land for a cemetery. This was near the present Lilac Terrace and Lookout Drive. It was given the name, “House of Peace” [correctly, “Home of Peace”].
 In the same year, Joseph Newmark also began conducting a minyan [quorum for prayer], and he was the volunteer spiritual leader of the small Jewish community until a short time later when they sent for a rabbi.
 In 1862, a sort of Jewish community was founded, and it took the name, “Congregation B’nai B’rith.” A rabbi was brought from San Francisco, Rabbi Abraham Edelman, a Polish Jew, much learned in the Torah, as one can see from the Edelman Collection at the city library. The small synagogue moved from place to place until 1873, when, thanks to the Jewish women of the city, a synagogue was built on Broadway between Second and Third streets. The first president was Isaias W. Hellman. That was the beginning of Wilshire Temple.
 At that time, the population of Los Angeles was about 5,300, and among them, a hundred Jews.
 In the forty years between 1905 and 1945, the Jewish population here grew from 2,500 to about 200,000.
[Translator’s note: the preceding five paragraphs are largely a verbatim translation into Yiddish of pages 88-90 of the article by Samuel C. Kohs, “The Jewish Community of Los Angeles,” The Jewish Review / Dedank un lebn II:2-3 (July- October 1944), 87–126.]

* * *

In the early spring of 1914, I arrived in Los Angeles. I landed in a city that was Jewish to the smallest detail, with even a single Hebraist and one and only Yiddishist. There were Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox temples and synagogues; there were “Sunday schools,” three insignificant Talmud-Torahs [traditional religious schools], and also a national-radical school in Yiddish; there were two Zionist associations, one Yiddish and one English, several branches of the Arbiter Ring [Workmen’s Circle], a branch of the Farband [Jewish People’s Order] and a Poyle-tsien [Labor Zionist] organization. There was also a dramatic club and national-radical club for Yiddish literature. Yiddish resounded on the streets where Jews lived; Yiddish signs hung above Jewish businesses. The Yiddish was powerful, juicy, saturated with folksiness. There was a Jewish community full of lively common people. The climate had attracted Jews from cities and countries near and far, with various languages in their mouths, and lest they would become like the generation after the Tower of Babel, Yiddish was their most natural language. They brought with them the Yiddish song, Jewish tradition, a bit of Yiddish wisdom, and they tried to use and preserve it here in the fast-growing city. A Jewish life was boiling and seething here — living. Full of warmth and hospitality it was. With joy, each newcomer was welcomed, befriended, taken into the family. It was also the life of the Jewish community here that drew the intellectual elite. There were individuals who threw themselves with all their strength, each in his area of knowledge and according to his abilities, into striving to lay the foundation for a Jewish cultural life under the sunny skies of Los Angeles.
Jewish life in Los Angeles also found its expression in the sanitarium. It was the youngest and most important Jewish institution in the city. Jews continued to multiply: on account of one sick person, a whole family would come. The sick person either improved or died — in most cases, the family set down roots and remained.
It was a fine immigrant youth that the beauty of California attracted, and to whom light, sea, plants and mountains beckoned. They absorbed the beauty of the area, and each month, when the moon was full, would climb together and make a pilgrimage on Saturday evening [oyle-regl geven shabes-tsu-nakht] to Mt. Wilson. It was a sort of religious service [avode] that unknowingly carried with it the secret of blessing the new moon [kidesh-levone] and longing for the perfection of any moral blemish — for which their fathers and grandfathers had prayed for generations.
The city grew enormously and with it the Jewish community. At the present time, we already number nearly two hundred thousand Jews. In terms of culture, there is surely nothing to be ashamed of by comparison with the largest communities in the country. Significant Jewish writers and artists have found their home here. Many important Yiddish books have been published, many fine institutions have been established. The horizons have become wider. Jewish Los Angeles has worked and striven and truly earned the place it has taken in the Jewish life of America. Each city in the country has contributed to its remarkable growth, sent its best and finest Jews, and they have transferred their activity here and helped Los Angeles become what it is, a great Jewish city, a Jewish community of major importance.
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