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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Julius Levitt (Y. Levit): The Communal and Cultural Role of the Arbeter Ring in Los Angeles, Pt. 1

“The Communal and Cultural Role of the Arbeter Ring [Workmen’s Circle] in Los Angeles," by Y. Levit [Julius Levitt], Part 1.
As appears in Kheshbn (The Reckoning), vol. 1 (1946): 99-106.
Translated by Mark L. Smith.
[Translator’s note: words underlined were written in English, but with Yiddish letters; names of well-known persons are spelled as they usually appear in English.]

The first branch of the Arbeter ring in Los Angeles was founded at the end of 1908. The members, as in most branches, were mostly laborers and peddlers with a radical orientation who could not live with the customs of the Brit Avraham [fraternal organization], which also had a lodge; and recently arrived immigrants from the eastern cities who took pride in belonging to the Arbeter ring.
The writer of these lines arrived in Los Angeles at the beginning of February 1910, and at that time I found the only branch of the Arbeter ring, Branch 248, engaged in diverse community questions and problems, although the branch was then only one year old.
In those years, a society in New York that was called the “Removal Office” had undertaken the task of dispersing Jewish artisans and Jews who were interested in farming — to the West and South. The society was concerned with getting as many Jewish artisans as possible out of New York. Afterward, however, they were little concerned with helping to settle the people who had been sent in their specified places. Such people had also been sent to Los Angeles. The majority of the migrants were “paupers dressed in rags,”1 and their helpless situation in Los Angeles was frightful.
Los Angeles, as is well known, was not until recently an industrial city and was also not an organized city [namely, not unionized]. Wages were minimal and work was scarce. The lonely migrants came to the Arbeter ring complaining about the leadership and misrepresentations of the Removal Office and requested that we undertake their grievance. The Arbeter ring members wrote to their national office in New York asking them to intercede with the chief officials of the Removal Office there, and the intervention of the Arbeter ring branch brought help to the lonely and desperate migrants.
In those years many sick workers would also be sent to Los Angeles from the cities in the East. Especially, the young men and women who were afflicted with tuberculosis would be sent to Los Angeles.
The Jewish community in Los Angeles thirty-five years ago was small. Besides the few branches of the Arbeter ring and the lodge of the Brit Avraham Order, there were no other Jewish organizations. Even synagogues were few. The Olive Street shul on Olive and Temple Streets was the only Orthodox synagogue. Also, the charity federation had just then been organized, and, incidentally, in a very stingy manner. The tiny Jewish hospital of the “Federation” had moved far from Sunset Boulevard and Centennial Street to Whittier Boulevard, near the “Home of Peace Cemetery.” It gave the impression that the rich Jews had fled with their hospital as far as possible from the Jews and from people, because there were no Jews (except corpses) at that time on Whittier Boulevard at Indiana Street.
The poor people afflicted with tuberculosis who were sent to Los Angeles arrived lonely and helpless. On arriving, they received a very cold reception. They did not have enough money to go to a hotel. They were not admitted into private homes. They were forced to seek rooms in the poorest rooming-houses. These sick people had come from the big cities to benefit as much as possible from the milder, cleaner, Southern California air.
There was no sanatorium here yet, and the charity federation tried by every method to bar their doors to the newly arrived paupers. There were indeed a couple of half-charity sanatoriums (Barlow, La Vina), but the charity federation made a contract with them that they should not admit more than four Jewish patients, even at times when there was space for many more.
At that time, the Jewish center was on Temple Street between Figueroa and Broadway. Most of the people with tuberculosis were also located there. One could also encounter these sick people at the meeting of the only Arbeter ring branch.
The meetings of the Arbeter ring branch were well attended: one could hear lectures there by Dr. Leo Blass, the only Yiddishist doctor in Los Angeles, and speeches by Chaim Shapiro.
The secretary of the Arbeter ring branch was Aaron Shapiro, may his memory be a blessing. (He had a small, poor “rooming” house there, where the State Building now stands, and a large number of the poor sick arrivals stayed there.)
The Arbeter ring branch was the point of attraction for the new arrivals. There they found themselves among family and friends, and the sick also turned to the Arbeter ring for people to help them.
The tragedy of the tuberculosis sufferers was great. Their appeal for help broke one’s heart. There were even instances when sick people would die in the street in their own blood, or commit suicide when they were no long able to bear their desperate situation. The Arbeter ring branch was the first place where people began to talk about creating a movement to help the sick. The chairman of the Arbeter ring branch was Cohen (now the manager of the St. Louis office of the “Forverts” [Forward newspaper in New York]). When the first meeting for concerned members of the public was called for the purpose of helping the lonely sick people, B. Cohen was elected the first president of the movement, which was called, “Jewish Consumptive Relief Association of California.
The response by the general Jewish population to helping the arrivals with tuberculosis was good. The movement grew by leaps and bounds. And when B. Cohen began to appeal to the assembled for material help, the response in money was also colossal. The people would literally give away everything they had. And if there was no money, people gave jewelry.
In the assistance movement for the sick, the whole concerned public volunteered. But the leaders of the movement were activists from the Arbeter ring. And, also at the sole branch of the Arbeter ring, the idea was conceived of buying land to build our own free sanatorium for all of the sick people who come to Los Angeles. The idea of a sanatorium was also quickly taken to heart by everyone.
When the first ten acres of land for the sanatorium in Duarte were already purchased, when the first few canvas tents were set up and beds for the sick were also installed on the open “porch” for the old building that was located there, people began to think about building special houses for the sick. And the first two modern “cottages” were then built by Arbeter ring Branches 248 and 443.
Today, when the sanatorium in Duarte is considered one of the largest and best in America, and where, for a period of thirty-some years, many tens of thousands of afflicted young people have found healing and salvation, the local and national Arbeter ring remain strongly interested in this healing institution. And thanks to that great interest on the part of the Arbeter ring and other concerned members of the public, our sanatorium in Duarte [later the City of Hope] has remained the most people-oriented free institution, where the sick are treated like family and where the sick feel they are being supported by their own family.

* * *

1 The author uses the Yiddish expression, “Kaptsonim in zibn poles” (“pauper in seven rags [literally: hems]”).
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