When my mother was pregnant with me, her third child, she was immersed in the greatest adventure of her life: the construction of our family home. It was situated at 1043 Sentinel Avenue on a newly-subdivided street that ran (and still does) between Wabash and Ganahl at the newer, northeast end of Boyle Heights. My mother had grown up over her father's clothing store in Saint Louis; my father, in a rundown, overcrowded courtyard in Brest L'Tovsk. For them, building a house was a radical act of self-invention.
The 1625-square-foot Spanish Colonial--white stucco, red tile roof, wrought iron spears supporting a canvas awning--incorporated as much 1920s Los Angeles ambience as a twenty-six-year-old woman with ten thousand dollars to spend could muster. Picture crystal chandeliers in the living and dining rooms separated by folding glass doors; mode-of-the-moment built-ins: dining buffet, breakfast nook, storage cabinets; a tiled bathroom with tub and stall shower. Add a rear garden, baby pink roses, oleanders, poinsettias, fruit trees--lemon, avocado, fig, peach--and a 1924 Dodge in the driveway. It was the life they sought materialized, free of time-worn constraints, pleasure-loving, mobile, prosperous. When the high-flying Twenties descended into a twelve-year-long Depression, they clung to the house as if it were a life raft.
Ours was the third house on the block. My parents' memories of goats grazing on the still unpaved street, the raw hills rising to the north, and the old frame house next to ours were reminders that a few years back the area had been ranch land. By the time I was a toddler, Sentinel was lined with other knock-off Spanish Colonials, occupied mostly by Eastern European Jewish families from the eastern and midwestern United States and Canada. Most spoke fluent English and, like my father, were experienced young merchants or manufacturers hoping to expand their range in booming Los Angeles. Alpert & Alpert, Inc., global recyclers; the Hoffman Meat Packing Company (Hoffy's Hot Dogs); Jackman's, creators of fine men's wear; Pacific Furniture, West Coast stylists, were all founded by first- or second-generation Sentinelites. Alongside these eventual pacesetters lived wage earners: a film studio carpenter, a Cudahy egg candler, a Los Angeles Times office manager, a laundry truck driver.
Boyle Heights attracted my parents for the same reasons it drew thousands of their kind. Jews were welcome, which was not the case throughout the city. Between World Wars I and II--the heyday of Jewish Boyle Heights--Los Angeles was promoted as a WASP paradise. Affluent new tracts tended to exclude non-whites and Jews, but a "No Jews or Dogs Allowed" sign could turn up almost anywhere. Inexpensive building sites (my parents' lot cost $3,000) and low rents were also inducements, as were the proliferation of Jewish communal facilities, proximity to downtown businesses and factories and, for healthseekers, a salubrious climate.
Wabash Avenue, the commercial artery, visibly defined the section as Jewish-American. Dual-language signs above kosher meat and chicken markets, groceries, bakeries and storefront meeting rooms, for every -ism and -ite, were interspersed with an American movie house, library, playground, bank, pool hall, beauty shop, et al. On a hilltop to the east rose a Jewish community center and synagogue. Smaller synagogues and meeting halls nestled between residences on side streets.
The schools served diverse ethnic enclaves: mostly Jews and Mexicans, mixed with strands of Japanese, Russians, Armenians, Blacks, Italians and Anglos. Driven by zeitgeist ideals, edicts from school administrators and self-preservation, our mostly Anglo teachers enjoined us to celebrate our ethnic cultures and those of our classmates. Most of us did, with discernible benefits. Decades later, when an attack of the who-am-I's drove me to reflect, it was clear that my delight in foreign languages, travel and cultural exchange began in Boyle Heights.
My earliest memories shine: house-proud parties, summer evenings on neighbors' front porches, kids' birthdays, street games, hikes in the surrounding hills, trips to local beaches (Venice's plunge and spouting fountain, Ocean Park's marathon dance contests). A few dark images linger: hiding from the butcher who threatened to cut off my sucking thumb, locked in the closet when I was bad (how bad?), bellowing at four to start school with the street's five-year-olds.
In 1929, the crash struck like an avalanche. Bankruptcies (two), ever-worsening health (my father's), quarrels with and estrangement from family members; Papa working seven days a week to stave off a second business failure; Mama, his only help, rushing home around six exhausted and angry; the Dodge dead in the driveway; the telephone disconnected; social life on hold, housekeeping makeshift, meals irregular.
Of the darkness that had descended, I spoke to no one. My newly-silent father became the Depression personified; my overburdened mother, tinder ready to explode; my brother, occupied elsewhere; my older sister, my surrogate mother. By seven or eight, I navigated the neighborhood alone--to and from school (skirting the scary stretches), to the public library and playground, the movies on Saturdays. When my second grade teacher went from washing my mouth out with soap for talking out of turn to a full day in the closet with adhesive tape sealing my lips, mum. When a boy I liked asked to meet me at the library then hid in the bushes to watch me wait, mum. When the neighborhood flasher chased me in the alley, mum. All worth a half a day's heartache. I always had friends, as I grew older, soulmates.
Until late adolescence, it rarely occurred to me that Boyle Heights was widely viewed as an unsavory neighborhood. Or that by residency I might be judged undesirable--a real possibility given my coping strategies: anti-authority (you bet), sarcastic (often), disease-ridden (no, except for a case of nits), radical (as the Bill of Rights), dishonest (occasionally).
After graduating high school, what I 'd rarely thought I thought of constantly. All it took was one Beverly Hills boyfriend's mother bemoaning his nightly drive "all the way to Boyle Heights." One prospective employer unwilling to trust a "Heights girl" at his cashier register. One college admissions officer slamming the gate on my neighborhood, my religion, and (this time justifiably) my high school record--B's, C's, an F, and cuts galore.
In late 1942, I got a job as a secretary-bookkeeper at a big, old hardware store at the corner of Third and Main. It was during World War II, and if you showed up you got hired. I won't describe Main Street except to say winos, sailors, soldiers, b-girls, bars, pawn shops, the Follies Theater, and Farmers and Merchants Bank. Nor will I detail my family's homefront war with life-threatening illnesses (first my brother's, then my father's) or our related insolvency. Once the health battles were won, the thought of spending more days on the bleak, splintery mezzanine of a cavernous hardware store and more nights writing letters to boys doing military service, or girlfriends away at college, spurred me to action.
In the next eighteen months, working part-time, I earned the required academic credits at a junior college and applied to the University of California, Berkeley. In January 1945, my wanna-be capitalist mother still not speaking to me--in her view UC Berkeley was a Soviet boot camp--I left with one suitcase and four hundred dollars in savings. My Berkeley years as a Hispanic America major, a story in itself, I'll fast-forward to graduation in June, 1947. I was set for a teaching job in Lima, Peru, when an architectural student from the Arizona-Sonora border interceded. We spoke the same languages--English, Yiddish and Spanish; my surname was the same as his mother's; we were born on the same day and, with matched fervor, disliked cold weather, heavy clothes-foods-ideas. The closest he came to a marriage proposal was to say, "Vamos a vivir como Indios" ("Let's live like Indians"). Our lives as aborigines began in a 10' by 10' room on a Southern Pacific main line in a federal housing project near Berkeley.
When El Indio graduated, we moved to the San Fernando Valley, then a burgeoning Los Angeles suburb. The next fifteen years I spent impersonating a model suburbanite from anywhere. In the 1960s, my efforts at mainstream, middle-class decorum exploded. The Democratic congressman I'd supported favored the Vietnam War; I marched in peace demonstrations. The rabbi at my temple called hippies the "scum of the earth"; my objection earned me a sermon for one. I could produce a Seder manual and a communal observance, but I couldn't persuade my husband and teenaged children to attend. My defenses in shambles, viral pneumonia rushed in. Hospitalized, temperature hovering around 105, for nearly a week I hallucinated giggling green gnomes, whispering relatives, newspaper headlines. One stuck: "THINGS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM."
Home from the hospital, for the first time in years my thoughts turned to Boyle Heights, by then as Judenrein (cleansed of Jews) as my mother-in-law's destroyed shtetl. Long on memories, I hungered for facts of my vanished village. Local archives and libraries yielded few traces of the Heights' once city-sized (50,000 plus) Jewish population. Better recorded were the Jews who pioneered elsewhere in Los Angeles. The earliest to arrive, 1849 to 1852, had started businesses near the plaza, learned Spanish, savored local customs, just as my father had more than seven decades later. They also built homes, made friends, summoned relatives, as had my mother.
New works spawned by the budding ethnic history movement revealed comparable patterns of Jewish pioneering in other Western states. Captivated, I began to research and write full-time. In the next twenty years, I published fourteen articles and with my late husband completed Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West--I wrote the text, he collected the photographs. Published in 1984 by Houghton Mifflin, this illustrated social history is still the only regionwide study of its kind. Spanning three and a half centuries, the work illuminates Jewish participation in every facet of Far Western development, and Jews of every stripe--men, women, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, pious, freethinking, commendable, contemptible, brilliant, dull, rich and poor.
The materials I collected (2,550 files), now the Harriet Rochlin Collection of Western Jewish History, are available to the public at UCLA's Charles E. Young Research Library, Special Collections. In June 2003, I delivered to the University of Arizona Library, Special Collections, the Fred Rochlin Papers, my husband's voluminous collection of Southwestern and Borderlands Jewish and general historical data and images. In 2006, I donated to UCLA the Harriet Rochlin Collection of Photographs of Western Jewish Life ca. 1845-1991. The original collection consists of 2,248 photographs (433 originals) and 1,623 photocopies.
By the time I'd completed Pioneer Jews, my interest in my birthplace had broadened to include Jewish life in the Spanish, Mexican and American Far West. Placed in a regional context, I saw Jewish Boyle Heights as a halfway station in time of need, the largest in the West. Like South Portland and West Colfax (in Denver), and still smaller eastern European Jewish enclaves in the West, its ill-deserved reputation and its lifespan were determined by Jewish and general circumstances in the city, the state and the region. With this knowledge came admiration for the high-spirited vitality of my natal neighborhood. Also a heartfelt appreciation, albeit belated, for an upbringing that turned out to be first-rate training for life in present-day, culturally-diverse Los Angeles.
In the next ten years, I moved beyond the documentable to areas academic historians eschew and novelists embrace. The private, unrecorded, unarticulated, veiled side of history that surfaces in emotionally credible reconstructions of time, place and personalities. Set in San Francisco and on the Arizona-Sonora border, my fictional Desert Dwellers Trilogy draws on composites of pioneers, personal and familial lore, and actual and fabricated places and events.
And the Who-Am-I's? They're gone forever. I'm a Jew and a Westerner; a Jewish Westerner, with roots in a Jewry now more than one million strong and growing. A distinctive Jewry, born and bred on the multicultural Western frontier, one finding its place and its voice in the pluralistic twenty-first century.
- Harriet Shapiro Rochlin
© copyright 2006