Rothschild Lecture and Jewish Los Angeles Community

Rothschild Lecture and Jewish Los Angeles Community

Emory lecture on Nov. 7 features California scholar who examines Jewish life in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Rothschild lecture will examine the historic role of politically active Jews in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.
The Rothschild lecture will examine the historic role of politically active Jews in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.

This year’s Rothschild lecture at Emory University will feature a discussion about the importance for the Jewish community to build political coalitions that are multi-ethnic and multi-racial.

The lecture on Nov. 7 is sponsored by the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, in memory of Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild who was the senior rabbi of The Temple in Midtown Atlanta from 1946 to 1973.

Featured in the Emory lecture is George J. Sánchez, a professor of American studies and ethnicity and history at the University of Southern California. He will be discussing his research into the development of the Jewish community in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was considered the heart of the Jewish community there immediately before and after World War II. There were once so many Jews living there that it was called Los Angeles’ Lower East Side.

He is particularly interested in how that Jewish community encouraged greater political participation by the Latino community that was moving into the neighborhood during the 1950s and how Jews responded. His topic for the Rothschild lecture is “What’s Good for Boyle Heights Is Good For The Jews.”

In a recent interview, he explained that the Jewish community at the time, for a variety of reasons, felt that it was important for those living in Boyle Heights to extend a helping hand to other minorities.

Los Angeles’ famous Canter Deli was originally located in Boyle Heights, a center of Jewish life in the 1930s and 40s.

“What I am looking at, in particular, is the transition that occurred in this very significantly Jewish community. It made up probably 40 percent of the population in Boyle Heights in the post-war period but, nonetheless, they made sure that the Mexican American community got politically empowered there.”

Significantly, Jews worked to elect a Hispanic member of the community to the Los Angeles City Council in 1947 for the first time in the 20th century and to re-elect him for the next 13 years. And although many Jews were moving to the suburbs in the 1950s, those that stayed behind, especially those who had ties to labor unions and leftist political groups, worked to bring the community together in a political coalition.

“Because the Boyle Heights community was so much tied to the Jewish community, they felt it was important to make sure that the residents feel empowered, feel like they can participate democratically in what was going on. So, there’s a socialist tradition, there’s a labor union connection. But even more than that, there’s actually an organized Jewish community response which was a kind of multiracial approach in the wake of World War II.”

George J. Sánchez has written extensively about the Jewish community of Boyle Heights. // Photo courtesy of Tam Institute for Jewish Studies.

But Sánchez points out that this kind of community effort was short lived; in part, because of the chilling effect that came in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the influence of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and the anti-Communist crusade led in Washington by the House Un-American Activities Committee. But more so, by the move that Los Angeles Jewish community made at the time to all-white suburbs.

“Basically, from the 1940s to the 1970s, you had increasing demographic separation between all these groups. Jews and other white ethnics basically left those communities for the suburbs. And so, you had what most scholars term a kind of ‘whitening’ of the Jewish community, a venture into whiteness, into suburban living, and acceptance into those restricted neighborhoods that they had previously not been allowed into.”

The result of the re-segregation of Los Angeles, Sánchez believes, led to profound changes in race relations: first, after the riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965, and later, in the racial tension that led to violence in 1992 and tensions between police and the community. The destructive results that these events had on civic life in Los Angeles has caused Sánchez to question whether you can build communities today that include Jews and other minorities that are able to head off these explosive confrontations.

The issue he believes is as important for Atlanta as it is for other big cities that are going through changes in the racial make-up of their populations.

“There needs to be, among elected politicians, a kind of discussion that can overcome simple racial dynamics and really deal with the complexity of our societies, as we, particularly as Atlanta, starts to deal with its multiracial-ness and the growth of Latino and Asian populations.”

What Sánchez is asking in his talk is whether community leaders can work across the racial and economic boundaries in cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta to promote a newer vision for the future of urban area.

“We cannot simply live in our own silos. That’s not good enough. And unfortunately, demographically, and geographically, that’s where we are.”

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