When I was in the sixth grade, my teacher, Miss Finley, picked up the piece of family lore I'd written, read it, beamed, "That's good," and told me to take it right down to the principal. One of the worst behaved in class, I'd never been sent to the principal before for having done something "good." From then until I graduated from junior high, I wrote plays, poems, lyrics for songs. When allowed or invited by the teacher, I did impromptu skits, comic take-offs on the friction at home or in my father's shoe store. I never mentioned these family exposés at home -- my mother would have had a fit.
In high school, I took a vacation from self-expression and education, prompted by my inability to deal simultaneously with adolescence and authority. So while most of you were studying Algebra, Geometry, World History, Advanced Spanish, and English Composition, I was flunking Shorthand, barely passing Bookkeeping, ditching Typing, accumulating cuts (92 in the eleventh grade), and hanging out at the bakery across from school where you could buy a cigarette for a penny, smoke it in the back room, and eavesdrop on wayward girls discussing their sexual misadventures. They either concealed the good ones or never had any. Their stories were terrifyingly instructive.
Soon after graduation, I returned to writing. The genre this time was letters to boys in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. The letter I remember best was one I never read. I was five hundred miles from home when it arrived. Suspicious of the handsome, oh-so-attentive second lieutenant who'd written it, my mother opened the letter, falsely deduced we were having an illicit affair and destroyed it. When she confronted me, I, still one of the worst, refused to ease her pain with the truth.
From late 1942, I employed my shaky commercial skills -- it was wartime, and if you showed up you got hired -- as a secretary bookkeeper at the big old hardware store at the corner of Third and Main. I won't describe the ambience except to say winos, sailors, soldiers, b-girls, bars, pawnshops, the Follies Theatre, and Farmers & 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 of my young years traveling on the streetcar, nicknamed The Dinky, between Boyle Heights (a declassé ghetto) and Third and Main (aka Skid Row) forced me to action.
After a year spent earning the required credits at junior college, I, guided by my grade-school pal Libby, applied and was accepted at UC Berkeley. My mother, a would-be capitalist, was aghast. Certain I'd become a Communist, she forbade me to go. Bolstered by four hundred dollars savings and a letter of acceptance, I told her she couldn't stop me. We retreated into a stony impasse.
Self-supporting and self-advised, I skirted the hard stuff and majored in Hispanic Studies -- Spanish, Portuguese, poli-sci, history, and ver vase. In my last year, I backed up into elementary education, then applied for a teaching post as far from Boyle Heights as I could find: Lima, Peru.
A Jewish architectural student from the Arizona-Sonora border spared me and the little Peruvians. I spoke his languages (English, Yiddish and Spanish) and had another irresistible attribute -- I also espoused the lifestyle he proposed: Vamos a vivir como Indios. We began our life as aborigines in a 10' by 10' studio on a Southern Pacific main line in a federal housing project near Berkeley. My first paid job as a writer came while working in the project's Community Relations office turning out a small community newspaper full of administration office edicts, snappy resident profiles (or so I thought), and reports of project meetings -- everything from A.A. to Lumpenmarxists.
When El Indio graduated, we moved to the San Fernando Valley where I spent the next fifteen years impersonating a dutiful suburban wife and mother of four who on milestone occasions turned out to be Jewish. I worked in the co-op nursery schools my children attended, led youth groups, studied Judaism and taught second grade and adult education classes at a temple. I also wrote: the press work for my husband's architectural firm, Jewish home observance manuals, news releases for the Democratic Club, publicity for the Women's Architectural League annual house tour, and radio spots in Spanish for the California PTA.
In the 1960's, my efforts at middle-class, mainstream decorum exploded. Suddently, I was at odds with everyone. 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"; "Do your own thing" sounded like a clarion call to me. I could produce a Seder manual and organize a communal observance, but I couldn't "produce" my husband and teenage children. I didn't know what to do, but my body did. I came down with severe viral pneumonia and was hospitalized. I couldn't lift my aching head, and my chest felt as if I were being machine-gunned. My temperature hovered around 105, and I began to hallucinate. The medical chart read "toxic psychosis." I heard the voices of absent relatives, saw little gnomes giggling in the corner, and newspaper headlines flashed across the wall opposite my bed. One resounded like a voice from inner space: THINGS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM.
In the wake of pneumonia came a severe attack of the who-am-I's. For the first time in years I reflected on Boyle Heights. Why had it taken shape, flourished and then declined? Some 50,000 Jews lived in Boyle Heights in the 1930's. Other segments of its mixed immigrant population included nearly as many Mexicans, as well as strands of Japanese, Russians, Armenians, Italians and blacks. Our teachers had taught us to respect each other's cultures and to get along. And we did, more than we didn't. Elsewhere in the city, anti-foreigner sentiments ran high. Boyle Heights was widely viewed as a backwater, and its residents as lesser Los Angelenos. I fled the Heights, but I took with me its high-spirited, multicultural ethos and the exhilarating belief, common to pioneers, immigrants and newcomers of every era, that we can improve ourselves and our society.
Long on memories and feelings, I searched for facts. Local Jewish and public libraries yielded nothing more than scraps on Boyle Heights. To my surprise, I found ample evidence of early Jewish pioneering elsewhere in Los Angeles. Jews arrived with the first American settlers, one in 1840 when Los Angeles was still under Mexican rule. After the American takeover (1848) ensured religious freedom, and rich gold discoveries in Northern California set off a massive rush (1849), dozens of Jews settled in Los Angeles. Like Jews everywhere on the Far Western frontier, they lived alongside their non-Jewish counterparts and, shoulder to shoulder with them, built enterprises, initiated local governments, held public office and organized civic and social clubs.
Jewish quarters in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the Far West, I soon learned, began taking shape in the 1880's as a spill-off of the massive Jewish exodus from Eastern Europe began to move westward in the hundreds, thousands and, in time, tens of thousands. These later pioneers were likely to be poorer, had larger families and tended to be more religious or political than their predecessors. They also faced dwindling frontier opportunities and more discrimination.
Jewish Boyle Heights took shape between World War I and II. My family settled in Boyle Heights in 1921 and left in 1948. We have bright and bleak memories, and I wished I'd searched for documents. But by then I was focusing on the broader picture. In outlook and expression, the earlier Jewish pioneers reminded me of my parents, their large extended families, and our Sentinel Avenue neighbors. Before the Depression dimmed their enthusiasm, and after hard times receded, they found pleasure in the mild climate, the west's geographical beauty and spaciousness, their single-family homes, the lack of restraints -- governmental, familial, social.
I'd found my subject. Jewish roots in the West, Jewish Westerners, Western Jewry, call it what you like. I was captivated. I researched and wrote articles, all kinds of articles: "Fiddlers on the Freeway," "The Solomons of Solomonville," "Pioneer Jews of Arizona," "Tracking Leopold Ephraim," "Brides for Brethren," "Enterprising People." Inspired by the larger-than-life Jewish pioneers, men and women, I encountered -- engaged in commerce, mining, cattle-raising, government, road- and railroad-building, in new cities, towns, mining camps, ranches, outposts -- I wrote a novel, So Far Away, published in 1981. By then, that need to know about my birthplace had grown into a need to explore the character of the entire Jewish migration into the Far West.
This is how I described that need in the Introduction to Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West:
"As my perspective widened, so did the scope of my search. In time it became apparent that just as the history of Boyle Heights was entwined in the roots of Los Angeles, the history of Los Angeles was linked to the history of the entire region. Early Western communities were remote from one another and remarkably distinctive in their environments; yet in other respects they were noticeably the same. Similar opportunities stimulated their growth: minerals and other natural resources, agriculture, trade, new roads, and railroads. Similar obstacles deterred them: hostile Indians and outlaws; economic instability; and the absence of government, transportation, and communications. Even in the early years, when travel in that vast and rugged region was arduous, expensive, risky, and time-consuming, pioneers were surprisingly mobile. The same peripatetic seekers moved in and out of one Western settlement after another, and when they rooted, a number of them maintained enterprises in two and often more states and territories. Once these similarities became clear, I started to see the different pieces as part of the same mosaic.
"I began to think about writing a book -- an illustrated social history on the Jews in the West. My motive for undertaking so potentially unwieldy a task was twofold. Continued research on the pioneer Jews and the region in general had added immeasurably to my personal sense of belonging. In the accounts of the pioneers' lives I had discovered a usable past on native ground and spirited predecessors who were daring, persistent, enterprising, change oriented, and whose hallmark was optimism. Having grown up in Boyle Heights and close to immigrant grandparents, I am well acquainted with my Eastern European Jewish roots. And I do more than revere this culture -- I enjoy it. Yet I know that much of what I enjoy -- the humor, folklore, rituals and the intensely close family and communal ties -- was forced to some extent as a defense against a menacing host community. I know as well that temperamentally and ideologically I have more in common with that questing spirit that prodded the pioneers to abandon their home soil and seek a new life in the Far West.
"My desire to introduce these bold optimists to their less innocent and consequently less hopeful Western successors and to others who would find their dreams worthy of note was one force impelling me toward this work. The other was plain willfulness. No one had (or, as far as I could see, soon would) set forth an account of these vibrant adventurers in its full length and breadth, or attempted to expose the singular character of this Western ingathering. . . .
"Once I began piecing together shards of these pioneers' lives, new questions emerged. The most persistent centered on the long-term effects of the Jewish presence in the Far West. Jews had contributed significantly to the development of the nascent region; that was abundantly evident. Less obvious were the effects of the Far Western experience on these Jews. I kept listening to their words and looking at their pictures in search of clues."
I'd come to believe the Western Jewish migration, 1.3 million and growing, possessed qualities of a unique nature. Born and bred on the democratic Western frontier, this Jewry had divested itself of imposed and self-imposed constraints, as well as anachronistic customs and biases. We're not lesser Jews. We're different Jews, with much to learn and lots to teach.