So I don’t want size to be an issue here, but it’s hard not to notice the extra lbs. your high school friends have added to their list of “What have you been doing for the past 50 years?” For me, seeing so many people over weight was about health and life-style. It made me sad that keeping oneself fit and healthy was not a priority. But happy to say, smiles and laughs were the same!
So here’s the back story: None of my crowd wanted to attend the actual reunion for our 1964 graduating class in East Los Angeles. Our school was ¾ Hispanic with the remaining mix of Asian, non-Jews and Jews. When I saw no Steinbergs, Eisers or Schultzs on the RSVP evite list, I decided to see how many people were interested in planning our own reunion party, which we had done in 1985. So I contacted a few people and the event took shape.
My friends and I (almost 100 of us) grew up in a unique community: Our parents attended school together. They grew up in the Boyle Heights area, a section just east of downtown Los Angeles that was known as the Brooklyn of the West Coast, hence, the main street was Brooklyn Ave. Most of us had our early years in Boyle Heights and then our parents bought $8000 GI homes a little further east of Boyle Heights in Montebello and Monterey Park. My crowd was now the second generation going to elementary through high school together. These people were more than my friends and to say it was a tight knit community, between the two generations, doesn’t even describe it!
I can’t even think of Boyle Heights without mentioning the Breed Street Shul, at one time the largest Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles. The Shul was founded in 1923 at a time when Boyle Heights was considered the “Lower East Side of Los Angeles” and where 90,000 Jews lived. This was the highest concentration of Jews west of Chicago. Its Byzantine-revival architecture recalled Old World traditions and was a shrine to the community’s religious and civil ambitions. It was designed by Abram Edelman, son of LA’s first rabbi, at a cost of $75,000 and dubbed “the Queen of the Shuls.” Movie mogul Louis B. Mayer was its first president and during High Holiday services some 300-400 worshippers were forced to listen outside while the 1100 seats inside were filled.
In the 1990s, through the cooperation of the Jewish Historical Society, the Los Angeles City Council, East Los Angeles Community Corporation and members of the Boyle Heights Neighbor’s Organization, efforts were made to acquire the building and renovate it as a historical museum, a small synagogue and community service center, renaming it The Breed Street Shul. This once glorious Congregation, known then as Talmud Torah, was the first synagogue I attended and has always left a memorable impression of stature and reverence for me. It was also around the corner from my Dad’s men’s clothing store on Brooklyn Ave, so I spent much time surrounded by its holiness.
This Shul was my first memory of being Jewish, my first memory of neighborhood.
The synagogue my friends and I attended Sunday School, Hebrew School (only for the boys), Confirmation, High Holiday Services, BBG and AZA meetings and events was a non-descript building that held little visual reverence but welcomed everyone to share their Jewishness, closeness, connection, good times and bad. Temple B’nai Emet was a family, its congregants had history and memories. At our Purim Ball in 1960, I remember dancing with my friend Steve and overheard my Mom say to Steve’s dad, “Remember when we used to dance like that!” It was a farklempting moment!
B’nai Emet still stands, with only a couple hundred older than Baby Boomers as members with many of us “kids” still making donations to keep it alive. In 1962, my parents were killed in a car accident, the first of their friends to die, at only 38 years old. The Temple community with the leadership of our Rabbi, who my family lived across the street from, headed up a two year project to build a room for youth activities in my parent’s memory. My Mom was BBG advisor and my Dad was a vice president of B’nai Brith so a youth lounge, called the Greene Room (my maiden name) was dedicated to with a plaque above the door that says, “For the Sake of the Children, We Honor the Parents.” The room is still an active gathering place today, not for youth, but for the elders of our childhood synagogue.
This Shul is my everlasting memory of being Jewish, my heartfelt memory of neighborhood.
So to walk into a party with people you went to kindergarten with, to look beyond the gray hair, the life-experienced lined faces and to be as clear as day in memories you shared, words you spoke, dresses you wore—when you couldn’t remember what you had for breakfast that morning!—warms one’s heart to know that these people are still your kinship.
Together we laughed and cried, shed tears that our parents are gone, reminisced all the, “Remember when—-?” showed grad night pictures, talked about the teachers we had, who dated who, who married who, who divorced who, who died at an early age, who became a doctor or lawyer, how actor Eddie Olmos used to perform in all our talent shows, how former CA State Senator Art Torres, the first Latino in the CA Democratic Party to have been nominated for statewide office and won for insurance commissioner, won all the debate team competitions…Who knew then those were the “good old days!”
These people are my foundation for the memory of friendship, my soul’s memory of neighborhood.
The takeaway sentiment for me from this event was how my school days and my Jewish life cannot be separated. Our lives were Jewishly infused with appreciation for our Jewish heritage and the bond of life-long friendships, for in those days in our neighborhood, if you did not belong to BBG/AZA or go to Confirmation, you had no social life. We did everything together. The Rabbi had immense influence upon our lives, some good and some not so good but it was and still is a Jewish influence. The Rabbi’s daughter is the sister I never had and we speak every day, while living 500 miles apart!
And I know this for sure, old friends are the best friends. Regardless of what one has turned out to be, these people “knew you when,” for they know the essence of you, the simple of you, the basic of you.
For these reasons, and that childhood is so raw and honest, going to one’s 50th High School Reunion, brings you back home, to good and/or bad memories, but to your beginnings, to your most vulnerable moments, and often gives insight as to where you have been for 50 years. And it’s a good beginning to where you are going for the next 50 years!
May G-d bless The Breed Street Shul, Temple B’nai Emet and all my childhood friends. May we continue to create memories of Jewish life and neighborhood and pass on to the next generation what was given to us.