In the first decade of the 1900s, Eastern European immigrants who headed west faced restrictive housing covenants that barred many Jews from relocating in certain areas. In Los Angeles by the 1920s, about 90% of housing stock was governed by restrictive racial housing covenants. But Boyle Heights was one of the few neighborhoods that did not have the covenants.
Caroline Luce, associate director of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA, says that Jewish immigrants coming from Eastern Europe sought Boyle Heights as a place to live. “They wanted an opportunity to buy a home, they wanted the space to create the institutions that were familiar to them, to build out their organizing, and to find a place of safety and security,” Luce says.
She adds, “I like to describe that it wasn’t just exclusion, but also aspirations for a place to call home, for community building, and for a slice of that American dream that also drew Jews to Boyle Heights.”
At the time, a very large percentage of that Jewish community spoke Yiddish, a vernacular language that blends Hebrew, German, and Slovick linguistic structures and vocabularies.
“In Los Angeles, as early as 1905 [or] 1908, Yiddish-speaking Jews are getting together and thinking about the ways that they can build out that language and culture infrastructure here in LA,” Luce says. “There’s a meeting in 1908 where they all get together to talk about forming what they called a national radical club that would sort of be home to their radical beliefs and radical pursuit of Yiddish.”
They were animated by a belief that the Jewish future could be focused on Yiddish language and culture, as opposed to being centered on synagogues or Eastern Europe. Luce says, “In Boyle Heights, they built Yiddish schools, they built a Yiddish language press, they used Yiddish to organize workers and political parties. So it was both a source of cultural autonomy and a source of community cohesion.”