Image courtesy of Lia Mandelbaum

This article first appeared in The Jewish Journal and is published here with permission.

By Lia Mandelbaum

Are there really no Jews left in Boyle Heights?

Not too long ago, I turned to a friend and asked if he knew whether or not there were any Jews still living in Boyle Heights, and he responded with conviction, “No, they have all left.”  I immediately questioned his statement, and especially after reading on the Breed Street Shul website, “from 1910 to 1950, some 75,000 Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jewish immigrants made Boyle Heights into the largest Jewish community west of Chicago.”

My next step was to do a Google search, and so I typed into the browser “are there any Jews still left in Boyle Heights?”  Brilliant, right?!?

What I came across was a YouTube video titled Havdalah in the West Adams District.  Although the district wasn’t Boyle Heights, the group that had made the video identified themselves as the Jews of East LA, and Shmuel Gonzales led the Havdalah ceremony.  As I investigated more of Shmuel’s YouTube videos, I found another Havdalah ceremony that took place on top of the 6th Street Bridge in Boyle Heights, and was titled, Fourth of July: Havdalah Under Barrage of Fireworks.  It was amazing to see these ceremonies taking place within the minority communities.  I had to know more!

My next step was to look up Shmuel on Facebook and message him about having a conversation.  We set a date to chat, and ended up speaking for an hour and a half on the phone.  He was a delight to speak with, and I was deeply inspired by his knowledge of the past, his knowledge of what remains in the present, and his deep love for his Boyle Heights community.

About Mr. Shmuel Gonzales

Shmuel’s own personal website is headlined with, “Welcome to “Barrio Boychik,” my name is Shmuel Gonzales (a.k.a. “Shmu the Jew”).”

In the about me section, I read, “The story of my life has been one of exploring my roots as a Latino; revisiting and living out the human experience of both Mexico and the barrio of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles.  Along the way I have also come to recognize and embrace my own cultural roots in Judaism, my family being of Spanish-Portuguese “converso” origins. Since my youth I have been dedicated to the Jewish faith and way of life. I have come to be lovingly embraced by the Jewish community, and today serve as a religious teacher and leader on the eastside.”

I wondered what Shmuel meant by Spanish-Portuguese “converso,” and went back to Google.  I learned that up until the late 15th century, the Sephardi Jews living in Spain and Portugal had been forced to convert to Catholicism, and subsequently became New Christian conversos.

Shmuel’s immediate family, who now identifies with Protestantism rather then Catholicism, has always taught him to respect his Jewish roots, and have been very proud that he has been able to reclaim Judaism for himself.  Although his extended family is inspired by his religious convictions, they are still a bit afraid that “coming out” about their roots will be met with prejudice and are therefore cautious.

As time went on and Shmuel wanted to deepen his connection to Judaism, his family allowed him to go to shul with friends. When he returned from Mexico to the USA as a teenager in the ‘90s, he stayed with many of his Jewish friends and quickly got absorbed into the Jewish community.

Shmuel was connected with Rabbi Rachlis, of the Reconstructionist congregation in Orange County, University Synagogue of Irvine, and had converted in 2000.

Personal walking tour of Boyle Heights

Shmuel and I planned on meeting for a personal tour, and met at a Starbucks near the East LA Interchange.  We first parked in front of the old “Queen of the Shuls,” Congregation Talmud Torah, aka Breed Street Shul, and walked around the neighborhood.  I saw and heard stories about the old Canter’s Deli, Mount Sinai Medical Clinic, the Los Angeles Jewish Academy, Mickey Cohen’s home on Breed Street, multiple old synagogues now inhabitated and preserved by Churches (ex. Fairmont Street Shul), Zellman’s Menswear, Menorah Center (now the Salesian Boys and Girls Club), and the Monte Carlo Russian-Turkish baths.  We also made a trip to the 150-year-old Jewish cemetery, Home of Peace Memorial Park and Mortuary.

I am so grateful for how my curiosity led me to finding Shmuel Gonzales.  He is truly a gem, and it is wonderful to learn more about the area from the nuanced perspective of a Latino Jew with a deep pride and love for his Boyle Heights community.

To see Shmuel’s website, Barrio Boychik, click {HERE}

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Boyle Heights Beat

Boyle Heights Beat is a bilingual community newspaper produced by its youth "por y para la comunidad". The newspaper and its sister website serve an immigrant neighborhood in East Los Angeles of just under...

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