A few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about the death of Eddie Goldstein, “the last Jewish man of Boyle Heights.” Goldstein, who died on January 5 at 79, was born in Boyle Heights and stayed there all his life, becoming a sort of final link with Boyle Heights of the 1920s and 30s, when it was the Jewish neighborhood in L.A.
During those years, Boyle Heights was home to some 50,000 Jews. The neighborhood, directly east of downtown, had kosher butchers and delis, including the original Canter’s, an L.A. institution. There were synagogues for the religious, workers and Yiddish societies for the secular, movie theaters, bookie joints, a pool hall, and the Ebony Room bar, a haunt of the community’s most infamous son, Mickey Cohen.
By the time I lived in L.A. in the mid-1970s, Boyle Heights was already heavily Latino. I’d never heard of it until I set out to write a novel about a Jewish woman growing up in L.A. in the 20s and 30s. I started doing research, and it was clear that my character could live in only one place: Boyle Heights.
Boyle Heights wasn’t just a Jewish neighborhood, however. While Jews were the largest group, there were also large Japanese- and Mexican-American populations. In fact, some 50 ethnicities lived there. Not that people in those days looked at the diverse community and saw an only-in-America success story. On the contrary, in the late 1930s the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corp. redlined Boyle Heights, stating that it was filled with “subversive racial elements.” (That, too, was just right for my character, since she becomes a progressive attorney.)
But, according to oral history interviews with Jews who grew up in Boyle Heights in the 20s and 30s, there was remarkable harmony among the ethnic groups. People spoke about their accidental utopian experiment with love and pride.
And although, with Eddie Goldstein’s death, there are no longer any Jews living in Boyle Heights, the diverse legacy hasn’t been forgotten. The Boyle Heights Historical Society is a multi-ethnic group. The Breed Street Shul Project, created by Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, is restoring a grand Boyle Heights synagogue; one of two buildings is now open and hosts classes and gatherings for the Latino community as well as Jewish events.
Then there’s David Kipen, a book critic and former director of reading initiatives for the NEA, some of whose family once lived in Boyle Heights. Kipen runs Libros Schmibros, a lending library-used bookstore on Mariachi Plaza. A bookstore of any kind these days—but especially one that offers books for $1—is clearly a utopian venture … and one that would appeal to the “subversive elements” who once lived in Boyle Heights.
Sometime back in my childhood, I got the idea that it was “nicer” to say “I’m Jewish” than “I’m a Jew.” And preferably, in the mainly Christian suburb of Milwaukee where I grew up, one said it in a sort of mumble.
And no one ever used “Jewess,” which seemed archaic enough to ignore when encountered in 19th century novels like Ivanhoe or Daniel Deronda. (Nor was it considered pejorative then, as I learned from Daniel Krieger’s excellent article “The Rise and Fall—and Rise—of ‘Jewess.’“) But the word was disturbing in modern contexts, for instance, when Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep describes a woman as having “the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess.” What, we all have the same cheekbones? In that case, I’ll take Lauren Bacall’s. “Intelligent Jewess” so stuck in my craw that it inspired my novel, The Tin Horse, in which I imagine that “Jewess’s” story.
In recent years, various “out” groups have reclaimed language, taking words once flung at them as slurs and boldly using them to self-identify. “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” The gay community has asserted ownership of “queen” and “queer,” and my favorite Gay Pride Parade participants are the motorcycle-riding “dykes on bikes.”
What linguists call “semantic reclamation” has also been happening for “Jew.” The cheeky Klezmatics put out albums titled “Rhythm and Jews” and “Jews with Horns”—and they made klezmer cool. These days we’ve got the irreverent online mags Jewniverse and Jewcy, not to mention Jewcy tee shirts.
And some young, hip Jews are trying to embrace “Jewess.” Look at the smart blogs Jewesses with Attitude and Jewess. Enter “Jewess” in Jewcy‘s search box, and you get ten pages of links. But those are niche websites, and they’re not trying to appeal to a wide audience. When I floated the working title for my book, An Intelligent Jewess, some people loved its in-your-faceness—the wonderful woman who would become my agent wrote in response to my query, “From one intelligent Jewess to another, I’d love to read your book.” Even more people, though, felt pushed away by it; non-Jews felt excluded, and it made many Jews squirm. And “Jewess” isn’t just anti-Semitic, it’s one of those sexist “ess” words like “stewardess,” a double whammy that suggests Hebraic odalisques. Nevertheless, maybe the Jewesses with Attitude are on to something, and “Jewess” will flip from pejorative to cool. I’d love to see it happen. On the other hand, are some words beyond redemption?
Although I live in California, I don’t share the New Age belief that there are no coincidences. I think many things occur by chance. And that makes me all the more delighted that my novel, The Tin Horse, is being published this week, the same week in which the Torah portion includes the Song of the Sea.
Song of the Sea is the exultant outpouring by Moses and the Israelites after they’ve crossed the Sea of Reeds and escaped Pharaoh’s army. Poetry versus the prose of most of Torah, it dances down the page, three- and four-word phrases creating a choppy surface like ocean waves. It’s even chanted to a special tune, a sweet melody used for no other text.
What most fascinates me isn’t the song itself, though, but another song, a mere scrap of which appears in the Torah. Following the 18-verse song of Moses, Miriam picks up her timbrel, leads the women in dance, and sings her own song. But all of this happens in just two verses, and can that really be the whole story?
I’m not the only one who’s wondered. Theologian Dr. Judith Plaskow wrote in Standing Again at Sinai, “The dance at the Sea links Miriam with a foundational event of Israelite history, but she appears in the narrative with no introduction and no account of her rise to religious leadership. This surprising silence suggests that there were other Miriam traditions that were excluded from the Torah.”
Plaskow’s book—and her insistence on finding a place for women as “shapers of the holy”—helped me reconnect to Judaism after a long absence. So did composers Debbie Friedman z”l and Cantor Linda Hirschhorn with their stirring versions of Miriam’s song; and so do contemporary midrash writers who pick up on whispers of the divine feminine in Torah and imagine our foremothers’ voices.
Though the inspiration for my novel wasn’t sacred text, I too wanted to give voice to a woman standing in the shadows of another story: Raymond Chandler’s noir classic The Big Sleep. In one scene, the detective, Philip Marlowe questions a woman working in a bookstore. From the beginning, when we see the woman reading a law book (in a novel published in 1939), she’s intriguing; she continues to intrigue as she matches wits with Marlowe. The woman, who’s unnamed, is described as having the face of “an intelligent Jewess.” That term—and her being pegged as Jewish on sight—conveyed such a profound sense of otherness and suggested to me that, despite this moment when their paths crossed, the woman lived in a very different Los Angeles than Marlowe’s mean streets. I wanted to discover her Los Angeles. I wanted to hear her song.
I thought I had entered completely into the world of my novel: Boyle Heights in the 1920s and 30s, when the Los Angeles neighborhood was home to some 50,000 Jews and a center for Jewish life. Then I started getting questions from Tony.
Tony is Tony Hudz, the charming man who directed the audiobook of The Tin Horse. And he needed to know how to pronounce every word—for instance, should Danny Berlov’s last name be Bear-lov or Bear-lohf? My first response was, “Neither;” my mental voice had always said Ber-lov. But Danny is a new immigrant when he enters the story in 1926. And Tony’s query made me realize I was hearing Danny’s last name as it would have evolved a generation later, when its Yiddish inflections had been absorbed into English.
In my novel, Yiddish phrases often make their way into English conversation. But Tony ramped up my awareness of how the whole soup of language would contain the pronunciations, stresses, and rhythms of Yiddish. And that the English heard by Elaine Greenstein, my main character, would take multiple forms: the standard American of native speakers like her father or her teachers, and the Yiddish-flavored English of her immigrant mother, grandfather, and many of the adults in her world. Broken English.
I’m aware of love that immigrants feel for their native tongue and the emotional impact of leaving it behind. A friend who emigrated from Argentina says her son is gentler when he speaks Spanish. A psychologist who grew up in Cuba tells me that immigrant clients can access the deepest childhood memories only in their mother tongue. Eva Hoffman, who left Poland as a child, titles her beautiful memoir Lost in Translation.
Broken English, however, has no such fond associations. Rather, it’s a source of shame, the American-born child cringing as Mama or Papa massacres pronunciation and syntax. But as Tony led me to think more deeply about the English in Elaine’s world, I wondered if there was also a sweetness to hearing this broken tongue, this English cracked open to reveal a Yiddish soul.