The Early Years: Jews Help to Build and Govern Los Angeles, by Sonia Hoffman

The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels was dedicated on September 4, 1781, one of a series of Spanish pueblos and missions along the California coast. When Spanish rule ended in 1822, it became part of Mexico. During the Mexican war, Los Angeles was peacefully “captured” by John C. Fremont and Commodore Robert Stockton on August 13, 1846. Los Angeles incorporated as an American city on April 4, 1850, just a few months after California became a state.

When the Gold Rush attracted thousands of newcomers to Northern California, Southern California also experienced an economic boom as cattle ranches and farms expanded to feed the growing population. The 1850 U.S. Census for Los Angeles County listed a population of 8,624, eight of whom appeared to be Jews. Seven of them were merchants, and one was a tailor. Six were from Germany, and two were from Poiand; They all resided in Bell’s Row at Aliso and Los Angeles Streets.

The merchants who remained permanently were successful and moved easily into the commercial and political life of Los Angeles. From its beginning as an American city, Jews helped to shape and govern Los Angeles. Jews were respected in the wider community. For business reasons, many had learned Spanish, which attracted Spanish-speaking voters. In the more or less lawless town, Jews were peaceable and literate. Morris L. Goodman was elected to the first City Council in 1850, and Arnold Jacobi became a Councilman in 1853. Goodman’s cousin, Maurice Kremer, was elected Treasurer of Los Angeles County in 1859 and later served as a County Supervisor, Councilman, and as City Clerk. For most years between 1850 and 1880, one or two Jews served on the City Councilor County Board of Supervisors.

The First Jewish Community Organizations
The Hebrew Benevolent Society, with Samuel Labatt, an American-born Sephardic Jew from New Orleans, as president, was incorporated on July 6, 1854 “…for the purpose, among others, of owning and holding certain real estate to be devoted to burial purposes for deceased members of the Jewish faith.” The next day, the Mayor said that the City Council might offer a “a piece of public land for a graveyard for those belonging to the Hebrew Church” (“First Jewish Community Site Los Angeles, California 1855,” Norton Stem & Thomas Cohen, Western States Jewish History, Volume 1, Issue 3, April, 1969). A tract of cityowned land near Lilac Terrace and Lookout Drive, one mile from City Hall, was sold to the Hebrew Benevolent Society for one dollar on April 9, 1855 “…as a burying ground for the Israelites forever.” (Norton & Cohen) The Society also raised funds for the indigent and sick, Jew and gentile alike, and to assist Jews in other countries.

With the arrival of Joseph Newmark in 1854, Los Angeles Jewry had its first lay religious leader and certified shochet, who served as the community’s rabbi until 1862. On July 17, 1862, Congregation B’nai B’rith was organized. Rabbi Abraham Wolf Edelman came from San Francisco to become its rabbi and also served as shochet. There were approximately 200 Jews at this time. After holding services in various locations, the congregation’s first synagogue was dedicated on August 18, 1872 at Broadway (then Fort Street) between 2nd and 3rd streets. It was Gothic in style, and seated 365 people. (There is a plaque on this site on Broadway today).

In 1870, the Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society, the first women’s philanthropic organization, was organized by Rosa Newmark, to prepare the dead for burial and for other charitable needs. There were 30 founding members. The ladies held balls that became popular social occasions. Other fraternal and social organizations began around this time. The Independent Order of B ‘nai B’rith formed Orange Lodge No. 224 in 1874, with its membership largely of German background.

The 1870 Federal Census for Los Angeles showed that of the city’s 5,728 citizens, 330 individuals, or 5.76%, were Jewish. This figure is considered lower than the actual number because several known Jews were not included in the Census. The major occupation listed was dry goods and clothing merchant, clerks and laborers. There were nine general merchandisers, four tailors and five shoemakers and one or two people in various other jobs. The general population was about equally divided among Americans, Europeans, and Mexicans, and many languages were spoken.

Merchants and Bankers
There was a brief period of prosperity in the 1850s, but the cattle boom ended in 1857, leaving the large ranchos deeply in debt. A major flood occurred in 1862, which destroyed hundreds of homes and vineyards. A smallpox epidemic ravaged the city the following year. Many Jewish merchants left Los Angeles, but others stayed and purchased large parcels of land bought at rock bottom prices. After the Civil War, immigration to Los Angeles resumed, largely from the South, with huge wagon trains heading west. Most of the newcomers were farmers.

Jewish merchants entered into a variety of partnerships, at the retail and wholesale level, involving clothing and foodstuffs in particular. Many Jews became real estate investors during this period of growth. Brothers Herman W. and Isaias W. Hellman arrived in 1859. Their cousins Samuel and LM. Hellman were already in L.A., and Herman went to work for them. He was later a partner in Hellman, Haas and Company, a wholesale grocery business. LW. took a job in a warehousing business that shipped goods from Wilmington to Los Angeles. He was able to save enough money in six years to buy the Adolph Portugal men’s clothing store. It was in this store that banking in Los Angeles began.

Merchants were frequently asked to hold gold and other valuables as cl,lStodians. Isaias Hellman had a safe and kept gold for miners and others. After a while, he decided to hang up a sign “LW. Hellman, banker” in one part of his store. He entered into partnership with William Workman and F.P.F. Temple in 1868, in a newly-built building. He soon sold his clothing business, and formed a partnership with former Governor Downey. They opened the Farmers and Merchants Bank. He eventually became a major stockholder in 12 other banks.

Hellman invested in trolley lines and railways, first in 1874 to start the Main Street and Agricultural Park Railway, which connected the Plaza, the heart of Los Angeles’ downtown, to Agricultural Park, a popular horse-racing track. He formed the Los Angeles Railway in 1898 with Henry Huntington and the Pacific Electric Railway in 1901. Hellman was a major investor in water, gas, and electricity companies, and helped bring the Southern Pacific Railroad to Los Angeles in 1876.

Hellman was also a major landowner of city lots and huge parcels of the former ranchos. In 1879, Hellman joined several others to purchase land for the University of Southern California, the first university in the area. In 1881, he was appointed a Regent of the University of California. In 1890, he moved to San Francisco to take over the Nevada Bank and in 1893, he incoIporated the first trust company in California, the Union Trust Company. In 1905, Hellman merged the Nevada National Bank with Wells Fargo Bank. Other members of his family stayed in Los Angeles, including Herman’s son Marco Hellman, born in L.A. in 1878 and educated at Stanford. His bank, Hellman Trust and Savings Bank had 250,000 depositors and 30 branches by the mid-1920s.

Harris Newmark, born in West Prussia, arrived in L.A. in 1853, and entered business with his father and other relatives. Their businesses included clothing, hides, and grocery wholesaling. They owned blocks of property downtown and large parcels in the San Gabriel Valley. Harris Newmark wrote Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853-1913, one of the major sources of information about the early years.

Isaac Norton, born in Warsaw in 1844, came to L.A. in 1869, and opened a clothing store with his brother. He had a store in a mining town during the 1880s which was very successful, then went into the insurance and real estate businesses in Los Angeles. He married Berta Greenbaum, who was the first Jewish girl born in Los Angeles (her mother had been the first Jewish woman to come). Isaac Norton established the first free loan association and was active in many charities and fraternal organizations, as were all of the Jewish businessmen. His son, Samuel Tilden Norton, became an architect and designed some of the first synagogue buildings.

Solomon Lazard was in business in L.A. by 1851, when he opened a dry goods store. He was appointed as election inspector in the city elections of 1858. Lazard and Company became the largest clothing store at 232 So. Hill Street, and was renamed City of Paris in 1874. Other merchants tried to compete with it by using store names such as City of Berlin and City of Lyons. City of Paris was sold to creditors in 1893 during the nationwide depression.

Emil Harris: Jewish Chief of Police and Private Detective
Emil Harris was born in Prussia in 1839, and arrived in New York in 1853. Four years later, he came by ship and across the Isthmus of Panama to San Francisco. After moving to several towns in California, he came to Los Angeles in 1869 and worked as a barkeeper at the Wine Room on Main Street. He participated in a meeting to establish the first fire department in L.A., and he became the assistant foreman. A year later, he took a job as a patrolman with the Police Department. Norton Stem and William Kramer (Southern California Quarterly, Summer, 1973) described the situation thus: “Los Angeles was a small town with a big underworld. The ‘Calle de los Negros’ area was the heartland of local vice. There was prostitution, gambling, and a number of low saloons, and frequent violence often culminating in homicide. Indians, Mexicans, Caucasians and Chinese met there in a kind of reservation of impropriety.” (Negro Alley was a term used by Anglos for the Hispanics whom they regarded as having swarthy complexions.)

Harris’s reputation as a lawman grew because of his involvement in two major incidents: the Chinese Massacre and the capture of the bandit Tiburcio Vasquez. The Chinese Massacre was a race riot triggered when Robert Thompson attempted to steal $7000 from a Chinese merchant. The merchant killed Thompson, and an angry mob then killed 20 Chinese and took $40,000 in a sacking of Chinatown. Harris tried to protect the Chinese from the mob. The Chinese community remembered Harris as their protector for years afterward. A short time later, a reward was offered for capturing Vasquez, a bandit known for many robberies and murders. The sheriff assembled a posse and deputized Harris, after hearing that Vasquez was at the ranch house of “Greek George” in Nichols Canyon (in West Hollywood). Harris shot at Vasquez, who was successfully captured.

Harris was frequently called on to help other agencies like the sheriff and the u.s. Marshall Service, due to his expertise as a detective. In 1871, there were six police officers in a town of 10,000. Harris knew every lawbreaker and developed a statewide reputation. He protected the downtown merchants, a large number of whom were Jewish.

German Jews and gentiles participated together in the social life of the town, and were active in civic leadership roles. Their Tum Verein opened a gymnasium with exercise programs for boys, a rifle club, and held grand balls and masquerades. Harris was the gymnastics instructor; his work with children was a “pioneer example of group work in the southland. It anticipated the boys’ club work of a later era” (History of the Jews of Los Angeles, Vorspan and Gartner, 1970). There was also a military and rifle division, with a shooting range in east Los Angeles. To accommodate the large crowds expected at rifle practices, trains on the East Los Angeles Street Railroad from downtown ran every half hour.

Jewish and gentile Germans were at the heart of the power structure of the city and formed the German American Elective Union in 1874. Harris ran for City Marshal (Chief of Police) but lost to the Latino candidate. He became deputy Sheriff, but three years later, the City Council, with Bernard Cohn as a Councilman, decided that the chief of Police would be appointed instead of elected. Emil Harris was appointed Police Chief at the age of 38.

Harris was regarded as a professional detective, using scientific and psychological methods to solve major cases such as robberies and murders. For a brief time, Los Angeles had both a Jewish mayor and police chief, when Bernard Cohn became mayor pro tem due to the death of the mayor. The political tide changed soon after, and Harris left the force in 1874. He became a private detective and worked on special cases for various agencies until 1918. His younger brother Max helped to establish the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in 1887. Harris died in 1921 and was buried at the Home of Peace cemetery.

The Economy of the 1880s and 1890s
The 1880s were boom years largely due to the competItIon between the Santa Fe Railroad and the Southern Pacific, which had come to L.A. in 1876. The cost of a ticket from Chicago decreased to as little as one dollar, bringing a flood of Easterners to California. Agriculture grew rapidly, especially the citrus industry and the production of wine. Many people began to come for health reasons. Advertising featured the benefits of the climate and a more relaxed way oflife. Hotels and boardinghouses quickly appeared, and housing developments proliferated. The real estate boom ended in 1888, but the population had increased by five times during the decade.

Asher Hamburger and his sons opened the People’s Store on Main Street, and after moving to several larger locations, it became Hamburger’s Department Store, on Broadway and 9th Streets in 1908, the city’s largest store. It was later sold and became the May Company. David Hamburger, an attorney educated at Harvard, came to L.A. to work in his father’s business in 1883. He believed that the city would expand to the west and south, so he invested in property. He was director of the Community Development Association, helping to build the Los Angeles Coliseum and donated the funding to build the Hamburger Home for working girls.

One new business was that of Morris Cohn, which in 1897 became the first textile manufacturer in town, making shirts and underwear. It was renamed Cohn-Goldwater after Lemuel Goldwater joined the firm in 1899. Its factory at 12th and San Julian Streets was the first modern factory in the city, and grew from 50 to 500 employees. The sportswear industry grew over time as California’s casual lifestyle became desirable to the rest of the county, and when Frederick Cole joined the company, it became Cole of California.

The nation-wide depression of 1893 affected everyone adversely and the Merchants Association needed to stimulate business. Max Mayberg was born in Frankfurt in 1850, and came to L.A. with his brother in 1875. They established the Crystal Palace, a crockery and glassware store, at Temple and Main. In 1894, Meyberg originated the idea of La Fiesta de Los Angeles to help the business community’s recovery and he became the Director of the event. The Fiesta was modeled on the Midwinter Fair in San Francisco, which had attracted foreign tourists who had come for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The Fiesta lasted for six days in April of 1895 and 1896. Plans included daily parades, a grand ball each evening, and a fleet of vehicles decorated with flowers. One of the most interesting parade exhibits was a paper dragon that was 200 feet long, imported from China, carried on the heads of forty Chinese. The fiesta attracted a large number of visitors and succeeded in its purpose to revive business.

In the 1890s, the arrival of large numbers of newcomers from the Midwest changed Los Angeles’ population from a mixture of foreign and ethnic groups to one dominated by a largely Protestant majority, thereby ending the congeniality of the pioneer days. Jews had been members of the exclusive social clubs of the city, but now they began to be excluded. They responded by incorporating their own Concordia Club in 1891 and later built an impressive clubhouse on Figueroa Street.

The first Jewish community newspaper, the B’nai B’rith Messenger, was founded by Lionel L. Edwards with Victor Harris as editor in 1897. The first permanent theatre orchestra in Los Angeles was organized in 1898 at the Orpheum Theatre by Abraham F. Frankenstein (1873-1934), who was its musical director for over thirty years.

Cemeteries and Synagogues
During the 1880s, attendance at the only synagogue in Los Angeles, congregation B’nai B’rith, had been declining. On Saturday mornings, it was sometimes without a minyan to conduct services. The members for the most part wanted a less Orthodox service. The High Holidays of 1884 were the last at which an Orthodox service was conducted. Rabbi Emanuel Schreiber of Denver was elected rabbi of Congregation B’nai B’rith in 1885 and was instrumental in effecting the congregation’s change from Orthodox to Reform.

By 1896, Congregation B’nai B’rith had outgrown its synagogue, and was replaced by a larger synagogue at 9th and Hope Streets. In the 1920s, B’nai B’rith moved to a third location at Wilshire and Hobart, and the congregation’s name was changed to Wilshire Blvd. Temple.

Led by Mrs. Maurice (Matilda) Kremer, the Jewish women of Los Angeles founded the Home of Peace Society in 1891 for the purpose of supervising the maintenance and beautification of the cemetery. The burial ground in Chavez Ravine was not very accessible, and oil wells and other industrial buildings had been built up around it. It was replaced in 1902 by Congregation B’nai B’rith’s Home of Peace Cemetery on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles. Remains from the old cemetery were moved to the new cemetery in 1910, and placed in the Benevolent section. A historical marker was erected on the site in Chavez Ravine, just south of Dodger Stadium, in 1968, after detailed research was done to determine the exact location by Norton Stem and Thomas Cohen. (“First Jewish Community Site Los Angeles, California 1855,” Western States Jewish History, Volume 1, Issue 3, April, 1969)

As Congregation B’nai B’rith became progressively more Reform, three newer groups held Orthodox services. They merged to become the Orthodox Beth Israel congregation. Its first synagogue, known as the “Olive Street Shul,” on Bunker Hill, was built in 1902. They purchased a cemetery adjoining the Home of Peace cemetery in 1906. Some remains of the old cemetery in Chavez Ravine were moved to Beth Israel Cemetery.

The Chevra Chesed Shel Emeth was organized in 1909, to provide “proper burial for orthodox Jews.” Their Mount Zion Cemetery adjoins the Home of Peace Memorial Park, and is now maintained by the Jewish Federation. Congregation Agudas Achim Anshi Sfard also organized in 1909 and changed its name to Congregation Agudas Achim in 1921. The Agudath Achim Cemetery also adjoins the Home of Peace Memorial Park.

Sinai Congregation arose from a conflict between Orthodox groups, breaking away from Beth Israel in 1906. It became the city’s first Conservative body. Their first synagogue was erected in 1909 at 12th and Valencia Streets; the second, built in 1926, at 4th and New Hampshire. Both buildings were designed by architect S. Tilden Norton. Both are used as churches today. The third Sinai Temple now stands on Wilshire Blvd. in Westwood.

Vorspan and Gartner, in their book History of the Jews of Los Angeles, noted that Los Angeles Jewry in the 19th Century was very much a family affair. The first families such as Newmark, Hellmen, Kremer, Cohn, Lazard, Edelman, Norton and others were linked together by marriage and business partnerships. As a small community, they could have blended in with the general population, but chose to establish a Jewish community in Los Angeles. Their one synagogue would become many in the next century, and their charitable organizations would grow into a federation of many groups. Eastern Europeans had begun to arrive near the end of this pioneer period and would influence Jewish Los Angeles as the 20th century progressed.

Sonia Hoffman served as President of JGSLA for four years and as Program Vice President, Secretary and Roots-Key Co-editor. She currently serves on the Board of Directors as Past President. She was coordinator for the JRI-Poland Bialystok indexing project and for the LitvakS1G vital record project for several towns in the Kaunas area. Sonia has researched her family in Ukraine and Poland She conducted many interviews with relatives and conducted family history research as Co-Editor of the Rostov-on-Don Cousins Newsletter and Family History Journal, and constructed a 50-foot wide photo family tree to display at family reunions.