Honey Visits The First Jewish Cemetery In Los Angeles

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July 1, 2011 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 

By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)

I didn’t really visit the first Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles. Sue Borden (Sue and Ron Emler co-authored The Ghosts of Edendale) took me there today, and I looked at the State Historic Marker that memorializes what used to be there. The cemetery itself isn’t there anymore. It hasn’t been there since 1905.

Sue, Mary, Barbara and Barbara’s little dog Alice and I walked there this morning before it got too hot. The location doesn’t look a lot like how it looked in the 1850s. A little bit. The downtown is still in the same place but it’s spread out a lot, and the buildings are a lot bigger. In Sue’s photos, you can see bits of what were Ft. Moore hill and Bunker Hill, but those had not been developed in the 1850s. If there were any trees, someone visiting the cemetery in the 1850s could not have seen the tiny flat Mexican town located mostly around the plaza. City Hall wasn’t to be built until 1928. No buildings would have stuck up high enough to see from the cemetery and Ft. Moore Hill and Bunker Hill would have had cows grazing on them.

Sue Borden snapped these pictures of the historic marker and the view of the city from nearby.

Nearby is Chinatown, but that was Sonora Town in the 1850s, and China Town was where Union Station is now, off what the Americans called “Nigger Alley.”

The fire department training center below the marker – the building started out as a naval and marine training center in the 1930s – wasn’t there, of course. Someone, maybe the City, leveled a hill to make a parking lot after the 1950s.

The marker is near Dodger Stadium, at the back end – once the front entrance – of the building that had been the largest enclosed open space without columns in the world, the marine and naval training center, now the fire department training center.

The housing of all of those sailors and marines at the training center right next to Chavez Ravine led, (along with incredible stupidity, cruelty and racism) to the Zoot Suit Riots. Los Angeles is a palimpsest in the older parts, and that is another story than the one I started out telling.

Sue’s photograph of downtown — taken a couple of yards from the historic marker — gives a sense of how jumbled together the city’s history is and how small this vast city can seem to be. The story of the Newmark family, the B’nai B’rith Congregation, and the Hebrew Benevolent Society is part of the jumble.

Historians of Los Angeles depend on Harris Newmark’s Sixty Years in Southern California: 1853-1913 (Published in 1926) to explain this city’s early commercial growth. Harris Newmark knew everyone. He knew Prudent Beaudry — at one time a Los Angeles mayor who developed Bunker Hill and owned the first private water companies in Los Angeles. Beaudry attempted to drive the Jews from Los Angeles, Harris Newmark among them. Newmark knew J. W. Robinson. He knew George W. Ralph, a bricklayer who created a chain of grocery stores. He knew William Mulholland.

Newmark arrived in Los Angeles as a nineteen-year old boy to work in his brother’s store. A few years later, his cousin Sara arrived to marry him. She looked around her and famously said, “Where is the city?” She wasn’t sarcastic. She really was looking for the city. Los Angeles was not a city yet in the 1850s: it was a collection of adobes, a plaza, a zanja system of water delivery in ditches, a lot of horses, probably some cows, quite a bit of agriculture, lots of fruit trees and vineyards.

He spoke Spanish and Swedish and learned Spanish on his way to Los Angeles. He learned Chinese after he got here. Spanish was still the language of the majority, and he did a lot of business with the Chinese settlers. He had no interest whatsoever in participating in any of the bigotry of some other new and old Americans who immigrated to Los Angeles: you didn’t make money as easily in those days if you looked down on other people. Harris Newmark made a lot of money.

Newmark helped found the Los Angeles Public Library. He was one of the first members of the Chamber of Commerce. He was the President of Congregation B’nai B’rith. His wife Sara was a leader in the women’s auxiliary. He helped establish the Southwest Museum.

On July 8, 1854, the Los Angeles Star/Estrella reported:

“The Israelites of this city formed themselves into a society under the name of the Hebrew Benevolent Society. At a meeting held on the 2d inst. the following gentlemen were elected officers of the Society : S. K. Labatt, president; Chas. Shachno, vice-president; Jacob Elias, secretary and treasurer; S. Lazard and H. Goldberg, trustees.”

Solomon N. Carvalho accompanied John Fremont to California, working as an artist. He joined the Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1854.

Harris Newmark’s uncle/father-in-law joined in 1855.

The Society’s incorporation purpose was to create a cemetery for Jewish people.

The City sold the land “North 84 degrees West two hundred yards thence North 42 degrees East seventy-five yards, thence South 48 degrees East two hundred yards, thence South 42 degrees West seventy-five yards… as a burying ground for the Israelites forever” for one dollar.

The first burial was in 1858.

In 1862, Harris Newmark’s brother father-in-law/uncle was the founding president of Congregation B’nai B’rith, Its members remained Orthodox out of respect for him until he died.

In1901, congregation president Kaspare Cohn donated 30 acres of land in East Los Angeles to replace the cemetery established nearly 50 years earlier. Over the next eight years, remains and stones are transferred from Chavez Ravine to the new Home of Peace Memorial Park.

By 1902, there had been over 360 burials. Markers and monuments of various kinds were used to locate the graves. Generally slabs of white marble, one to two inches thick were used. Old photographs reveal that some wooden markers were used.

By 1905, the City wanted to use the land as a “pest house,” which was a place for people with communicable diseases like tuberculosis, cholera and smallpox were quarantined. Cities often located pest houses near cemeteries so the dead could be moved to their graves without infecting others.

It’s interesting to me that Barlow Hospital started in 1901 as a tuberculosis hospital, within walking distance of the State Historic Marker for the first Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles.

The cemetery, and many of the markers, moved to the Home of Peace Cemetery on Whittier Boulevard. The Congregation B’nai B’rith, known now as the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, still owns it.

The first B’nai B’rith Congregation’s first temple was on Fort Street, now Broadway, between Second and Third Street. — Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple, about 1935, at the height of the Great Depression. — Courtesty Los Angeles Public Library.

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