Remembering ‘the last Jewish man of Boyle Heights’
It took Eddie Goldstein’s dying for me to finally wear a yarmulke. Grateful for a bobby pin, I somehow kept it from slipping off as I scribbled on a notebook in a funeral chapel at a Jewish cemetery in Boyle Heights.
Three days before, I had gotten an email from one of his granddaughters.
“It is with a heavy heart that I email you to inform you that my grandpa (the last Jewish man of Boyle Heights) has passed today,” Crystal Vargas wrote.
One of his brothers showed up at the chapel on Wednesday morning, along with two Jewish nieces and a nephew. But the rest of the pews were filled by Mexican American children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, not to mention Mexican American neighbors on Folsom Street who considered the Santa Claus-like Goldstein “the Grandfather of the Neighborhood.”
In the early 1960s, he fell in love with and married Esther Guzman, who had three children from a previous marriage and four adopted children. He had a Jewish son, Eddie Jr., from a previous relationship.
By blood, his Mexican American family was not his kin. But that was only a technicality. They were the closest people he had. He had 35 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One of them, Elizabeth Castillos, 43, related their favorite stories — how he warmed a Catholic school uniform on the oven, how he constantly tried to feed them.
“I’m sorry, mi hija, for making you guys chubby,” Castillos recalled him saying. “But I love your chubby faces.”
Eddie was 79, and as far as I could tell, he was indeed the last Jewish person in Boyle Heights who was born there and never left. But I had no way of knowing for sure when I wrote a front page article about him in 2009. Eddie had seen most of the other Jewish people leave, as well as the Japanese, Italians and other groups who had once helped make this working-class Eastside neighborhood Los Angeles’ true melting pot.
L.A. has a reputation for being a melting pot today, and in a broad sense, it is. But when you bear down a little, you realize how homogenous some neighborhoods are, or have become. That was certainly true of Boyle Heights when I was born there 40 years after Eddie.
Though I went to grade school just a block from Goldstein’s Folsom Street home, and even went to Roosevelt High as he did, I grew up in a very different place. Nearly everyone I knew was like me: not just Latino, but Mexican American or Mexican.
Later, when I went to college and was exposed to more diversity, and when I eventually married a Chinese woman, I reflected more on what ethnicity really means. Eddie’s life reinforced to me how flimsy racial and ethnic constructs could be, especially when love is involved.
I had been looking for years for a Jewish man still living in Boyle Heights when I finally met him. Eddie Goldstein, a Jewish guy with a distinctly Mexican American accent. He was a remarkably humble man, a retired meatpacker. He showed me a picture of one of his granddaughters. “That’s my prieta, my Barbara,” he said tenderly, using the Spanish word for a brown-skinned girl.
When Esther died eight years ago, he buried her at the Home of Peace Cemetery — the Jewish cemetery that would be his resting place too — with an inscription that read: “My Wife the Love of My Life, Our Love is Forever My Love.” He preserved a shrine to his wife with candles and a statue of St. Anthony holding the baby Jesus; rosary beads were draped around the shoulders of a Sacred Heart of Jesus statue. Although he was not a devoutly religious Jew, Goldstein did this mostly to honor family members and friends who had been Catholic. He accompanied his wife in church, but culturally hewed to many Jewish traditions, often with his wife’s prodding.
He kept a yarmulke in the trunk of his prized Cadillac, which he called his “black beauty.” Soon after the article ran, a young rabbi, Moshe Levin, sought out Eddie and performed his bar mitzvah.
“The bar mitzvah was not a conventional one with music, photographers and wet smooches from aunts and uncles to the young bar mitzvah boy,” Levin said. But Eddie was proud.
Eddie missed the days when his home was filled not only by the presence of his wife but also his children and grandchildren. I’d call his home now and then, and not get an answer. I’d drive to his house, worried he had died.
Of course he’d be alive and proceed to apologize. He’d get into these moods, Eddie told me, and channeling his inner Jewish mother, would unhook his phone, thinking that maybe his children would show up “to see if I was lying on the floor or something.”
It seemed to work.
Last year I was driving down Folsom Street when I saw Eddie sitting on his porch. We chatted for the last time. He caught pneumonia and was taken to a hospital on New Year’s Eve. He died Jan. 5.
Though it wasn’t a Jewish tradition, the family had a simple wake and viewing for him the night before his funeral at a mortuary. The place was filled. Even a neighborhood pharmacist showed up. The men wore white guayaberas, which to Eddie constituted “fancy shirts.” The women dressed in red, his favorite color.
To his regret, he told me, Eddie never cultivated a strong bond with his biological son, but Eddie Jr. also showed up to see his father one last time.
As I sat on a bench in the chapel one day later, I couldn’t help but be struck by the scene. Maybe only in a city like L.A. could you see this: a Jewish man, about to be buried next to his Mexican American wife in a Jewish cemetery by his large Mexican American brood.
Before the pallbearers helped carry his casket to its final resting spot, the rabbi presiding over the services tried to capture in one word what Eddie Goldstein was: “A mensch,” he said.
That sounded about right.
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