"Los Angeles was more than a fresh start. It was a place that was home to a mosaic of peoples."


Bracha Schefres

schefresAfter a 20-year absence from formal education, Bracha Schefres returned to college. She plans to transfer to a Cal State to pursue a degree in Liberal Arts and earn a teacher’s credential. She has been an educator teaching Hebrew language and Jewish Studies in the elementary grades for more than 20 years. At her workplace, Bracha was recently moved to the position of School Librarian, requiring her to earn a secular teaching degree. Bracha is married with three children: Sarah, who recently graduated from UC Davis with a B.A. in Sociology and African Studies; Rivkah, who completed her first year at UC Berkeley in the school of Environmental Science and is pursuing a degree in Architecture; and Yaakov, who will be returning to Hamilton High School Humanities Magnet as a junior. She makes her home in west Los Angeles.

Writer’s Note: "Little Leah" is loosely based on my mother's journey from Rangoon, Burma (where she was born), to Los Angeles. She is a Sephardic Jew of Iraqi origin. Most Jews migrated to distant and diverse parts of the globe after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 AD, otherwise known as the Diaspora. For this reason, Jews have a variety of racial traits that do not always appear or classify them as "white" despite the common presumption thereby grouping them as Caucasian. Since Jews belong to many ethnic and racial groups, scholars continue to debate over the definition of the Jewish people; are we an ethnicity, race, culture or religion? Like Californians, Jews come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Like Californians, they traverse the political spectrum and can be conservative, liberal, religious, secular, gay or straight. Leah represents the many Jews and immigrants - of all types - who have made a home in California and contributed to its richly diverse society. Many Jews are driven by a guiding principle known as Tikkun Olam, Repairing the Universe. This became the basis for our social consciousness, participation in the Civil Rights Movement and the beginning of little Leah’s journey as a Californian.

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Little Leah

She did not know exactly why she came. But here she was. It was July 29, 1963, and Leah Solomon landed in Los Angeles, California. Leah was twenty-two years old when she left her parent’s home in England. But England was not her real home. After the war, her family was among the many Jews of Burma who moved to distant lands. Her family was one of the wealthy elites of Rangoon, where she was born. She was the youngest of twelve with long reddish brown hair, deep-set warm brown eyes and a shy smile. They had owned an ice factory in the tropics, and ice was the only way many had to keep food from spoiling – a highly valued commodity. They had to leave all that behind. England was not her home, but she was hoping that Los Angeles could someday be a new beginning. As Leah’s slender frame stepped onto the streets of Los Angeles, the sun and warmth reminded her of Rangoon.

Los Angeles was more than a fresh start. It was a place that was home to a mosaic of peoples. Leah was a refugee in England, a stranger who ran from a crumbling world. In Los Angeles she could lay claim to this jungle of asphalt and cement and plant a new beginning. Leah was awoken from her dream state by the bus as it pulled up. Its doors opened as if to welcome her to the land of dreams and money. She made her way to the back of the bus and sat next to an older woman. Her skin was a few shades darker than Leah’s olive completion; her nose a bit wider than the classic Iraqi features of Leah’s ancestors. Leah’s British citizenship in Burma made her almost an Englishman and certainly white among the native Burmese. Los Angeles could make her an American. Her parents had done much to protect her and keep her from the realities of the changing world. And now, they could do no more. It was time for little Leah to find a place for herself. She looked around at the different shades of people on the bus. She looked again to the woman sitting next to her, beyond the minor differences in their features. Leah’s features could not be classified as a particular race. She could pass for any number of ethnic groups. She could also pass as white. She was sent to the best of schools, Catholic schools – for there were no other choices for the well-to-do Jews of the Far East. She knew the Catholic Hymns, Latin, could quote verses from the great English writers and passages from the New and Old Testament. Each day she was dressed in her pinafore, her long hair twisted into two tightly woven braids and pinned up near her ears. Her doll-like appearance made her a favorite of her older siblings who shared the duty to raise her.   She was properly educated and carried herself with charm, grace and dignity. “How ridiculous” Leah thought to herself, “to characterize a person based on their looks”. The woman sitting next to her embraced a large package, perhaps her groceries. They exchanged a pleasant smile – the kind that demonstrates one’s well breeding but does not indicate a willingness to pursue a friendship. Leah took out a small folded paper that was carefully written in cursive. The well-rounded letters were carefully written, feminine, and almost childlike. It was directions to her brother’s house. Maurice was twenty years her senior, and in many ways he was more of a father to her than a brother. Living with her brother was the only way to convince her parents to let Leah immigrate to the United States.

Leah walked two blocks to her brother’s house. It was a modest house with a trimmed hedge that escorted the visitor as he made his way along the path to the raised porch. Smaller in size than the home Leah left behind in Burma, but significantly larger than the tiny flat she had shared with her parents and unmarried siblings in London. Maurice had been doing well in the States working hard and building his fortune. It appeared to Leah as she walked up to the doorway looking into the porch that was lined with potted plants of California succulents that Maurice was living the American Dream. The door opened and a woman’s silhouette appeared behind the outer screen door. Her sister-in-law, Hilda, stepped onto the porch and greeted Leah with a warm embrace.

     “Leah janee, how was your flight? Did you manage well on the bus? I’m sorry Nuri was not able to meet you at the airport. He’s in India, dear. Work, you know. The office is always having your brother flying off to one part of the world or another. Rachel will be so pleased to see you. She is so fond of you, and you were such good playmates when you were younger.”

The endearing Hindustani term, janee, reminded Leah of her mother. Hilda was a petite woman, nearly five feet tall. She had classic features and powder white skin. Her voice was high pitched and spoke in a sing-song type of way. She had been raised in India and moved to Rangoon when her mother died of consumption. Her father was an alcoholic, and she was raised by her older sister, Charmou until she married Maurice when she was only sixteen. Nuri was short for Maurice’s Hebrew name, Nuriel, who was an angel from Jewish mystical teachings. Nuri wasn’t attached to the customs of his people the way his parents would have liked, but he went by his Hebrew name and it brought some comfort to them. Her exceptional beauty and Anglo-English features was just the match his parents wanted. Hilda could give him a Jewish home and raise Jewish children. It didn’t matter to them that he did not love her. Hilda was grateful to marry into a prominent family, and that would be enough. Hilda would often ramble on when she was nervous. Leah tried to reply, but she was interrupted with more of Hilda’s questions.

     “Leah janee, you must be quite hungry. I have some nice pulao and daal.”

The familiar rice and lentil dish from her home would be comforting to the weary Leah.

     “That would be lovely, Auntie Hilda,” Leah replied to her sister-in–law, using the respectful term of "auntie."

     “How long will Nuri be away?” Leah asked of her brother.

Hilda began to ramble again. She said something about a flooded bridge and changed the subject to Rachel. She knew of Nuri’s long and frequent trips to the Far East; everyone knew. She ignored the comments made by her tight-knit community, although she knew the truth. Leah only suspected her brother of his behavior. It was not unlike many of the Jewish boys to be seduced by the Burmese women.

Leah’s mind began to wander as she thought, “What could these women give Nuri that Hilda could not? Why are our boys so eager to leave us?” She was awoken with more of Hilda’s questions.

     “How long has it been since you’ve seen Rachel? You know she is graduating high school next year. But I don’t think she will make it to June. She’s met this boy, Mickey. Nice boy- working on editing film for the studios. I think he will ask her to marry him.”

     “I have an interview with the State of California Attorney General’s Office tomorrow morning. I have been studying shorthand and think I can make a go of it.”

     “Lovely, dear.”

Hilda’s voice trailed off as if she was no longer in Los Angeles. Hilda was back in Calcutta. She imagined herself the new bride making her first home. Hilda would soon learn that the wife of a civil engineer would lead her to travel the new bridges and roads of developing worlds. She had decided that Los Angeles would be her last stop. Hilda and Nuri had moved apart from each other so much that Hilda became devoted to her children. She had everything: a fine home, comfortable life, and beautiful children. Hilda resigned herself to believe that would be enough.

The next morning Leah rode the bus downtown. Living in London prepared her for the experience of city life, but she was not prepared for what she was about to see. She had heard of the racial problems of the American South on the news. Barely an evening would go by where she wouldn’t see a demonstration or police brutality towards Southern blacks on the television set. But she had thought that the racial divide was restricted to the Deep South, Los Angeles was a shining beacon of equality that stood as a lighthouse along the Golden Coast. Leah made her way downtown on the bus; it stopped, letting on more passengers. The bus was filling up with men and women making their way to work, and a young black man found a seat next to a white woman. She looked at him, got up from her seat and stood at the front of the bus for the remainder of her journey. Leah was shocked, and a new purpose grew within her. As she made her way up to the Attorney General’s Office, she knew why she came to the States.

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