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Behind the Headlines: Aging Jewish Radicals Ban Together As They Proudly ‘still Make Trouble’

August 8, 1994
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Here’s what’s been happening during the last few months at Sunset Hall, a retirement home for 31 men and women, average age in their early 80s:

A forum on human rights in Burma; a petition drive demanding an end to the economic blockade of Cuba; a session for lobbying legislators to support a single payer health care plan; a hootenanny featuring the songs of Paul Robe-son; and, of course, the annual social highlight, the May Day garden party, this year featuring Carl Reiner as special guest.

In the parking lot outside, bumper stickers bloom, proclaiming “Human Need, Not Corporate Greed” and “Support KPFK,” a left-leaning FM radio station.

Sunset Hall bills itself as a “residence for free-thinking elders” who honor “humanistic values and liberal religion.”

It is believed to be the only place of its kind in the United States, if not the world.

The two-story building is in Spanish/California-style, surrounding a sunny inner courtyard with a goldfish pond, blooming jacaranda trees, and a rose bush planted in honor of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Once the house on Francis Avenue, on the western edge of downtown Los Angeles, was part of a fashionable neighborhood.

Now the street is populated mainly by immigrants from Central America, with a growing number of Koreans and pockets of black and white residents.

Three-quarters of Sunset Hall’s residents are Jewish, but don’t look for nice little old ladies kvelling over their great-grandchildren, playing bingo, expressing gratitude for the kindness of benefactors, and scrounging pennies to plant trees in Israel.

If the campus war protesters and free speech militants of the 1960s have mellowed into corporate lawyers and vaguely liberal suburban barbecuers, the residents of Sunset Hall are of a different breed and time.


They are the activists of the 1920s and ’30s, many born in Eastern Europe, who organized the garment and office workers in New York, marched for Negro rights and against Franco in Spain, got their heads bloodied on picket lines, joined the young Communists and Socialists, and filled the dossiers of the FBI and the Un-American Activities committees.

Now ranging in age from 68 to 97, white-haired, some using walkers and canes, the very picture of bubbes and zaydes, these folks bear their scars with the pride of old soldiers.

They regret nothing, they know what’s going on in the world, and they look at events through the ideological prism shaped in their younger years.

The genesis of Sunset Hall goes back to 1923, when the Women’s Alliance of the First Unitarian Church decided to establish a home for “aging liberals.”

One of the residents, Ethel Himelstein, 94, recalls that her father deserted the Czar’s army to escape a death sentence for passing out revolutionary propaganda.

“I was born in a forest near Minsk, that’s why I’m so wild,” she affirms proudly.

In 1906, the family came to America and settled in a New York Lower East Side tenement, “where the toilet was in the hallway, that sort of thing.”

During the McCarthy era, her Kiev-born husband was threatened with deportation, after “a paid stool pigeon denounced him,” she declares with some heat.

In 1967, she visited the Soviet Union, and “was never so thrilled in my life.”

As some old-timers will finger their faded high school graduation photo, Philip Kaufman, 89, produces a clipping from The Daily Worker of May 8, 1930. Under the headline “Assaulted at Stamford (Conn.) May Day Demonstration, Then Beaten In Jail,” a photo shows two rows of solemn men, most with head bandages.

The rather dashing looking young man standing second from right, also bandaged, is identified as Phil Kaufman.

Elaine Holtz is 80, a native New Yorker, whose parents were supporters of Socialist leader Eugene Debs.

“All my life I have been progressive and radical,” she says, and a companion interjects, “When she was born, her mother said ‘March.'”


The talk turns to children and grandchildren. While more conventional elders boast of the academic or financial successes of their progeny, the residents here take pride that their offspring are secular Jews and committed liberals, “though not as radical as we were,” they say.

After lifetimes of strife and struggle, the people of Sunset Hall show no inclination to go gentle into that good night, in body or spirit.

For the body, there are daily exercise and intermittent Tai Chi sessions. The bus of the Baptist Church stops by regularly to take residents swimming at the YMCA. A three-block walk to the public library stretches aging legs.

But it is through the need to pass on some of their legacy and knowledge, to be yet of some use to those who struggle, that the Sunset Hall residents break through the isolation that walls off many other retirement communities.

There are frequent visits by students, from grade schools to universities. One doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa is researching the history of Sunset Hall. Another is writing a dissertation on the views of progressive elders on death and dying.

And if the residents can no longer change society and the world, they can still have an impact on their own neighborhood.

Five houses down is an elementary school, and the Hispanic and Korean kids — and their parents — drop in for lessons in conversational English. Other times, the youngsters come over to listen to concerts and musical performances.

Admittedly, the neighbors can be very noisy at times, but Kaufman bristles at the suggestion that he may be living in a rundown neighborhood.

“There are no good neighborhoods,” he declares emphatically. “Look at O.J. Simpson and Brentwood.”

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