By Marty Liboff
My mother, Ruthie began managing a Jewish bakery on the oceanfront in 1951. It was two blocks north of Venice in old Ocean Park. Ocean Park in the 1950s was predominately a poor, older Jewish community with beautiful turn of the last century buildings. In 1959 the city decided to redevelop old Ocean Park and they began forcing all the old time residents out so they could demolish it for new high rises. We were lucky and found an old house a couple of blocks away. The bakery moved in 1959 to the Venice Ocean Front Walk on Dudley Ave. where the Titanic is today, in the Cadillac Hotel building. A few steps away on Dudley, the Venice West Cafe opened in 1962. It was run by John Haag and his wonderful baleboosteh* wife, Anna. The Venice West Cafe was a cool hangout where weird, wild beatniks with scraggy beards and wild eyes would rant like crazy poetry. John and Anna were the honorary king and queen of Venice and they helped found the Peace and Freedom Party and the Beachhead newspaper. They were great friends of my mom and hung out at the bakery quite often. If John and Anna were the unofficial king and queen of Venice, Ruthie was the mayor. Back then, Venice was even poorer than old Ocean Park. There was an amazing mix of old Jews, hippies, bums, gonifs*, assorted nuts, homeless and druggies. There was also a poor black neighborhood, da hood, nearby.
Ruthie made the bakery the cultural center of Venice, especially after the Venice West Cafe closed. She managed the bakery through four decades and four different owners. For 15 cents you could get a cup of coffee and a day-old bagel with a lively kibbitz* about politics, TV, drugs, race, the war, and the rising cost of cookie dough. If you were broke, she would give you a couple bucks, and load you up with day-old bread and broken cookies. She would even feed the hungry dogs and pigeons. Ruthie made sure that nobody starved on the beach. I remember many great stories around the bakery. Here is one…
In 1965, I was about 17 years old when the Watts riots broke out. The TV was warning everyone to stay home, especially at night. That evening, after my mom heard the news, she said to me, “Let’s take a walk to check and see if the bakery is O.K.” She didn’t even own the shop, and to risk our lives for a few onion rolls seemed silly to me. I argued and pleaded, but Ruthie just put on her sweater and said, “If you’re too chicken, I’ll go myself!” Well, this tiny woman, all of five feet, calling me “chicken” got me going, and so out we went walking into the night.
Venice looked like a wild party of crazed Somali pirates. Some stores had broken windows, and a few black men taunted us. Some were very drunk. I was ready to wet my pants, and I begged my mom to turn back and go home, but Ruthie just kept marching onward to the bakery. She opened up the bakery door and began giving away the food. I stupidly hung up a sign saying, “Please don’t break in.”
As we were about to leave, four huge threatening men carrying pipes and baseball bats blocked our path. I nearly pooped in my underpants! Ruthie stepped up and said, “You guys know me. I’ve been here for years helping you guys.” A giant of a man with a crowbar came over and put his arms around Ruthie and said, “Ruthie, we all love you. Don’t you worry, we’ll make sure nothing happens to the bakery.”
The next day we walked back to the bakery. The Jewish market and deli and all the shops were smashed and looted. Men were roasting sides of beef over trash cans that were taken from the kosher butcher, while grumbling to us, “What did that damn butcher do with all the pork chops?”. The only shop not broken into was the bakery…
Above: Ruthie in the bakery, by the bread cutter, circa 1961
By Marty Liboff