Eddie Goldstein holds a photo of his late wife, Esther. They were married 50 years and raised their kids, including Art Perez, center, and Steven Goldstein, on Folsom Street. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times / November 19, 2009)

The old man with the Santa Claus beard pulled a black yarmulke from the trunk of his Cadillac and limped across the street.

Hundreds of people had gathered outside an old synagogue in Boyle Heights for a program that looked back at the days when the neighborhood -- now overwhelmingly Latino and Catholic -- was the center of Jewish life in Los Angeles.

Leaning heavily on a cane, Eddie Goldstein, 76, wandered aimlessly, as if lost in thought. Finding a friend, he locked arms with her and walked into the long-shuttered Breed Street Shul. Eyes wide, Goldstein marveled at the faded grandeur of the building, which preservationists plan to turn into a community center.

Almost every other Jewish person there had come from miles away for the festival, which included music, food, a tour of the shul and a speech by the mayor. Goldstein had come from his home around the corner. Among his fellow Jews, he was a stranger.

As a boy, Goldstein worked at a kosher poultry shop where a rabbi wielded a razor-sharp blade to slit the throats of chickens before bleeding them upside-down. He remembers struggling to learn Hebrew and watching groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews, including rabbis and young rabbis in training, walk the streets of his native neighborhood in their black garb.

Then the Jewish families left. Jewish merchants on Brooklyn Avenue were slowly replaced by taquerias, quinceañera shops and botanicas. Eventually, the street itself was given a new name -- Cesar Chavez Avenue.

But Goldstein stayed. And in staying, he changed.

He married a Mexican American woman and became a father figure to her children. Every Sunday, he went to Mass with his Esther. She, in turn, kept him connected to the Jewish side of his life.

Faith had never been that important to Goldstein. It was Esther who pushed him to light yahrzeit candles in memory of loved ones, who reminded him when the High Holidays were approaching.

"She kept me more in my faith than I did," said Goldstein, one of the last Jews in Boyle Heights. "She reminded me that I'm Jewish."

Every year at Passover the family gathered at the home on Folsom Street. They would go to farmers markets to find the right ingredients -- chicken fat, fresh horseradish and jars of gefilte fish. Goldstein would make matzo and eggs and mix sour cream with grated beet juice. His children added salsa.

If Los Angeles ever had a melting pot, it was Boyle Heights in the first half of the 20th century. The neighborhood just east of downtown was home to Italians, Armenians, Russians, Japanese and Mexican Americans. It also had the largest concentration of Jews in the United States outside New York.

Like the cast of an "Our Gang" short, Goldstein's friends in the 1930s and 1940s spanned the ethnicities.

"We were a League of Nations!" recalls his longtime friend, Art Manassian, now 78, and one of the neighborhood's few remaining Armenian Americans.

As a boy, Goldstein worked at the National Theater on Brooklyn Avenue, which was called the "polly seed house" because of the abundance of sunflower seeds discarded on the floor. As a teenager, Goldstein worked in the rubbish business for Manassian's father, driving all over the city to collect paper, metal and cardboard for recycling. He went to Roosevelt High School but never graduated and later became a meatpacker.

His mother and father, who divorced when he was 6, were not devout, but his grandmother was. On Jewish holidays, Goldstein would stand outside the Breed Street Shul and watch girls go in for services, but he rarely stepped inside. He tried to study the Torah for his bar mitzvah with other boys but didn't get very far, he said.

"My other friends were reading in that Jewish style, swaying back and forth," he said. "I couldn't even get that rhythm. I said, 'You know, I can't do this.' "

After World War II, the gradual decline of the Jewish community in Boyle Heights accelerated. Many of Goldstein's friends could afford homes in North Hollywood, Pico-Robertson, the Fairfax district and other new centers of Jewish life in Los Angeles.

"The Jewish guys that I knew, a lot of them became wealthy. Guys I grew up with, some of them became millionaires on the Westside of town, or wherever millionaires live," he said. "I was a meatpacker."