East Side Jews enact do-it-yourself Judaism

They call themselves “East Side Jews,” this group of young (and young-ish) artists, writers and self-proclaimed hipsters who crave Jewish community and culture; maybe the occasional, spiced-up Jewish ritual; but not necessarily a Torah service — or a rabbi.

On the Shabbat after Rosh Hashanah, about 100 East Side Jews gathered alongside the Los Angeles river for a mod, urban, earnest version of tashlich.

The event began with meditation. In the Elysian Valley’s Marsh Park, a lawn full of picnicking Jews sat on blankets, in lotus pose, still as stones in the breeze. “Are we here? Are we really here?” a voice whispered into a microphone. “Are your phones in your cars, like they’re supposed to be?” It was Shabbat, after all, so if the concept of halachah didn’t hold much sway in this crowd, scare tactics were a good bet.

“Your phones are drug delivery systems,” the voice continued. “We all have ways of administering amounts of serotonin, but tonight you’ll have to take part in a longer-acting, more-subtle drug — and that is community.”

While the bit felt a little touchy-feely, more new-agey than ancient tradition, the strangest part about this Judaized Buddhist ritual was that everybody was doing it. Even Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, went all Zen-like with his eyes closed. After two full days of shul for some, and no shul at all for others, here was a group of Jews searching for their slice of Heschel’s cathedral in time.

Dubbed “Down by the River,” the event roughly marked the East Side Jews’ first anniversary. Created by a cohort of Reboot graduates, many of them members of IKAR, the founders sought a more localized, experimental way of celebrating their Judaism and connecting to community. Jill Soloway, a television writer and producer of the shows “Six Feet Under” and “United States of Tara,” has led the charge, using her penchant for partying and her background in theater to produce events that the screenwriter Micah Fitzerman-Blue calls a “freaky, experimental, post-denominational, re-exploration of ritual form.”

Here’s a smattering of what that means: They held a Havdalah event called “Sacred/Profane” at Spice Station Silverlake, where they dunked homemade french fries in turmeric and curry, drank beer and listened to the Jewish adult-film actress Nina Hartley lecture on “Sacred Sensuality” (even though, technically, that was the profane part). Another time, they celebrated Rosh Hodesh on the rooftop of the Wi Spa, calling it “Once in a Jew Moon,”  during which men and women made their way through an Asian-style mikveh and, afterward, gathered under the open sky for Torah study with Rabbi Sharon Brous.

“Stupid Questions” was a midsummer gathering at the Cowboys &  Turbans restaurant, where between ethnic food and alcohol, they talked topical issues with stand-up comedian Moshe Kasher, Rabbi Mordecai Finley and Najeeba-Syeed Miller, a Muslim scholar from the Claremont School of Theology. 

“We want to see ourselves as the new hub of a resurgent Jewish community on the East Side,” Fitzerman-Blue, 29 and the son of a conservative rabbi from Tulsa, Okla., said. Before East Side Jews, “there really wasn’t anything happening on the East Side that combined the cultural experience that I wanted with the religious affiliation; there wasn’t anything fun to do for a young person without kids who wanted to go be Jewish. And I sure as s—- didn’t want to start a synagogue.”

At least once each month, East Side Jews designs an event around a Jewish holiday, ritual or just plain social activity, giving the gathering an irreverent, artsy and enterprising spin. At last year’s “Down to the River” event, they invited Amichai Lau-Lavie, creator of “Storahtelling,” to entertain them with his theatrical interpretations of Judaic literature. This year, for their spiritual meat, they opted for “flash-mob rabbi,” whereby six people were pre-selected to share stories, poetry and personalized prayers. Fitzerman-Blue wrote a variation on Vidui, the Jewish confessional prayer that is recited aloud on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and, traditionally, just before a person dies. His “Los Angeles Vidui” channeled the humor of a modern, urban crowd (“We cut off that woman in the Trader Joe’s parking lot and flipped off her Ivanhoe honors students in the back seat”), as well as the solemnity of the High Holy Days (“We are so afraid of a moment of sincerity or genuine feeling that we swaddle ourselves in sarcasm”).

East Side Jews like their Judaism — just not too much of it.

“We’re play-acting our own D-I-Y version of a synagogue,” Soloway said. “But without walls; without that wall where everybody, like, donates money and then they have their name up in gold. You know that feeling in a synagogue where people walk in and they feel like, ‘I don’t belong; I don’t have enough money, I don’t know what page we’re on in the prayerbook, I don’t know if I should be sitting or standing …’? There is that feeling in temple, and I think it keeps a lot of people away. And this is something else.”

Though East Side Jews doesn’t keep strict tabs on things like numbers, demographics or even a budget (“We don’t really need any money — most events break even”) Soloway estimates that its core constituency is between ages 18 and 45, and that anywhere from 50 to 150 people show up at each event. While some East Side Jews are affiliated with congregations, particularly IKAR and Temple Israel of Hollywood, many others were previously disaffected from Jewish life entirely. In fact, Soloway opined, the kind of people attracted to East Side Jews are more likely to rebel against things like tradition and religion then partake of them.

Vince Beiser, a journalist who has written for Wired, The Atlantic and The New Republic, counts himself in this group. “I’m not a very synagogue-y Jew, I’m not a Federation-y Jew, I don’t have a lot of money, I’m not plugged into that whole world of machers and group trips to Israel, but I have a very strong Jewish identity,” he said.

Such self-definition is common among this mix. “These are people who have a strong Jewish identity and want to feel connected with Judaism in a way that doesn’t feel overtly traditional or overtly religious,” Soloway said. “It has to feel spiritual instead of religious, cultural instead of traditional.”

Innovative, edgy, artsy, progressive, even a bit weird.

These contemporary buzzwords are music to the ears of some Jewish leaders who desperately want to bring unaffiliated Jews back into the fold. 

“We have a major communal issue,” Federation chief Sanderson said during a phone interview. “Which is that most young Jews are not connecting to traditional Jewish institutions — they’re opting out of Jewish life. So one of our top priorities is to figure out a way to engage young people in that age range, and what East Side Jews is doing is pretty cutting-edge.”

So far, Federation has provided East Side Jews with a small grant, funneled to the organization through one of its unofficial partners, the Silverlake Independent JCC, because East Side Jews does not have nonprofit status. Soloway and Sanderson have been talking about ways to grow the organization and move it forward, with Sanderson promising to do “significant things with significant resources.”

The cultural, creative and artistic vibe is so appealing that, in some ways, it could be seen as a threat to certain aspects of Jewish tradition. Who needs synagogue worship when you can meditate in a park? But, on the other hand, what happens when these Jews reconnect with their Judaism and then desire something deeper and more meaningful than French fries and a porn star? Will flash-mob rabbi still satisfy sophisticated intellects that might do well with a piece of Talmud?

“This isn’t going to speak to everybody,” Brous said of some of the community’s offbeat choices. “What they’re doing is providing some good Jewish content to people who didn’t necessarily know they were looking for it, in a way that is not only palatable, but really exciting and interesting. Whether that can sustain itself over a lifetime, I have no idea.”

Put another way, “The downside of East Side Jews and a lot of modern, half-secular takes on Judaism is that they run the risk of being, like, a bunch of Jews getting together and doing whatever they feel like doing, and calling it Judaism,” Beiser said.

The big question — or perhaps the big hope — is that at some point the Jewish learning handed down secondhand will create a longing for the real thing.

“The best thing that can happen, from my standpoint, is that more and more Jews get involved in a way that feels authentic and interesting to them, and then they’re driven to ask questions about a deeper Jewish engagement,” Brous said.

“I think, if anything, it’s going to drive more people to counter-institutional places like IKAR, because once people start to wake up Jewishly, they start to say, ‘Well, where do I go for more?’”