Up a Tree Looking for a Home

My family and I are eager to move to Los Angeles from Seattle, but I’ve got a problem: We are Orthodox and we like trees.

Lately, I have been trying to figure out why it is that religious Jewish neighborhoods have to be so much grayer, less green and appealing than other Jewish habitats where more secular folk dwell.

I grew up in the Los Angeles area, on the splendidly pretty Palos Verdes Peninsula, where trees and horses and raccoons and skunks seemed to outnumber the people. A few years ago, I transplanted from Manhattan to inescapably green Washington state. But Jewish life in Los Angeles is livelier than in Seattle, so we’d like to relocate.

But to where in Los Angeles, exactly? A frustration of religious observance, among many satisfactions, if you have known the secular life as I have, is that while the people are lovely, Orthodox neighborhoods tend to be not only expensive but gritty in a bland way and treeless.

The quintessential frum ‘hood is Boro Park — ironically named, because there is no park. Few trees grow in that part of Brooklyn.

So let’s get down to it: I am talking here about Pico-Robertson, which would be logical for a modern Orthodox family like us. Recently, we spent a couple of Shabbats in Los Angeles investigating the Jewish areas. There’s Hancock Park, where we stayed with friends on Las Palmas Avenue and admired the gracious, sycamore-draped 1920s homes — one of the most attractive Orthodox neighborhoods I’ve seen, wildly beyond the means of a writer like me.

We even checked out the lone Orthodox outpost in Palos Verdes, a Chabad needless to say, a frum Fort Apache identified by a small sign in an office window over a 7-Eleven. So we were left with Pico-Robertson, where the people are Grade A, the surroundings a C-minus unless you love concrete and undistinguished cracker-box apartment buildings.

Recently, an outfit called Pico Revitalization Project hung some handsome-looking banners from the lampposts between Ogden Street and La Brea Avenue, promising "A NEW LIFE FOR PICO" by means of spiffing up the nondescript storefronts. Pico Boulevard still awaits resurrection.

I’ve visited a lot of Orthodox neighborhoods — Baltimore, suburban Washington, D.C., outer-borough New York City — and I’ve found this to be the rule. When I called up some authorities in your metro area to ask why this should be, I was cast into an interdenominational debate.

Oddly, it was a Conservative rabbi who most staunchly defended the Orthodox Juderias. While allowing that Pico itself may be "kind of a dump," Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, pointed out that "right next door you have Beverlywood, which for aesthetics, I would compare to any neighborhood. The homes are beautiful. The yards are beautiful."

He proceeded to name other Orthodox localities he finds appealing: "I don’t think the Upper West Side of Manhattan is gritty. And the religious neighborhoods in Brooklyn are gorgeous. I’m not kidding! The homes are immaculate, beautiful, well kept."

Next, I talked to an Orthodox rabbi, Nachum Braverman, founder of the Los Angeles branch of the outreach organization Aish HaTorah. While attributing Pico’s condition to poor urban planning, he acknowledged, "I find the appearance of some religious neighborhoods, especially in Israel, with trash thrown around and so on, to be quite off-putting. It can be alienating to people we would like to attract to Judaism if the first impression they have of where we live is one of squalor."

But urging me to look deeper, he reasonably pointed out that it is all a matter of priorities. "The Talmud," he said, "indicates that being surrounded by beautiful things broadens the mind. But in our way of thinking, aesthetics is relativized. We devote less attention to the physical qualities of life than to the spiritual ones."

That should have put me in my place. What am I, a Philistine? Instead, I rang up Andy Lipkis, president of Tree People, which for 15 years has been trying to make Pico greener by planting trees every Tu B’Shevat. He, too, gave me a d’var Torah, from what he called his Jewish renewal perspective.

"It’s in the true spirit of tikkun olam [to heal the world] to take care of the earth," he said. "It is not simply a question of decorating. Trees have a profound healing role."

Lipkis discussed the way they protect us from the sun, thus from skin cancer and from pollution, thus from breathing problems like asthma.

He pointed out, "They also make a neighborhood quiet by absorbing noise from cars, trucks, freeways. The rustle of trees is a kind of white noise, but it’s a noise that doesn’t grate on the spirit."

Ah, now this guy speaks to me. I love quiet.

And yet, how Jewish is it to expect such things? I have been reading the Hebrew prophets lately, who describe, over and over the rigors of exile.

As Jews in America, where we have been more comfortable than anywhere in 2,000 years, we forget one of the great themes of Torah: that the galut (exile), which began with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., is not intended as a vacation, full of quiet contemplation among green, perfumed groves.

Still, I like trees. What’s needed is a rich benefactor to pay Lipkis to speed up his Pico tree-planting project. Or to buy me a house on Las Palmas. Preferably both.

David Klinghoffer is the author of a spiritual memoir, "The Lord Will Gather Me In" (Free Press, 1998). His new book, "The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism," will be published in April by Doubleday.