West Coast Zion

Just before I sat down to talk about the future of L.A. Jews, I took a quick tour of L.A.’s Jewish past.

“Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic,” the new exhibition at the Autry National Center, begins with the Gold Rush-era influx of Jewish merchants to what was then an iffy, isolated cow town. 

Those young men charged ahead like thoroughbreds at the bell. Business, education, politics, building, culture, Hollywood — Jews, never more than a small percent of the city’s population, shaped the city we know today. 

At the same time, the city, with its far-flung diversity, its constant influx of seekers and dreamers, its sun-soaked ease and cutthroat competitiveness, shaped a Jewish community like no other.

Where that community is heading was the subject for our panel on May 22, “Which Way (Jewish) L.A.?”

I moderated the discussion among Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR; David Myers, chair of UCLA’s history department; L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry; and David Lonner, a producer and manager. 

And as they spoke, it struck me that the single strangest thing about L.A. Jews is their optimism.

At a time when any gathering of more than two Jews quickly devolves into a series of oy veys over Iranian nukes, the Palestinian demographic time bomb, the Arab Spring, declining affiliation, intermarriage, etc., these four leaders — hardly inexperienced or naïve — stressed that what has made Los Angeles such a vibrant Jewish success story will continue to do so.

You could say they were buoyed by Eric Garcetti’s win as Los Angeles’ first Jewish elected mayor just the night before. But with Jewish mayors in New York and Chicago, and a long history of Jewish elected officials in Los Angeles, what was remarkable about the Garcetti-is-Jewish newsflash was just how un-newsworthy it is. 

Three other factors, the speakers said, make L.A.’s Jewry remarkable.

First, this is still a city of Jewish immigrants. 

“Without the arrival from the 1970s of the Iranians, the Israelis and the Russians,” Myers said, “this would be a community in precipitous decline in quantitative and qualitative terms, as well. What those three groups have added is enormous cultural energy. They’ve remade L.A. Jewry in ways that couldn’t be imagined.”

Myers said he doesn’t foresee large influxes of more Jewish populations, but Perry, who is African-American and a convert to Judaism, pointed out that future “migrations” into the Jewish community may well come from the Jewish community’s willingness to embrace multiethnic, LGBTQ and new Jews.

“You see it everywhere,” Perry said, “people coming from different places, people like me, looking for community that is not necessarily traditional as it has been in the past, but being accepted without explanation.”

The second reason for a bright future? Hollywood.

Despite massive changes in the entertainment business, it is a still an industry where Jews thrive.

“Jews have always been natural storytellers,” Lonner said, “from the Torah to movies to television. Hollywood … will still be attractive to Jews who want to tell a story.”

That, Brous said, brings to Los Angeles the kind of Jews who don’t just reinvent stories but also community.

“Hollywood brings with it a culture of creativity, innovation and initiative to realize impossible dreams,” Brous said. “That culture creates an interesting religious and communal environment not present in other parts of the country. L.A. is at the leading edge of so many of the interesting new elements in Jewish life — spiritually, communally and ritually.”

The upshot is a Jewish community that is restless, decentralized and in constant flux. 

In Los Angeles, Jews can take advantage of great Jewish rabbis and institutions — or invent their own. 

“L.A. is counter-gravitational; it defies centers,” Myers said.

In the future, these qualities will place Los Angeles in stark contrast to Jewish communities elsewhere.

For instance, 61 percent of school-aged Jewish children in New York are Orthodox, according to a 2012 UJA-Federation of New York population survey. 

“In New York, the keys of communal institutions will be handed over to Orthodox Jews,” Myers said. “That will not be the case here.”

Los Angeles will remain a community with many portals to Jewish life.

“There’s such incredible Jewish history in this city, and a richness,” Lonner said. “I feel like the future of Jewish life really does reside in this city.”

It does.

After the panel, Myers and I went out for hummus.

There’s a place I’ve been in love with lately on the stretch of Melrose between Fairfax and La Brea, where so many Israelis have businesses that Chabadniks walk from shop to shop, getting the owners to wrap tefillin.

It was 10 p.m., and the Latino man behind the counter at Ta-eem Grill said, “Ma atah rotzeh?” — What do you want? I asked him, in Hebrew, where he was from, and he said Oaxaca.

He’d been working with the Israelis for a year, and he wanted to learn Torah and kabbalah, as well.

A young Latino man drawn to Jewish culture, more fluent in Hebrew than 100 day-school parents — if you’re worried about the Jewish future, you haven’t been to Los Angeles.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can
follow him on Twitter @foodaism.