Eric Garcetti: L.A.’s first (elected) Jewish mayor

On May 22, 2013, the day after Los Angeles voters elected him mayor of Los Angeles, something astonishing happened to Eric Garcetti: He became Jewish. 

No, he didn’t suddenly convert. Garcetti never hid the fact that he contained multitudes. His father, Gil Garcetti, is Mexican-American with Spanish, Native American and Italian ancestry. His mother, Sukey Roth, is the granddaughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants.

In L.A. terms, that makes Garcetti a pretty common blend of many ethno-religious flavors — an L.A. smoothie. But according to the Jewish law of descent, which is matrilineal, that makes Garcetti a full-on Jew. To those of us who have tracked Garcetti’s career, none of this was surprising. But to that ever-shrinking demographic known as the L.A. city voter, it seems to have come as a shock.

“Most people didn’t know that during the election,” 5th District City Councilman Paul Koretz told a reporter.

In part, that’s the fault of our own preconceptions. The most obvious way we assess a candidate’s identity is by name and face. Zev Yaroslavsky and Antonio Villaraigosa and Herb Wesson are easy — Jew, Latino, black. But Judaism is both a religion and a culture, and the big trend in Jewish life is just how much the old phrase, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish,” reflects the new reality of Ethiopian Jews, “Jewtino” conversos and Chinese-born adoptees, not to mention Persian and Middle Eastern Jews. The garden-variety white, Ashkenazic Jew is becoming as rare as a great Westside deli. 

But the other reason people didn’t realize Garcetti is Jewish is because, as a candidate, he didn’t talk much about that side of his heritage.

“I always felt myself to be Jewish and Latino very comfortably,” Garcetti told Jewish Journal columnist Bill Boyarsky in a rare candidate profile that delved into his religious identity. “Weekends were both filled with bowls of menudo and lots of bagels.”

Garcetti told Boyarsky that, growing up, he celebrated Passover and Chanukah and attended Jewish camp. He only became more connected to his Judaism in college. 

Garcetti is now a member of IKAR, a progressive Mid-City congregation. He attends High Holy Days and occasional Shabbat services — what we in the trade call a twice-a-year Jew. Garcetti’s wife, Amy Wakeland, is not Jewish.

By these measures, Garcetti is like a great many modern American Jews — the offspring of an interfaith couple, intermarried, liberal and more culturally than religiously Jewish.

After the election, a small dispute arose among journalists over whether Garcetti was, in fact, the first Jewish mayor of Los Angeles. It turns out that from Nov. 21 to Dec. 5, 1878, a businessman named Bernard Cohn served as the interim mayor, appointed by the L.A. Common Council, predecessor of the City Council. That would have made him the equivalent of today’s mayor pro tempore, a position Garcetti and other Jews also have held. Garcetti is the first elected Jewish mayor in L.A. history: Case closed.

His election represents a kind of culmination of modern-day L.A. Jewish political involvement that began with the 1953 election of Rosalind Wiener Wyman to the City Council and flowered with the African-American-Jewish coalition that elected Tom Bradley as mayor in 1973.

But even so, Jews never occupied the highest citywide office. The last election changed that in a big, sweeping way, bringing into office not only Garcetti, but also a Jewish city controller, Ron Galperin, and a Jewish city attorney, Michael Feuer.

The surprise isn’t that Los Angeles would eventually have a Jewish mayor — as do New York and Chicago, by the way — just that Garcetti is, actually, Jewish.

All of which begs this one, very obvious, question: So what? 

Jews have finally reached the top job at a time when the idea of a pure ethnic voting bloc seems as timely as Tammany Hall. If at one time the Jewish vote automatically defaulted to the Jewish candidate, that’s no longer the case. Today’s Jewish vote tends to go to the candidate who best articulates and can best deliver on a socially progressive, fiscally prudent, pro- (or at least not anti-) Israel agenda.

Whether you take the position that Garcetti’s Jewishness doesn’t matter or that it only does if he makes his people proud — either way you’re missing the point. To me, the question more interesting than “So what?” is “What now?”

What, in a secular, assimilated age does it mean to be the first Jewish mayor? Is it just a description for the record books or does it also imply a responsibility? 

The religious believe that their faith calls them to behave a certain way, to stand for certain things. What is a largely secular Jew called to do as a Jew? Are there values and principles, perhaps not unique to Judaism, but certainly integral to it, that he will feel charged to uphold? Is there a Jewish vision of social justice, of environmental and communal stewardship, that will guide his decisions? What does it mean not just to choose to be labeled as a Jew, but to choose to act as one? This, of course, is a question facing every Jew in the modern age, not just Eric Garcetti, who, on June 30, became the first elected Jewish mayor of Los Angeles.