A Fistful of Scholars

Taking part in a local Jewish history conference came with a perk, the chance to tour the Autry National Center after closing. I circled twice through the current exhibit on the films of Sergio Leone, creator of the spaghetti Western. His films informed my fantasy life from the early 1970s until, say, marriage, and getting some alone time with Clint and his squint was priceless.

Leone, a native Roman filmmaker steeped in the vocabulary of the Hollywood Western, created movies that not only mythologized the Old West, but mythologized the Western itself. He added layers of artifice to what was already a tenuous historical endeavor. In so doing, he made great art, great entertainment — though not great history.

For that, I stepped away from Sergio and returned to the remarkable main event, the three-day conference devoted to “Jewish L.A. — Then and Now.” The historians who designed this gathering — the first of its kind, ever — were doing exactly what Leone did not. Instead of mythmaking or creating the architecture of a pseudo-world, they stripped away layers of supposition and unknowns, digging into the historical record to reveal minutiae, complexity and messiness.

It was about time.

In the great deli of American Jewish life, L.A. Jewry has long been the tongue sandwich — always on the menu, but never taken seriously.

We’re where a great number of Brooklyn’s, Manhattan’s, Boston’s and Chicago’s best and brightest end up. But the power center of American Jewry has always remained near where it all started 350 years ago, on the Eastern seaboard. I should say the putative power center, because as American and American Jewish population shifts south and west, the power of numbers is bound to go along with it.

The presenting organizations were the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, the Autry National Center and the Skirball Cultural Center. Professors David Myers of UCLA and the Autry’s Stephen Aron set out to redress academia’s oversight and East Coast myopia to tackle the most distinctive and important themes raised by the L.A. Jewish experience.

The first is simply the distinctive stories that we have collected since the first Jew, Jacob Frankfort, came to the pueblo in 1841. At the keynote panel, author and screenwriter Michael Tolkin, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), novelist Gina Nahai, Rabbi David Wolpe and critic Kenneth Turan traded L.A. stories, giving shape to the region’s uniqueness.

The diversity of L.A. Jewry, Tolkin said, mirrors the diversity of Los Angeles itself. This can be enriching, or sometimes, as Nahai pointed out, isolating.

“Each ethnic group lives in its own world,” she said.

Waxman’s grandparents survived the Kishniev pogrom and came to Los Angeles in 1920.

“Los Angeles is the most exciting Jewish community in world,” said the congressman. “People here aren’t pigeonholed as they are in the East. They can become part of the community right away.”

How Jews form community took up the rest of the conference, as panelists — mostly academics or other experts — looked at the forces that shaped L.A. Jewry: the qualities that make it like other minority cultures in Los Angeles and other Jewish communities, and those that set it apart.

One theme that emerged is the community’s diversity. The Jewish L.A. story is not just one of geographic dispersal, from downtown to Boyle Heights and the Eastside to the Westside, the San Fernando and Conejo Valleys. It is also one of ethnic and cultural absorption. The first leader of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, the precursor of all Jewish philanthropies, was, it turns out, a Sephardic immigrant named Samuel K. Labatt. Today’s Jewish community has grown largely due to an influx of Russian, Israeli and Iranian-born Jews. The key for these tribes-within-the-tribe, said Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, is to assimilate into the larger Jewish culture without losing distinct traditions.

Already, as UCLA scholar Nahid Pirnazar pointed out, Iranian immigrants are entering not just communal politics, but local civic life as well. In doing so they tread a familiar path: using their cultural base as a springboard to larger civic activism.

This path was the fitting subject of its own panel, which was composed of L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, author Joel Kotkin, political science professor Raphael Sonenshein and UCLA Associate Vice Chancellor Franklin Gilliam. They recounted the oft-told history of the black-Jewish coalition-building that brought Mayor Tom Bradley to power, and they discussed whether the same level of activism is likely in the future as a distinctive Jewish political bloc fractures. Kotkin said the more likely scenario is for Westside Jews to further distance themselves from more middle-class or conservative Jews in the Valley and elsewhere. Sonenshein disagreed, pointing out the significant degree of support Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa received from these supposedly more conservative, pocket-book minded Valley Jews.

The conference wound down the next day at UCLA, with a discussion among Jewish studies scholars titled, “Do We Need a New Paradigm? Los Angeles and the Narrative of American Jewish History.”

But the answer, by then, seemed self-evident. As John Gray, the Autry’s executive director, told me, it’s surprising no one had held such a conference until now. His center is in the midst of planning, with UCLA, an exhibition on Jewish Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future, to complement the center’s ongoing research efforts.

As Wolpe said at the opening session, “United States Jewish history is written from East to West. What would it be like if it were written from West to East?”

I can’t wait to find out.