Making the List

The May 21 issue of the Los Angeles Business Journal features the paper’s annual list of “The 50 Wealthiest Angelenos.” More than half the people listed, in fact, close to 60 percent, are Jewish. In a county where Jews number about 520,000, or just 5 percent out of a population of 10 million, that statistic begs examination, if not wonder.

You can object to such rankings as crass, or worry that they only fuel the fever dreams of anti-Semites. But the list is too important to ignore: it tells us something about our city, its Jews and the most prosperous among us.

In 1986, when the Business Journal started ranking the rich, a much larger percentage of names were WASPs who made their fortunes in aerospace and energy, and other non-Jews who made their money the old-fashioned way — through inheritance.

Then entrepreneuers and investors — skilled at seizing opportunities, defining new markets and extending brands — entered the marketplace and prospered wildly. They became the monied elite in a city where family history, religion, ethnicity or even prior wealth conferred no guarantee and formed no barrier. Some came to America fleeing the Holocaust, others grew up poor in New York slums, still others followed dreams of success out of suburbs, small towns, or Israel. Only one of the Jews listed has the word “inheritance” under “source of wealth,” and even he made an additional fortune as an entertainment entrepreneur. Most of those listed pursued a good education before they went after economic success. Talk about an emphasis on education paying off.

The list is highly volatile and hardly the whole picture. Last year’s tech billionaire is this year’s struggling multimillionaire. As for the rest of us, the median Jewish household income in 1997 was $52,050 — hardly the stuff mansions are made of. The truth is, many of us still struggle to pay membership and tuition fees at the Jewish institutions such wealth so generously funds.

It is difficult, though not impossible, to find on the list a Jewish man (there are no Jewish women) who doesn’t also appear frequently linked to Jewish causes. They achieved success and status without hiding their Jewishness — no small credit to our city or our times.

And whether or not their faith had anything to do with their creating wealth, it has a lot to do with how these people disburse it. There is a lot of overlap between the names in the Top 50 and the largest charitable enterprises in the Jewish community, and with some of the highest-profile civic causes and most successful political candidates.

But in the end, this list is just a freeze-frame. Decades ago Jews were not nearly as prominent, and in another 20 or 40 years, no doubt another sea change will occur among the monied elite. From our offices in Koreatown, it’s fairly easy to see the next wave.

Before that happens, these men will have the opportunity to define their legacies. Their biographies make clear that the creation of great wealth was, for most of them, not an end in itself, but a by-product of a restless need for achievement, for contribution, for the next new thing. “It’s just your money,” Wall Street Week’s Louis Rukeyser once said, “it’s not your life.” Ultimately, their lives — like all our lives — will be about the good works and good will we leave behind, and not our rank on a newspaper list.