Finding Our Place

My daughter and I were driving through Koreatown again. Five years had passed since the first Rodney King verdict, since the riots, since the day we’d first driven these same streets, with their smoldering buildings and the militia standing guard. She noted every new building and every lot that remained vacant.

“It couldn’t all have been about Rodney King,” she said, noticing that the street signs change from Korean to Spanish.

Of course not. At 15, she’s better able to understand the concept of precipitating causes. But if I can explain the lack of justice, jobs and hope that led to the worst rioting in Los Angeles history, I have a harder time clarifying what has happened since. Anger, bitterness and ethnic separation have only increased.

What part has the Jewish community played in all this? For most of us, the riots have become part of the background, soon to be joined by fires, earthquakes and even O.J. We have moved on. Like the jacaranda tree, blooming again this spring, our sense of civic life has returned. A few weeks ago, I joined a crowd at the downtown library to hear a theatrical reading. New members are flooding to Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown, even before the new religious school opens on the Westside in the fall. The beauty of Southern California once again seems overpowering, and we are glad to be here.

In the early post-riot days, people spoke casually about two revolutionary ideas: purchasing guns and moving out of town. A kind of wild-west ecstasy overtook us, in which the future was perceived as either siege or isolation. We hatched dark plots for our own salvation. The new movie “Volcano” strikes me as arriving a bit too late to completely capture this barricaded anti-Los Angeles mentality. By now, one natural disaster can’t shake us.

Instead, I am struck these days by how people are settling in. Book clubs and gardening are the big business now. At Passover this year, friends brought over their home-grown irises and roses and debated over which was the more beautiful. Dueling pistils at dawn.

When I consider what has happened to the Jewish community since Los Angeles erupted five years ago, it is the sense of retrenchment, joined by detachment, that I see. We are here to stay, but not many of us are sure what, in the matter of civic activism, our role should be.

Jewish activists took a beating in the post-riot analysis. Though we were not to blame for the riots, and (unlike the Watts fires 27 years before) were not a target of the civic rage, a verbal berating nevertheless came our way. We were criticized for our isolation, arrogance and self-absorption. And, in those first months after April 1992, we redoubled our efforts, joining task forces, building bridges, joining an endless number of coalitions. Still, we were accused of turning inward, and took the blame for the breakdown in the black-Jewish dialogue, as well as for the stillborn connections with Latinos or Asians.

But looking back now, I wonder if we Jews haven’t made ourselves too liable. We cannot create dialogue on our own. We cannot sit alone at a table and concoct jobs or a political agenda where there are no coalitions. So, while certainly we cannot be satisfied with the moribund status of politics, education and civic leadership in this city, it’s time to acknowledge that at least we stayed the course. In times of upheaval, there is value in merely staying put.

I realize that this is not the common interpretation of what’s occurred. Most commentators look at the Jewish demographic shift from the city to Ventura as an escape from Los Angeles. They accuse us of fleeing the riots, racial chaos and municipal disintegration. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, in particular, is even now accused of leaving town, although its membership had left Koreatown a decade before it broke ground on its Westside campus at Olympic and Barrington.

But if the riots were the final straw, we have to see that this westward and northern shift is a statement not of despair but of hope.

I know something about fleeing. When I graduated college, I joined half my class in a move across the country, from the East Coast to the West. Part rebellion, part pioneering effort, that 1970s shift instinctively recognized that New York was finished and that Los Angeles was the true land of opportunity. We left behind our families and history and made haste for something new.

The same motivations do not apply to today’s young families. For one thing, they’re moving only 40 miles away. And if they’re moving out for cheaper housing and better schools, they’re still staying as close to home as they can get.

A young lawyer recently told me that his dream, once he got married, was to buy his grandmother’s home. If he couldn’t afford that, he’d probably do the next best thing and move to Agoura.

Agoura and its booming neighbors, Westlake and Thousand Oaks, are attractive to Jewish couples who want what Los Angeles has to offer — a strong cultural base and a lot of open space. Rather than rejecting their families and their personal histories, they are voting to extend it, putting down roots and staying involved. And they’re bringing Jewish life with them. Heschel West Jewish day school has expanded so fast that it will soon be seeking permanent quarters and plans to build a high school as well.

This move west reminds me of New York after World War II, when the grandparents stayed in the city while young families moved to Long Island and Westchester. It was arguably the healthiest period of Jewish-community development in the 20th century.

Have these Jews opted out of civic life? There is no evidence for it. Jews still dominate the political, cultural and even the economic scene wherever they move. Where there is a board, we are on it. Where there is no leader…as the Talmud said, we are the leaders. Every ethnic group capable of leaving the inner city has done so. Only the Jewish community sees mobility as having a dark side. I am not sure we deserve the rap — not yet.

Los Angeles deserves better than what the past five years have given us. But there is a future here, and we are part of it.

Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address us