L.A. icon Angelyne is the Jewish daughter of Holocaust survivors

Remember those billboards around Los Angeles in the 1990s sporting a bosomy blonde named Angelyne?  Back in the days before the Kardashians, she was famous for being famous – and for driving her pink Corvette around Los Angeles, eyes often hidden by sunglasses. For decades, her true identity remained unknown.  That’s changed today.  An Aug. 2 story broke in The Hollywood Reporter, in which writer Gary Baum reveals his odyssey tracing Angelyne back to her true roots: as the daughter of Jewish concentration camp survivors named Renee Goldberg.

According to the article, documents prove that she was born in Poland in 1950; her parents had been two of few Jews to survive the Chmielnik ghetto and endured camps including Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. They married in a displaced persons camp in Germany soon after the war, and eventually returned to Poland – only to face continuing Polish anti-Semitism. And so they booked tickets on a boat for Israel and settled in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of B’nai B’rack. 

By 1959 they had relocated yet again, this time to the Fairfax district, in Los Angeles, where Angelyne’s mother died of cancer when she was 14.  Her father remarried another Holocaust survivor, moved the family to Panorama City and ran a liquor store in Van Nuys.  The young Renee attended Monroe High School, where school photos reveal her to have been a somber red head.

Years later, she would become one of the iconic figures in the popular culture of Los Angeles, even though she would refuse to discuss her origins.

As Baum writes, “Far from the archetypal transplant-with-a-dream, as she has tacitly long alluded, she’s the locally raised daughter of Holocaust survivors, a Jew who has found refuge in shiksa drag. It’s a fascinating, only-in-L.A. story of identity, history and a symbiotic yearning both to be forgotten and to be famous.”

Torah Portion

You can’t miss her. All over town, huge billboards advertise not cigarettes, automobiles or banking services but the image of a scantily clad young woman, with the caption “Angelyne.” Her image is a caricature of male fantasies. What was once confined to the back pages of so-called “men’s magazines,” now decorates the public thoroughfare. From street level, it’s virtually impossible to miss her — her gigantic voluptuousness measured not in inches but in yards.

But having grown immune to every conceivable urban aberration, I hardly notice anymore. It was my son who paid attention: “Abba, who is that lady, Angelyne, and why is she on that billboard? What is she selling?” Good question. Why is this lady all over town? What do you tell a child about this phenomenon?

Well, kids, in our culture, and especially in this city, being famous is dearly valued. Fame conveys validation, fulfilling a deep need to be recognized. Celebrity is ontology — you’re not anyone until you’re on TV. “Is that someone?” I ask my wife, pointing to a lesser-known character actor sitting across us in a restaurant.

Most of all, fame is immortality. There are people so terribly anxious that their lives will amount to nothing — people who worry that they will live and die and leave no trace of themselves in the world, their lives touching no one, accomplishing nothing, making no difference — they fear no one will ever know that they lived. Somehow, being famous relieves them of this terror of oblivion.

For most, such as star athletes, actors, authors or musicians, fame is earned through the contribution of some talent or gift. Then, there are people who become famous accidentally (see Kato Kaelin) or those who are famous for no reason at all (Oprah Winfrey and Regis Philbin come to mind). Saddest of all, there are people so desperate to be known that they will do anything, even buy up billboards, just to be famous for a few moments. They will do anything to gain fame because only in fame will they ever feel important and real.

“Maybe she’s trying to make friends,” says my young daughter. Indeed. What an image to set before a little girl — a woman who buys her place in the world with peroxide and silicone. Evidence again that, for such a sophisticated culture, our appreciation and mastery of the mysterious power of sexuality remains so crude.

Of course, it’s not just Angelyne. The equation of a woman’s worth with the measure of her bust is a common American tale. It just seems to have gotten worse lately. Consider the phenomenon of the “supermodel.” Once an anonymous mannequin for the display of clothing, now they’ve become cultural heroes. For doing what? I want my daughter to emulate Golda Meir, Margaret Mead, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but she’s constantly confronted with Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer.

For a culture that has come so far in liberating women from all that bound them for centuries, we have yet so far to go. Women today govern nations, manage major corporations, direct scientific missions to Mars. But the leading consumer product in 1990s America remains the “wonder bra.”

In this week’s haftarah, the section of the Prophets that’s read along with the weekly Torah portion, the prophet Jeremiah receives his calling. He is only 17 and looking for the mission and measure of his life. In what will he find success and fulfillment? Fame, wealth, power all beckon. But the word of God comes to him: “See, I appoint you this day over nations and kingdoms; to uproot and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” He resists. The career of the prophet will make him anathema to his community and people — the anti-celebrity. But God will not be put off. What is celebrity, compared with the sacred work of speaking God’s word? In the shadow of the holy task of mending God’s world, the pursuit of fame brings only hopelessness and futility. And if you don’t believe Jeremiah, just ask Angelyne.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.