I’m ready to take the wheel

I turned 16 on June 26. After so many years of impatiently waiting, and six months of misjudging left turns and getting away with some pretty serious traffic violations while my mother sat horrified in the passenger seat, I am finally eligible for my driver’s license. Sayonara, learner’s permit. I can, in theory, do as I please, whenever I please. I am, in short, free.

I had been looking forward to getting my license for so long, because you need to be able to drive yourself in Los Angeles, right? Isn’t it necessary to show off your car to your friends, to finally give your parents a break from chauffeuring you everywhere, to get from Point A to Point B? Isn’t that what driving is all about? As I thought about this milestone, I realized that driving is symbolic of something much greater.

In Los Angeles and at my school, Harvard-Westlake, driving has become a deplorable status symbol, and I fell into the trap. I used to gaze in admiration at the juniors and seniors rolling onto campus in their shiny cars. They all noticed the mesmerized faces of the underclassmen, but they always maintained an air of nonchalant coolness. I could practically read their minds: “I am so awesome because I drove to school. I even picked up a latte on the way here.” Those people were my heroes. I used to think that when I turned 16, my moment in the spotlight of the school driveway would arrive, and I was going to milk it for everything it was worth. I, too, wanted to be awesome and put lattes in my cupholders.

When I finally got behind the wheel of a car myself, conceit and self-importance set in. If ever I saw someone with that familiar awe-struck gape staring at my car during one of my innumerable driving lessons, I would think, with a shameful amount of pride, “I am cooler than you because I am operating a motor vehicle right now.”

Now that I actually am 16 and will soon be taking my driving test, I realize how arrogant I was as I pondered the significance of getting my license. Driving isn’t about showing off or feeling cool. To me, driving represents the freedom I have been given to choose how I want to live my life.

Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben once said that with great power comes great responsibility. I say that great responsibility comes with great freedom. Driving, in a way, is my platform to make an impact on my own in the world. I now choose what to do with my time, but too much independence too soon can be overwhelming. The laminated card entrusted to me by the Department of Motor Vehicles gives me the opportunity to pick a side in the epic battle of right and wrong. Like the aforementioned web-slinger, I want to use my newfound powers for good.

Before I turned 16, I would often use my inability to drive as an excuse for laziness. If I was sitting at home watching television on a Saturday morning instead of feeding the homeless, I could justify it. “My parents don’t have the time to drive me there,” I told myself. “I don’t want to inconvenience them.” At 16, my inactivity is no longer defensible. I now have the option of either driving to the mall to have fun or driving to an animal shelter or a food bank to volunteer my time and have a rewarding experience. It seems obvious, but I’m not a saint, so I plan to find a balance between serving myself and serving the community. I expect the choices I will have to make about where I will drive to be a source of some serious angst — I’ve never had to make these kind of decisions for myself before, but I’m ready to take the wheel.

I used to wonder why you had to wait until you were 16 to get a driver’s license. I now realize that an incredible amount of responsibility is involved in being in the front seat because of what driving means. Driving shouldn’t be a method of flaunting yourself, but it shouldn’t just be about reaching your destination either. For me, driving means having a choice about what to do and where to go and, at 16, I’m ready to choose for myself.

Derek Schlom will be a junior at Harvard-Westlake this fall. He is interning at The Jewish Journal this summer.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the August issue is July 15; Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.


On a particular stretch of Wilshire Boulevard near Westwood at 6 p.m., right-lane traffic is hopelessly stalled. A stream of cars crowds the intersection, trying to squeeze into the nearby parking lot of a well-known synagogue.

It’s a familiar sight: With most people heading home from work, L.A.’s Jewish community is swimming against the current, driving to services in some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city.

“If you come here at 3:30 p.m. and on, it is total gridlock,” said Carol Sales of Temple Akiba in Culver City, just a few miles south. “But there are back ways of bypassing Sepulveda that [everybody] knows,” Sales said of the major traffic artery in her area. Sales quickly explained that Temple Akiba holds services at 8 p.m., giving plenty of time for rush hour to clear up.

An imaginary L-shaped line connecting the western San Fernando Valley to the Westside, Culver City and Carthay Circle would represent arguably the most traffic-heavy area in the United States. The American Highway Users Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, ranked the most congested freeway interchanges in the United States in their study “Unclogging America’s Arteries, 1999-2004.” The 10 and 405 interchange in West Los Angeles is the fifth most congested in the nation and receives 296,000 vehicles per day; it causes approximately 22.7 million hours of delays for drivers annually. The 405 and 101 interchange in Sherman Oaks is the worst in the nation, which sees 318,000 vehicles per day and causes over 27.1 million hours of annual delay. The Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University recently counted $1,155 per Los Angeles resident in annually wasted time and resources due to traffic, the worst by far of any city in the country.

A huge portion of Los Angeles’ Jewish community is centered along these most congested parts of the city, especially along Pico Boulevard north of the 10, on the Westside near the 405, and near the 101 in the Valley.

Is traffic a Jewish issue, then? You bet. How to handle it, how to schedule around it, how to build and create community despite it — and what we can do to make it better — is of ever-increasing concern.

“Two things: There has been a diffusion of the L.A Jewish population [over the past 20 years], particularly into the West Valley, and there are more cars on the road,” said professor emeritus Arnold Band of UCLA, a longtime observer of Jewish life in the city. “[That] means it’s harder to get to places and it’s harder for people to get to each other.”

“My No. 1 consideration is when to have the class, when to have the activity,” said Rabbi Sally Olins of Temple B’nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, a Conservative congregation. “At least in our temple, the most difficult [time] is during the week in the evening.”

Some L.A. synagogues have found creative solutions to increase participation despite rush-hour traffic. In some cases, services and activities are best timed for commuters to come directly from work. “My people explain to me that once they get home, it’s so hard to get up and go out again [in the] hassle of traffic. [That’s] something they really don’t want to do,” Olins said.

Rabbi Robert Gan of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, a Reform congregation, had similar sentiments. Years ago, the temple used the opposite approach from Temple Akiba by switching its services from 8 p.m. to 6 p.m. to try drawing congregants directly from work. “The concern was, would people who were commuting from work have time to come? What we found was it was the greatest thing that ever happened to us,” Gan said.

“Sometimes husbands and wives come [here] right from work and meet the rest of family. After services people would stay and have dinner,” he said.

And it isn’t only religious life that’s forced to tiptoe around traffic patterns. “It’s sort of an omnipresent concern. Two to five miles can make a difference in turnout,” said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA).

“We’re going to sacrifice part of our demographic making those choices. There’s a lot of intersections in how traffic and transportation affect the number of people and what kind of people will go to an event,” Sokatch said.

If the PJA wants to attract a crowd of established donors, it will have to find a way to host the event locally in Brentwood or Santa Monica, Sokatch explained. For a younger, activist crowd, the event should be more central to Silverlake. In other words: people stay local.

“You learn to ride the L.A. traffic and transportation patterns to your advantage,” Sokatch said.

But organizations’ efforts to ride that wave may fall increasingly short in the years to come. Congestion is on the rise. In fact, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is expecting a population increase of approximately 3 million people in Los Angeles over the next 20-25 years.

If Los Angeles’ infrastructure is left unchanged, the American Highway Users Alliance estimates that by 2025, the 405/101 interchange will cause per-vehicle delays of 48 minutes and the 405/10 junction alone will lengthen trips by 35 minutes, both during those evening hours when many synagogues hold services and activities. And it isn’t simply third-party groups who are pointing to the problem — Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn has had a Traffic Safety and Congestion Relief plan in action since 2001, focusing on the 25 worst street intersections of each year for upgrades.

The most direct solutions, of course, involve building longer-running carpool lanes and wider freeways. But there are alternatives to simply building more miles of road.

“What’s happening in our system is that surface transportation is really slowing down,” said Carol Inge, deputy director for planning at the MTA. “I think that rail is a good way, especially in the densest areas, to separate [a] trip off of the congested streets.”

Admittedly, rail transit has had a mixed history in Los Angeles. Rail is expensive to build, can easily run over budget and often struggles against low ridership once built. In Los Angeles County, commuters intent on rail travel must also contend with a complete lack of service to the Westside and Santa Monica and, oftentimes, a bus trip (or a long walk) is required just to connect to the nearest rail line in many other parts of the city as well.

The MTA strike in late 2003 didn’t help matters. “[The strike] shut down the system and probably scared a lot of people away. After the strike we were down about 9 percent in ridership, and we may not be able to recoup those riders,” said Rick Jager, senior communications representative at the MTA.

Speaking about the most recently completed MTA Gold Line rail route, “We had [the] strike, and a lot of the riders probably got upset and said, ‘Well, I’m back in my car.’ We’ve got to change that mentality,” Jager said.

Changing that automobile mentality is also important to minimize another chore that comes with a car-centered city: parking. Keren Aminia, a member of the Conservative congregation Adat Shalom in West L.A., is heading a task force in her synagogue to solve the parking and access issues at the preschool.

“[The child] goes to school from 9 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. For these three and a half hours of school I sometime spend an hour just parking and getting in and out of the synagogue,” Aminia said. For its part, Adat Shalom is working on solutions.

“I think what you have to do first is ask, ‘Does the temple or synagogue have parking?’ That is a very big issue for this temple,” said Sales of Temple Akiba. “When it was built it didn’t include parking, so we rent spaces next door, and that becomes costly.” Temple Akiba pays thousands of dollars per year for its13 parking spaces.

Some temples try to circumvent the problem by only offering spaces to members. Others depend on street parking and meters, forcing congregants to compete with other cars in the neighborhood for a spot.

To address these automobile issues, new mass-transit infrastructure is already under construction in various parts of the city. The MTA is beginning work on an $880 million project, with a projected completion in 2009, that will expand the metro Gold Line past downtown and into East Los Angeles, though that remains far from most Jewish populations. Further to the west, an incipient rail project called the Mid-City Exposition Light Rail will run parallel to the congested 10 from downtown to Culver City, slated for completion in 2012. That rail line may eventually be extended to Santa Monica.

But rail is still nowhere to be found on the Westside, and there are no plans to bring it there. The Red Line metro was never extended west beyond Western Avenue. in order to avoid explosive pockets of underground methane. “For someone on the Westside, it does seem like public transportation is relegated to people who don’t have the economic means to be able to afford a car,” PJA’s Sokatch said.

Instead, the MTA is designing a new east/west bus system north of the 10 near the thriving Jewish communities along Pico and Wilshire boulevards. This program, called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), will ferry passengers from Koreatown all the way to the Santa Monica pier, featuring perks like electronic ticket machines at each stop, clocks announcing the time until the next bus, renovated stations, larger vehicles and rush-hour bus-only lanes. The Wilshire BRT will cost $217 million and see completion in November 2005.

Another BRT system called the Orange Line will run from the opposite end of the Metro Red Line in North Hollywood through the Jewish communities in Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks to Warner Center in the West San Fernando Valley. The Orange Line will feature an exclusive bus lane and cost $329 million to build. An Orthodox Jewish community along the Orange Line’s route strongly objected to its construction along Chandler Boulevard in North Hollywood, even filing a lawsuit against the MTA.

Rabbi Dov Fischer called it “grotesquely invasive” in a 2001 Jewish Journal article, worrying that it would disrupt the community’s ability to walk to services and attract graffiti. Nevertheless, completion of the Orange Line is projected for August 2005.

Lawsuits aside, bus systems also have major functional limitations. “Logistically I cannot take a baby in a baby stroller and a toddler on the bus. It’s just … not a convenient means of transportation,” said Aminia of Adat Shalom. “I actually have to walk for about 15 minutes to get to the bus stop. We took the bus to school with my toddler maybe 10 times, just for the experience and because I didn’t have a lot to do that day.”

The question that remains is whether Jewish families in Los Angeles would actually take advantage of — or even desire — any new public transportation alternatives to increase their community involvement, especially if they have small children or are attending after-hours events. “Driving is a pain, it really is. But I don’t know anybody who would take a bus at night,” Olins said.

Professor Band summed up that sentiment: “By the time you get [efficient public transportation] in, if you ever do, we’re talking about 2040 or 2050, it goes so slow here and there’s so much resistance, people will still use their cars.”

“There are a few rabbis who attract people from other areas [of Los Angeles], but there aren’t that many,” Band said.

Having become accustomed to the automobile culture, Jewish life in Los Angeles may have already acquired its characteristics. “Generally speaking, what you have, I think, are pockets of communities that are within the larger geographic area [of Los Angeles]. People have created communities within communities,” Gan said. “I think, generally in Los Angeles, people tend to go to most synagogues and temples that are near them.”

Mark Musselman, parent of a child attending Temple Akiba’s nursery school, echoed that statement exactly: “Me and a bunch of parents partly chose [this nursery school] because it’s so close.”

According to Olins, this tendency becomes especially clear when members of her congregation move to another part of the city. Congregants “might love the rabbi and the cantor and us, but when push comes to shove and [they move] five or 10 blocks from [a different] temple, why are they going to drive 20 minutes to us?” Staying close to home for convenience’s sake is not necessarily a bad thing, said Olins, so long as the family is still involved in Jewish activity.

At least for his constituents, however, Sokatch of the PJA did hold out some hope for future alternatives to the car culture: “If they could get on a train and not worry about driving and parking, I think a lot of my folks would be adaptable. We have a bunch of people [in PJA] for whom environmentalism and community building, which is clearly served through public transportation, is of particular importance.”

Today, unfortunately, some Jewish families are already being left out. Even only focusing on the religious aspects of community, “we [in Los Angeles] have 60 percent of our Jews nonaffiliated,” Olins said. “That scares me.”

No doubt, the record-breaking traffic isn’t making it any easier.

Going Forth as a Driver

On May 7, exactly 16 years minus 5 1/2 hours after his birth, my son, Gabe, took his driving test at the Winnetka Department of Motor Vehicles office.

"Are you nervous?" the test instructor asked.

"Yes," Gabe answered.

"Don’t be, or we’ll both be dead."

I, too, was nervous. Nervous that he wouldn’t pass the driving test. And nervous that he would. And so, while he demonstrated his ability to start, stop, turn and back up in a straight line, I paced inside the building and out, like an expectant father outside a maternity ward, not allowed to witness the actual birth.

And birth it is. Of an adult. With a newly bestowed sense of independence and responsibility.

As a parent, I fear for his safety.

"It’s 100 percent guaranteed every new driver will have an accident," our insurance agent said. And, already, Gabe has put a major gash in the front fender.

"That’s your free one," my husband, Larry, said.

Worse, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that two out of five deaths among U.S. teens result from motor vehicle crashes.

Legally and technically, Gabe has been prepared by Valley Bob’s Driving School. And while the name may not inspire confidence, the school has ably provided the requisite hours of classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction, as well as extra defensive driving training. Plus, Larry and I spent more than 50 hours driving with him.

Emotionally and spiritually, Gabe has been prepared by his Judaic studies class at Milken Community High School. There, he created a driving amulet, a project that acknowledges this all-important rite of passage in the life of every 10th-grader.

According to Rabbi Bob Baruch, Gabe’s Judaic studies teacher, "The big theme in the 10th-grade curriculum is lech lecha, going forth. God says to Abraham, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’ Obtaining the driving license is part of the going forth for yourself."

Baruch explained to the students that amulets are magic charms that give people power and protection.

"They come from the Jewish folkloric and superstitious tradition but also have deeper spiritual meaning to people," he said.

The project, now in its second year, was created by Judaic studies teacher Andrea Hodos and artist-in-residence Benny Ferdman and incorporates both symbols and Torah verses.

"Our goals are celebrating independence; acknowledging the need for protection, both from God and from inner demons; and recognizing responsibility. They actually spell CAR," Hodos said.

And so, on a small rectangular piece of wood, the students designed their amulets, first selecting a Jewish symbol with significance to them. Students chose lions, unicorns, hamsas (an amulet shaped like a hand), elephants and other symbols that they traced onto a piece of copper. Next, they made the symbol stand out by repeatedly tapping the area outside the design with a nail before attaching it to the amulet.

"This isn’t easy. You have to beat it, to shape it to your will," Ferdman said.

Gabe chose an endless knot, which, to a parent, is a perfect depiction of adolescence.

"My journey is just beginning, but it never ends," Gabe explained.

Students added one to three verses of Jewish text pertaining to independence, protection or responsibility, which they engraved, usually cryptically, with a wood-burning pen. Some selected "their eyes were opened" (Genesis 3:7) or "you shall be a blessing" (Genesis 12:2). Gabe chose the concept of pikuah nefesh (the saving of lives).

"Nothing is more important," he said. "When you’re driving, you have to have respect for the power you control."

In addition, students added a traffic sign such as No U Turn, Keep Right or One Way, which they glued onto the amulet.

"Look at traffic signs as symbols. Turn the road into a poetic experience," Ferdman said.

Gabe took Maintain Top Safe Speed.

"You can’t ‘wuss out,’" he said.

They also added other personal symbols, often indecipherable to others.

"The owner of the amulet is the only one who needs to know what it means," said Ferdman.

On the last day of class, the students received their finished amulets, which Ferdman had shellacked and fitted with a key ring. Together with Baruch, they recited the "Shehecheyanu," marking this milestone which, in our culture, short of sexual initiation, most says adult.

As a parent, I realize I cannot accompany Gabe on his journey. Nor can I always protect him. But I hope that this amulet, which he has attached to his key chain, will protect him by reminding him of who he is and what he believes, by reminding him that he as well as the others on the road are created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God).

And I hope, as God says to Abraham as he sets off on his journey, that Gabe, too, "will be a blessing." To his family, his community and, most of all, to himself.

Jane Ulman lives in Encino with her husband and four sons.

The Parking Spot Theory

Here’s my "Parking Spot Theory": Let’s say you’re driving around, looking for a parking spot and you can’t find one. You drive around the block again and, still, nothing. You look up ahead at the other cars circling the block and no one is getting a parking spot. Frustration builds. Then, suddenly, a spot opens up and the guy ahead of you pulls into it. The first thing you think is, "Damn, that could’ve been my parking spot." Disappointment. Anger.

The next thing you think is: "Hey! That guy found a parking spot! There are parking spots to be had!" You suddenly feel optimistic about the future. "If I continue in my quest with a pure heart and an open mind, I, too, shall find my parking spot." That’s the theory.

My friend Doug just got married to a lovely girl from the East Coast named Debbie. Doug is 42, and this is his first marriage. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Debbie is the parking spot into which Doug has parked. He is a symbol of hope to single people of a certain age all over the world, and the wedding was cause for much rejoicing among Jewish mothers all over the Westside.

Doug walked the aisle to the strains of Etta James’ "At Last," which got a well-deserved laugh from the congregation. The message was this: It only takes one.

I admit that the "Parking Spot Theory" is hardly the story of Job, but it can be a trial, a test of faith. At some point, the thought of going on another date is almost too horrible to imagine. I saw "Harold and Maude" the other day and Harold, an awkward, eccentric young man (not unlike yours truly) greeted each of the young ladies his mother had chosen for him with very elaborate, realistic-looking suicide attempts, including self-immolation. Is that an extreme overreaction to facing yet another blind date? I could argue it both ways.

I think life was simpler when Yenta made a match, like in "Fiddler on the Roof" — and that was that. You got a partner and you made the most of it. Then along comes the second act and Hodel wants something more out of the deal. This is when Tevya turns to the audience and asks in disbelief, "Love?" Believe me, there is always something more. There is always a better parking spot to be had.

I think this is why you find so many people trying JDate, personal ads (see right) and matchmaking services — let somebody else figure it out for you. These are the valet parking guys of romance. When you sign on with one of these outfits, you’re essentially saying, "There’s a big tip in it if you can find a parking spot for me, pal."

I’m not surprised that people have so much trouble finding one another. Men and women are taught completely different things about relationships and marriage and develop wildly disparate world views. I was sitting next to a woman on a plane the other day whose copy of Vogue magazine had a 30-page wedding pullout section, with stories on everything from gowns to "honeymoon secrets." By contrast, my copy of Details, a popular men’s magazine, had a two-page story titled, "How to Have the Perfect One-Night Stand." The only thing the two magazines could agree on is that both of you could do better.

Women are arming themselves with this vital information. There is a whole section on the magazine stand that they read when men are not looking. Women are armed and dangerous. They are gearing up for the big game, and most men don’t even know there’s a game on. There are no magazines for grooms, and what would it say if one did exist? "Good Luck"? "Seven Ways to Pretend You’re Paying Attention"? "See Ya Later, Sucker"?

I’m happy to report that married life is agreeing with Doug and Debbie. They are happily parked. There was a moment at the end of their beautiful wedding ceremony, when they turned around to the congregation, facing the world for the first time as man and wife, they received a standing ovation from their guests. It was a lovely moment, but Doug admitted later that it was the first "standing O" he’d ever gotten in his life. Shaking his head, he said, "It’s all downhill from here."

J.D. Smith is parked @ www.lifesentence.net.


I didn’t do much today but drive.

No one died. No jobs were lost or won. I didn’t run into an old boyfriend, have an epiphany or a traffic accident. I just climbed into my car and pointed it across the Mojave desert.

My head was like one of those deluxe crayon boxes with every conceivable shade of mood – and that was only between Primm and Barstow.

I was just hitting one of my stomachache-inducing purple moods when I pulled up to a Shell station for gas. As I stepped out of the car, desert air surprised my lungs like a warm drink. I stretched my cramping legs against the rear bumper and felt my mood lighten. I moved slowly and deliberately, feeling as if I were in a movie, or at least a ZZ Top video.

I think most of us former joint-custody kids have a special relationship with transit.

Travel is something we did a lot of during our formative years. In my case, I flew back and forth from San Francisco to Los Angeles every month starting at age 4. Later, when my dad moved up north, I took the Golden Gate Transit, the most glamorous sounding of all my travel mediums, but a bus all the same. I logged quite a few travel hours in my day, reading Mad Magazine, eating M&M’s and not knowing if I was leaving home or heading toward it.

All of which is a perhaps long-winded way of saying that the road makes me nostalgic and nervous and hopeful all at the same time. It was a little much today.

One minute, it was like Jean-Paul Sartre was sitting in the back seat telling me to pull over and walk off into the mountains. “It is your responsibility to control your own destiny,” he seemed to say to me in his uppity French accent. Moments later, I would be seized with the beauty of something banal, like a bright red Del Taco sign. Was I having a nervous breakdown, an existential moment or just one mean case of PMS?

There’s not much a nosh can’t fix, so I veered off toward the aforementioned glorious Del Taco sign and got a burrito for the road. Jean-Paul left in disgust.

Something of his essence remained, however. In the crayon box of moods in my head, the blackest is always brought on by thoughts of what I’m not doing. There’s nothing so wrong about my life except the idea that I could be wasting it. The things I’m not doing get big and bossy. I obsessed on that for miles and just sort of bored myself into a better mood.

The greatest thing about the road, what lures me back, is the temporary freedom from the overwhelming need to be doing something more important with my life and the sadness that I don’t know how. On the road, I’m off the hook. I can’t be writing, volunteering or improving myself in any way because I’m just driving. I can be a total loser as long as I obey the rules of the road and manage not to spill too much taco sauce on myself.

When I finally got home, my face was wan and road weary. My heart was racing and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was clammy and my skin didn’t seem to fit. Parts of me, it seemed, were left on the road, like something that fell off the back of a truck.

I’m searching for a happy ending here, but to what? I didn’t do much today but drive.