Jews Stick to Their Turf
Philosopher Martin Buber once wrote that Jews had a "vocation of uniqueness."
However much Jews may differ around the world, for most of their history, and in most places, they have always been somewhat apart from others in their attitudes, how they live and cope with changing conditions.
The most recent census data and a largely unreleased 1997 survey of roughly 2,000 L.A. Jewish households show that this is still the case, perhaps most particularly here in Los Angeles. By its nature, Los Angeles is a cauldron of ethnic change — a city increasingly Latin and Asian, with a high degree of racial intermixing. It is a city of protean geography that sprawls like a European nation state across a vast territory.
Conventional wisdom holds that the well-heeled population is spearheading this out-migration and that this sprawling out is continuing, particularly among the better-heeled population. By rights, Jews should be joining them; they are considerably wealthier, better educated and more likely to be homeowners than most Angelenos.
Yet, unlike most white Angelenos, or middle-class minorities, for that matter, Jews are sticking to their turf, not only in Los Angeles but in other key urban centers. Today’s Jewish population in L.A. County, unlike the white population, which dropped by over a million, actually grew slightly from 503,000 to around 520,000.
"Jews are more likely to move or stay in urban areas in places like Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, "suggests demographer Bruce Phillips, who conducted the surveys. "Jews don’t seem to be following the dispersion pattern of whites. They seem to have urban values and stay in the core community."
Phillips, in fact, suggests that Jews in Los Angeles are even more urban-centric than their counterparts elsewhere. The reasons for this may vary. For one thing, Los Angeles has many areas — such as the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles — that are urban places but still offer what in the East may be considered a "suburban" quality of life. Brentwood or even Encino, let’s face it, offer more comforts than say Brooklyn or even Chicago’s Near Northside.
Perhaps most surprising, according to Phillips, there has not been a massive shift, as many have expected, of Jews to places like Orange County and the Conejo Valley. Sure, the populations have expanded there, but for the most part, the largest concentrations of Jews today are where they were a decade or two ago: in the Pico-Robertson area, the Westside and, largest of all, the San Fernando Valley, even though the populations of outlying areas in growing the percentage of the urban population has remained constant.
"Los Angeles is becoming the Jewish neighborhood of Southern California," Phillips said. "Jews in Los Angeles," he added, are usually "more Jewish," than those who move to the Inland Empire, Orange County or Ventura County. They tend to be less intermarried and more of their friends are Jewish.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that L.A. Jewry is going back to the old days of the Boyle Heights shtetl. The dispersion and integration that took place in the ’50s to the Westside and the Valley, Phillips suggested, is not being reversed. But the post-1970 geographical patterns seem to be solidifying. Today, more than 40 percent of Jewish households in Los Angeles are in the Valley while one-third are on the Westside. The Valley continues to register the biggest gains, while the population in the central city continues to shrink.
Culturally, think of it as three levels of Yiddishkayt. In the most heavily Jewish areas — Encino, Beverly Hills, Fairfax, Pico-Robertson — its heavy-duty ethnic identity. The percentage of households with mostly Jewish friends rises more than 60 percent while intermarriage stays at roughly 20 percent. The levels of temple affiliation are also the highest in these precincts.
In more mixed, but still Jewish areas like Valley Village, where I live, around 50 percent say most of their closest friends are Jewish, while half are intermarried. It’s not a guilded ghetto, but ethnicity has not been twinkie-ized.
In the High Desert, the Inland Empire, the Bay Cities and San Pedro, that’s where you have true melting pot Jews. As few as one in five has mostly Jewish friends and lower levels of affiliation are the norm. The intermarriage rate often reaches over 65 to 70 percent. Jews, on the whole, are simply less Jewish on the periphery, Phillips suggested.
But it is not just the geographic imperative that’s in play here. Other forces are at work. For one thing, the community, after becoming more native-born for generations, is once again becoming more dominated by people from elsewhere. According to Phillips, for example, roughly one in five L.A. Jews was born abroad, with the largest groupings from the former Soviet Union, Iran and Israel. When their children are added, some 45 percent of L.A. Jews have at least one foreign-born parent.
The immigrant influence is likely one force clearly changing L.A. Jewish culture. Many children of Israeli and Iranian Jews, for example, learn Hebrew, Farsi and Sephardic traditions that were relatively rare here a decade ago but are becoming part of Jewish life.
"They are really changing Los Angeles," suggested Steve Gold, a professor of sociology at the Michigan State University who has studied Israeli and Russian immigrants in Los Angeles extensively. "People of our generation [third generation, native born] don’t open up delis, run day-care systems, teach at day schools. They [the immigrants] are setting the cultural pattern."
But it’s not just language and tradition that’s changing, Gold said. Russians, Israelis and Iranians also have a vastly different political orientation than native-born Jews. "They are anti-communist and conservative," Gold said. "They don’t have the liberal traditions we have."
If this is true, they may well be contributing to another, much discussed possible movement of Jews toward more conservative politics. The survey conducted by Phillips, for example, found that Jews over 60 were dyed-in-the-wool Democrats — some 75 percent. But less than half of those under 40 shared that generally liberal party. Republicans, as rare among older Jews as elephants on Fairfax — roughly 6 percent — registered a respectable 25 percent among the under-40 crowd.
What do all these fascinating findings suggest about the future of L.A. Jews? Perhaps several things — an increasing influence of immigrants and their children and a generally more conservative political tone. But one thing is certain: Jews in Los Angeles will remain a unique population, and, most important of all, they are also likely to remain.
Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow with the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University and the Milken Institute. He is currently writing a book on the history of cities for The Modern Library.