The faint of heart should not apply for this job: Needed, a sensitive but thick-skinned person who can get along with a combative mixture
of Los Angeles’ Jews, blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, students, retired people, lawyers, doctors, homeless and many, many more.
Karen Bass, an African American community leader, figured she could take the heat. It couldn’t be more difficult than her time as a physician’s assistant in the high-pressure County-USC Medical Center emergency ward, or the years she spent leading the Community Coalition, uniting often-feuding South Central L.A. blacks and Latinos in a campaign to improve neglected schools and stop drug-dealing, prostitution and a proliferation of liquor stores.
She got the job, which is representing the 47th District in the state Assembly. Bass, a Democrat, was elected to the Legislature in November’s election.
Her district is a multiethnic mélange that extends from affluent, predominantly white Westwood Village to working-class, mostly black and Latino Southwestern Los Angeles. She’s also got Crenshaw, Culver City, Koreatown, the well-off, mainly black neighborhoods of View Park and Windsor Hills and the Westside communities of Rancho Park, West Los Angeles, Mar Vista and Palms, with their substantial Jewish population. European Americans comprise 31 percent of the population, African Americans 29 percent, Latinos 25 percent and Asian Pacific Islanders just over 10 percent.
Journal readers were introduced to Bass by my fellow columnist, Raphael J. Sonnenshein, after she won the Democratic primary in March, which assured her of victory in November in the heavily Democratic district. He said her win seemed to herald a revival of the black-Jewish coalition that elected Tom Bradley mayor in 1973 and, a few years later, collapsed in circumstances too complicated to explain in a column of this size.
I don’t know whether Bass, even with her medical training, can resuscitate that long-dead coalition. But her immediate task may be just as difficult, balancing the interests of the Ethiopians, Koreans, Mexicans, blacks, Jews and others she now represents and harnessing the energy in her district’s dynamic neighborhoods to get some action out of Sacramento.
I visited her last week in her campaign office in the rear of a medical building at Jefferson and La Cienega boulevards. Bass, 51, the divorced mother of a daughter who attends Loyola Marymount University, was the same, friendly yet determined person that I first met on the streets of South Central Los Angeles in the early ’90s, when she was leading a Community Coalition demonstration against a liquor store.
The neighborhood was rapidly changing from solidly African American to a mixture of blacks and Latinos. Many of the old-time black residents didn’t like the newcomers. The feeling was often mutual. Journalists and other habitual skeptics doubted that the African Americans and Latinos could work together.
The Community Coalition understood that differences could be put aside in the face of a common enemy. And everyone agreed that a liquor store owner tolerating parking lots filled with drug dealers and prostitutes was an enemy. Nobody wanted their kids walking past that mess on their way to school.
“It was a lot easier to cross ethnic lines at the community level, when everyone is working on a project together,” she said
It will be much more difficult to find common interests in Bass’ 47th Assembly District. It is a gerrymandered product of political technicians who, using computer analysis, searched out every Democratic household in a broad area to create a foolproof but odd-looking Democratic district. A rich homeowner near Westwood Village doesn’t have much in common with a working-class apartment dweller in Southwestern L.A., except that they are both Democrats.
Trying to find common interests, Bass held meetings throughout the district. Everyone expressed their local concerns. Some loved the idea of an Exposition Boulevard rapid transit line, while others hated it. But she found a common concern about the public schools.
“People were adamant,” she said. “They were willing to increase taxes to improve education.”
As part of her effort to mobilize her diverse community, Bass intends to appoint a full-time staff member to represent her in the Jewish community. It will be someone “who is knowledgeable and will focus on the problems of the community,” Bass said. Her girlhood home was around Fairfax Avenue and Venice Boulevard.
“I grew up exposed to the Jewish community since I was a small child,” she said.
Bass faces a intimidating challenge. The Democratic-controlled Legislature has a do-nothing reputation and still seems intimidated by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The gerrymandered districts, drawn for the convenience of Democratic and Republican political bosses, split communities with common interests. There is a huge turnover of Assemblymembers, limited to three two-year terms. In that atmosphere, making changes in Sacramento will be difficult. But from demonstrating in the neighborhoods of South L.A. to charming rich people in Westwood, Bass has shown an ability to forge common bonds in a diverse city.
Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at
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.
The Heimish Home Stretch
Finding a nice Jewish neighborhood to live in can be a tricky process if you’re moving to a new city. Realtors might not be able to tell you if the house you are interested in is near a synagogue, if there are Jewish schools nearby, what sort of a community you are moving into or whether there is a community in the area.
HeimishHome.com, a new Web site that wants to be the one-stop shop for researching Jewish neighborhoods. Heimishhome has listings from realtors in different neighborhoods around America with special features that allow the users to check how close the house is to the nearest shul, school, kosher restaurant or mikvah. There are also editorials on the site that offer thumbnail descriptions of the different communities. Thinking of moving to Cherry Hill, N.J., but aren’t sure what awaits you there? Log on to Heimishhome, where you will find out that Cherry Hill “is blessed with all the necessities a Jewish family needs and enjoys a reputation for hospitality, warmth, and friendliness.”
Alon Tamir, a 22-year-old Australian Yeshiva University computer science graduate said he started the site after he got married and realized he had no idea which community he wanted to live in.
“Here you have an infinite number of choices, and I realized there was no one place you could go or one group of people you could speak to where you can find out about the community [and whether] it would be a place where you could feel comfortable about having a Jewish life,” he said.
Through his online connections, Tamir eventually decided that Teaneck, N.J., was the place for him.
Currently the site gets 150,000 hits a month and has about 300 listings, and it is slowly becoming a place where new communities or communities in need of revival can broadcast their wares to new customers.
Tamir envisions that it won’t be long before the site has thousands of listings from all over the world.
“People say to me, ‘How come no one ever thought of this before?'” Tamir said. “‘It makes our lives so much easier!'”
For more information log on to www.heimishhome.com .
Q & A With David Grunwald
David Grunwald is agitated. The chief executive of L.A. Family Housing Corp. grows ever more upset as he details the indifference many Angelenos feel toward the population his nonprofit group serves: the homeless and those one or two paychecks away from being on the streets. From liberal Brentwood to conservative Pasadena, most Southern California residents don’t want homeless shelters in their neighborhoods and oppose the construction of high-density, affordable housing that could help thousands of families. NIMBY is alive and well here.
With the housing market on fire, Grunwald said the situation for the region’s poorest is likely to worsen. Housing prices northward of $300,000 for dinky starter homes and average monthly rents of more than $1,200 might make homeowners and landlords happy, but they have taken a toll on the cab drivers, waitresses and mechanics trying to eke out a living. Many have found themselves living on friends’ couches or commuting three or four hours daily from the Inland Empire and beyond. Simply put: the sizzling real estate market and dearth of affordable housing has made daily life a struggle for some of the region’s poorest.
Grunwald and L.A. Family Housing, which will hold its annual dinner and fundraiser on Dec. 10 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, have worked hard on behalf of those people. The agency, which has an annual budget of $9 million, has provided assistance to more than 62,000 homeless and low-income Southern Californians since its founding in 1983. Last year, L.A. Family Housing served nearly 14,600 people at emergency shelters, transitional living centers and with life-counseling programs and support designed to steer homeless families into permanent homes.
Grunwald, a trained attorney with a master’s degree in public policy from Duke University, has held a variety of high-profile positions in the past decade. In the mid-1990s, he helped establish human and labor rights policies in Cambodia under the auspices of the AFL-CIO and the United States Agency for International Development. Grunwald, 41, later became director of the HIV & AIDS Legal Services Alliance, a consortium of HIV agencies in Los Angeles County.
He spoke to the Journal about the city’s housing problems and what L.A. Family Housing is doing to alleviate them.
The Jewish Journal: How bad is Los Angeles’ affordable housing problem?
David Grunwald: Southern California’s housing crisis is über bad. There simply isn’t enough housing to keep pace with demand. We need about 8,000 new homes a year to meet demand and we are only producing about 4,000. This has put extreme pressure on housing prices — the median housing price for a single family home is almost $320,000. Even with good mortgage rates, a family would need a combined income of about $90,000 to qualify for a mortgage on a modest home. This makes homeownership unreachable for almost 70 percent of Angelenos. An average two-bedroom apartment rents for about $1,250 a month. A family of four needs a combined income of about $45,000 annually to support this rent. A recent study by a think-tank at USC forecasts that Los Angeles will grow by 3 million new residents by 2010. Where will they all live?
JJ: Politicians seems to pay scant attention to homelessness and affordable housing. Why the indifference?
DG: Actually, in response to Los Angeles’ housing shortage, Los Angeles’ mayor recently launched a new initiative to increase the city’s investment in workforce and affordable housing development. This important initiative calls for a dramatic expansion of the city’s current investment in housing from $10 million last year to $100 million annually by 2005.
While this new investment is a critical first step to addressing the city’s housing crisis, most local politicians, in response to hostile neighborhood associations, avoid affordable housing development in their community.
JJ: How does a lack of affordable housing hurt the economy?
DG: Availability of decent, reasonably priced housing is vital to supporting a vibrant workforce in our city. Without more housing there will be fewer people to fill our service jobs as well as the jobs located in our skyscrapers, office buildings and retail centers. Business growth will slow, our economy will recede and all of us will feel the pain.
JJ: Tell me about some of the more important initiatives L.A. Housing is currently undertaking.
DG: L.A. Family Housing is embarking on new partnership with private-sector investors and developers to rehab and build hundreds of affordable single-family homes over the next three to five years. Our new homeownership program will help hard-working families become first-time homebuyers. More importantly, we believe that by turning renters into homeowners, we are empowering our clients to become good neighbors and strong community stakeholders.
JJ: What is your biggest frustration?
DG: Despite all our aggressive efforts to fight homelessness, the problems don’t go away. Ideally, our agency should put itself out of work by ending homelessness. Maybe homelessness and poverty are intractable problems. While I’m not yet willing to admit this, there are moments when I feel like we are powerless to change the forces the that lead people into a life of destitution.
The annual dinner and fundraiser will be held at 6 p.m., Dec. 10, at Beverly Hilton International Ballroom, 9876 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. For tickets, call Tarlov Associates at (310) 996-1188.
Where the End Justifies the Beans
Businessman Allen Gochnour is a regular at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on La Cienega Boulevard, and like many of the people who wait in the line that often stretches out the door, he’s not just there to grab a cup of java and run. Instead, the transplanted Pittsburgher hangs out to kibitz with the people behind the counter, who affectionately call him "customer of the year," answer the trivia question of the day and sip his Ultimate Ice Blended — a blended frozen slush of sweet milky coffee, before he continues with his day.
"This is what the world was intended for," said Gochnour, as he licks the whipped cream off his drink. "Kosher food, kosher coffee, a great place to sit down — Pittsburgh doesn’t have anything like this."
In fact, few cities do. In the battle of the bean, where chain stores like Starbucks and Peets compete to serve the strongest espressos and the frothiest cappuccinos to the hoards of caffeine addicts, Coffee Bean has distinguished itself — for the Jewish community at least — by its commitment to kashrut. Every drink, muffin, salad or sandwich is kosher.
Now, Coffee Bean is taking its relationship with the Jewish community one step further. In keeping with the company’s credo of opening community-friendly stores, the newest Coffee Bean store, in the heart of the Fairfax district, will be closed on Shabbat and will serve chalav yisrael milk (milk that has been supervised by a Jew) and pastries, to appeal to the ultra-Orthodox segment of the community.
Herbert Hyman opened the first Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in Brentwood in 1963, which sold — coffee beans and tea leaves. Later on, as customers became more interested in the products, Hyman set up a beverage-sampling bar, and later on started serving a full line of beverages.
Hyman started opening more stores, and in the 1980s there were about eight Coffee Bean stores in Los Angeles. But it wasn’t until one Coffee Bean employee threw some coffee and ice into a blender in the mid 1980s that the store really started to become popular.
"That drink was responsible for the worldwide frappe craze," said Melvin Elias, Coffee Bean’s COO. "That is when the growth machine started. The Ice Blendeds became very popular and it made the [store] units profitable. It was an innovative drink, and it took a long time for an established player like Starbucks to realize that we were onto something."
By the late 1990s, there were 60 Coffee Bean stores, and Hyman sold the business to Debbie and Sonny Sassoon — Los Angeles-based Orthodox Jews. The Sassoons decided to invest in the brand on a more macro scale to set it up for more accelerated expansion. Now there are 240 Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf stores in California, Arizona, Nevada and in 10 different Asian and Middle Eastern countries. About a year after buying the business, the Sassoons also decided to make the products kosher.
Many in the community speculate that the Sassoons went kosher because they didn’t want to be responsible for Jews going into the stores and eating non-kosher products, although the Sassoons would only say it’s good for business.
"The market for kosher is growing tremendously," said Debbie Sassoon, who researches and develops the new drinks for the company. "Less than 50 percent of consumers for kosher products are Orthodox Jews. It’s because the kosher stamp means more supervision — a good housekeeping seal of approval, and [people think] that kosher is cleaner and purer. Also being that Los Angeles is the second-largest Jewish community in America, we thought that there would be a benefit to having kosher certification for our products."
However, experts disagree that selling kosher products has wider business benefits.
"I don’t think non-Jews think that kosher means healthier. I don’t think anyone really has a clue what it means," said Hal Sieling of Hal Sieling and Associates, a marketing company for the restaurant business. "There are obviously people who really care about kosher — but they are not gentiles."
Sieling thinks that the coffee craze has yet to reach its peak — he estimates that designer coffee drinking will continue to be popular until about 2010, and that Starbucks, a business with $4 billion in revenues and 7,000 stores (250 in Los Angeles), will carry on dominating the coffee store market, providing Coffee Bean with the staunchest competition.
"Starbucks is the biggest player by a long shot," Sieling said. "Nobody else is close."
Coffee Bean currently makes more than $100 million in sales, and while they are expanding into new neighborhoods, they say they are not interested in giving Starbucks a run for their money nationally.
"We have no plans to be No. 2; no plans to expand to the East Coast, although it might be a possibility since we have hundreds of customers that want us to do that," Elias said. "We focus mostly on the Southern California core market, and will continue to do so. We are born and brewed in California — that is our home."
The Beverly and Alta Vista Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf will have its grand opening on Nov. 2, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., at 7235 Beverly Blvd.
Days of Learning and Bounty
Every Jewish community has its own sorrows to bear, but perhaps none quite so poignant as the Jews of Iraq. The life of the oldest continuous Jewish community in all the world has now come to an end, and has done so in the saddest possible way: in silence and without marker. In the capital city of Baghdad, no museums honor the glories of Babylonian Jewish culture; no monuments stand in memory of the Jews who lived there, or those who fled in terror; no schools cultivate the talents of future generations. Indeed, virtually no Jews remain at all in a city where, within the past century, Jews constituted roughly 20 percent of the population.
The Iraqi Jewish community — nearly all of whom immigrated to Israel in 1950 — can trace its origins as far back as the year 586 B.C.E., when, after the destruction of the First Temple, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Jerusalem and deported most its inhabitants to his kingdom. ("By the rivers of Babylon," says Psalm 137, "where we sat down and wept/when we remembered Zion.") In 525 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar was defeated by Cyrus, the king of Persia, who possessed a more tolerant attitude toward his Jewish subjects and invited them to return to Jerusalem and build a new Temple there. Many of the Babylonian exiles returned to Jerusalem, but many others decided to remain in Babylonia (now Iraq), where a large and stable Jewish community existed until our own time.
In Babylon, the Jewish community grew into the leading center of Jewish scholarship, producing, among other works, the Babylonian Talmud. In later centuries, the community established world-renowned educational institutions, including the academies of Sura and Pumbedita, led by the gaonim (genius rabbis) who answered Jewish religious questions posed to them from all over the world. The community was largely self-governing, ruled by the exilarchs, who had broad powers of taxation and even imprisonment.
Arab rule over Iraq came to an end in the 13th century, and over the next 700 years the land was dominated by a series of invaders, from the Mongols to the Persians and, finally, the Turks, who ruled from 1638 to 1917. As was true in that other great Jewish commercial center, Salonika, the Jews of Baghdad thrived under Ottoman rule, becoming centrally involved in the country’s commercial life. Jewish merchants traded with their contacts, often fellow Jews, throughout Europe and the Far East. (It was during this period that Iraqi Jewish traders began to settle in Calcutta, where the community became known as the "Baghdadi Jews" of India.) Baghdad’s Jews traded in a wide range of goods, notably textiles, silk, precious stones, metal, porcelain and various foods and liquors. As in Salonika, the city’s markets were run primarily by Jews and were closed for business on Saturdays.
The year 1908 brought the rebellion of the so-called "Young Turks" in Istanbul, who installed equal rights and freedom of religion, further improving the lot of the Iraqi Jews (several of whom were elected as Iraqi delegates to the Turkish parliament). Progress accelerated in 1917, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the country was placed under the British Mandate. By this time, the Jews of Baghdad had grown to perhaps 120,000. This period, between the world wars, was a kind of golden age for the Iraqi Jewish community. As David Kazzaz writes in "Mother of the Pound" (Sephor-Herman, 1999), his history and memoir of the Jews of Iraq, "In my memories of the 1920s in the city of my birth, it is always springtime."
Most of the houses in the city were made of brick, one or two stories high, surrounding a central courtyard. When the weather grew warmer, the air carried the scent of roses and orange blossoms from backyard gardens. Sabbath afternoons meant a leisurely stroll over the pontoon bridge that had been built across the Tigris River. In the summer, when it was very hot, families would haul cots up to the flat, tiled roofs of the houses and sleep under the stars; in the dry night air, the families drank water from porous clay jugs that evaporated freely and so kept their contents cool.
Mothers and fathers were called not by their first names, but rather as um (mother of) or abu (father of), followed by the name of the first-born son. For centuries the men of the community had worn Middle Eastern robes, and women had covered themselves from head to toe in black silk abayas, sometimes with a black veil; by the early decades of the 20th century the robes had been replaced by Western suits, and women shed the abaya except when going to the marketplace or to Muslim neighborhoods. They spoke Arabic or French or English when conducting business with the outside world, but to each other they also spoke Arabi mal Yehud (Judeo-Arabic), a language spoken only by the Jews of Iraq, consisting of a mixture of Arabic and Hebrew, as well as scattered words from Aramaic, Persian, Turkish, French and English. Judeo-Arabic was thus a kind of repository of the Iraqi community’s history; as with so many of the world’s traditional Jewish languages, it is today spoken mostly by the elderly.
Like language, cuisine is a repository of a community’s history, often in the vestigial foodways of foreign invaders long-since repelled. Some of this can be seen in Iraqi Jewish cuisine as well, such as in the Persian-inspired combination of fruit and meat (one popular dish is meatballs in apricot sauce). Traces of the Ottoman Empire also appear, for instance, in the use of filo in sweet and savory pastries. In general, the cooking was less influenced by Turkey than was that of other Jewish communities who were closer to the center of the Ottoman Empire. Iraqi Jewish cuisine featured lots of fresh fish, caught from the nearby Tigris; sweet-and-sour stews flavored with tamarind or pomegranate; a Sabbath chicken-and-rice dish perfumed with aromatic spices, including dried rose petals; meat-filled rice dumplings called kooba, in a variety of sauces; and perhaps most distinctive of all, a Passover charoset made from date syrup. Like the community that produced it, this was once one of the world’s most important Jewish cuisines, and one that today exists only in memory.
Ingriyi (Iraqi Sweet-and-Sour Meat with Eggplant)
Ingriyi was a festive dish among the Jews of Iraq. This recipe comes from Monique Daoud of Bethesda, Md., who left Iraq in 1972. At the time, she was one of the last few hundred Jews still living in Baghdad.
1Â¼4 cup olive or vegetable oil
1 onion, finely chopped
11Â¼2 pounds beef or lamb stew,
cut into 1-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 large eggplant, about 11Â¼2 pounds,
cut into 1Â¼2-inch slices
1 red pepper, thinly sliced
1 green pepper, thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, thinly sliced
1 cup tomato juice
1Â¼2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 4 lemons)
3 tablespoons sugar
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a Dutch oven or other large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until soft and translucent. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Add the meat to the pot, raise the heat to medium-high and continue cooking until the meat is well browned on all sides.
2. Cover the meat and onions with water. Cover the pot and bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for one hour, skimming off any foam that may develop on the surface. Drain and set aside.
3. While the meat is cooking, place the eggplant slices in a colander. Sprinkle generously with salt and cover with paper towels. Place a heavy object on top and let stand for 30 minutes, then rinse the slices and pat them dry with paper towels.
4. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. In batches, add the eggplant and cook until lightly browned on both sides. (Add a bit more oil if necessary.) Drain on paper towels.
5. Preheat the oven to 350F. Arrange the eggplant in a large baking dish. Cover with a layer of meat and onions, and then the tomatoes and peppers. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
6. In a small bowl, combine the tomato juice, lemon juice and sugar. Taste and adjust the flavoring as desired. Pour the mixture over the layered meat and vegetables.
7. Loosely cover with foil and cook for 1 to 11Â¼2 hours, until the meat is very tender. Transfer to a large serving platter and serve hot with rice.
Where Religion Meets Bohemia
“What on earth is that?” asks Jordan, a 27-year-old actor in Los Feliz.
He is staring at a dancing rabbi on a flatbed truck that is inching its way down Vermont Avenue, one of the main boulevards in Los Feliz.
Vermont has a certain bohemian air about it. Like Jordan, many of the people on the street — and there are a good number of them lounging around in the outdoor cafes — are artists of some kind, and quite a few look like they are transplants from Haight Ashbury. Most are wearing as little clothing as possible in the 90 degree heat, so the vision of a man in full rabbinical regalia (black hat, frock coat, long pants and beard), dancing to loud Jewish music blaring from loudspeakers on a truck, is curious, to say the least. Especially since the rabbi is being followed by a parade of about 200 people, who are singing along to the music and clapping their hands. A few of the them are holding a velvet chuppah, and one is bobbing along with a Sefer Torah in his hand.
The parade is to honor a new Sefer Torah that was donated to Chabad of Greater Los Feliz, and this scene — of the Russian shtetl coming to one of the hippest neighborhoods in Los Angeles — is an incongruous one, but to the Jewish community in Los Feliz, it is not uncommon. “Every Shabbos, we make it look like central La Brea and Fairfax,” says Rabbi Leibel Korf, 30, (the dancing rabbi) who came to Los Feliz four years ago to open up a Chabad house under the auspices of Rabbi Shlomo Cunin. “People sitting in the cafes who see us are amazed that this is Los Feliz.”
Chabad of Greater Los Feliz, located on 1727 N. Vermont Ave, ‘107, caters to what Korf calls a “unique” community. Like the rest of the population of Los Feliz, the Jews who are attracted to the neighborhood tend to be involved in artistic endeavors. “A lot of them are in the movie business,” Korf says of the 40 members who attend weekly, and the hundreds who come for holiday events and parties.
Los Feliz gained its artistic cachet years ago, when cheap rents attracted swarms of starving creative types who could not afford to live anywhere else. They gave the neighborhood its cool quotient. Now, as the neighborhood is becoming known as an up-and-coming, trendy place to live, the rents are rising, pushing out the types of people who gave the neighborhood its flair in the first place.
“Los Feliz has changed a lot since I moved here five years ago,” says Seth Menachem, 27, an actor who is a member of Chabad of Greater Los Feliz. “It’s now heavily gentrified, and the rents have skyrocketed. But still, it is not your typical doctor-and-lawyer community. People are more laid-back here, and you can feel the difference.”
Menachem, who was raised Reform, was attracted to Chabad of Greater Los Feliz because of its spirituality. However, he finds that Chabad house is as good a place for networking as it is for praying. “I’m working with two people who I met through Chabad on a TV show,” he says.
For Brooklyn-born Korf and his wife, Dvonye, Los Feliz was the realization of a lifetime goal. “My entire life I would sit at the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s farbrengens [talks] and he would tell us that we had to share Yiddishkayt with others,” he says. “I dreamed that I would come to a neighborhood that was completely different to being in a frum [religious] environment, and I would be able to share with the people there the great treasure that we have — the Torah.”
The new Sefer Torah, donated on June 23, was donated by Lisa Brahms, who passed away last July. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Brahms had started searching for spirituality and started studying with Korf.
“The weaker she was getting the more she was adopting spirituality, and she felt that her dying was a mission,” Korf says. “She totally transcended to a deeper appreciation of life, and so she wanted to share this with other people, which is why she commissioned a scribe to start writing the Sefer Torah.”
Chabad of Los Feliz will host “Jews in the Lotus,” Today’s Quest for
Spirituality And the Lure of the East, on Wednedsay, July 24, at 7:30
p.m. Featuring Rabbi Kravitz, founder of Jews for Judaism.