Pico-Robertson: Live in the Hood

David and Deena Brandes’ house burned down on June 29. It was a small, three-bedroom house on a quiet street in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, where they havelived for several years with their young daughters, Aviva and Noa.
On that day, David was having lunch in his study. His kids had gone off to sleep-away camp a day earlier, and he was about to start on a writing project that was behind schedule.
That’s when the doorbell rang. It was the house painter, and he told David that there was smoke coming from the roof. David asked the painter to get a garden hose while he called 911 and quickly grabbed some framed family photos, which he brought to the next-door neighbor.
When he returned a minute later, the smoke inside the house had become “billowy white.” While the painter tried to spray water, David grabbed more family photos, this time with a wet towel on his face, and he again brought them to his neighbor.
When he returned, a ball of fire tore through the ceiling. By now, instead of billowy white smoke, there were hundreds of surreal, ash-grey “floaters” orbiting throughout the house. The first of 13 fire trucks had already arrived, and one of the firemen asked David to immediately leave the house.
In all the commotion, with fire sirens blazing and neighbors starting to gather on the street, David had forgotten about Ripley, his golden retriever mutt. It was too dangerous for him to re-enter the house, so he yelled for the dog while a fireman looked inside. After a few minutes, from seemingly out of nowhere, Ripley quietly appeared. He had been hiding under the dining room table.
Outside, a neighbor had already alerted David’s wife, who was on her way over. While the firemen worked quickly and diligently to control the fire, David’s personal doctor, also a neighbor, showed up. His first words to David were something to the effect: “Please move into our house tonight.”
As he recalls it now, over a Diet Coke and a cellphone ringing with calls from insurance agents and adjusters, David’s initial emotion was not one of devastation, or even deep loss, but simply shock. When someone had suggested that he and his wife should still go on a cruise they had planned, the idea seemed so ludicrous that he couldn’t answer. The first night, when they were sleeping at their friends’ house, he remembers having his eyes open all night, and feeling as if his system had “shut down.”
When his hosts asked him if he wanted privacy, he replied that privacy was the last thing he wanted.
He was realizing how closely his house and his life were intertwined. His house was the sanctuary where his family was happy and safe, and where he had the peace of mind to do his writing, which is how he makes his living. This sanctuary, which had walls full of memories, was now ripped apart.
It didn’t take long for the sense of shock to give way to a sense of deep gratitude. David and Deena received so many offers to “stay at our place” or “eat at our place,” so many Shabbat invitations, so many messages reaching out to help, they had to be careful not to offend anyone when they kept saying “Sorry, we’re already invited, but maybe another day.”
It seemed that every time they turned around, a neighbor would offer something. A meal. A coffee. Clothing (they were lucky that the kids had taken a lot of their clothes to camp). Household items. Anything and everything.
Thanks to this outpouring of support from friends and neighbors too numerous to name (including fellow congregants at Beth Jacob Congregation), during the past two months of their ordeal — and it has been an ordeal — at no time did David and his family ever feel alone.
As I reflect on this story, part of me is in awe at the power of a neighborhood to rise to the occasion during a time of crisis. When the Brandes house came down, the same conviction that animates one to go to synagogue on Shabbat or drive a kid to school was there to help shelter a neighbor. I love that.
Another part of me looks at what happens in this neighborhood every day, when there is no crisis, no emergency, nothing special going on. I think of a neighbor calling from the market to see if anyone needs some challah; or another neighbor offering to take the kids to the park; or yet another neighbor letting a father know about a Shabbat drop-in party for his teenage daughter, and the list goes on; and I love that, too.
We’re in that time of year when Judaism seems larger than life. The Book of Life. The Days of Awe. The Day of Atonement. It’s easy to get caught up in the high drama of these big days, and forget that our Judaism lives and breathes during the quiet little days, after the big show is over and we all go home.I remember that before his house burned down, my friend David would always tell me about the little things he loved about his neighborhood — those quiet, everyday gestures among neighbors that accumulate over the years to create a real community.
He didn’t need the drama of a fire to know he was surrounded by an extended family. He knew it all along.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Live in the hood: ‘last time the shoulder no good’

If you want to get the full flavor of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, there’s no better season than this time of year. When mainstream Judaism talks about the HighHolidays, they usually mean one or two days of Rosh Hashanah, and then the Big Day a week later. In the Hood, they don’t talk about days, they talk about the Month.
Think of the Month as 30 days of religious dominoes, from lighting the first candle of Rosh Hashanah to passing out after the last shot of vodka at Simchat Torah, and in between, a whirlwind of shul-going, spiritual atonement, sukkah-building, carousing and, of course, lots and lots of food.And in this part of town, you can’t say food, especially kosher food, without saying Pico Glatt.
When one of the Perfectly Coiffed Frum Supermoms came over a few weeks ago to work with my new nanny on creating a super kosher kitchen, every third word out of her mouth was Pico Glatt.
Before you actually enter Pico Glatt, which is across from Factor’s Famous Deli (“celebrating 58 years!”) and next to Paul’s Tailoring (“I’ve been here 26 years!”), you have the option of perusing a collage of overlapping fliers on the entrance doors. There’s one for Shira Smiles that covers up one for Milano Collection Wigs, which is next to fliers for David Sudaley Music, Rabbi Noach Orlevek (“Secrets of Successful Living”) for bubble.com (Juicy Bite flavour) and, among others, one for Bamboo mats to cover the sukkah (“lowest price guaranteed!”).
When you do enter, the first thing that hits you is an explosive aroma of competing spices. If the word ethnic had a smell, this would be it.The second thing that will probably hit you when you enter Pico Glatt is a shopping cart. You see, the first turn around the first aisle is in a constant state of gridlock, so I would suggest the alternate route eastbound between the checkout counter and the cereal display.
The interior look of Pico Glatt can best be described as “Busy Closet.” As you navigate the narrow aisles, you might come across a display of a new Cabernet Sauvignon, right next to a case of pre-powdered Latex gloves, just behind bottles of Downy fabric softener (Spanish only). If you wanted to put a positive spin on this look, you’d call it “Deliciously Random.”
Should you experience any frustration from either the gridlock or the difficulty of locating items, it’s quickly alleviated by the joy of watching Persian women order their meat from Hispanic meat cutters. (“If I keep it in the refrigerator for tomorrow, it’s OK?” “Last time the shoulder no good”).
The Persian influence is definitely happening at Pico Glatt. Nestled among the gefilte fish and chopped livers are prominent displays of Persian rice, Persian bread (Tehran Sangak) and several varieties of dried fruit and nuts. A brand of rice (Aftab Basmati) comes in bags of thick, rope-like material that they probably used in Mesopotamia, and that I might use as an art project with the kids.
If you’re like me and you like your advertising raw and innocent, keep an eye out for the signs at Pico Glatt. There are two in particular that have stuck to my neurons: one for Milky (“enjoyed 75 million times a year in Israel”) and one for an Israeli food product (Pikante Salads) that actually promoted “more weight”.
The nice thing about randomness is that it’s cool if nothing makes sense. For example, right below (and I mean right below) a big sign that says SUSHI is a beautiful display of fried chicken breasts, a meat-spinach-bean dish and Persian rice (day-glo orange). In fact, when I finally located the sushi, it was in-between small containers of sugar-coated almond slivers and saffron rice puddings. I bet you the Perfectly Coiffed Frum Supermoms don’t see the charm in this kind of scavenger hunting.
There is a little sign that says “If you need help reaching or carrying an item, please ask an employee to help.”
Notice that the sign says nothing about finding an item. Anyhow, good luck trying to figure out who the employees are, since most of the employees I saw looked just like the customers.
It’s true that there’s nothing like the conveniences of the modern supermarket: bright lights, wide aisles, clean layout, big selection, easy parking and, of course, perky people in uniforms who help you find everything you need.You won’t find perky at Pico Glatt. But if you want to really feel your Judaism, if you want to taste the “bottom of the cholent” where the rice is sticky and everything is real, you could do worse than this old-world food market on the edge of the Hood, with the big Month fast approaching.
Think of the Month as 30 days of religious dominoes, from lighting the first candle of Rosh Hashanah to passing out after the last shot of vodka at Simchat Torah.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Westside Jews Divided on Recall

Exploring the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, where Republicans once were the smallest of minorities, I happened upon a nest of recall supporters who were also great admirers of President Bush. Talking to them, I got a sense of the changing politics of Los Angeles’ Jewish community, where votes can no longer be taken for granted.

They were students of Netan Eli High School, seated around a table in the lunch-room, talking politics. I’d happened on the school the previous afternoon while looking for people to interview about the Oct. 7 election. I introduced myself to Rabbi Sholom D. Weil, the principal, and general studies principal Avi Erblich, and they were nice enough to set up a meeting with students.

Eight students were in the group: Yaakov Kurtzman, Yoni Celnik, Akiva Leyton, Mordechai Moadeb, Yosef Cohen, Michael Cohen, Daniel Mayer and Sam White. Joining us were the rabbi and Erblich.

Their school, with a student body of 30 young men, is traditional and Orthodox in its orientation. It was founded seven years ago by members of the Persian community, but in recent years has enrolled students from all parts of Jewish Los Angeles and now represents what Weil said is a cross section of the community.

Some had watched at least part of the debate the night before. "A lot of yelling," said White. "It made [Gov. Gray] Davis look good and that’s hard to do," Kurtzman said. "I liked how Arnold did," Maadeb said. "He’s an actor," Leyton replied. "He can play any role."

Remembering when Pico-Robertson was just as much a cinch to vote Democratic as the New York Yankees were to make the American League baseball playoffs every year, I was struck by the support of the recall by some of the more vocal members of the group, and the hostility toward Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

They seemed particularly riled over the way the full extent of the state’s budget crisis was not revealed by Davis until after the election. "There’s no excuse to lose that much money," Maadeb said.

Weil said, "after the election, he pulls something on us, this big, big deficit. He hid it during the election campaign. It was not a criminal act but morally speaking, it was immoral."

When I asked what they thought of Bustamante, the Democrats’ leading candidate for governor if the recall wins, the response was negative. "Do you want to vote for someone who wants to give California back to Mexico?" Mayer said.

He was referring to Bustamante’s association when he was a young man with MEChA, the Spanish acronym for Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan. Aztlan is a term used by some activists to describe the American Southwest, once part of Mexico, and MEChA rhetoric has spoken of reclaiming it.

When one student said the association occurred in Bustamante’s college days, Layton replied that people don’t "change much in 20 years."

What was most striking was the complete support for President Bush. There was no wavering, no doubts about the president. He was their man.

Elsewhere, I ran into other opinions. At Starbucks at South Robertson and Pico Boulevards, I chatted with Gary Manacher, an actor who does voice-overs. He was reading the morning papers — the Los Angeles and New York Times — when I interrupted him.

"I am categorically against the recall," he said. "If I have to live with Bush, I can certainly live with Gray."

A few days before, I visited Rabbi Robert Gan of Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park, west of Pico-Robertson. We talked in his study, where he was beginning to prepare his sermons for the High Holidays. The American Civil Liberties Union suit to delay the election until March was still alive and the rabbi was concerned with the issues it had raised.

If the recall moves ahead so swiftly, he said, it "leaves people out of the process and it is something we should be concerned with." Moreover, he said, "if you don’t like a person … vote him out next time." The recall process, he said, is "very scary."

Obviously, opinion in the once largely Democratic Los Angeles Jewish community is divided on the recall. Since I’m writing this more than a week before the election (we have early deadlines here at The Journal), I’m not going to be stupid enough to guess about the outcome.

But think beyond the recall. My conversation with the eight young men at Natan Eli High School indicated something. They were smart and well-informed. Their convictions were well-rooted and, as demonstrated by their feelings about President Bush, most friendly to the Republicans.

They may very well carry their beliefs through life, probably spreading them, as they move on to college, jobs, family and community life. Is this what Ronald Reagan used to call a prairie fire?

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 bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.