Illuminating the Jewish chapters of the Los Angeles story
Los Angeles, to the first-time visitor, can seem something of an enigma. Its vast physical spread often spawns negative stereotypes of a city beset by traffic, smog and the absence of a core. And yet, set against this rather dark image, is Los Angeles’ status as a city of global significance, a massive economic and cultural engine whose ethnic mix reflects the way the United States will increasingly look in the 21st century.
It also is a place whose ethos of constant mobility resists the kind of rigid social stratification that many older European and American cities possess. Indeed, what makes Los Angeles such a source of constant appeal to new arrivals is the opportunity to refashion oneself on a constantly evolving, sun-drenched urban landscape.
The Jewish chapter in this story has hardly been a marginal one. As the second-largest Jewish community in North America, the Los Angeles Jewish community boasts a vast range of cultural, religious, ethnic and institutional diversity — evident to the casual observer of the neighborhoods known as Fairfax, Pico-Robertson, North Hollywood, Encino or the neighboring city of Calabasas. But, as important Jews have been a constant and powerful presence in the making and re-making of Los Angeles. The city has invariably made and remade them, as well, enabling Jews to gain prominence in Los Angeles’ economic, cultural and political life.
It is this dynamic relationship that stands at the heart of an ongoing research project undertaken by the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and the Autry National Center here that will culminate in a major museum exhibition on the L.A. Jewish experience at the Autry in 2009.
To give a flavor of the way Jews have remade Los Angeles, we recall the role played by three pioneering personalities over the past century and a half of the city’s history. The earliest of the three was Harris Newmark, who came from Prussia to Los Angeles in 1853 as an ambitious 19-year-old in search of opportunity. Soon after his arrival, Newmark learned Spanish and English, the two languages of the city, in order to establish himself as a merchant and wholesaler. As he made his way to economic success, Newmark helped found the Hebrew Benevolent Society and Congregation B’nai B’rith (today Wilshire Boulevard Temple).
But characteristic of his era and of his fellow Jewish pioneers (who hardly counted a minyan in the 1850s), Newmark was not content to remain within the city’s small Jewish circles. He had a deep commitment to civic involvement and served as a founder and trustee of the Los Angeles Public Library, helped to bring the Southern Pacific Railroad to the county and eventually donated a portion of the property where the present City Hall stands. Newmark has particular value to the student of L.A.’s past, because he left behind a richly detailed memoir, “Sixty Years in Southern California , 1853-1913.”
Another Jewish pioneer from a somewhat later period was Rosalind Wiener (later Wyman). In 1953, Wiener was elected to the Los Angeles City Council, the first woman and the first Jew in 50 years to hold a seat on the Council. At 22 years old, she was also the youngest person ever to serve on the council.
Wiener’s election, together with that of her sometime ally Edward Roybal (the first Latino elected to council in nearly 70 years, in 1949), marked the beginning of an important shift in L.A. political life — an opening of the electoral process beyond the hegemony of white conservatives. It was this opening that laid the foundation for the alliance between African Americans and Jews in the 1960s — the vaunted Bradley Coalition — that altogether reshaped the political landscape of Los Angeles by electing Tom Bradley, an African American, as mayor. Rosalind Wiener Wyman’s election also marked the rise of a well-known phenomenon in today’s intersecting worlds of politics and fundraising — the “Westside,” a codeword for wealthy, liberal and often Jewish patrons of Democratic politics.
The third and final Jewish figure to be mentioned who has helped remake Los Angeles is Eli Broad. Born in New York but raised in Michigan, Broad made his substantial fortune in home-building and finance, two related fields with a very significant Jewish presence in Los Angeles. For the past decade, Broad has committed himself chiefly to philanthropy, supporting a wide array of artistic, cultural, and educational causes in town and beyond. But perhaps his boldest plan is his desire to remake downtown Los Angeles. Broad has invested heavily through his own money, his fundraising and his efforts to persuade others to help in transforming Grand Avenue and the area near Frank Gehry’s landmark Walt Disney Concert Hall into an area of bustling activity, marked by great architectural and cultural distinction. Indeed, he has spoken often of the goal of making Grand Avenue a kind of Champs Elysees of Los Angeles. Echoing the visions of both New York’s Robert Moses and Pittsburgh’s Andrew Carnegie, Broad has become the leading civic patron of Los Angeles today.
The three figures mentioned here, two transplants and a native daughter, share a vision of an civic commitment to a vibrant Los Angeles. Their extensive involvement in the making of Los Angeles attests less to their Jewish practices and beliefs than to their ability to play a pivotal role in expanding the city’s political, cultural and economic horizons. Without question, Los Angeles has risen as a result of the many diverse ethnic groups who make up its cultural fabric — including Latinos, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Russians, Persians and Armenians. And yet, it is impossible to conceive of this city without the Jews — the captains of industry, studio moguls, political activists, cultural creators and hundreds of thousands of others from all corners of the globe who have ceaselessly remade its image.
David N. Myers teaches Jewish history and directs the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA. Karen S. Wilson is a doctoral student in U. S. history at UCLA.