Max Podemski

City planner’s view, from shul to burger stand

Name: Max Podemski
Age: 33
Best-known for: Planning director at Pacoima Beautiful
Little known fact: “I’m like a freak who’s always been interested in cities. I would build cities out of paper when I was a little kid.”

Max Podemski grew up in Portland, Ore., an urban-planning mecca where regular exposure to terms such as “floor area ratio” permanently ingrained them in his psyche. Eventually, he moved on from building cities out of printer paper in the attic of his childhood home to helping to create urban spaces in the Los Angeles Basin. Now he is planning director at Pacoima Beautiful, an environmental justice organization in the San Fernando Valley.

In his spare time, Podemski, 33, illustrates the vernacular architecture of Los Angeles — including the shuls of the city — while also eating his way across the many hamburger stands and strip-mall restaurants that give the area some of its comestible color.

Did Judaism influence you in your professional life?

I come from a family of Holocaust survivors, and my grandparents immigrated here. My dad was born in Poland, and I think it indirectly made me want to work in social justice. I’m a very privileged person — and honestly, if you’re Jewish and you don’t want to stand up for people who are being discriminated against or marginalized, especially in this climate — all you have to do is go back a couple generations and we were in the same position.

How does this relate to your job as planning director?

Pacoima Beautiful is an environmental justice organization. Communities of color and low-income communities have traditionally had racist policies that steer polluting land uses into their neighborhoods, and in turn, have a higher rate of pollution-caused health issues. Pacoima was traditionally an African-American community and now it’s a Latino immigrant community. It’s a neighborhood where you have three freeways bisecting it, an airport in the middle, railroad tracks bisecting it and factories built next to homes. It’s the most park-poor neighborhood in L.A. It has some of the most unsafe streets for pedestrians in the city. It has the Pacoima Wash, which is the highest swift-water rescue area in the city. While it’s important to be on the defense against polluting land use, what I do is try to bring amenities into the community by making the physical environment better match up with how it’s used by the community.

Can you give a specific example?

There was a pedestrian bridge that was part of the Pacoima Wash that had huge amounts of foot traffic, and it looked like a World War I armament with barbed wire on it. It was built in such a way that a person in a wheelchair couldn’t go over it, and neither could a mom with a stroller. If you couldn’t walk over it, you’d literally have to go one mile out of your way to get to the other side. We made it structurally accessible, painted it, put landscaping in, and cleaned it up. Immediately after, we had a woman in a motorized wheelchair tell us, “Thank you so much. I can visit my family now on the other side.” And that’s a really small project. But it shows how changing the physical environment, even on that small scale, can make a huge difference in people’s lives. We also are currently working on a number of urban-greening and complete-streets plans — plans we started working on a decade ago but finally have the funding to implement.

Can you define “urban-greening” and “complete streets”?

It’s basically creating more environmentally sustainable and people-friendly urban areas. An example would be creating pedestrian and cycling road infrastructure with infrastructure that captures stormwater runoff, which is a major way to combat the drought and create water resilience. One of [Los Angeles] Mayor [Eric] Garcetti’s first big executive orders was for Great Streets, and the idea behind that is to change how we think about our existing streets. They should carry more than just cars. But it’s not just about pedestrian safety either, but also economic vibrancy, and as places for communities to come together.

People tend to have a negative, preconceived notion of Pacoima. What would you like everyone to know about Pacoima to enhance their understanding of it?

Pacoima’s an amazing place with a really rich legacy. Ritchie Valens was from there. It has the Mural Mile, which is one of the largest collections of murals in Los Angeles. It’s an immigrant community with a history of entrepreneurship and cultural vibrancy.

You’re also an artist, and you specialize in posters featuring historical and unique local architecture. What kind of buildings are you drawn to?

Everyday buildings. The way most people experience Los Angeles is through their homes and the hamburger stands, and the other mundane things in their neighborhood. So my posters elevate the everyday, familiar spaces of L.A.

Do you have a favorite building in L.A.?

I love hamburger stands. There’s a place in Pacoima called Aye Papi Que Rico that’s a Cuban chicken place that I really like. I honestly think I like hamburger stands so much because we don’t have stuff like that in Portland, because it’s cold and it rains a lot.  Also, I technically don’t like them because I can’t technically like them as a planner, but I think they’re fascinating. I also like the strip malls here.

And you also recently illustrated a “Shuls of L.A.” poster, right? What’s your favorite shul here?

My favorite shul in terms of architecture? Wilshire Boulevard is pretty amazing but, I guess, the shuls of the Fairfax District. I couldn’t tell you their names, but I just love them because they’re these little storefront buildings and they’re very intimate. I feel like lots of synagogues are designed like bomb shelters, these brutalist, bunker-like spaces. In the Fairfax District, you imagine 10 old Jewish guys inside running these places without a rabbi.

So where can people see and purchase your posters?

My wife, Sarah Klinger — who is a very talented illustrator — and I have a company called Polkela, which is Yiddish for “drumstick,” and we sell our artwork at the L.A. Library Store, the Los Angeles County Store in Silver Lake and online at

Is a new Jewish Portland rising in the east?

Until recently, Jo Borkan was thinking about leaving Portland.

She had lived in the city almost her whole life and owns a house on the city’s east side. But Borkan craved a connection to Judaism, and she couldn’t seem to find one that fit with her spiritual explorations into yoga and meditation. Despite her love for Portland, she mulled a move to New York or to the Bay Area.

However, in August, Borkan began co-leading Havdallah Yoga, a group that gathers each Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the Jewish month, for a combination of yoga and Jewish ritual. Participants meet in a converted industrial building, and are guided through a yoga practice that incorporates Jewish themes and rituals. In December, for example, yogis were encouraged to bring Hanukkah menorahs, which lit up the otherwise dark space. A Havdalah service follows the month’s routine.

These days, Borkan, 30, says she no longer thinks about leaving Portland to find her Jewish community.

“Honestly, at least for now, [Havdallah Yoga] has totally filled that need,” she told JTA.

And Borkan is far from the only one connecting to Jewish practice in nontraditional ways. Portlanders can celebrate Jewish holidays with ice cream sundae tasting menus; fill their growlers at a kosher, community-supported nanobrewery; or take part in a Jewish “gap year” program for recent high school graduates that combines social justice work with Jewish study.

In addition to embodying Portland’s famously quirky and creative culture, these points of connection represent a deeper transformation in Portland Jewish life. After decades in which Jewish life was concentrated on the city’s more sedate west side, a new, grassroots-oriented brand of Judaism is now taking form east of the Willamette River, reshaped by the people who live there.

Historically, Portland’s Jewish community has largely lived on the west side of town and that is where the mainstream Jewish institutions — the JCC, the federation, the community day school and most of the major synagogues — still reside. This, traditionally, has been the prosperous side of town, which includes the downtown business district, a number of upscale suburban neighborhoods and Portland State University.

However, in 2011, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s population study came out — and the findings were shocking. At 47,500, the number of Portland Jews was nearly twice as large as previously thought. What’s more, the vast majority of these previously unaccounted-for, and largely unaffiliated, Jews resided east of the Willamette River.

The ensuing communal discussions over outreach to Jews on the east side seemed to divide the city’s Jews into two categories: traditional vs. innovative, established vs. unaffiliated, older vs. younger.

There is even a divide over whether or not such a divide exists.

“I’m not sure there’s any difference — I think there’s a perception that it’s different,” said Marc Blattner, chief executive officer of the Portland federation, who helped publish the study that has kicked off so much discussion. “I just worry that the east side gets a lot of play because it’s the sexy side of town.”

Sexy, as in when the foodie website Eater recently listed its Essential 38 Portland Restaurants, 32 were east of the Willamette. When Jerry Seinfeld came to town to film his show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” with comedian and “Portlandia” star Fred Armisen, they got coffee, lunch, and even visited a high-style taxidermist/toy shop, all without venturing to the west side of town.

Unlike Blattner, many of the city’s Jews insist that the divide isn’t limited to geography.

“There really is a sense that there’s a different energy on the east side,” said Ariel Stone, rabbi of Shir Tikvah, the sole synagogue on Portland’s east side. “What we joke about is that it’s an east side attitude or a feeling. You can be a west sider and have it.”

Jewish life on the east side has a long history of ups and downs. For 75 years, up until 1986, the area was home to a synagogue, Tifereth Israel.

“It was a dying congregation,” said Eric Kimmel, 68, a children’s book author, who moved to Portland’s east side in 1978, lured by the then-cheap real estate. “One of the older members would lead the service, and he didn’t see so well, so he would skip pages, and we would be so jumbled up.”

After Tifereth Israel closed in the 1980s and was absorbed into another congregation, Jewish life on the east side was sparse. A havurah started in the 1990s, called the Eastside Jewish Community of Portland, but it has since closed.

However, the east side of Portland more generally was experiencing a revival, as transplants helped mold the freewheeling, do-it-yourself ethos that has become central to Portland’s image.

Some congregations began to notice that a growing number of their members lived on the east side. When the Reconstructionist synagogue Havurah Shalom bought its own building in the 1990s, it made sure to buy in the Pearl District, on the west side but close to the river, so as to be accessible to its burgeoning east side population.

Then, in 2002, several members from a west side synagogue split off and founded Shir Tikvah, a nondenominational synagogue. They rented space from a local church.

“We found out there was an east side Jewish population before the study was done, because we put out a shingle and they started coming out of the woodwork,” said Stone.

In response to the population study, the federation and several west side synagogues began hosting events on the east side. However, while some initiatives, like the PJ Library — a program that distributes free Jewish-themed children’s books, including Kimmel’s, via local Jewish institutions — have transitioned over successfully, some of the efforts have seemed more successful at bringing west siders to the east than at galvanizing unaffiliated east side locals. And two years after a family foundation helped arrange a $35,000 grant to help support Jewish life on the east side, there’s still money left — waiting to be used, said the federation’s Blattner.

One boon to east side Jewish life came in the form of Nate DeGroot, a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, who fell in love with the city while working there one summer. Struck by what he saw as a lack of engagement among many younger, east side Jews, DeGroot, with the help of some federation funding, returned the following summer to focus full time on founding and organizing Mikdash as a center for east side Jewish life.

DeGroot focused on identifying and talking to Jews — urging them to connect other passions in their lives to their interest in Judaism. For example, when he found out that east sider Jared Goodman was staging dessert events with multi-course tasting menus of ice cream sundaes, built around various themes, DeGroot worked with him to develop a series of sundae events for the Jewish holidays. He also helped Jo Borkan, along with co-founder Yael Pidnosky, to develop Havdallah Yoga, and he still talks with the two via Skype every month.

“Nate was so instrumental because he continually repeated back to us, ‘I’m glad to be a support, but you guys know what you’re doing,’” said Borkan.

However, DeGroot has since moved to Israel to pursue his studies for a year, and he will not be ordained for another year after that, leaving Mikdash’s board members to carry the torch in his absence.

And yet his work, and his support from the federation, has also spurred some resentment from some long-time east siders.

“It’s interesting that an outsider is getting [federation funding] while people who live here and have made a commitment to the community are not getting that kind of support,” said Sonia-Marie Leikam, an east side resident, Shir Tikvah board member and co-founder of Leikam Brewing, a kosher-certified community-supported nanobrewery. She stressed that she likes DeGroot personally and thinks he has done valuable work, but she wondered why the federation turned to him, rather than active members of the Jewish community already living on the east side. “It’s more like – ‘Hey guys, we’re right here in your backyard.’”

Despite some tensions, Jewish life is undeniably burgeoning on the east side. Two new Jewish preschools have opened in the past several months. Shir Tikvah, at 165 families, has expanded by 10 percent in the past year and is looking into purchasing a building of its own, though it may take the form of a flexible community space rather than a traditional synagogue structure.

Still, Blattner says it is too early to tell what the future of the east side will be and how well the recent burst of new activities can sustain itself.

“They’re all so brand-new that I’m hoping in five to 10 years not only that they’re there, but that they’re mainstays all over town,” said Blattner. “That would be a blessing. But let’s see.”

Portland preschool pushes boundaries of Jewish outdoors education

Even on a cold, gray and rainy morning, the children from the Gan Shalom Collaborative School are outside, seated under a wood-framed shelter topped by corrugated plastic.

With their teacher, Sarabel Eisenfeld, they grate potatoes for latkes, then cup their hands beside their heads to put on their “Shema ears for deep listening” before turning their attention to the world around them.

“I hear a crow!” Forrest says.

“I hear some birds singing,” Pfeifer chimes in.

Next they turn their attention to the weather.

“It’s a cold day. That’s why we have our jackets on,” Marlen says.

Founded by Eisenfeld and director Katherine Morse-Woods as an “earth-based” preschool, Gan Shalom was created to put its students in touch with the patterns of nature — and in so doing, with the rhythm of the Jewish year.

Students spend most of their time outdoors, where they gather for story time on stumps, bake challah or apples in a wood-burning oven and tend a vegetable garden alongside more standard preschool fare.

Gan Shalom has just three students, though enrollment may get a boost next year when parents become eligible for a $2,000 tuition voucher from the Portland Jewish Federation for first-time Jewish preschoolers.

It represent a small, experimental take on the possibilities of a Jewish education at a time when schools, Jewish and not, are increasingly integrating gardening, and outdoors education more generally, into their curricula.

“I think that it has become a much larger issue in the secular world, and Jewish early childhood educators have said this is a natural fit for us,” said Lyndall Miller, program director of the New York-based Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute. “Judaism is a very sensory, spiritual kind of adventure. Few things are more sensory than being in a garden.”

Eisenfeld and Morse-Woods are not your garden-variety Jewish educators. Both reside in intentional communities — residential collectives typically organized around some shared cause or spiritual orientation. Gan Shalom is housed at Beit Shlomo, the community created by Morse-Woods and her husband in their Victorian duplex in southeast Portland shared with two other Jewish families. The couple are also working to develop an acre and a half of forest land outside Seattle into a spiritual retreat center complete with a mikvah.

In January, the school will move two miles away to Foster Village, the community where Eisenfeld lives with 10 others. Created by combining two housing lots, Foster Village features an elaborate permaculture garden with ducks, chickens, a beehive and a sophisticated composting system.

“We can deepen our reverence and connection with creation when we’re part of it and comfortable with it,” Eisenfeld told JTA. “When we grow this food and we say a blessing for this food, you feel it more.”

In many nursery schools, this takes the form of comparatively modest vegetable gardens. Gan Shalom’s more adventurous embrace of gardening and the outdoors is of a piece with Portland, where the pursuit of local food, urban agriculture and low-impact living has become the stuff of parody.

It’s even more true on the city’s more alternative and experimental east side, where Gan Shalom has become the first Jewish preschool. A second east side Jewish preschool, Tree of Life Montessori, will open in January. Its founder, Ariel Cohn, is the mother of a current Gan Shalom student.

“People are not super religious,” Woods-Morse said of southeast Portland. “We are trying to strike that balance where we create rituals for the kids, weaving things into their daily lives without being really didactic.”

After the relocation, Eisenfeld hopes to further push the boundaries of Gan Shalom’s mission by having children spend virtually their entire day outside. There is a porch where they can go when it rains and a small cabin, currently a guest bedroom, that can function as a warming shed on cold days. The kids can cook outside using a concrete wood-burning oven — decorated with a molded concrete octopus — or a portable stove. They can even relieve themselves outside in compost toilets.

Eisenfeld’s approach to teaching has been shaped by her own experiences as a trip leader for the American Jewish World Service and her work at The Farm School, an educational farm in Athol, Mass.

She recalls her first Rosh Hashanah at the educational farm.

“I was picking apples and I was harvesting honey from the bees, and I never felt more Jewish,” Eisenfeld said. “Our holidays are really based on the seasons, and that was my first experience of that.”

Gan Shalom’s plans for the future are modest, expanding from two days a week to three, though the school day will still be restricted to four hours a day, in part for regulatory reasons.  The school is hoping to bring in other families; Cohn’s child will leave in January to attend Tree of Life.

Meanwhile, the transition is underway. At Beit Shlomo, the bamboo structure for growing green beans is being taken apart. At a Hanukkah party at Foster Village, the children chase the ducks and light the candles. As the sun sets, Pfeifer is reluctant to leave, but his mother reassures him.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “We’ll be back in January.”

Three teens shot outside Portland, Oregon, high school

Three teenagers were shot and wounded on Friday near a Portland, Oregon, alternative high school, police said, and officers were searching for a suspect who ran from the scene following the gunfire.

The two boys and one girl shot outside Rosemary Anderson High School in north Portland were “conscious and breathing” as they were rushed to a local hospital, the Portland Police Bureau said in a tweet.

A spokeswoman for Legacy Emanuel Medical Center confirmed that the hospital was treating three patients from the incident but declined to give out any information on their condition, citing medical privacy laws.

It was not immediately clear if the victims were students at Rosemary Anderson, but police said they ran to the school following the shooting, shortly after noon, and were treated there as it was immediately placed on lockdown.

The shooter ran from the area, police said, and officers with search dogs were combing nearby neighborhoods for the suspect.

“Officers have cleared the school. Area is safe and secure,” the police bureau said on Twitter, adding that it was not considered an “active shooter situation.”

The Portland Oregonian newspaper reported that a female student was struck in the chest and a 17-year-old was shot in the back. There was no immediate information on the third victim.

The paper said FBI agents were on the scene to assist police and that investigators believed the suspect has ties to a street gang. Parents were reunited with their children at a staging area several blocks from the school.

Aly Wright, who works at the Coffeehouse Five cafe near the school, said her customers heard several gunshots, followed by the quick arrival of police.

“This whole block is on lockdown,” she said.

The neighborhood has a history of gang violence, said Johnny Bradford, a Portland minister interviewed by Reuters near the scene.

The shooting is “really surprising because it's really been good for the last couple of years,” Bradford said.

Jefferson High School and Portland Community College were also placed on lockdown for about two hours before resuming classes, and streets around Rosemary Anderson were blocked off.

Rosemary Anderson is an alternative high school serving up to 190 “at-risk” students, many of whom are homeless or who had been expelled or dropped out of Portland's public high schools, according to the school website.

Portland-area paper to shut down

An Oregon Jewish paper, The Jewish Review, will close in January after publishing for more than 40 years.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland announced last week that it would cease publication of the semimonthly.

According to the Federation, the paper was a victim of the economic climate and the changing newspaper industry. Closing the paper will free $100,000 for other projects, the federation said in its announcement.

A new publishing group, MediaPort, had informed the federation’s board of its intention to publish a monthly Portland Jewish magazine.

Jazzman Frishberg charts own tuneful territory

One of the great joys of L.A. jazz, from the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, was the blossoming of jazz pianist Dave Frishberg into a singer-songwriter of quirky, yet warmly satisfying, material. His tunes navigated a pathway that sidestepped melodramatic cabaret material on one hand and self-absorbed pop music on the other. Frishberg created a ” title=”My Attorney Bernie lyrics”>My Attorney Bernie“: “He’s got Dodger season boxes and an office full of foxes, it’s amazing all the different things your average guy might need a lawyer for.”

Frishberg’s songs are jazz-informed, yet modeled on pre-rock ‘n’ roll pop standards, written by supreme tunesmiths like Alec Wilder and Frank Loesser. While working as a pianist in New York, Frishberg struggled to find his voice as a songwriter, while trying to find a place in the market for himself.

Speaking from his home in Portland, Frishberg said, “When I started, I wanted to write songs that would be recorded; I wanted to be part of that world. But I couldn’t really figure the market out.

“Popular music changed with rock music and I didn’t want any part of that; that was for kids. Then the folk music took over and that was amateurish. But I rediscovered a place for myself in popular music when Brazilian music came in. Those bossa nova songs were so beautiful and graceful. That music showed me there was still a place for beautiful songs.”

His break came in ’71, and it brought him west.

“I’d lived in New York for 15 years. I was getting divorced and I was ready for something new. I had begun writing a couple of years earlier with no success at all. A friend of mine invited me to come to L.A. and write for a TV show he was producing, ‘The Funny Side.’ Nothing I’d written was notable up to that point but I came to L.A. as a songwriter. They wanted a production number on the topic of the week: newspapers or leisure or something like that. I was pleased to learn I could do such a thing. The discipline was good for me and the deadlines were murder. What I did was known as ‘special material,’ which was on its way out at the time.”

The show was short-lived, but Frishberg found himself transplanted into the L.A. jazz community. He played in trumpeter Bill Berry’s Big Band. “That was the best Ellington tribute band around,” Frishberg asserted, “because everybody on the band was an Ellington fan and really knew how the music was supposed to sound.”

Another trumpeter, Jack Sheldon, not only employed Frishberg as a pianist, but also jump-started his career as a solo performer. “I probably played a hundred nights with Jack,” Frishberg said. “He was very generous about giving me the spotlight. At rehearsals I would sing a few things I wrote, not expecting anything. Then on the bandstand, Jack would suddenly say, ‘Dave Frishberg’s going to sing one of his songs….’ I was terrified.”

There’s a long tradition in jazz of instrumentalists who sing, stretching back at least as far as Louis Armstrong. Frishberg is certainly no polished vocalist, but like Bob Dylan, his phrasing and rhythm are absolutely the best for his own songs.

“I started singing because I had to make demos of my songs and I couldn’t find singers to sing them the right way. I didn’t like the way other people sang my songs. I found that I had to write for my own vocal range,” he said.

For stellar interpretations of Frishberg songs, refer to Rosemary Clooney’s “Sweet Kentucky Ham” and Sue Raney’s rendition of the love ballad, “You Are There.”

His album “Quality Time” (Sterling, 1994) saw Frishberg offer political commentary in the song, “My Country Used To Be”: “My country used to be famous for quality, we led the way. Now we buy overseas. Then beg the Japanese, to buy some products, please, made in U.S.A….”

Reverting to type, Frishberg acts as accompanist to vocalist Rebecca Kilgore on their new collaborative album, “Why Fight The Feeling?” (Arbors). It’s a collection of songs by Frank Loesser, whom Frishberg sees as “the first songwriter I wanted to emulate.” It’s easy to consider the casual grace of a Loesser song like “I Believe in You” and see an antecedent for Frishberg’s “I Can’t Take You Nowhere.”

So what’s Frishberg working on these days? “I’m employed, so to speak, at work on a musical. It’s called ‘Vitriol and Violets: Tales from the Algonquin Round Table.’ It’s all very literary, of course, and it’s a big challenge, trying to imagine what Dorothy Parker or Alexander Woolcott were thinking. I’m back to writing ‘special material’ and it requires that I get into character. It’s hard for me to think of what to write about on my own, until someone gives me an assignment and a deadline. And a check, of course.”

Dave Frishberg will perform Aug. 27 at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. as part of the Parlor Performances series at Steinway Hall at Fields Piano, 12121 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 4713979 or email

Just a Theory

In a sea of competitors, 17-year-old Ilya Gurevich of Israel is alone in the field of theoretical physics. All the other teenagers competing in the physics division at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair have entered projects in practical physics, Gurevich said, but he stuck with the theoretical.

"The world’s largest science fair," formerly known as the Westinghouse Competition, is taking place at multiple locations May 9-15, including the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Gurevich recently won first prize in the Intel Israel-Bloomfield Science Museum Young Scientists Competition and said he was "very surprised" when he won the award for his research on the behavior and influence of small disruptions in the uniformity of the universe.

"I know it was on a very high level, but it was not practical," said the high school senior, who has been taking courses at Ben-Gurion University, in Beersheva, for two years.

Practical or not, Israeli scientists have chosen Gurevich and Igor Kreimerman of the Israel Arts and Science Academy in Jerusalem, winner of second prize in the Israel competition, to represent Israel in the 2004 Intel competition.

About 1,300 teenagers from 40 countries are competing in 15 categories for a total of $3 million in scholarships, internships, and travel and equipment grants from the Intel Foundation, public and private universities, and about 70 corporate, professional and government sponsors. The 1,200 judges include scientists, engineers and Nobel Prize laureates.

The three winners of the grand prize, the Intel Young Scientist Award, each will receive a $50,000 scholarship and an invitation to attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden.

Gurevich said his project, called "Deviations From an Isotropic and Homogeneous Expansion of the Universe," defies simple explanation.

Essentially, he said, the project tries to preserve Einstein’s theories with regard to the expanding universe and its impact on cosmology.

Science is not about reading books, Gurevich said: "At some point you have to start working and thinking yourself."