A Judaism of public service

When I asked Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky whether his Judaism has influenced his work as a supervisor, which involves helping some of society’s sickest and poorest people, his answer was as complicated as the man himself.

I’ve found that asking Jewish politicians how Judaism affects their work produces replies more introspective and thoughtful than their usual carefully crafted responses. This was also the case with Yaroslavsky, who is beginning his last year on the board, forced out by term limits. Previously, he was a Los Angeles city councilman, and before that he was a young leader in the movement to free Jews from the Soviet Union.

Yaroslavsky and his colleagues — Gloria Molina, Mike Antonovich, Don Knabe and Mark Ridley-Thomas — are responsible for administering welfare, foster care, public health, county hospitals, the jails, homeless services — in fact, just about everything dealing with the low end of the economic scale in Los Angeles County.

He paused to consider my question, then said: “I think the answer to that is no. It doesn’t give me any special insight. I think that anyone who suggests that a Jewish politician has any advanced insight over social justice issues over anybody else hasn’t read the New Testament or talked to any of my colleagues. … I don’t think you can pigeonhole people based on religious upbringing.’’

And yet, Yaroslavsky said, there’s something different about being Jewish, influenced by the concept of tikkun olam, repairing and healing what is broken in society. “We know what it is like to be marginalized or persecuted, and if we can’t respond to people who are now being marginalized and persecuted or eliminated, then who are we?” he asked. “So there is definitely a sense of obligation for all the right reasons.”

But, he added, “We are not the only people who believe that. There are many religions [that do]; the Catholic Church has made incredible sacrifices in countries in Central America, in other parts of the world. … I think what is unique about the Jews is that we are such a small number of people on the planet … 13 million and dropping … a small number of people who, because of this obligation to tikkun olam, and to step into the breach, we carry a disproportionate impact. … Where there is a social justice cause, where there is a civil rights cause, where there is a human rights cause, the odds are you are going to see Jews involved. … And that’s who we are.”

As we talked, I referred to him as an “observant Jew,” which I thought he was.

Yaroslavsky interrupted. “I’m not observant in the sense that I don’t observe the Sabbath, I don’t go the synagogue every Saturday,” he said. “I was raised in a Labor Zionist home; religion was not part of the Jewish atmosphere of the house, but it was a very Jewish household. Israel was the centerpiece of the household. My parents were both Hebrew teachers. My first language was Hebrew. … My sister immigrated to Israel. We celebrated the Jewish holidays, not as religious holidays so much, but as Jewish festivals. Passover was a tradition; Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were the only two religious holidays we celebrated. I still do. We keep kosher at home.

“When you say observant,” he clarified, “I think of people who don’t drive on the Sabbath, [who] go to shul every morning, or once a week. I’m not religious in that sense; I’m traditional, I identify with the Jewish people. Rabbis of course will debunk everything I am about to say, but I just don’t find you have to be a religiously observant Jew to be a good Jew or an active Jew. With 13 million Jews on this planet, there is enough room in that tent for a variety of ways to celebrate your Judaism.” 

A great influence on him was Labor Zionism — the socialist-oriented movement born amid Europe’s anti-Semitism. “Labor Zionism was basically a movement to create a Jewish state with social justice values. … Everybody had a stake in society, not just the people who were wealthy, not just people who had it made,” Yaroslavsky said.

“A lot of the people in the union movement in the early part of the 20th century came out of the Labor Zionist movement,” he added, “people who were in the civil rights movement disproportionately came out of the Labor Zionist movement. I was inculcated in values of social justice, civil rights and the story of the persecution of the Jewish people, of my own family.

“When I was growing up, going into government was a way to advance the values of social justice. On all levels, the international level, the national level, the local level. That’s what got me interested in politics in the first place … certainly what got me involved in the Soviet Jewry movement,” he said.

“I certainly didn’t think I would stay in local government for four decades. But what has kept me motivated and going in this field was the opportunity to make a difference. It’s a cliché, but its true.”

I wondered how this translated into action in Los Angeles County, where the problems are so great that, I suggested to him, “You must feel like you are banging your head against a wall.”

Yaroslavsky replied, “Almost everything we do in county government can make you feel as though you are banging your head against a wall, because Los Angeles County is the biggest county in the United States, 10 million people, almost 2.5 million at one point were uninsured, had no health insurance. In Los Angeles, the problems are on steroids. … You can throw your hands in the air and say there is no way you can house 55,000 homeless people.  I say, ‘That’s right, there’s no way.’ But we can house 5,000. And the template we use to house 5,000, we can then use to house 15,000 or 20,000. Pretty soon we can pretty much take care of the problem. It’s a matter of doing it in bite-sized chunks.

“It’s like we’re a football team that is down 45-to-0 at halftime. All we need to do is score seven touchdowns. It isn’t going to be easy, but you’ve got to take your shots. So I am not intimidated by the numbers, not even intimidated by the county jail situation,” he said, referring
to the overcrowded jails facing charges of brutality by sheriff’s deputies and, at the same time, dealing with growing numbers of mentally
ill inmates. 

After our conversation, I realized I had forgotten to ask him what he’d be doing after his term ends. He replied by e-mail: “I have made no plans at this point. I’m still focused on finishing my term and completing the goals I set for this final year. I plan to write a memoir about my work as a public servant in Southern California and to stay involved in one or more capacities in the civic life of Los Angeles. I have not yet decided how I’m going to allocate my time or where.”  

It should be a valuable book. 

Fairfax Legacy Gala a Lion-Sized Success

When theater producers Pierson Blaetz and Whitney Weston established Friends of Fairfax to help Fairfax High School in 1998, they came up with the Melrose Trading Post, a flea market held every weekend in the high school’s parking lot. But the annual $200,000 from the Trading Post has not been enough to help Fairfax High cover the shortfall it’s currently facing due to statewide cuts in education spending. 

On Oct. 6, the Friends of Fairfax held its inaugural Legacy Gala and Hall of Fame Induction at the vintage Wilshire Ebell, where 500 people, including Fairfax alumni such as L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, attended to give back to the school that enriched their education and their lives. Honorees included philanthropists Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer and Annette Shapiro, Broadcom founder Henry Samueli, and the patron saint of Fairfax High’s music program, Herb Alpert.

Following dinner, the auditorium presentation saw Eisenberg-Keefer, who has supported myriad Jewish and medical institutions, and Shapiro, president of the board of Beit T’Shuvah, receive their medals of honor.

During his turn, Marconi Prize-winner Samueli spoke about how Fairfax helped put him on the path to becoming an electrical engineer. He credited Fairfax with “having good teachers who are passionate about what they teach” for furthering his education,” and urged people to support the school and make sure “they continue that tradition.”

After receiving his medal, Alpert, 77, was joined onstage by pianist Bill Cantos, drummer Michael Shapiro, bassist Hussain Jiffry, and Alpert’ wife, singer Lani Hall. 

Alpert performed a full-length concert for attendees, playing standards such as “Fever,” “Moon Dance” and “Mas Que Nada.”

Seeing Alpert perform brought back memories for Yaroslavsky, who as a Fairfax student in 1966 saw Alpert return to Fairfax with his Tijuana Brass at the peak of his success.
“They had to play two assembly concerts because they could not fit all the students in,” he recalled.

5th District Plays Big Role

The Los Angeles elections on March 3 turned out to be more interesting than most of us had expected, especially the role of the Fifth Council District.

The Fifth, which is a mixture of Westside (think Fairfax) and Valley (think Encino) is also the “Jewish district.” In a city that’s about 6 percent to 7 percent Jewish, the Fifth is perhaps 35 percent to 40 percent Jewish. It’s the best-educated district, and one of the most affluent. It has tremendous voter registration and high turnout year after year.

Of the city’s nearly 1.6 million registered voters, 167,668 are in the Fifth, more than 10 percent of the total. On March 3, the Fifth cast around 12 percent of all city votes, with only 7 percent of the population.

The Fifth played a pivotal role in the rise and dominance of the Tom Bradley coalition, as its voters provided massive support to Bradley. Combined with the African American community, the Fifth and other white liberal districts consistently outvoted white conservatives. The Fifth is one of the few council districts that bridges the divide between the Valley and the rest of the city, joining more liberal Westsiders to more moderate Valley residents.

Winning the Fifth District’s council seat is a big achievement, because there are lots of talented and ambitious people ready to run and mount effective campaigns in those two parts of the city, and anyone who wins becomes a prospect for bigger things. Think Roz Wyman, Ed Edelman, Zev Yaroslavsky, Mike Feuer and now Jack Weiss, who is in the runoff for city attorney against Carmen Trutanich.

While the voters in the Fifth District are disproportionately Democrats, they can be very unpredictable on one local issue, and that is growth. When Bradley experienced a lot of political trouble in the 1980s, it was over growth, development and traffic, and much of this agitation was in the Fifth. The proliferation of billboards and city hall’s weakness in regulating them has energized another neighborhood rebellion today.

The race to succeed Weiss generated six strong candidates who split votes so evenly in the primary that the percentages looked like a box score on a night that the Lakers have everybody in double figures. Weiss has lots of defenders and lots of enemies in his own district on the hot-button issues, and he was charged with being too pro-development.

The two candidates who made it into the runoff, Paul Koretz and David Vahedi, are both critics of development and billboards. They are each likely to further activate the voters who are fighting growth.

With his early lead in fundraising and endorsements, Weiss contested the open seat for city attorney as if he were the incumbent. While he was able to preempt other strong candidates from challenging him, he also inevitably became the target of the anti-city hall sentiment that in this low-turnout election made its will known by apparently (pending the counting of some remaining ballots) defeating Proposition B, the solar power measure.

He came in first, but with only 36 percent of the vote, and he will face a tough runoff. And because the Fifth District is also going to have a heavily contested runoff, its turnout will likely affect the citywide result.

Ironically, Weiss’ best chance of winning is to expand his appeal beyond his own council district, where he has lots of active opponents, and draw on organized labor and other communities. He has to broaden the issues beyond development. If he does, he stands a good chance of winning. He did, after all, finish first in all but the 15th District, which represents Trutanich’s San Pedro home base.

Weiss’ best showing was in the three predominantly African American districts (Eighth, Ninth and 10th), where he polled 43 percent, 44 percent and 45 percent, respectively. He also polled 45 percent in the Latino and working-class First District.

These are pro-labor areas, where Measure B did well, winning 71 percent in the First and 71 percent, 75 percent and 67 percent, respectively in the Eighth, Ninth and 10th districts. He received only 37 percent in his own Fifth District.

The last Fifth District councilman to run for city attorney was Mike Feuer, in 2001, and Feuer’s situation was quite different. He was exceptionally strong in his own district, and he piled up a huge edge among Jewish and other white voters. But while Feuer had major labor support, Rocky Delgadillo pulled off the upset by linking Latino voters to a majority of African Americans.

Delgadillo also was bolstered by a late endorsement from Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters. This time, a number of African American elected officials are behind Weiss, while Waters endorsed Trutanich. It’s all consistent with the mix-and-match coalition politics of today’s Los Angeles.

Much of labor is in Weiss’ camp, as are the mayor and Police Chief William Bratton. Having apparently been beaten on Measure B, labor is likely to want to win a big one citywide to go along with the re-election of Villaraigosa and the election of Wendy Greuel as controller.

Trutanich has the endorsements of the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News, both of which might be influential in a low-turnout election, and Sheriff Lee Baca.

There are two types of Los Angeles electorates, the one that appears in partisan, statewide elections in even-numbered years and the one that appears in odd-year municipal races. The May 19 runoff election is scheduled to be held in tandem with a special statewide election with ballot measures negotiated as part of the state budget deal.

Labor may or may not have some big horses in this race. So this election is a kind of hybrid, maybe bigger than a quiet municipal runoff but less noisy than a true statewide partisan battle. Most likely, the election will be decided not just by how people vote, but by who votes.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at Cal State Fullerton.

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Zev Yaroslavsky: From Soviet Jewish activist to Los Angeles power player

Did you hear about the time that Zev Yaroslavsky rented a motorboat, and, using two toilet plungers, attached it to a Russian cargo ship in Los Angeles Harbor, then started to paint “Save Soviet Jews” on the ship’s side?

For some reason, the Russian crew objected and started pouring buckets of water on the young painter. Pressed for time, Yaroslavsky managed to spell out only “Let Jews Go,” adding a Star of David for artistic effect.

This escapade took place in the late 1960s, shortly after which Yaroslavsky got busted by Los Angeles’ finest for smuggling a batch of black balloons into the Shrine Auditorium. He and four fellow activists intended to blow up the balloons, which carried the legend, “Save Soviet Jews,” and release them during the intermission of a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet.

In the subsequent trial, the judge dismissed the disturbance of the peace charges to the dismay of the defendants, who were hoping for a media-covered show trial. While the trial lasted, Yaroslavsky’s fellow defendant and co-conspirator was Si Frumkin, then a Lithuanian-born owner of Universal Drapery Inc. and who today remains a multitasking writer and activist.

Yaroslavsky’s evolution from a long-haired anti-establishment agitator has been far more public. Today, he has become one of the best-known and most visible local officeholders as Los Angeles County supervisor, with a constituency of 2 million inhabitants.

But 40 years ago, these two men were among a dozen front-line activists in Los Angeles, who harassed the Soviets using ingenious, nonviolent strategies to pressure the Kremlin to “let my people go.”

Their adventures and misadventures are part of the new documentary, “Refusenik,”—named for the appellation for Jews refused exit visas by Soviet authorities—which opens May 23 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino.

Directed, written and produced by Laura Bialis over a four-year period, “Refusenik” traces the roots of the Soviet Jewry movement to Russia’s age-old discrimination against Jews in almost every walk of life, fueled afresh by Stalin in the post-World War II era.

Israel’s birth, and particularly the incredible victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, infused courage and a sense of Jewish peoplehood into Russia’s long-silent Jews.

In the vanguard was a small group, mainly scientists and intellectuals, including such names as Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, Vladimir Slepak, Ida Nudel, Yuli Edelshtein, Yosef Begun and Vitaly Rubin, who dared the hitherto unthinkable of protesting publicly against the Soviet regime and demanding the right to leave the country.

Their bravery, often punished with long imprisonment, found an echo in the Diaspora. Established Jewish organizations took up the cause, but with a cautious approach that was rejected by a core of young activists who were short on experience but long on chutzpah and endlessly innovative in devising new guerrilla tactics to make life miserable for Soviet representatives.

Yaroslavsky came to his convictions and activism by heredity and the environment of Boyle Heights and the Fairfax areas, in which he grew up.

Last month, he surveyed his heritage in delivering the Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture at USC, titled, “From the Plains of Czarist Russia to Los Angeles: How Three Generations of Jewish Idealism Informed My Life and Politics.”

Yaroslavsky expanded further on the theme last week during a lengthy interview in his Van Nuys field office. He recalled that there used to be a parlor game in which each participant had to name one person in the past to whom he or she would like to talk.

“My choice would be my maternal grandfather, Shimon Soloveichick, who came from the same area in what is now Belarus and was distantly related to the great Soloveitchik rabbinical dynasty,” he said. “Shimon belonged to the greatest Jewish generation since the Exodus, maybe even greater, marked by its audacious idealism, that gave birth to the revival of the Hebrew language and to modern Zionism.”

Grandfather Soloveichick played a part in these historic events. He was somewhat of a scientific genius as a youngster, taught himself Hebrew and Russian in a Yiddish-speaking environment, became a wandering Hebrew teacher and Labor Zionist and served as a delegate to three meetings of the Zionist Congress.

In the early 1920s, branches of the Yaroslavsky clan from the Kiev region and of the Soloveichick family migrated to Boyle Heights, married and eventually produced Shimona and her younger brother, Zev.

“My father founded the Hebrew Teachers Union in Los Angeles, and my mother taught Hebrew and algebra at [Los Angeles] City College,” Yaroslavsky reminisced. “They initially were Hashomer Hatzair supporters [the left socialist wing of the Zionist movement] but later split off and formed the [more centrist] local Habonim chapter.”

Yaroslavsky himself was an early Habonim member, and as a teenager, went on his first trip to Israel. It wasn’t a happy experience.

“I hated the place because they didn’t pasteurize the milk and didn’t make hamburgers the right way,” he recalled.

“My sister and I were raised with the object of making aliyah to Israel,” Yaroslavsky said.

Their mother, who was the idealistic force in the family, died of cancer when Zev was 10, and the aliyah plans were put on hold. Sister Shimona did follow through later and now lives in Haifa.

Growing up, Zev was always aware that he had aunts, uncles and cousins in the Soviet Union, although they rarely sent letters.

“I had a grandmother who went back to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and survived the 900-day siege of Leningrad by the Germans,” he said. “When I was about 9 years old, we got a letter from her, and it’s still etched in my mind how excited my father was.”

At the time of Zev’s bar mitzvah, a telegram came from an aunt in the Ukraine, but she was careful not to mention the Jewish ritual itself. “Congratulations on your 13th birthday,” the telegram read.

While the Yaroslavsky family sensed the fear of their Russian relatives on a personal level, the overall situation of Soviet Jewry was changing.