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The Magic of Jewish LA

Maybe we don’t always realize it, but perhaps simply being visibly Jewish out in the world is itself a mitzvah.
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August 17, 2022
Marc Dozier/Getty Images

I was stopped at the intersection of Wilshire and La Cienega one morning last week on my way to an appointment. It had been close to a year since I’d driven in the area, having moved out of Los Angeles in August of 2021. I was in a hurry. I hadn’t accounted for the traffic I’d hit coming from the house we’re renting for the month in Highland Park. After forty-five minutes of aggressive driving, unexpected construction obstacles, and navigation fails I was in a terrible mood.

But then I saw him.

As I waited impatiently for the light to turn green, giving me permission to step on the gas and join the throng of other aggressive drivers, I sensed movement in my peripheral vision. And there he was: a young Orthodox Jewish teenager on a skateboard, zipping through the crosswalk with tzitzit flying in the breeze, one hand on his kippah, the other out for balance as the skateboard lurched forward. The light turned green, but I waited until he had disappeared from my view before I put my foot to the gas.

Everything stopped for me in that moment, as if an arrow had found its mark.

If you live in LA, you probably see these kinds of images all the time. Maybe you see them so often that you don’t even see them anymore. I know that’s how I was when I lived here. I took the pervasiveness of all kinds of Jews for granted. Even the notorious crush of ultra-Orthodox Jews walking around during Shabbat on Friday evening alongside the packs of LA twenty-somethings out for an evening of booze and cigarettes on Fairfax—an unlikely juxtaposition that thrilled and amazed me when I first moved to LA in 2008—became so common I hardly noticed it 13 years later. The challah in every grocery store, the countless kosher restaurants, the abundance of kippot and shtreimels, the knowledge that I could visit a different shul every Shabbat and still not see them all in a year’s time—all of it became like background noise to me.

If you want to find Jews in Florence, where I live, you have to search for them.

But then I left. I now live in Italy, where you can bet I’ll never see an Orthodox Jewish teenager flying across the intersection on his skateboard while trying to keep his kippah from flying off. Don’t get me wrong: I love where I live. It’s magical in so many ways. It’s old and peaceful and the wine is delicious and cheap. But it doesn’t have that LA Jewish magic. Sure, of course there are Jews in Italy (starting with Chabad!). But there’s no visible Jewish presence other than an historic synagogue here and there or the random gold-plated stones commemorating Italian Jewish victims of the Holocaust. If you want to find Jews in Florence, where I live, you have to search for them. A few months ago when we were visiting the city of Verona, we spotted a tourist wearing a kippah. I shook my son’s shoulder and pointed at the man, “Look! Look! They’re Jewish!”

Being Jewish in LA is unremarkable. But for me, now a visitor to the city that used to be mine, bearing witness to these Jewish moments makes me feel like the recipient of a mitzvah.

Being Jewish in LA is unremarkable. But for me, now a visitor to the city that used to be mine, bearing witness to these Jewish moments makes me feel like the recipient of a mitzvah. Maybe we don’t always realize it, but perhaps simply being visibly Jewish out in the world is itself a mitzvah.

And speaking of mitzvahs, I’ll tell you one more story about something that happened to me since I’ve been in LA. A week ago I was with some of my family members at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. My youngest brother Nick, who had just come back to LA from a job in Japan, was telling us about a “fortune” he received at a temple he visited. It was a long and detailed fortune and he read it to us from a photo on his phone. There was no mention of prosperity or meeting someone wonderful. It was, instead, a dark and ominous fortune that predicted my brother would lose everything, a family business would fail, a sick loved one would not recover, and so on. Fortunately the Japanese temple offered a solution to receiving a bad fortune. It involved tying it to some kind of hanger and making sure not to take the paper fortune out of the temple. We all laughed, even though we were a little disturbed.

We were not, it turns out, the only ones who were disturbed. Suddenly the man dining at the table next to us interrupted our laughter and said, “Excuse me, but I would like you guys to leave. I will pay you $1000 to go to another restaurant on the other side of town.” We all went silent. I watched the man’s face, trying to determine why he was upset. Had we been too loud? My mom had her service dog under the table—was that the problem? But then he continued, “Because I overheard his fortune and don’t want any of that bad juju near me.” A split second and then he cracked a smile and we realized he was joking, and insisted on buying a round of drinks for our entire table. We all laughed again and said to my brother, “See? Your fortune is already turning around for the better.”

Before he left, the man at the table next to us turned once again to our table as we thanked him again for the drinks. “You know,” he said, as he pulled out his wallet and started removing five-dollar bills, “in my culture there is something called a mitzvah.” I laughed with delight and told him that my husband, son and I are Jewish. He smiled and continued. I watched as he took each bill and folded it into a unique triangular shape. He told us about the sacred obligation to perform mitzvahs, good deeds. He gave each of us a triangular bill and asked us to do the mitzvah of charity with it.

I wonder if he realized that simply being outspokenly Jewish in that moment was a mitzvah in itself. But it was. It was a mitzvah because it lit up my own Jewish identity, and reminded me of how special it is to be in a place like LA where we have the luxury of taking those things for granted.


Monica Osborne is a former professor of literature, critical theory, and Jewish studies. She is Editor-at-Large at The Jewish Journal and is author of “The Midrashic Impulse.”

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