February 17, 2019

How the Jews changed Los Angeles

“Los Angeles today is the bellwether of American style and taste and culture. Los Angeles Jewry is the bellwether of American Jewish life. … Los Angeles Jews are God’s people and they live in the City of the Angels.”

— “Guide to Jewish Los Angeles,” published by the Jewish Federation Council in the 1980s.

When Los Angeles was incorporated as a city in 1850, eight Jews, all bachelors, were included on the population rolls. Today, according to the best estimates, somewhere between 600,000 to 650,000 Jews live in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, with figures varying depending upon who does the estimating, how they define the geographical boundaries and, indeed, the definition of who is a Jew.

During the intervening 163 years, not only has the size of L.A.’s Jewish community evolved again and again, but so too has its neighborhood concentrations, social standing, occupational preferences and political clout.

On May 10, the Autry National Center in Griffith Park will open its doors to arguably the most ambitious attempt to encapsulate this vibrant history in its exhibition, “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic.”

The exhibition focuses in particular on two historical interactions — the impact of the Jewish community on the evolution of Los Angeles and the way the city, with its multiethnic population, has changed and molded its Jewish residents, in the process creating a Jewish persona distinct in attitude and lifestyle from its East Coast and Midwestern cousins.

At the exhibition’s entry, visitors are introduced to two disparate neighborhoods deeply linked to the evolution of Los Angeles Jewish life — Boyle Heights and Hollywood — and then to the first of the display’s three chronological divisions.

This first section, titled “Remaking Los Angeles/Making Los Angeles (1850-1900),” illustrates the distinctive fact that Jews were part of the city, and indeed of much of the American West, from the beginning, and were not just later immigrants to already well-established cities and towns.

Using maps, models, artifacts, business correspondence and broadsides as emblems of the rich fabric of the region, the show’s curator, Karen S. Wilson, introduces viewers to the community and to the Hebrew Benevolent Society, founded in 1854 as the raw city’s first charitable organization.

The first synagogue, Congregation B’nai B’rith, which evolved into today’s Reform Wilshire Boulevard Temple, followed in 1862, and its ornate architectural home is represented by an elaborate column capital as well as an early embroidery of the Ten Commandments.

Stone capital from exterior synagogue column, circa 1896, courtesy of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Life was hard on the new frontier, so early  on in Los Angeles people were judged mainly by their labor, not by their religious or ethnic background. In such an environment, “bigotry was a luxury,” Wilson noted.

The next era, titled “Growing Pains,” spans the first 50 years of the 1900s, a period that proved a setback from the era of equality.

With the completion of the nation’s transcontinental rail links in the late 19th century, white Protestants, mainly from the Midwest, poured into Southern California, bringing with them anti-Semitic attitudes. As a result, social and commercial clubs and institutions, frequently founded by Jews, came to exclude them.

In one response, Jews created “an empire of their own” by inventing the movie industry, led by men with names like Zucker, Goldwyn (born Shmuel Gelbfisz, later Anglicized to Samuel Goldfish) and Mayer as the founding fathers. The immense legacy of the early history of the industry, and its impact on the region, is telescoped in the Autry show, represented by a single camera used in the shooting of “The Squaw Man” in 1918 and the program for the 1923 premiere of “The Ten Commandments” at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre.

The impresario Sid Grauman, who four years later would open the even gaudier Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, also illustrated in the exhibition, demonstrated that the Jewish impact on Hollywood extended well beyond just film producers and directors.

Linking two Jewish eras in the West, Grauman as a boy traveled with his father to the Yukon as Gold Rush prospectors.

Set of film “The Squaw Man,” 1913, Los Angeles Public Library Collection.

Jews also composed much of the popular music of the era, which can be heard at listening stations in the galleries.

Throughout the decades, the resident Jewish community was enlarged and invigorated by the arrival of newcomers. The early 20th century saw the arrival of Jews mainly from Eastern Europe, augmented by some from Mediterranean countries. In the 1930s, Jews exiled by the Nazi regime became major figures in the city’s intellectual and artistic life, and various artifacts and letters illustrate the attempts of film director Billy Wilder, conductor Otto Klemperer and composer Arnold Schoenberg and their émigré circle to establish themselves in the New World.

As Los Angeles’ Jewish community grew, it also laid the groundwork for new social service agencies, medical institutions (as well as fundraising techniques), including the City of Hope and the precursor of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, founded as the Kaspare Cohn Hospital in 1902 by businessman Kaspare Cohn.

The exhibition’s third and final epoch, titled “Possibility & Prosperity (1950s-2000s),” features the contributions of Jewish entrepreneurs and professionals in developing vast suburban housing tracts and new architectural styles, fashions and artistic expressions.

[‘Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic’ exhibition related events and programs]

In politics, Jews who once played prominent roles behind the scenes stepped out in front, such as the young City Councilwoman Rosalind (Roz) Wyman, who was instrumental in bringing the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team to Los Angeles in 1958.

One photo from that era, showing Wyman with the great Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax, encapsulates the rise of a new generation of young Jews entering — and succeeding — in fields generally considered non-Jewish domains.

Locally, as elsewhere, Jewish involvement has helped to nourish the fine arts and artists, and the donations in those arenas have, in turn, helped to add to the social stature of the major givers.

The Jewish community made major strides in bridging a deep-seated social separation with other religious and ethnic groups, through gifts to create — together with the Protestant establishment philanthropists — the new Music Center. One of the largest donors was Mark Taper, whose name continues to grace the landmark theater.

Design protesting the Vietnam War by Lorraine Art Schneider, “Primer,” 1966.

Jews also played a major role in helping to elect Tom Bradley as the city’s first black mayor, backing the civil rights movement, and, in later years, fueling the anti-Vietnam War protests.

The convergence of the black community with the Jewish world can be felt in a recording from 1965, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood, which can be heard at an exhibition listening station. Among other community actions saluted here is the drive by young Jewish activists to help their brethren in the Soviet Union and to establish the first gay and lesbian synagogue. Los Angeles is also home to the first Holocaust museum, established by survivors.

Two iconic American figures, Mattel’s Barbie and Ken, make an unexpected appearance in the show, illustrating innovative Jewish thinking in updating historical artifacts, such as dolls, to meet the tastes of a new city and generation.

These icons were created by Ruth Handler, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland and part of a rising cadre of women entrepreneurs; she named Barbie, introduced in 1959, and Ken after her own daughter and son. Always keeping up with the times, Handler, then president of Mattel, also introduced African-American and Latina Barbies in 1980.

Located toward the end of the exhibition is a “public square” that encourages visitors to share their own views of L.A.’s Jewish future, in line with the city’s “particularly Western ethos of unfettered reinvention,” as Wilson put it.

Initial planning for this exhibition started as far back as 2003, on the heels of the Autry’s “Jewish Life in the American West” exhibition, which drew the largest attendance in the museum’s history, up to that time.

Wilson, the Kahn postdoctoral research fellow at the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, was appointed as guest curator in 2007. She acknowledged that even with 5,000 square feet of floor space, 150 artifacts, 80 photographs, two listening stations featuring more than 50 songs, five videos and two spoken-word audio excerpts, visitors will inevitably find gaps in this presentation of Los Angeles Jewish life and history.     

For instance, Wilson said, the show includes little mention of the city’s many eminent rabbis or its prominent Jewish neighborhoods, nor does it cover the rise of the garment industry or the role of Jews here in law enforcement and politics.

However, Wilson emphasized that the main aim of the exhibition — in line with the Autry’s primary mission — is to look “outwardly” at the interactions of Jews with the rest of Los Angeles, rather than “inwardly” to the makeup of the Jewish community.

Given this outlook, she said, “It was inevitable that representative choices would have to be made, with a few ‘case study’ institutions standing in for hundreds of others. … The history of the Jews in Los Angeles is so rich and ever evolving.

“If this exhibition leaves us wanting more,” Wilson said, “then we have done a good job.”

Much additional information will be available through a richly illustrated catalog, also titled “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic,” published by the Autry and University of California Press and available at the museum’s store. In addition, an extensive program of talks, symposia, film screenings, musical events and city bus tours will be offered during the exhibit’s run through Jan. 5 of next year. (See additional story for highlights.)

For additional information, visit www.theautry.org or phone (323) 667-2000.