January 17, 2019

The early Israel-to-L.A. wave

In 1965, at just 16, Edna Botach (now Lee) packed up her memories of living in tents with 12 brothers and sisters, and moved from Beersheba to Los Angeles. When she arrived in the Fairfax area and moved in with her brother’s family, she spoke only Hebrew and Farsi, the language of her parents, Iranian Jews who immigrated to Israel in 1950.

“My older brother had married an American. They had four young children, and my parents wanted me to go and help them out,” said Lee, who remembers missing the flavor of the “lechem shachor” (rye bread), the price of which was subsidized by the Israeli government. “Something about that bread never leaves you,” she said recently.

Lee was part of an early wave of Israelis immigrating to Los Angeles, a group that some in Israel and Los Angeles pejoratively called yordim, a word derived from yerida that means “descent,” the opposite of aliyah, or “ascension.” She came here long before the opening of Israeli markets, the L.A. institution of celebrating Yom HaAtzmaut with Israel festivals, and the pita-everywhere environment to which Angelenos, Israeli or otherwise, have grown accustomed.

“Those were difficult years, when there were no Israelis,” Lee said. “Everybody thought I was Greek or Italian. After the Six-Day War, people became more aware [of Israelis],” she added.

She was by no means among the first to come, however. Decades earlier, a migration trail from Israel to L.A. had been blazed by Mandate-era Jews, including Shlomo Bardin, who moved to the United States in 1939 and founded the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley.

After Israel became a state in 1948, more Israelis followed, including Jona Goldrich, who came in 1953 and started a company that cleaned up construction sites, leading to a career in real-estate development and construction, and Dani Dassa, an Israeli-born choreographer and legendary folk-dance teacher, who came in the late 1950s and opened Cafe Danssa, a meeting place for Israeli dance on the Westside, founded in 1966.

Soon after arriving in L.A., Lee enrolled in Fairfax High School, and her acculturation began by taking an English as a Second Language course, along with about 12 other students, including a couple of other Israelis.

“I did not make a lot of friends. The Americans, if they were not religious, I could not connect. In values, philosophy, we were so different,” said Lee, who today affiliates with the Modern Orthodox movement.

After high school, she attended L.A. City College, eventually matriculating to California State University, Los Angeles, where she graduated with an education degree.

While in college, Lee found work at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital on Fountain Avenue. At the time, TVs were not standard in hospital rooms, and Lee got a job from an outside vendor renting them to patients. She recalled wearing a “cute little uniform” and going into hospital rooms to drum up business “with my funny accent,” she said.

“There were a lot of Jewish patients,” one of whom introduced her son to Lee, and the two eventually married in 1971.

Many Los Angeles Jews, like Rabbi Bob Golub, who grew up at Valley Beth Shalom and is executive director of Mercaz USA, the Zionist organization of the Conservative movement, recall that the first Israelis they ever met were teachers in their Hebrew-school classrooms. In fact the study “In Our Footsteps: Israeli Migration to the United States and Los Angeles,” published in 1981 by Pini Herman and David LaFontaine, found that around 66 percent of Israeli immigrants were working in professional and technical positions, including as teachers, medical professionals and engineers.

Lee went into real estate, and after a successful career as a Realtor — knowing Hebrew made her Israeli clients comfortable with the knowledge that she “would put them in a good place”— she now owns a shop on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks called Aunt Teek’s, where she sells pieces of the past.

 In the 1960s, once work or school was done, Lee and other Israeli immigrants like Rivka Dori would go to a cafe on Sunset Boulevard called Sabra to meet up with other Israelis or catch up on news back home.

It was “one of the first establishments my husband, Reuben [Reuven], and I visited,” remembers Dori, who came to the United States from Israel in 1966.

“This was the place to meet other Israelis, speak Hebrew, listen to Israeli music and eat Israeli food,” said Dori, director emerita of Hebrew Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

Another outpost of all things Israeli in the Fairfax area in the early 1970s, serving up a reminder of the flavors of home to a growing Israeli population, was a falafel stand called Me & Me. Located on the corner of Fairfax Boulevard and Rosewood Avenue, it was a place where many non-Israelis had their first falafel — and tested their limits with the accompanying hot sauce.

According to several sources, Me & Me was named for an Israeli restaurant called, in Hebrew, “Mi v’ Mi” or “Who is Who.” Transliterated into English, the name became Me & Me.

Mark Pahlow, who worked across the street at Lose the Blues Bookstore, describes Me & Me on his blog:The proprietors were loud and brash, with shirts unbuttoned and hairy chests puffed out. ‘American Woman’ by The Guess Who was usually blaring out of the establishment, and the staff was singing along, loudly and off-key.” 

The “Footsteps” study also found that, like Lee, “Most of the Israelis are living in areas of high Jewish population density,” with the majority in the early 1970s located in the city’s Metro region (roughly from Hollywood to Westwood), along with a growing number living in the San Fernando Valley. As the decade progressed, the Israeli community increasingly began moving into the Valley, including Lee’s family, who relocated to Studio City in 1975. By 1980, the number of Israelis calling the Valley “home” surpassed that of the Metro area.

However, as the number of Israeli immigrants grew, estimated in the study as between 10,000 and 12,000, but by others as the much-debated number of 120,000, a divide was growing in the L.A. Jewish community, over how to welcome them, with some disapproving of granting traditional resettlement aid.

So, in the early 1980s, a commission was formed. According to Gerald Bubis, the founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at HUC-JIR, it was Jerry Weber, director of the Council on Jewish Life, who was instrumental in bringing together elements of the community to create a commission on Israelis.

“The community was changing so rapidly,” Bubis said. People were asking, some “who never made aliyah themselves, ‘Why would they want to come?’ ” Bubis said.

A 43-member commission was chaired by Herbert Glaser, and included Bubis and Herman as well as ex-officio member Benyamin Navon, consul general of the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles. And after many months of meetings, which Bubis recalls as “always civil,” it issued a report in 1984.

It was a victory for those who favored a more inclusive approach, because the report, in addition to recommending that “demeaning terms such as yordim” not be used, suggested that community synagogues, Federation agencies and Jewish community centers should be “sensitized to their responsibilities” to the needs of Israeli immigrants. The report also recommended that “all eligible Jews residing within Los Angeles are entitled to participate in the programs and services of the Jewish Federation Council and its agencies.”

Lee, for one, always maintained ties to the local Jewish community — when she was younger she joined Yavneh, and when older, temples, and she sent two of her children to Jewish day school. On many Shabbats, acting as her own agency, she still invites guests to her home. “My home has been open to the world,” she said.

Have a lead for an L.A. Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at edmojace@gmail.com