Still from ‘Annie Hall’ (1977)
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Goodbye to Verdugo

Sometimes it feels better to live among your own kind, even if they’re Jewish

Jeremy Stern
December 07, 2023
Still from 'Annie Hall' (1977)

When my first and so far only panic attack began, I was eating dinner with my wife in front of the TV; she was bouncing our infant son and we were mindlessly rewatching an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. It happened during an unremarkable scene—Larry and Jeff talking to each other in a crowded living room during a breakfast party, something like that. In any case, my heart suddenly started racing, my extremities tingled, the elevator in my stomach went into freefall. As I put down my fork and went to the kitchen to histrionically drink water straight from the sink, the bottom dropped out of my existence. It suddenly occurred to me—also for the first and so far only time—that life was one, great never-ending catastrophe.

It was another couple days until I understood what I think happened. Earlier that week, we’d closed on a house in the Verdugo Woodlands, a small neighborhood that no one in Los Angeles has ever heard of, and which sounds like somewhere Sancho Panza gets lost and kidnapped. Tucked away in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and bifurcated by the Verdugo Wash, a dry tributary of the LA River, the Woodlands seem oddly disembodied from the rest of Los Angeles. It is a mostly middle- and working-class, family-centric bedroom community with well-kept parks and magnificent baseball fields, excellent public schools, no homeless people, and virtually no crime.

We had previously been living in Hollywood, where the heady nightlife for a while seemed worth the streets strewn with needles and trash—worth even the periodic scattering of homeless encampments by police, which forced the drug-addled and schizophrenic to wander down our street in search of another freeway underpass. But when we found out my wife was pregnant, it quickly became unbearable. After we made the decision to move, we could no longer retrieve the state of mind in which we’d felt more or less unbothered by the young man slowly killing himself with heroin in our driveway in the afternoons, or the ubiquitous police helicopters circling overhead.

Finally, we saved up enough money for a down payment on a house. We had no idea what or where the Verdugo Woodlands were, and had no desire to live in the greater unhip city of Glendale to which it belongs—briefly the West Coast headquarters of the American Nazi Party and still a sundown town as late as 1964, and about as far from the Pacific Ocean as you can get without leaving LA. But the little house we found, whose small backyard is carved out of the sheer rock of San Rafael Hill, which keeps the house shaded and cool, was one of the only ones on the market that was safe and affordable, and also a little bit attractive. (The only previous occupants were twin brothers from Komarno, Ukraine, both unmarried and childless mathematicians who worked for decades at the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They never installed internet or cable in the house, where they lived alone together for 57 years until they died months apart, aged 89.)

The day we signed the loan documents, and watched the savings we’d worked so hard to build up go poof, we decided to drive around our new neighborhood. We stopped at Verdugo Park and pushed our sleeping son in the stroller. There were old Armenian men in short-sleeve collared shirts and tweed newsboy caps barbecuing kabobs and playing cards, Persian moms gossiping and drinking soda while their kids ran squealing through the jungle gym, and a pop-up congregation of some dozen Korean families listening in rapt silence to a man talking into a loudspeaker about God. When we got back in the car to drive around more, we noticed that down the road from our new house was the Catalina Verdugo Adobe, where in 1847 the cousins General Andrés and Pío Pico negotiated the surrender that ended the Mexican-American War and completed the conquest of California.

On the ride back to Hollywood, my wife made an observation that we soon heard often from our neighbors in the Verdugo Woodlands, typically made in hushed tones: that if anyone else in Los Angeles found out about this tidy, secure, wonderfully diverse, financially accessible neighborhood with good schools and incredible food 10 minutes from Silver Lake, they would probably set about trying to besiege it, or make it illegal. How could all the conditions of a decent life that every American has a right to expect be met in this one little enclave, my wife wondered aloud, when such things are never found together even in the wealthiest and most exclusive neighborhoods of LA?

At the time she had not yet decided to convert, and I was in the habit of explaining the ways of my people to her. But I was still mostly kidding, I thought, when I ventured an answer by way of reference to our communal political allegiances and voting patterns.

“Because,” I explained, “there are no Jews here.”

In the Curb scene, like I said, Larry and Jeff are standing around in a crowded living room at a breakfast party. I don’t remember which episode it was or what they were talking about—our son was only a few months old then and we hadn’t been sleeping. What I do remember noticing were the minor details of the scene: the faces of the other actors and the extras, the way the food on the table looked, the way the party chatter sounded. Larry’s houses and social circles in the show are always somewhere on the west side of Los Angeles—places like Beverly Hills or Brentwood, where LeBron James lives. It’s not the LA I know, having grown up in the San Fernando Valley. But even in this imaginary portrayal of a world that has never exactly been mine, there is something acutely, almost intrusively familiar. Larry’s world is the world of secular LA Jews writ large, those whose parents and grandparents fled places like Brooklyn—or else Central Europe and the Holocaust—rather than those who arrived more recently from places like Tehran or Moscow, or who live in accordance with the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

When I was 18, I’d felt the need to flee from such familiarities and went as far away, and lived as differently, as I could manage. Over the next 12 years, I discovered that I liked to play the odd man out. In college, where most people were some version of an intersectional, sectarian activist, I enjoyed being the killjoy Zionist. In the Republican circles I fell into in D.C., I was the committed Clintonite. In the Army, I was usually the only Jew that anyone knew and that some had ever met. I savored this latter role especially. One time a Sergeant Benavidez from New Mexico asked me, “Do Jews believe in God?” What else would we believe in, I asked him. “A star?” he answered earnestly.

On another occasion, I was eating dinner in a chow hall with two enlisted soldiers from the Alabama National Guard. We were all tired and eating in silence, but I could tell they were looking at me the whole time I ate. When we left to walk back to the barracks, one of them said to me, “That was some crazy Jewish shit you just pulled.” I must have looked worried and confused, which I was. The other explained: “I have never seen someone eat chicken with a knife and a fork in my life. Are Jewish people not allowed to eat chicken with their fingers?”

I didn’t mind buying a house in an essentially Jew-free neighborhood in one of the greatest Jewish cities in the diaspora, is what I mean to say—and I might have even preferred it. Given the devotion of LA’s assimilation-proud secular Jews to the progressive catechism, I figured there was also probably something to my half-joking theory of a connection between zero tolerance for crime or desecration of public spaces, and the absence of large numbers of affluent secular Jews. The fewer liberal arts degrees in your ZIP code, the less deranged the politics.

The Verdugo Woodlands, and Glendale for that matter, is not literally Judenfrei. But “there are no Jews” here the way there are no Jews on Guam, meaning there are a few dozen who don’t speak to each other, plus a Chabad on the other side of the hill. When I pictured us moving into our new home, I imagined myself in my old role again, proudly putting up a mezuzah on the doorpost and inviting our new Armenian and Chinese neighbors over for Shabbat, the same way it brought me pleasure in the Army to have “Jewish” printed on my dog tags to indicate my burial preferences, and to cover night watch duties during Christmas to relieve my soldiers during a holiday which meant something to them and much less to me. I liked to think that in the Verdugo Woodlands I would be like Tevye in Anatevka, a modest little guardian of tradition from the encroaching influences of the American melting pot.

It didn’t take much to blow this silly, narcissistic daydream to pieces. In fact, rewatching an old episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm after signing escrow paperwork was precisely all it took. Like the characters in the show, I am as secular and assimilated as it’s possible to be and still remain a Jew in any recognizable sense. And yet something in me seemed to break that night. Not just break, but fragment and fly apart, like a grenade.

It had been well and good to play the lone Jew as a young man in a place like the Army. But I was a father and husband now, with an apparently emerging atavistic streak. When I finally dropped anchor in a place like the Verdugo Woodlands, it was as if without realizing it I had breached the invisible barriers that exist to keep even unobservant Jews separated from other peoples, and thus unthreatened by the darker side of assimilation: that of cultural extinction.

It is because of those barriers that when I see even a make-believe depiction of a roomful of liberal Jews in Los Angeles, it is as if I know without having to be there myself what the air smells like. I know the wine is sweeter, the clothes are darker, the furniture is more comfortable, the decoration is hokier, and the meat is overcooked. The people, with their dark pink but slightly Levantine faces, their fidgety but serious manners, are different from others. Their voices are louder. Their conversation is often more unpleasantly forthright than in other company, but it is also less frivolous.

However much I believe an admirable person should be able to live without any of this, a panic attack induced by a fictional approximation of this world stampeded me into the realization that I will never get away from it. Nor should I.

We have lived in the Verdugo Woodlands for almost two years now. As I write this I am on a train from Tokyo to Kanazawa, the farthest away I’ve been since we moved. When I think of the Verdugo Woodlands from a distance of 6,000 miles, two things come to mind.

At the Glendale Sports Complex up the road from our home, there is a beautifully manicured baseball field that belongs to St. Francis, a local Catholic school. The team is highly ranked and the games are usually competitive. If you go on a school night, or on a weekend morning, you will see parents, grandparents, and younger siblings in the bleachers, but also casual neighborhood fans of most ages and backgrounds, including, almost always, residents of the nearby Campbell Center, a home for people with severe disabilities. Whether by age, income, ethnicity, or physical ability, I am used to being among some form of segregation virtually everywhere else in my life. Here, less so.

Then there is the couple that lives two houses down from ours—the husband is Turkish and works as a diamond setter, the wife is an Armenian from Argentina and teaches high school Spanish. Around sundown, the two of them often sit together on a small bench in front of their modest home, facing the mountains to the west. She drinks tea in her hoodie, while he expertly picks and strums a nylon-string guitar and hums for her. Whenever I take my son on an after-dinner walk by their home, my neighbor lets him excitedly totter up and run his little fingers over the strings. Are these wonderful and good people? They are. I feel sympathy with them, and fellow-feeling. Are they my people? No, they are not.

The Verdugo Woodlands is a kind of paradise, and yet I am not sure how much longer we will live here. My wife, who is further along in her conversion now, was the first to suggest that we might leave. We love living easily among our Armenian, Turkish, Lebanese, Chinese, Korean, and Mexican neighbors, interacting whenever we want to or need to, but never feeling compelled—all of us with uncomplicated feelings about each other and about the United States, whose flag many of us have raised facing the street. But the weeks since Oct. 7 have also consolidated our feeling that, by floating among the tribes of LA, while largely exempting ourselves from communing with our own, we are somehow living falsely.

And so it’s back to the Jews I go, with my two little blue-eyed boys and my Presbyterian minister’s granddaughter-turned-pro-Israel Jewish wife. We won’t live in the Jewish LA where I grew up, or in the parallel universe of Curb. It is community we are after, among Jews. Except, for Jews in their secular LA form, community has not been valued much in recent years, except as a descriptor of a voting bloc that plays its role in the secular calculus forged a century ago by Franklin Roosevelt—“the Jewish community” in this sense being a political actor, alongside “the Latino community” and “the LGBT community.”

What we’re chasing is something more substantive and perhaps even burdensome, a community of Jews bound together by more immanent tribal or religious ties who are also, for that very reason, not afraid to stick American flags in their yards. We’ll probably start by looking for a place among the Iranians, the former Soviets, or even Chabad. We will, of course, be outsiders there, too. But this time, we will be outsiders among Jews.

Jeremy Stern is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine.