As I sat in the courtyard of congregation Adat Shalom—revived by a shot of slivovitz, a fiery speech by Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, and the sight of a packed house on a Saturday morning—a thought that had long simmered in the recesses of my mind bubbled happily to the surface: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Jew in want of rich Jewish life must leave New York and head to LA.
Let me start by admitting the obvious: LA is not without blight or blemish, all the more so these days. I’d hardly been in town an hour and already my friends here were telling me all about the homeless in the streets, the swelling violence, the police calls made but not answered, the insurance they can no longer even get on their homes. But in a strange way, these grievances reminded me of … a New York that once was.
Our town in the 1970s was a case study in collapse, and yet it remained vibrant and thriving, with flowers blooming and cross-pollinating in the rubble. Why? Because, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late great Menachem Mendel Schneerson, understood better than most, the spiraling chaos wasn’t just a driver of anxiety; it was also an invitation to many Jews to reject much of what had failed them—excess materialism, toxic politics, revolutionary aspirations—and instead recommit themselves to their traditions and their spiritual and emotional and physical well-being. All you needed to do to dispel the darkness of 1970s New York was light them Shabbos candles.
That’s much harder to do, if not altogether impossible, in New York circa 2022. The Jewish revolution already happened there, with its successes—Chabad, the Soviet Jewry movement, some corners of modern Orthodoxy—and its failures. To stay in New York now is to dull your brain by pledging allegiance to the orthodoxies of the progressive cult that runs this town while also trying to preserve the core of your parents’ Judaism and realizing you’re not doing much justice to either worldview. Today’s New York is largely a factory for the manufacturing of midwits who know just enough to be taken seriously by the mutually accrediting mediocrities running the formerly meaningful institutions too many smart American Jews still think of as their natural home.
Los Angeles is different. It has the raw material of hundreds of thousands of Jews (suburbanites, Russians, Persians) who are ripe for a fresh encounter with Judaism, in part because the local religions (growth, tech, Hollywood) have catastrophically failed, as they did in 1970s New York, and in part because LA lacks the unifying progressive glue that geography and the big unions provide. It’s diffuse. To live and thrive in LA, now more than ever, you need a tribe. If the Rebbe were alive and young today, I don’t think he’d move to Miami, which is a great and promising city for Jews who seek America, but not so much for Americans seeking Judaism. If the Rebbe was alive and young today, he would move to Los Angeles.
If the Rebbe was alive and young today, he would move to Los Angeles.
So spare me, please, the gripes about LA being insufficiently intellectual, a stale and austere avocado toast to New York’s elegant and sophisticated mille-feuille, a sun-stricken studio backlot that can’t hold a candle to the glittering brilliance that is Manhattan. If you’re Jewish, Los Angeles is ascendant, for a few simple reasons.
First of all, as you might have noticed, everything is broken these days—our political system, our media, our universities, our health care system, our ability to be decent to one another—and California is the cradle of American brokenness. It’s always been beautifully cracked. The crack is its essence. Whereas in New York, once upon a time not so long ago, you could wake up on a Saturday morning with the expectation that your basic needs would be met—a good sermon, a great bagel, fine coffee, a decent newspaper, some lovely gallery show to behold—LA is where the earth quakes, the forests burn, the traffic snarls. It works not in spite of these challenges but because of them, because the people who live there resolved, like the million or so Nicaraguans huddled near the mouth of Mount Masaya and its active lava lake, to root themselves in this fertile but demanding soil.
As New York comes tumbling down, you can almost feel our brothers and sisters out west nodding sympathetically. Gavin Newsom? George Gascón? Bring out your worst, your weakest, your most preposterous politicians touting their failed and dangerous ideas. It doesn’t matter. California was shattered and ungovernable from the start.
This same brokenness, in turn, delivers the next reason why LA reigns supreme: It’s real. Accused for a century, more or less, of being Tinseltown—a fake, a fabrication, a trompe l’oeil—it turns out that Los Angeles was the realest all along, precisely because it refused to be moved by ideas. Back home, in frigid and flaccid Manhattan, our self-appointed intellectual and moral superiors are having a blast with their thoughts, deciding, for example, that all fancy restaurants must now practice molecular gastronomy, or that, for political reasons, second daughter Ella Emhoff must now be considered the paragon of beauty and featured on the covers of magazines. LA isn’t impressed by such twaddle. It knows that beauty is greater than genius because it requires no explanation, and that beauty isn’t defined in underheated gender studies seminar rooms but by the very instinctive reactions people have before they think, when they merely look at someone or something and know right away whether they’re turned on or repelled. LA asks if that avocado is ripe and delicious, not if it represents a new trend you should study and adopt if you want the Brahmins who control the institutions that give you credentials and meaning to approve of your choices. LA is basic like that.
It’s also big, to boot—big enough, in fact, to give everyone the space they need to be together apart. Forget the exhausting drive to homogenize everything and everyone, which the priests of progressivism hilariously refer to as “diversity.” LA, like New York way back when but not in a very long while, understands that the body politic is healthiest when it allows its divergent tribes to live side by side, interacting whenever they need to but never feeling compelled to cross cultural or geographic or emotional lines that make them feel uncomfortable. Persian Jews can live across town from gay hipsters, and Orthodox parents can walk the streets with their kids and, whenever the spirit moves them, hop in their minivans and drive over to visit their coked-out producer friends on the Westside. It’s not so much a melting pot as a melting shabu-shabu, inviting you to dip judiciously and as frequently or infrequently as you’d like.
These reasons, arguably, make Los Angeles an all-around better, more human friendly and livable town than its haughty East Coast sis. Together, they seem to be doing something particularly great to Jewish life. Which shouldn’t be surprising: Reread the last several paragraphs, and you’ll find a cure for nearly every ailment plaguing the struggling communities back in the cold. When you have space and a tradition of living with hardship, when you respect not just diversity but also difference and disabuse yourself of the notion that your ideas, clever as they may be, can somehow replace observable reality—you’re likely to end up with folks who approach Jewish life with pride and verve.
At Adat Shalom, I saw young and old cats, graying conservatives and pierced millennials, all worshipping together with what was unmistakable and very real joy. I heard Rabbi Lebovitz tell his approving congregants to stop raging over the latest antisemitic scandal—Whoopi Goldberg, Amnesty International, etc.—and worry instead about deepening their own knowledge and practice of Judaism. It’s such a simple, powerful, and altogether too rare message these days, the sort you’d hear in precisely one non-Orthodox shul in New York (yasher koach to you, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch). In LA, you can learn this vital Torah from Rabbi Lebovitz, or Rabbi David Wolpe, or Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, or Rabbi Mordecai Finley, or Rabbi Sari Laufer—the fact that I can name so many off the top of my head should be enough to tell you that Jewish spiritual life is much healthier out west than you’d imagine.
So if you are alive today, Go West, Young Jew, if you can at all. Los Angeles is good for your Jewish soul.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.