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Los Angeles as the Center of American Jewish Life

More open and less delusional than their New York counterparts, LA Jews have made themselves future-proof

Mark Horowitz
February 07, 2022
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Editor’s note: To read more Tablet LA coverage, click here. 

If Hertz hadn’t screwed up my car rental reservation, I never would have seen how much my old hometown, Los Angeles, had changed. There were no cars at all at LAX, so I had to Uber to my hotel in mid-Wilshire.

I lived in LA for nearly two decades. I go back when I can. But I’ve never not had a car there. The architecture critic Reyner Banham said you have to learn Italian to understand Dante and you have to learn to drive to understand LA. But this time I walked, which is how I came to notice the differences I might otherwise have missed.

I walked up Fairfax to the Farmers Market for coffee. I walked along Beverly to La Brea. I’d traveled these same streets a thousand times before, but never this slowly.

Everything seemed more Jewish. Around La Brea and Beverly, where there had been a few Jewish institutions when I lived there—a yeshiva here, a senior center there—there were shtiebels, shuls, and yeshivas intermingled with the hip design stores. Jews were out walking, the men in kippahs with dangling tzitzit, the women in long skirts, some with sheitels.

Friends explained it to me later. Since I moved to New York, Jews in Los Angeles had moved eastward. There were more Jews than ever in the Wilshire district, in Pico-Robertson, in Hollywood and Los Feliz. And it wasn’t just an Orthodox revival. The old Temple Israel of Hollywood, just a few blocks off La Brea, a reform synagogue that I remembered as sleepy, to say the least, was bustling with activity. The monumental Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which was a decaying relic 25 years ago, had been fully renovated with a gleaming new building designed by Rem Koolhaas’ architectural firm adjoining it. I later learned that Wilshire Boulevard Temple had added an annex on the westside, and absorbed the University Synagogue in Westwood. It had become a Reform empire.

In my lifetime, New York Jews came to believe their own hype, identifying themselves with power—in the media, on Wall Street, in philanthropy, and in politics. They created the illusion that New York City was a Jewish town. Los Angeles Jews never bought those illusions. Even Hollywood, created by Jews, was built on the knowledge that the world was a hostile place. Hollywood’s founders were all excluded from LA’s old-money neighborhoods, the country clubs, and the downtown corridors of power. Which is why I can see a way that Los Angeles ends up becoming the next capital of the Jewish diaspora, the way New York used to be.

When people speak of LA, they mean LA County, which includes the City of LA, along with 87 other cities, including Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and Compton. As of 2020, there were 530,000 Jews living there. Orthodox Jews make up around 10%.

More Jews live in LA now than ever before, bolstered by influxes of immigrants from all over the world. There are Persian Jews, Israeli Jews, Russian Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, Haredi Jews, Hollywood Jews, Moroccan Jews, Latin American Jews, Yemenite Jews, South African Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Reform and Conservative Jews, and just plain old secular Jews like me. There is even a small community of Jews who came from the Greek island of Rhodes, the Rhodeslis, some of whom still speak Ladino at home.

I started checking in with old friends and some new ones. A modern Orthodox mom who lives in Mid-Wilshire, not far from where I was staying, told me that LA has become a great place to be Orthodox. Besides her neighborhood, there are modern Orthodox enclaves in Beverlywood, North Beverly Hills, and Sherman Oaks. There are “tons” of kosher restaurants, she says, and a variety of yeshiva day schools to choose from. There’s even a progressive modern Orthodox high school, Shalhevet, on Fairfax.

Meanwhile, the majority of Los Angeles is still Reform or unaffiliated, and resolutely liberal. Judging from what friends tell me, after years of struggle, Reform synagogues are thriving. There are now Reform day schools throughout LA, something that didn’t exist to the same extent when I lived there. That’s a huge change. In turn, the advent of liberal day schools means that their affiliated synagogues have become more central to daily life. “Twenty-five years ago, being a Reform Jew in LA meant buying tickets to the High Holidays and being Jewish a few days a year,” said an old friend who grew up in Beverly Hills and is a member of Temple Israel. “Now it’s much more. Because of the day schools, a family’s schedule is more attuned to the Jewish calendar.”

Oddly enough, as Jewish life is experiencing a rebirth in parts of LA, Jewish political power is in decline. I talked to Jim Newton, who has written biographies of Jerry Brown and Earl Warren, and now teaches at UCLA, where he also edits Blueprint, a magazine about California politics and culture. He knows California politics as well as anybody.

When I lived in Hollywood, back when Jim worked as a reporter for the LA Times, Jews were part of the coalition that ruled the city. Tom Bradley upended the downtown establishment in 1973 by forging an alliance between westside liberals (mostly Jewish) and LA’s African American community. “That was the coalition,” Newton explained, “that kept Bradley in power for five terms.” It unraveled in the ’90s, after the riots and O.J. Today, he said, the kind of political power westside Jews once had is a thing of the past.

The numbers now favor the Latino vote. Latinos make up 40% of the city’s population. The likely frontrunners in this year’s mayoral election, city Councilman Kevin de León and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, Newton pointed out, don’t need westside Jews to form a winning coalition.

The Orthodox community, a minority within a minority, is conservative. But unlike the Orthodox community in New York City, Orthodox votes in LA are still too few to move the dial citywide. The Persian Jewish community, concentrated in Westwood and Beverly Hills, is even more conservative politically, though less conservative religiously. Beverly Hills had the highest turnout for Trump in an otherwise blue Los Angeles.

Jewish money still matters, of course. But locally, not so much. Newton points out that big Democratic donors like Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg “have always directed their energies toward national politics. They give some local money, but Jewish fundraisers are not the kingmakers they once were.”

The other big change is Hollywood. The entertainment industry is the 800-pound gorilla that looms over any discussion of Jews and Los Angeles. Yet in Hollywood, Jews are also starting to take a backseat.

“It’s no longer necessary to be one of the chosen people to run a major studio,” said one friend, a former Hollywood insider. He was trying to be provocative. Hollywood was never as monolithically Jewish as popular mythology wished it to be. But whatever the reality was, it is far less Jewish than it used to be. The original movie studios like Paramount and Warner Bros. can’t stand up to the gentile colonizers from Seattle and Silicon Valley. Apple, Amazon, and Netflix are the new movie moguls. The imposing new Amazon campus in Culver City and the grandiose Netflix HQ on Sunset testify to that.

Pressure to promote greater diversity throughout the industry is also a factor. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which administers the Oscars, was targeted by an #OscarsSoWhite uprising and has been revamping its membership rolls as fast as it can. A sure sign of change is the brand-new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures that opened last September. It was easy walking distance from my hotel, and it’s been a popular success, despite controversy over its erasure of Hollywood’s roots. There’s a big exhibit about Spike Lee, but the industry’s founding Jews have been written out of their own story.

Haim Saban, the Israeli American businessman who donated $50 million to the museum, has apparently protested, and updated exhibits will be forthcoming. But Jews can read the writing on the wall. Aside from a few éminences grises like Spielberg and Larry David, who have been grandfathered in, the times are changing.

I talked to another friend I knew from the ’90s, Howard Rodman, a screenwriter and former president of the Writers Guild. Howard’s now a professor at USC. He doesn’t see the change as a loss. “It’s the assimilation of secular Jewish culture into the larger society,” he said. “We won!”

Jews may have created Hollywood, Howard said, but now it belongs to the world. He reminded me of another aspect of Jewish culture when we were younger. Back when only Jews ate bagels, the only place Rodman could buy good lox was a storefront called Dave’s Cut Rite on Fairfax. Dave sold salmon out of a cooler that was flown in each week from Brooklyn. The transaction felt more like a drug deal than shopping for Sunday brunch.

But now everyone in LA eats bagels. And you can get smoked salmon anywhere. That was Howard’s point.

Has less power and influence translated into fewer Jews or Jews being less Jewish? Just the opposite. LA today feels more Jewish, not less.

Has less power and influence translated into fewer Jews or Jews being less Jewish? Just the opposite. LA today feels more Jewish, not less. And it’s not just the bagels. Growing Orthodox communities have their new shuls and yeshivas, while liberal and reform neighbors have been revitalizing old institutions and exploring progressive alternatives to traditional synagogues with organizations like IKAR, led by Rabbi Sharon Brous, and the Pico-Union Project founded by Craig Taubman.

Rising antisemitism is a factor too. The original deed to the first house I bought in the Hollywood Hills, built in the 1940s, still had a restrictive covenant prohibiting renting or selling to nonwhites or Jews, a reminder of an earlier era. Courts had long ago rendered those covenants void and unenforceable. But antisemitism and anti-Zionism are on the rise again, in LA as elsewhere. There were recent attacks on diners at a kosher sushi restaurant on Beverly Blvd. and threats at local shuls. “People are arming,” my Orthodox friend told me. “A lot of people carry guns now.”

A more hostile environment also strengthens the impulse to develop communal resources. “Things are not going in the right direction, so we need to get more insular,” my friend said. “You can see it with the younger shuls cropping up that are going even more religious.”

Liberal Jews wrestle with antisemitism clothed in BDS and anti-Zionist rhetoric within their shared progressive circles. Leaders like IKAR’s Brous and Rabbi Kenneth Chasen at Leo Baeck Temple in the Sepulveda Pass are defending liberal Zionism, but the space is narrowing just as much in LA as it is in New York and elsewhere.

New Yorkers have seen their illusions breached by events yet seem unsure of how to adjust or even to acknowledge a new reality. Maybe it’s just something about earthquake faults, wild fires, urban riots and mudslides, but Los Angeles Jews just seem better prepared for adversity. Like London Jews, Paris Jews, Argentine Jews, and Miami Jews, Jewish Angelenos are still capable of saying to themselves, “So what else is new?” They don’t have a chip on their shoulders, because no one’s illusions have been shattered. LA’s Jewish community, in all its diversity and tension, looks more like the rest of the Jewish world than ever before. Just get out of your car and look around.

Mark Horowitz is Senior Editor at Tablet magazine. He tweets @MarkHorowitz.