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The Native American Judaism of LA

Rabbi Ed Feinstein sees the continuity of a new kind of Jewish life in the San Fernando Valley

by
Jeremy Stern
February 08, 2022
Milken Family Foundation
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth ShalomMilken Family Foundation
Milken Family Foundation
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth ShalomMilken Family Foundation
To read more Tablet LA coverage, click here.
To read more Tablet LA coverage, click here.

“The Valley is New Jersey,” says Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS). “It’s Fort Lee, Teaneck, Englewood. So, if you’re young and cute, you live in Venice. If you’re an aspiring artist, you live in Silver Lake or downtown in a loft. If you’re in the industry, you’re in Beverly Hills. But in the Valley, we’re not hip, we’re into our families and our friends, and our identity is wrapped up with inner things.”

Three hundred square miles and home to some 2 million people, the San Fernando Valley is a bedroom community cut off from the Los Angeles basin by a mountain range; residents of the Valley are duly patronized by city dwellers. The way New Yorkers think of LA, that’s how Angelenos talk about the Valley: provincial, lowbrow, oblivious. Studio City, Sherman Oaks, and other Valley neighborhoods are seamlessly connected to the city by a network of highways and thoroughfares blasted through the Santa Monica Mountains, but there’s no denying the cultural canyons. City bars have grammable bathrooms and names like Tenants of the Trees; Valley haunts have sticky floors and are called Tony’s Darts Away. On Valley sidewalks, it’s still more common to see lemonade stands and bake sales than meth dens or Greenpeace canvassers—the ultimate mark of cultural inferiority.

In our 30s, I’ve noticed my childhood friends from the Valley seem a bit happier, or at least a click less psychotic, than those from the city. The former are homeowners, married, raising kids, and running small businesses; the latter are still rewriting their pilot from grad school. The city kids are hip and therefore stuck; the Valley kids are unhip and girded for the future.

A Valley boy born and raised, Rabbi Feinstein, who succeeded the great Harold Schulweis as senior rabbi at VBS in Encino in 2005, is one of the most widely revered rabbis in LA County. From his second-floor office, you can see the Sepulveda Dam, which along with the Hansen Dam turned the Valley from flood-prone farmland into a settlement area after 1940. (Hence Chinatown, the landmark Valley film, at least until Boogie Nights). “There are approximately 180,000 Jews living in this area,” Feinstein says. “We estimate there are 50,000 Israelis living here in the Valley. A large Persian contingent lives here, too. North Hollywood has a burgeoning Orthodox community. As Tevye says about Anatevka, we have every type here.”

“But we all live in separate houses with big walls between them and yards. Now, Jewishly, what that does is it imposes upon us an imperative to build community, to break out of the loneliness of isolated, suburban life and find others to share life with. And that’s one of the functions of a synagogue.”

When American Jews fret about cultural and demographic decline, they worry about places like the Valley, which is an assimilation machine. After escaping Vienna via England and the Dominican Republic, my grandparents arrived in LA with two daughters in the early 1950s. My grandfather was a war hero, a chess grandmaster, and a mensch who sold rack hair products but had no head for business. There was no money, but there were no tenements either, no Robert Moses smashing a highway overpass through your hard-earned home. By 1969, now with four kids, they were able to buy a three-bedroom house with a pool and a yard full of rose bushes in the west Valley for $30,000. It was the American dream, with the usual consequences: My mom and her siblings went to mixed public schools and spoke no Yiddish or German, only English; most of my cousins and I married outside the tribe. We’re following Hansen’s law and raising our kids—the great grandchildren—with strong Jewish identities, but who knows what kinds of lives they’ll choose.

Feinstein scoffs at declinist panic about acculturation factories like the Valley. When I ask about the 50,000 Israelis here, he explains, “What you’re seeing now is the development of the next stage. The old line was ‘We’re going back. We’re going back tomorrow.’ For 30 years the bags have been packed by the door, but they started to realize: We’re not going back. This is where we live. Our children are Israeli Jewish Americans. … So the question is, can we create an Israeli Jewish American culture and share that with each other?”

Judging by the rapid development of civic associations, he says, the answer is yes. Feinstein points to Merkaz Tarbut Israel, the Israeli Cultural Center in Tarzana, and the Israeli American Council, which started as a local social and cultural organization and has now gone national. There’s also Tzofim (Israeli Scouts) in the west Valley, which runs a once-a-week program called the Ami School. “It’s basically Hebrew school for Israelis who speak Hebrew,” he says.

What about the Valley’s Russian Jews, who are often hard to tell apart from the Russian Christians? “The fact that they’re Jewish at all is a miracle,” says Feinstein. “I mean, first the pogroms and the brutal last years of the czars. Then Soviet atheism. Then the invasion of the Nazis and the Holocaust. And then until 1990 under the Soviets. So the fact that these people remember anything Jewish at all, or have any kind of Jewish connection, to me is a miracle.”

“Look, the prevailing narrative is ‘Oh my god, we’re disappearing,’” Feinstein says. “And yet a dying people doesn’t produce a genius like David Wolpe or Sharon Brous or Craig Taubman and Danny Maseng. There’s a thing here called The Braid. It used to be called the Jewish Women’s Theater, it’s a wonderfully creative group of people. A dying people doesn’t do that.”

“Here’s what’s really happening,” he explains, warming to his theme. “We have now outgrown the legacy of the Eastern European immigration experience and its Judaism. The first saplings in the Valley after the dams were built, those are all trees now. Which means we have become a multigenerational Jewish community here. And what we’re doing is we’re creating a native American Judaism.” He says the last three words slowly, and savors them. “A native … American … Judaism. And that’s what you see in all the corners of the Valley and LA—these remarkable sparks, new kindling. That’s what I love about it here.”

Rabbi Feinstein looks out his office window, at what exactly it’s hard to say—the American and Israeli flags flying in the parking lot, or at the synagogue’s security perimeter, which is guarded like an embassy, or at the Sepulveda Dam in the distance, or at the sky, which is a typical Valley blue. “I may be the last optimist in all the Jewish world, but I will die being an optimist,” says the man who for many of us is the Valley incarnate. “I will die and on my tombstone they’ll say, ‘He really believed in the future.’”

Jeremy Stern is deputy editor of Tablet magazine.

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