Sign In Forgot Password

City of Angels

04/06/2015 07:01:00 AM


City of Angels
Rosh Hashana, 2000 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Dorothy Chandler, known to intimates as "Buffy," wife of LA Times publisher Norman Chandler, was grand matron of the downtown elite society. She had a problem in 1962. It was her great dream to see a cultural center constructed downtown, giving Los Angeles a cultural gravity it had never possessed. To finance the Center, the County floated three bond issues in the late 50's, but each was turned down by voters, and so Mrs Chandler took it upon herself to raise the construction funds privately. She exploited every social contact in her vast network, squeezing friends and acquaintances alike. She formed a Blue Ribbon 400 Committee to solicit 1000 gifts of $1000 each. She held a benefit showing of the film Cleopatra for $250 a seat, and a gala evening at the Ambassador Hotel featuring Dinah Shore and Danny Kaye. But she was still short. Her downtown social circle could not raise the necessary funds. So she did the unthinkable. She took a trip down to the Hillcrest Country Club to lunch with Mark Taper. That's the Jewish Mark Taper at the Jewish club. Taper of American Savings and Loan had made fortunes during the 50's in suburban development. Facing the fierce vocal opposition of her downtown circle, Mrs. Chandler knew that she needed their support to build her center. And so she crossed the invisible boundary that divided Los Angeles society, and she got her Music Center. Taper contributed a million dollars. His gift forced his rival Howard Ahmanson of Home Savings to match the gift. And to the horror of elite, downtown Protestant society, the three buildings of LA Music Center today are called the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Mark Taper Forum, and the Ahmanson Theater.

Mrs. Chandler didn't go to Hillcrest just for the money. And she didn't go just to build the Center. Had she wanted nothing more than an opera house, she could have found the support within her own circle. But she wanted something much more important. She wanted to bring the city together. By 1960, LA had grown into a metropolis of over 4 million, a metropolis that spread out across some 60 miles of coastline. In Mrs. Chandler's vision, the city desperately needed a center, a meeting place. Mrs. Chandler wanted to build an acropolis and to begin a new era in Los Angeles. To do so, it was necessary to bring the Jewish community into the civic dialogue. Mrs. Chandler needed the Jews because she knew a secret: For most of its history, Jews have been at the center of life in Los Angeles and have held decisive power over its shape and culture. 

Founded in 1781, Los Angeles was incorporated as an American city on April 4, 1850. A census that year showed a population of 8,624 including eight Jews. One of those eight, M.L. Goodman, was elected to LA's very first city council in 1850, and another, Arnold Jacobi was elected in 1853. Eight Jews, two serve on the City Council. From 1850 through 1880, there was hardly a year without one or two Jews on the city council and the county board of supervisors. 

As the gold rush hit Northern California, Jews drifted southward to Los Angeles from the Gold Country, until, by the mid-1850's most of the town's merchants were Jews. A traveler to Los Angeles in the early 1860's described Los Angeles as a "city of 4000 inhabitants, a mixture of old Spanish, Indian, American and German Jews."

In 1859, Isaias Hellman arrived in Los Angeles from Bavaria. He found a job in his cousin's general mercantile business, until he had saved enough to buy his own clothing store. Because he owned a safe and a reputation for honesty, miners would deposit their gold dust with Hellman when they went out on the town. From this, Hellman began LA's first bank. In 1871, he partnered with former governor John Downey to found the Farmers and Merchants Bank. In 1890, Hellman left Los Angeles to become the president of Wells Fargo in San Francisco. Until the Depression, Hellman's family controlled LA's most powerful financial institutions. 

The first minyan held in Los Angeles took place in 1851. Its first rabbi, Joseph Newmark arrived in 1854, and that same year saw the formation of the first Jewish institution, a Hebrew Benevolent Society organized for the purposed of maintaining a Jewish cemetery. In 1861, LA's first synagogue, Beth El, held High Holiday services. Seats could be reserved for $3. In 1862, the Bnai Brith Congregation was founded. An Orthodox synagogue, it would later change its affiliation to the American Reform movement, change its location to Wilshire Boulevard and its name to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. In 1914, the Temple engaged a young assistant Rabbi, Edgar Magnin. Rabbi Magnin remained in that pulpit for 69 years. 

The coming of the railroad, the Southern Pacific in 1883, and the Santa Fe in 1886, brought a boom that changed Los Angeles from frontier town to metropolis. The population of Los Angeles in 1880 was 11,183; by 1900 it soared to 102,500; by 1920 to 577,000, and by 1940 to 1,500,000. Who came to LA? During these years, East coast cities received massive immigration from Europe -- Italians, Irish, Poles, Jews. These cities turned from Protestant to Catholic and their power structures turned from Anglo to ethnic. In LA, it was the opposite. LA attracted white, Protestant Midwesterners. The city turned from Catholic to Protestant, and from a rich ethnic mixture to a dominant Anglo majority. By the 20's Jews were pushed out of the center of political and economic power, and were excluded from the circles of powerful downtown elite society. Neighborhoods, schools, clubs, industries, were openly restricted. The Cedars of Lebanon Hospital was founded in 1910, for example, because Jewish doctors were not permitted to practice elsewhere.

The joke was that Graucho Marx was once invited to visit the Los Angeles Country Club. While his children were splashing in the pool, the president of the club quietly informed him that the club was restricted and children would have to leave the pool. "They're only half Jewish," he replied, "let them go in up to their waist."

Excluded from the centers of power, Jews still exerted a profound influence on Los Angeles. In the 20's and 30's, Jews brought the movies to LA. The great studios -- MGM, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount, Columbia were founded and run by Jews -- Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, William Fox, Carl Laemmle, Jack and Harry Warner, Adolf Zuckor, Harry Cohn. All were born within a hundred miles of one another in Poland, all emigrated to the United States within ten years of one another, all failed at a first career before finding their way into motion pictures. It was considered an unseemly business in the beginning. Movies were shown in the back of seedy nickelodeons and were not considered socially acceptable. Restricted from so many industries -- banking, insurance, oil, mining -- a class of Jewish entrepreneurs found in movies an open field and realized the potential of this new medium. Defeating Edison's monopoly in 1915, they proceeded to build empires integrating production, distribution and presentation of motion pictures. And thus, was Hollywood born of Jewish hands. 

In the 50's and 60's, Jews again changed the shape of the city. Excluded by the elite, Jewish developers and bankers turned away from downtown, creating an alternative city center. When you fly into LA, you see what amounts to two downtowns -- the skyscrapers of the central city core, and the development along Wilshire culminating in Century City and Westwood. This is the geographic reflection of the social history of LA -- the social bifurcation of power in Los Angeles. Turning their backs on the downtown that excluded them, Jewish developers advanced a plan for decentralizing LA's expansion. Shopping was to be located in each suburban neighborhood, eliminating the need to go downtown -- essentially choking off its economic life. Some 40% of the housing constructed in Los Angeles since the end of the Second World War -- including the vast majority of this Valley -- was financed and built by Jewish developers and bankers.

The Jewish population of Los Angeles exploded following the war. It doubled by 1948, and doubled again by 1960. Newcomers were so predominant that by 1950, only 8% of adult Jews in LA had been born here. Very quickly, LA became the second largest Jewish community in the country, and third largest in the world behind New York and Tel Aviv. 

It was the promise of the good life that brought us. According to historian Deborah Dash Moore, what made Los Angeles so attractive was its contrast with the cities most American Jews called home. In place of the grit and grind of East Coast and Midwest cities, LA offered year-round sunshine and a casual life style. Instead of crowded neighborhoods of densely occupied, rented apartments, LA offered easily affordable, single family homes. You could have your own space here -- your own yard, your own pool, surrounded by high brick walls to protect your privacy in a shiny, new suburban development. Instead of a long daily commute by crowded bus or train, the comfort of your own car, speeding along one of LA's ultra-modern freeways. If you lived here, you'd be home by now! So there were no trees. In time, the trees will grow in! So you didn't know anyone, that too would come! So you couldn't find decent bagel. 

After the war, many cities experienced migration to the suburbs -- to Long Island and New Jersey, to the Northshore of Chicago -- to suburbs offering private homes with backyards and BarBQ's. But LA offered more. It offered the perennial promise of the American frontier: The freedom to break away and begin again. In trying to explain LA to New York Jews in 1959, sociologist, Nathan Glazer pointed to this freedom: The suburbs of Brooklyn and Queens were communities of necessity, "here [in Los Angeles], everyone has chosen his way of life."Cut off from family and communities of origin, from expectations and patterns of tradition, LA newcomers had the freedom to reinvent themselves. Post-war Los Angeles, writes Moore, "offered Jews a taste of individual freedom as permanent tourists in a community of strangers."

We came here as permanent tourists in a community of strangers. Henry James once called this "hotel culture."A hotel is a place where you sleep, but you don't really live. You never fully unpack and settle in. You leave your room messy in the morning, and during the day, someone invisible and unobtrusive comes to clean it. When you return, like magic, all is straightened and sanitized and tidy. You never meet the people who live next door. What sound you might detect from their side of the wall is simply not your business. You eat here today and sleep here tonight but you needn't worry about the future of this place. It's not your place. The problems of this place aren't your problems. You can always pick up and move elsewhere. 

But you can only live so long in a hotel. Eventually, you must say: "This is my place." You root yourself and take responsibility for shaping the future of the place. In the 60's and even the 70's, we lived here, but our parents and grandparents still lived "back east." Now our grandchildren live right here with us. This is our place now. In 1962, Mrs. Chandler invited us to join in shaping this city. Many LA Jews took up the invitation, including many of you in this room. You took key leadership roles in LA politics, in LA cultural life, in philanthropy and social activism. You developed important alliances with the black and Latino community, and coalitions with other faiths. But too many of us have let the invitation lapse. It's time now for all of us to take up Mrs. Chandler's invitation. 

In his monumental study, The City in History, urban sociologist Lewis Mumford describes the place of cities in human civilization. In the beginning, cities were laid out according to the plan of the cosmos order. The city mediates the human being and the universe, affording the human being a sense of where he or she fit into the whole. The city thus enlarges the dimensions of human existence and serves as a symbol of human possibilities. The city is a container -- a place where culture is created, transmitted and stored. Thus, written language and urban life were born together. The most important feature of the city is dialogue. "The best definition of the city,"Mumford writes, "in its highest aspects is to say that it is a place designed to offer the widest facilities for significant conversation." The wider that conversation, the more who are brought into it, the more powerful the city. It is no accident, he observes, that the great cities of history produced great literatures of dialogue: Jerusalem produced the book of Job, Athens nurtured Plato, Sophicles and Euripides, Elizabethan London formed Shakespeare and Marlowe. "The dramatic dialogue," he concludes, "is both the fullest symbol and final justification of the city's life. For the same reason, the most revealing symbol of the city's failure, of its very non-existence as a social personality, is the absence of dialogue." 

If open dialogue, significant conversation is the hallmark of the creative city, what do we make of Los Angeles? LA is the most culturally diverse city in America. People of 160 identified ethnic groups make their homes here. 600 religious traditions are practiced. 100 languages are spoken by students in the Los Angeles School District, 75 of them at Hollywood High alone. An astonishing diversity of peoples, cultures, traditions and languages, and yet, this city is designed so that you never have to meet any of them. The great triumph of LA urban design is that you never have to meet people who are different from you. Not on public transportation, not in public commerce, not in public recreation, not on public anything. 

Most of us live most of our lives in this city inside an eruv, encountering a very narrow range people -- people who are just like us. We don't meet the African American young man who is stopped regularly on his way to work because he fits a police racial profile. We don't talk to the Salvadoran family working two jobs and overtime and live six to a room because they can't find an apartment they can afford. We never introduce ourselves the Asian woman who works in a dark downtown sweatshop. The only Latinos my children meet are people in service roles -- the woman who cleans the house, the man who mows the lawn. And they are the largest group in LA's population. We get angry when we hear anti-Semitic rhetoric from the African American community. But how would African Americans ever meet us? How would they ever know better? Recently, I met a young man from another community, another neighborhood, and he told me with great excitement that his school had taken him to see the Wiesenthal Center. But meeting me was a greater thrill. Because I'm the first live Jew he's ever met. This is the failure of civic dialogue, the failure of democracy and the death of a great city.

In contrast to Mrs. Chandler's vision of the Music Center as a downtown acropolis, a central civic meeting place, stands our newest public building, the Staples Center. This remarkable building is so truly a symbol of LA urban culture. The Staples Center has separate entrances and different escalators, depending on how expensive your ticket is. You can't get from level to level without going all the way back to the bottom. At each entrance, there are guards to make sure that everyone gets to their appropriate level. Its most prominent design feature are the dozens of skyboxes, which enable people of certain position and class to remain totally isolated in their private quarters even within the public venue. Sit in your skybox and you never have to see or touch or smell anyone of a lower station. 

Two centuries ago, Tocqueville in his celebration of American democracy warned the fragile new republic how despotism might yet find its way to the new continent. "The first thing that strikes observation," he wrote, "is an unaccountable number of men incessantly endeavoring to produce the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them living apart is a stranger to the fate of all the rest. His children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and he may be said to have lost his country." Tocqueville never sat in a skybox. But he recognized the danger when such rife privatism infects a democracy. 

This is an ancient wisdom.
According to the Torah, the first city was built by Cain and named for his son. The killer, the wanderer, the fugitive builds a city so that he and his children can hide. As much as a city can bring people together, the city has the capacity to conceal human beings from one another. The shadow of urban anonymity covers ones tracks. The classic LA literature is the noir detective novel in which everyone harbors a secret. 

In the eleventh chapter of Genesis, the peoples of the earth, following the great Flood, gathered in the valley of Shinar. They created brick and mortar, and "built a city, and a tower with its top in heaven. The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, and said: 'They are as one people, and they have one language, and this is what they do; and now nothing will be beyond their reach. Let us go down and confound their language that they may not understand one another's speech.' So the Lord scattered them upon the face of the earthÖand the name of the place was called Babel."

What was the sin of Babel that so angered God? The Biblical text leaves this open to our interpretation. One rabbi, a master of the midrash, read the story as a warning of the propensity of a metropolis to devalue human life. When a laborer collapsed from exhaustion, he imagined, they callously cast him off the Tower. But when a brick fell and broke, they stopped to mourn. Another rabbi proposed that the Tower's purpose was to scale heaven, defeat God and usurp the divine throne. The city itself became holy, setting itself and its projects above all other values. But the simplest interpretation derives from the punishment. In the course of the project the builders turned away from one another -- each absorbed in his small, specialized task, his own community of fellow craftsmen, the concerns of his own household -- the civic dialogue ceased. The people of Babel lost their common language. So private had they become, they could not longer communicate, no longer cooperate. So the city and its populace disbanded, scattered across the face of the earth.

In Genesis 18, God finds evil in the city of Sodom. Again, the sin is not specified so the rabbis of the Talmud pondered the nature of urban moral failure. In Pirke Avot, they defines a set of moral archetypes: The Righteous says: What's mine is yours, and what's yours is yours. The Wicked says: What's yours is mine and what's mine is mine. The morality of Sodom is the morality of privatism: Sheli sheli, shelcha, shelcha. What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours. It's not that everyone in Sodom cheated or stole. Everyone minded their own business. Everyone looked exclusively to their own private concerns. And this brought the city's destruction. Cities, as we know, can survive earthquakes and fires and flood. But no city can survive a widespread plague of moral privatism. So infected, the city disintegrates.

Los Angeles faces very serious problems. And since the demise of local football, the recitation of these problems has become our civic sport. The school system is failing. Its governance is chaotic. The district faces severe shortages of classrooms, teachers and principals. Racial tension and violence erupt daily on our campuses. Plagued by corruption, racism, and an atmosphere of defensive secrecy, the police department is now under federal court supervision. The city faces a monumental shortage of low income housing. One third of all the housing in the city is overcrowded. 153,000 families are on city wait lists for low cost housing. The average wait is ten years. Despite unprecedented prosperity, LA has the highest number of poor of any metropolitan area in the country. 2.7 million residents in LA County have no health insurance, including 1 in 3 adults and 1 in 4 children. The transportation system is crumbling. It was quicker to get across town in days of horse and buggy than today. The air remains filthy. The beaches are regularly closed because of bacterial pollution. 

This city has serious problems. But its biggest problem is a failure of the civic imagination.

Can we imagine this as our city? Can we imagine ourselves, finally, not just living here, but belonging to this place, and owning this place, rooted here for the long term?

Can we look across the cultural barriers and imagine all those Others as part of Us? Can we see them as our people, their problems are our problems, and their frustrations as ours? 

Can we establish real dialogue, significant conversation among the groups and cultures and classes of this city, to share our visions of life, our values, our stories, our struggles, and to cement a sense of shared destiny? 

Can we show our children that the ancient wisdom of our people has something to say to the problems of a real, modern democracy in all its complexity? Can we show our children that Torah is not an sharp instrument for dividing Jews from others, not an eruv for separating, but a salve to heal this broken society?

This is the calling of the next generation of Jewish Los Angeles: To finally answer Mrs. Chandler's invitation and engage in a true civic dialogue. To use our power and shape the culture and future of Los Angeles.

There is a well of meaning to be found in the cultivation of personal spirituality. And there is meaning, deep meaning, in family life and in the life of friends. And there is meaning within the bounds of our own community. Abraham is commanded to leave the city, to leave Ur, and follow God in the wilds of Canaan. Moses escapes the urban environs of Egypt to find God in the wilderness of Midian. The Torah is given on Sinai, a desert mountain, far from the life of the city. 

Yet the Bible also knew there is a special meaning disclosed in the life of a city, in the urban dialogue, the civic conversation. In the Bible's book of Samuel, God chooses a dwelling place in the world, the place where heaven and earth will touch. God chooses a city. The holy temple stood at the apex of Jerusalem, within sight of the markets and the workshops, the schools and the courts, the slums and the mansion of a great city. When we invite the peoples of this city to our table -- to share conversation with people of other cultures and faiths and economic levels and histories and traditions -- God will sit among us. 

This has long been our faith. In the second chapter of Isaiah, the prophet offers a remarkable vision: "It shall come to pass in the end of days, that the mountain of the Lord shall be established as the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills. And all the nations shall flow unto it. And many peoples shall say: 'Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. And He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.' Kee mee-tzion tay-tzay torah, For out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."

This is Isaiah's vision, the perennial Jewish dream. One day we will lead the peoples of the earth to lay down their weapons and hatreds and gather in Jerusalem -- the city of Shalom, of wholeness. They will ascend not Sinai but Zion -- the urban mountain -- to resume the universal civic conversation interrupted at Babel so long ago. 

One day, Isaiah promised, redemption will come through the city of God. In the meantime, let us begin here, with us, in the city of angels.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780