April 26, 2001
A Normal Israel, in Agoura
Where campfires, synagogues and even an Israeli "crew" are swell.
About two months ago, Dr. Mark Capritto, the tough-minded vice principal of Agoura High School, came face-to-face with one of Zionism's most unusual developments: a nice Jewish gang.
It began, as many of these things probably do, with an unkind crack in the schoolyard, and before you could say (God forbid!) Columbine, the vice principal was on the perpetrator's back. Somebody had mentioned that the alleged culprit had claimed to belong to a clique called the Jew Crew. That got his attention. The 10 or so youngsters said to be associated with this adolescent posse got the call to muster in his office.
Mostly sophomores, the crew was composed of the sons of affluent and generally well-educated and well-adjusted Israeli immigrants. The boys had written a crass and bluster-filled song titled "Got Bagels," whose lyrics, in hip-hop style, managed to demean non-Jews, women and blacks ('Got chrein like us, got brain like us? Ah no, you goy, you'll never be like us"). The song was posted on Napster.
Why, Capritti asked the boys, did they feel the need to ape the comportment -- and lyrical conventions -- of homeboys? Agoura High was remarkably bereft of ethnic tensions and gang violence. Who needed a Jew Crew?
The kids hemmed and hawed and looked at their feet. The song, some would later tell friends, had been tongue-in-cheek. And any connection between the so-called Jew Crew and the regrettable schoolyard altercation that triggered this flap was incidental.
As far as Capritto was concerned, the flap revolved around the ill-considered remark of a single, now properly admonished and contrite young man. For the most part, however, these kids struck him as impressive, and as outgoing, as confident and capable, as bright and chipper and well-adjusted a group of youngsters as he'd ever encountered. "They really are swell, every one of them," he said.
So ends a uniquely Israeli story in this town of 21,000, situated a scant 18 miles west of the junction of the 101 and the 405. During the last two decades since incorporating, Agoura, first settled by the Chumash Indians, has evolved into a haimisch refuge for an unusual and accomplished community of Hebrew-speaking émigrés. But rather than ending in disaster, which is what generations of Israeli functionaries and Zionist pundits have predicted for those unfortunates enticed by the fleshpots of America, the 750 or so Israeli families who have settled here have, in fact, done quite nicely. Swell, indeed.
The unusual nature of the Israeli enclave in Agoura goes well beyond the emergence, or perhaps reconstitution, of an ersatz ethnic gang. Rather, these people can be said to reflect an Israeli riff on the American frontier experience. For these newcomers, the physical journey out of the Israeli enclaves of Fairfax or North Hollywood toward points west like Agoura, Calabasas and Westlake marks a psychic odyssey every bit as transformative as the decision that brought them to or caused them to remain in the United States.
By the time they settle here, for instance, many expatriate Israelis appear to have shed their compatriots' widely observed propensity for straddling their suitcases. Rather than pining for the day when they can forsake the Land of Promise for the Promised Land, many of them, like longtime resident Raya Saggi, who runs the local public library, now believe that Agoura is the home they would be hard put to regain if they ever returned to Israel.
"It reminds me," Saggi told The Journal, "of Nes Tziona, as it was when I was growing up. And not just me. When they visit, my relatives all mention it."
No one knows why the first Israeli arrivals found themselves attracted to Agoura. Perhaps the rolling hills directly south of the freeway beckoned, offering ample space for annual Lag BaOmer bonfires and bow-and-arrow contests, Israeli customs and activities no longer feasible in the San Fernando Valley.
Or maybe there is just more space here for Israelis, who react poorly to some facets of organized Jewish life in this country, to devise a lifestyle more to their liking. In that sense, of course, they are not that different from earlier waves of Jewish immigrants from the East Coast. Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, has often said that he came to the Valley because New York was simply too rigid and set in its ways to accommodate new approaches.
The Jew Crew notwithstanding, the children of these Israelis, in particular, have managed to avoid many of the confusions and pitfalls predicted for the offspring of people straddling two cultures. They might not think of themselves as American Jews per se, or, for that matter, as Israelis, in the classic sense of their parents or cousins. But their ties to the Jewish homeland, expressed not only at home through the presence of Hebrew but through participation in various extracurricular programs like the parent-run and -funded Alonim Hebrew school, remain sources of strength, not diffusion. And they show every sign not only of enduring, but of eventually transferring their heritage to succeeding generations.
The current Israeli Agourans not only retain their Hebrew but, as college approaches, hone it further for foreign-language college credit. Each summer, meanwhile, and for some, during spring break and Passover, planeloads of kids are whisked off to Israel, where the transition has become almost seamless. Clad in Sabra sandals and armed with the latest slang, the kids quickly look and talk and behave as if they own the place.
Their parents quickly realize, moreover, that MTV is everywhere, and that baggy pants and trashy talk have become universal affectations or afflictions even in Israel -- especially in Israel.
Adolescents in Israel have been known as well to experiment with Ecstasy and other worrisome substances, behavior their parents believe will taper off once they begin their military service. Compared to them, and certainly to the offspring of other, perhaps less fortunate, ethnic communities in Los Angeles, the Hebrew-speaking youngsters of Agoura come across like fresh-scrubbed Jaycees even as some of them, lamentably, to be sure, try to put on homeboy airs. Small wonder, then, that some parents of the Jew Crew may have been slow to share Mark Capritto's initial consternation.
Here, thanks largely to Chabad, Israelis can observe the holidays without having to join a synagogue or temple. The centrality of the synagogue, says Siggi Cohen, director of the 14-year-old Alonim afternoon school, otherwise remains the biggest impediment to local Israeli participation in American Jewish life.
"It just bugs the hell out of them," she says. "In Israel, if you want to pray, you walk down the street to the closest synagogue, and you pray. Here you have to commit thousands of dollars a year to an agenda that doesn't reflect your values or priorities. They can't understand it or accept it; it angers them, and so they turn away from the established, temple-going community."
They turn -- insofar as their religious needs are concerned, at least -- to Chabad, which is interesting, in light of the professed secularism of the community.
According to Cohen, though, this misses the point. In Israel, she says, most religious institutions are run by the Orthodox, who, in appearance and manner, are often indistinguishable from the Chabad emissaries they encounter here. In Israel, though, religious practices are often shoved down one's throat. In America, they are extracted through synagogue-imposed tariffs. Here in Agoura, as indeed elsewhere, Chabad takes in all comers without running a credit check.
If Israelis are less than eager synagogue-joiners, it doesn't mean that their commitment to Jewish life is inconsequential. Many Israeli residents of Agoura, for instance, funnel their children through a costly regimen of pre- and after-school programs. Preschoolers attend programs at the local Jewish community center, while elementary-schoolers frequently join Alonim, which supplements public schooling with a twice-weekly, quasi-secular Israeli curriculum.
The school has also evolved into a venue for parents, who frequently organize family activities centered on Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Purim, Lag BaOmer and other holidays that are observed somewhat less assiduously within the mainstream American Jewish community. Tuition per student runs from $90 to $135 a month, and each of these family-oriented shindigs, kumsitzes and other spectacles, many of which used to be held at the now defunct Fantasy Island banquet facility, can run up a substantial bill.
Once in middle school and high school, moreover, these kids often join Tzofim, the Hebrew scouting program still headquartered at the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in Van Nuys, a commitment not only in money but in travel time. Others enroll in the University of Judaism's Hebrew High School program, which maintains a campus on grounds rented by a local church. At a cost of several thousand dollars a year, the kids here supplement their Hebrew skills (which often don't extend to fluency in reading and writing) with instruction in Jewish scripture, history, ethics, philosophy, and even film.
The high cost not only of living here but of maintaining an authentic Israeli lifestyle does not seem to have put a damper on newcomers, although local statutes limiting development have put a premium on housing stock. Indeed, the ability to live here without the hustle and bustle of Fairfax or the congestion, crime and decay afflicting some parts of North Hollywood may well be one of the main attractions.
Take Itamar Harari. A doctoral student in education at UC Santa Barbara, Harari and his American-born wife just bought a home in Agoura and plan to move in with their children during the summer.
In Santa Barbara, Harari said, the Israeli presence is limited, so that the arrival of a single family becomes an event. In Agoura, he hopes that the ubiquity of people sharing his language, culture and socioeconomic background will make for more normal and extensive interactions.
With other Israelis, that is.
Of course, the quest for normalcy has always been what Zionism is about. It will strike many of us now celebrating the Jewish state's 53rd birthday as odd that some Israelis would have to travel halfway around the world and then another 45 miles up the road to find their own preferred brand of normalcy.
And yet the ability of émigrés to retain and pursue their connection with Israel attests to Israel's own increasing normalcy. The Jewish state is sufficiently established, its economy more vibrant than that of many European countries, and its place in the world more assured than at any time in its history. Those who choose to leave, as a result, may do so without facing ostracism. And if, for many such people, Agoura represents the end of the road, that may be just the way they like it.