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Jewish Journal

City Voice: The perfect combination

by Bill Boyarsky

March 27, 2008 | 6:00 pm

An evening at Shomrei Torah Synagogue got me thinking about Barack Obama and how much the San Fernando Valley has changed since I first roamed there in 1970.

It's an odd combination of thoughts, I know. Or, perhaps not. The more I thought about it, the combination made perfect sense to me.

I had gone to the synagogue on March 10 to moderate a forum featuring four candidates for the Democratic nomination for the 40th Assembly district, which extends from Van Nuys to West Hills, where Shomrei Torah is located.

The current assemblyman, Democrat Lloyd Levine, is on his way out because of term limits. Four of the candidates seeking the seat were at the forum: Bob Blumenfield, district representative for Rep. Howard Berman (D-Sherman Oaks); Laurette Healey, a former deputy state controller; Dan McCrory, a Communication Workers of America leader and a veteran phone company worker; and Stuart Waldman, who has served as a top staff member for Levine and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg.

I had some questions, and more came from the audience. I thought the candidates all did well. One exchange in particular stuck in my mind.

I had asked the candidates what they thought about gangs. I knew that an Assemblymember couldn't do much about gangs. But gang warfare, exacerbated by conflict between African Americans and Latinos, is a huge problem, and I thought the answers might give the audience insight into how the candidates felt about big social issues.

Blumenfield's answer made me think. He is white, Jewish and chair of the Valley Anti-Defamation League. His wife is African American. As the husband of an African American woman and the father of an African American daughter, Blumenfield said he worries about their safety.

His wife was in the audience. They live across the street from his parents. When I first began reporting in the San Fernando Valley, such integrated living would have been unimaginable. But the Valley has changed much since then, and the Assembly district, itself, is a great example of that. Once heavily white, it is now 42 percent white, 39 percent Latino, 12 percent Asian and 5 percent black.

I thought of the forum and the changing Valley a few days later. I was working on a column on the Obama presidential campaign for another of my employers, Truthdig, a political Web site.

Controversy was raging over Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of the Trinity United Church of Chicago, who, in one of his inflammatory and racist sermons, had said, "No, no, no, not God Bless America -- God damn America."

Reaction to the revelation of this was swift and severe, especially in the Jewish community, already suspicious of Obama for Wright's praise of Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader.

Obama, son of a black father and a white mother, had to answer for being one of the Rev. Wright's congregants. And he did, in an eloquent speech. His story, he said, is one "that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts -- that out of many, we are truly one."

Political pundits were saying that the association would destroy Obama's campaign. But I took the opposite view, thinking that Obama, in using the opportunity to highlight his own mixed-rate heritage as emblematic of our changed demographics, might be on to something.

I looked at population studies and public opinion polling, and they convinced me American attitudes toward race have been changing. Racial intermarriage has increased. Polling showed that a majority of blacks, Latinos and whites would accept a grandchild marrying someone of a different race

Then there was the Valley, home of a substantial number of the Los Angeles area's 550,000-plus Jews, and no doubt a number of them are in interracial marriages or relationships. There are no precise statistics on this, but the Institute for Jewish and Community Research's Web site reports that 7.3 percent of America's 6 million Jews are African American, Asian, Latino, Native American or of another non-white group.

"As Jews become more integrated into the overall American society, it should hardly come as a surprise that growing numbers of African Americans, Asians, Latinos and mixed-race individuals are becoming part of the Jewish community," the research organization said.

Even more important is the changing demographic of the San Fernando Valley, where the western portions contain a strong, thriving Jewish community.

Joel Kotkin and Erika Ozuna analyzed the Valley's demographic changes in a 2002 report for Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.

"Back in the '70s, the region was perceived -- and rightly so -- as a bastion of predominantly Anglo middle-class residents.... The Valley today is not a bland homogenized middle- class suburb; it is an increasingly cosmopolitan, diverse and racially intermixed region united by a common geography, economy and, to a large extent, middle class aspirations," the report says.

Jews, of course, are part of this.

Many commentators and politicians don't understand the change. They see race relations through the prism of the '70s. That is why they almost automatically wrote off Obama after the controversy over his minister. That is why a lot of activist Jews, especially those who focus only on Israel, are dismissing him.

So far he has survived. His speech was important. But his survival can also be explained by demographics and changing attitudes toward interracial marriage and relationships -- in the Jewish community, the San Fernando Valley and in much of the rest of the country.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

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