Jewish Journal


September 30, 2009

Let’s Set Our Sights Higher


Two things I learned on the first day of Rosh Hashanah this year:

1. An Iranian Jewish man in Los Angeles recently risked life and limb to save a complete stranger from dying inside a burning car, and

2. Another Iranian Jewish man in Los Angeles recently made enough money to buy and drive (as opposed to keeping them locked up in his garage, like Jay Leno does) a number of very expensive cars.

The guy with the cars has been written up in half a dozen legitimate newspapers, which is how everyone got to know the makes, models and horsepower of the cars. 

The guy who almost died saving someone else — well ...

What’s a life, in Los Angeles, compared to a good car?

Two things I learned on the second night of Rosh Hashanah this year:

1. An American Jewish woman — Candy Spelling — has yet to move into her $34 million Century City condo with its private massage room, and

2. An Iranian Jewish woman — whose name was blissfully withheld in the news report — has a walk-in, bank-style vault in her house just to store her very expensive handbags. 

Candy Spelling and her condo have been written up in major daily newspapers at least a dozen times; the woman with the bags has yet to attract the attention of Vanity Fair and Vogue, but since word got out about the vault, she’s been invited to every large and small social gathering in the Jewish community of Los Angeles, even by people she barely knows.

Does anyone else feel they have been debased as a person just by being subjected to this news report? Is anyone thinking, “Who cares”? I hope so, or there’s something terribly wrong with me.

There is genocide in Africa, drought in Asia, war in the Middle East. There are critical advances in medicine, groundbreaking discoveries in astronomy, thrilling creations in art.

And what are we, people of the book, talking about in Los Angeles?

The gentleman with the expensive cars has been appointed “poster boy of the Iranian Jewish community.” He used to own 15 very expensive cars, but has, of late, downsized to a mere seven. He doesn’t want the poster job and doesn’t even think very highly of his fellow Iranian Jews, because they are materialistic and excessive in the way they spend their money. They have a need to show off because they’re nouveau riche; he just drives $2 million cars — in L.A. traffic — because they’re faster than Formula 1 cars.

Someone must find this information scintillating, or the papers wouldn’t be devoting space to it. Alternatively, the papers must find this information vital to the survival of our democracy, or they wouldn’t print it alongside news about Iran’s nuclear aspirations and a potential swine flu epidemic.

Candy Spelling has a gift-wrapping room and a bowling alley in her current residence. Her wedding ring is worth $1 million. She, too, owns a number of nice cars and expensive bags.

I realize I may never eat lunch in the L.A. Jewish community ever again after writing this, but, folks (to channel Joe Biden), is this what people in other parts of the world fight and die for every day? Is this what we have a free press or freedom of speech for?

Can you imagine how future generations would judge us if they found transcripts of what we read and think and watch and talk about on a daily basis in this town?

Tiffany’s has introduced a new, must-have signature piece that looks like a key; hotels all over Southern California are declaring bankruptcy rather than bring down the price of their rooms from $700 a night to $500; last Saturday at temple, the rabbi talked for 20 minutes about the importance of spirituality and the dangers of materialism, then invited the congregation to give money.

Folks, did we learn anything from the economic debacle of the last two years? All that talk about bubbles and natural market corrections and limits to how much excess one person should indulge in — was that just a way to kill time till the economy picked up again, so we could devote ourselves to the creation of the next bubble?

I know what you’re going to say: This is America; we invented excess and thrive on it, and, besides, what was I doing over the holidays, listening to local gossip instead of praying and looking within myself and all those other holy tasks? To which I will say, this is Los Angeles, High Holy Days or not, and you couldn’t avoid talk of how much money other people are making, even if you lay in a coma for 10 years at a time.

I will also say — and not because I’d like to keep eating lunch, which I would, but because it’s true — that I don’t know the gentleman with the cars, but I heard him speak once at Sinai Temple, and I found him to be much smarter, more humble and grounded than those articles make him out to be. And, for all I know, the woman is storing more than bags — maybe the secret formula to a new cancer vaccine? — in that vault.

But what anyone does with his public image or her money is none of my business. What is my and our community’s business is what we, a people that has weathered 5,000 years of history, survived the Shoah and the Islamic Revolution, arrived in this city at this time of unprecedented freedom and opportunity — what we are making of this moment for ourselves and our fellow human beings.

Would the world miss the Jewish people of Los Angeles if we stopped shopping at Tiffany’s? (I know the company would.)

Folks, something tells me we can set our sights on bigger and better goals. If the car is so fascinating, let’s write about the car, its inventor, its carbon emission; if Hermes bags are so important, let’s write about the person who designed them, or the people who make them (I assume, given the prices) by hand, in exchange for someone’s first-born, with gold threads spun of hay and pieces of leather scraped off the backs of golden cows. If we need to create and worship Jewish heroes, let’s select the regular guy in a gas station who had the courage and presence of mind to dive at a burning car and pull out the driver seconds before the engine exploded. Isn’t that more of a Hollywood moment than someone’s massage room?

I know what else you’re going to say: I must be keeping the wrong kind of company, or reading the wrong kind of press. To which I’ll respond, I read this stuff in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and I keep very diverse company. And I realize it’s not just in Los Angeles or in our community — wealth has universal appeal — but you know and I know that out here, we’ve just about made a cult of it, and it’s a great big shame because by aiming so incorrectly at what we find worthy of attention and admiration, we actually overlook and waste the many strengths and talents, the personal courage and creative abilities, the very potential for greatness that has, in the past, led a people who comprise less than 1 percent of the world’s population to win 30 percent of the Nobel Prizes.

Speaking of Joe Biden: There’s a guy who took the train a lot. He took it all the way to the U.S. Senate and eventually, the White House. I know he’s not Jewish or an Angeleno, but, folks, can we please stop giving hero status to rich people just because they’re rich, and start signaling to our children that every once in a while, that train can take you farther than all the Formula 1 cars in this town?

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

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