May 20, 2011
Valley and Proud: City vs. Valley
The battle for Jewish geographical supremacy goes back to talmudic times, when Jews of Babylon (Bavli) and Jerusalem (Yerushalayim) each asserted their city as the coveted center of Jewish life. In the Middle Ages, the battle took place between the Jews of Northern Europe (Ashkenaz) and the Jews of Spain (Sepharad), the repercussions of which are still felt today. In the 19th century, the worldly Jews of Berlin scoffed at the Chasidic Jews of Warsaw for what they considered a parochial religious worldview.
With the birth of the Jewish state, the modern Hebrews of Tel Aviv challenged the Jews of Jerusalem for the title of “Israel’s top city,” and the cultural battle still rages between the avant-garde metropolis and the holy capital. The turf wars reached the shores of America, where Manhattan Jews felt they were emerging as the American Jewish elite while the Bridge and Tunnel Jews (i.e. Brooklyn and Queens) still sought the comforts of a Jewish enclave.
In California, the geographical divide between the city and the Valley has split the Jewish community, with its most bitter clash taking place among Israeli expatriates. Where is the heart of the Israeli community located? Which side enjoys a better quality of life? Which lives a life of greater prestige and success?
To answer these questions, I took to the de facto Israeli headquarters on both sides of the hill: the Israeli-owned Aroma Bakery & Café.
A look around the Aroma branch on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood already suggested that city Israelis seek urban diversity. On a Monday night, the patio was overtaken by a mixed ethnic crowd, with Hebrew and Russian the dominant languages. One patron pointed out that Armenians and Russians like to come here because it’s one of the few L.A. cafes where people still smoke.
Nati, a Tel Aviv transplant in his 50s, sitting with a posse of four Israelis and holding an unlighted cigarette (because he doesn’t smoke), gave it to me straight. “Those who come from Dimona, Be’er Sheva, Mitzpeh Ramon go straight to the Valley because they feel at home. [The Valley’s] a big Dimona. Those who come from the suburbs in Israel and want to move up come to the city.” (Dimona is a lower-middle-class town in the Negev desert and home to many immigrants.)
Count on Israelis to be blunt.
Oren Moshe, sitting nearby with two married friends — all Israeli Americans who came here as teenagers — offered another generalization: “All the FOBs [fresh-off-the-boat, or new immigrants] are in the Valley.”
“I’m sure people who go to the Valley dream of coming to the city,” his brother Tiran added.
But Israelis enjoying cafe hafuch over the hill at the Aroma on Ventura Boulevard in Encino valiantly defended their territory. At this Aroma, almost every patron speaks Hebrew, and the atmosphere is more welcoming and laid-back, like a kibbutz cheder ochel (dining hall), but classier. This stretch of Ventura is sometimes referred to as “little Israel” for its numerous Israeli shops, restaurants and businesses.
The hostess at Aroma, Batel Avitan, married with two kids, has lived in the Valley for eight years and feels perfectly content with her choice.
“It’s easier to raise kids in the Valley than in the city, and it’s cheaper.” The Valley, she added, has many more parks and family-friendly activities.
Shahaf Avitan, 22, a hairdresser, landed in the Valley half a year ago from Jerusalem to take over his uncle’s hair salon. He sat with Nissan Shahar, who came from Nazareth Illit less than a year ago, then quickly found an Israeli roommate in Valley Village and a job in construction.
“It’s Israel, just a little bigger,” Avitan said of the Valley. But he concedes, “As a younger person, I’d like to live in the city because of the nightlife, but the Valley is quieter, better for families.”
Michal Azoulay, a Sherman Oaks-based real estate agent, appreciates the Valley’s greater sense of community. She came to Aroma for a spontaneous girls’ night out with her fellow Israeli American girlfriends of over 25 years.
“We became a community,” she said. “We were several families living in the area. We do holidays together; we’re the extended family we don’t have here.”
“I think the Valley has more Israelis, the city has more American Jews,” her friend Galit Yona added.
Numbers are sketchy, but even objective sources who have observed the Israeli community throughout the years — like Eli Tene, a community activist — support the conclusion that more yordim are drawn to the Valley than the city for various reasons.
Sharona Cooper, publisher of the local Israeli newspaper Shavua Israeli came to America shortly after her Israel Defense Forces (IDF) service. She lived in the city for many years, and the newspaper’s office is also located in the city, but now married with children, she chooses to live in Sherman Oaks.
“Either they come to relatives or friends they know or stay close to the jobs they can find,” she said of new immigrants.
A flip through Shavua Israeli suggests that more employment opportunities for Hebrew speakers are available in the Valley. About two-thirds of the advertisers (accountants, lawyers, medical professionals, home improvement professionals, grocery stores and kindergartens) display an 818 area code (or, as city snobs call it, the hate-1-8 area code).
“There are a lot of Israelis who come to America, and they don’t want to be involved in the Israeli community,” Cooper said. “So they choose Hollywood, Santa Monica and Orange County.”
And because the consensus is that the Israeli community is larger and more organized in the Valley, institutions catering to them have chosen their headquarters accordingly: All three local Israeli Internet radio stations are based in the Valley, as is the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC), a dominant and powerful organization dedicated to empowering the Israeli American community. Two of the ILC’s programs, Moadon Israelim and the Israel Scouts, have only recently expanded to the city. MATI, the Israeli Cultural Center, is located in West Hills, deep in Valley territory.
Even non-Jewish institutions seem more Israeli-friendly in the Valley. Lisa Surany of Valley Village sends her 6-year-old to a public school where she estimates more than 70 percent of the student body is Jewish, mostly Israeli. The school’s second language is Hebrew. “The newsletter of the school has one side English, and one side Hebrew,” she said.
But Ori Blumenfeld, a lawyer who grew up in Encino but now lives and works in Beverly Hills, says living on the other side of the hill doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of kinship. He thinks the city is the place to be for young Israeli American single professionals. “That’s where life is. If you’re a family, I guess the status thing doesn’t matter.”
He maintains his connection to Israeli culture and the homeland through programs put on by the Friends of the IDF and the Israel Film Festival, and he listens to Israeli Internet radio at least once a day.
ILC’s program for young professionals, BINA, which defines itself as “a community of intellectual young Israelis and Jewish Americans connecting through ideas,” holds its monthly speaker series in the city.
The chair of BINA, Amir Give’on, a mechanical and aerospace engineer who hails from Herzliya, said the decision to hold events in the city is simply a matter of convenience.
“People in the Valley are usually more willing to drive farther than people in the city. So if you want to get everybody, you’d put the event somewhere in the city.”
Give’on and a handful of his Israeli neighbors living in multicultural Los Feliz — definitely not an Israeli enclave — have created a sense of belonging by forming a virtual community through a Facebook group. “It’s definitely not the Valley, but I enjoy it.”
Back at Aroma on Sunset, several Israelis refused to be interviewed — though patrons at the Ventura location not only spoke candidly, but also extended an offer for coffee and a shidduch. This difference in attitude seems to support the conjecture that Israelis who choose the city are less interested in tribe association than are Valley Israelis. But no matter where I went, that confident swagger, bluntness and mental quickness were evident in nearly every Israeli I interviewed, leading me to agree with the conclusion of one patron at the Aroma Sunset that, at the end of the day, city and Valley Israelis are different only in circumstance, and neither wins the battle over geographical supremacy.
“Israeli-ness is in the blood. No matter where you go, it’s in the blood.”