There's more to Jewish Los Angeles than Hollywood, outsider perceptions notwithstanding, and a wide-ranging UCLA project aims to paint a fuller and more accurate picture of the metropolis' 650,000 Jews.
"Los Angeles is one of the greatest Jewish cities in the Diaspora, the second largest in the United States, and it is time to subject it to serious inquiry," said historian David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies (CJS).
The inquiry by the center, joined by the Autry National Center and the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, will focus on two critical questions:
1) In which ways is Los Angeles similar and different from the New York/East Coast model, historically taken as representative of American Jewry? Has the geographical and social openness of the West created a distinct type of American Jew?
2) How does the Jewish experience in Los Angeles differ from the city's other ethnic groups? How has the complex interaction with Latinos, Asians and African Americans affected Los Angeles and its Jews?
To make the questions even more complicated, L.A. Jewry, like the city in which it lives, is constantly re-inventing itself. The city's older Central and East European strains, and a smaller Sephardic one, have been complemented in recent decades by distinct new colonies of Iranian, Russian, Israeli and South African Jews.
Jews move to Los Angeles not only from other countries and from older parts of the United States, but they restlessly migrate within the sprawling metropolitan area, abandoning old neighborhoods for new ones and exploring and expanding new suburbs and adjacent counties.
Given all the variables, the project is a scholar's delight, involving dozens of professors from UCLA -- and other universities -- and their graduate students. Among the key players, besides Myers, are Dr. Stephen Aron, executive director of the Autry's Institute for the Study of the American West, and doctoral student Karen Wilson. In academic fashion, the study's first formal step is a yearlong research seminar, which started last fall and explores some of the project's key topics.
In the millennia-old saga of the Jewish people, the 165-year-old history of Los Angeles Jewry represents but a small span. It is long enough, however, to fit into the overall mission of the UCLA center, Myers believes.
He phrased the essence of CJS's purpose in different ways, from "where the past meets the present," or "to bring the past into conversation with the present," or, in its fullest expression: "We no longer have the luxury of studying the past without considering the present. Nor can we afford to contemplate the present without recalling the past."
CJS and its 22 affiliated faculty members apply this dictum to a broad array of studies. During the current academic year, the center is hosting some 50 free lectures, symposia and conferences for the campus and general community.
Besides the seminars on Jewish Los Angeles, the calendar lists a series on Sephardic studies, the Holocaust and a workshop on "Jewish Question/Muslim Question." One intriguing topic of the workshop is the relationship between the age-old "Jewish question" in Europe with the present-day "Muslim question" on the same continent.
Interspersed in the center's agenda are explorations into such diverse areas as contemporary Israeli literature, Jewish texts, Jewish messianism, German-Jewish studies, the future of Israel's Jewishness, assimilation, and even the Yiddish tango.
CJS was founded 11 years ago, and Myers views it as not just a center of first-class scholarship and the preparatory ground for Jewish teachers and intellectuals, but as a great, and still underutilized, resource for the entire community.
"I spend about 15-20 percent of my time on community-related activities," Myers said. "I'm working to overcome the image that we are a cloistered, ivory tower."
Myers, 44, a product of Yale, Harvard, Tel Aviv University and Columbia, is also a prolific researcher and author on Jewish history and thought, as well as co-editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review. Currently, he is collaborating with his wife, Naomi Stolzenberg, a USC law professor, on a study of the Satmar Chassidim community of Kiryas Yoel in New York state. The two professors are raising their three daughters, ranging from 4 to 14 years, in the Pico-Robertson area.
When not busy teaching, writing, administering and parenting, Myers also functions as a fundraiser. Like the rest of the UC programs, CJS has been hit by budget cuts, and Myers is seeking community support to ensure the growth of the center. His current top priority is to fund two endowed academic chairs, one in Yiddish studies and the other in American Jewish studies.
For the long-range future, Myers envisions CJS as an international center to explore the frontiers of Jewish culture, and, he believes "there is no better place to do so than in Los Angeles."For information on CJS, call (310) 825-5387 or visit www.cjs.ucla.edu.