With Eric Garcetti’s election on May 21, the mayors of the three largest cities in the United States — Michael Bloomberg in New York, Rahm Emanuel in Chicago and Garcetti in Los Angeles — are all Jews. This is a remarkable phenomenon, perhaps most of all because of how unremarked upon, and thus unremarkable, it is. There has not been a major manifestation of anti-Semitism protesting this development. Nor has there been wild celebration within the Jewish community. Why not? For the simple reason that Garcetti’s triumph culminates, rather than inaugurates, a long process of Jewish political empowerment in the United States. Simply put, Jews have arrived to the point that their appearance at the very center of the political mainstream merits no special attention. In our own city, three of the top four candidates for mayor in the recent primary — Garcetti, Wendy Greuel and Jan Perry — were Jewish or married to a Jew.
The question of how this came about in this city is an intriguing story. The current moment of Jewish political empowerment in Los Angeles is not altogether without precedent, but instead harks back to the formative era of the community’s history. In fact, we can speak of three phases in L.A. Jewish political history, each roughly a half-century in duration and marked by its own character. (Leading L.A. political analyst Raphael Sonenshein has traced these phases in his various studies. More recently, the three phases have been the subject of detailed analysis by Karen Wilson, Caroline Luce and Amy Shevitz in their fine essays in “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic,” the book that accompanies the superb exhibition on L.A. Jewry now on view at the Autry National Center.)
The opening phase, extending roughly from 1850 to 1900, featured the arrival of the first Jews to the modern city of Los Angeles. Primarily of Central European origin, the founding families, including the Newmarks, Hellmans, Kremers, Lazards and Meyers, were quickly integrated into the economic, social, cultural and political life of the city. Settled in downtown Los Angeles, they mixed easily among the diverse groups in town — the Mexicans, Chinese and Anglos, among others. They became prominent merchants, were extremely active in civic organizations (Jewish and non-), and served in a variety of political capacities. One of the Jews elected to City Council, Prussian-born Bernard Cohn, became acting mayor of the city on several occasions in 1878. Los Angeles was a commercial entrepôt, creating an ambience of tolerance and openness in which Jews were welcome.
If this first phase was marked by integration, the second phase, stretching broadly from 1900 to 1950, was marked by marginalization and disempowerment. It also was distinguished by spectacular growth in the city’s and Jewish community’s population. From the 136 Jews counted in 1881, the Jewish community numbered 2,500 in 1900 and then continued to grow exponentially, moving from 43,000 in 1923 to 315,000 in 1951. Large waves of Jewish newcomers came from Eastern Europe, and smaller numbers of Sephardic Jews from Turkey and Rhodes. There was also a noticeable influx of both Jews and gentiles from the Midwest, a migratory pattern that left a profound, and increasingly conservative, imprint on the city. To be sure, it was in this era that Boyle Heights became a major center of Jewish life, humming with cultural, religious and (often radical) political activity. It was also this era that witnessed the rise of the Jewish moguls in Hollywood, intent on creating, as Neal Gabler argued in his 1989 book of that name, “An Empire of Their Own.” And yet, Jews of all stripes, origins and classes were exposed to potent new forms of anti-Semitism, as well as to rising barriers to their integration into the social and political mainstream.
The third phase in the story of L.A. Jewish politics commenced symbolically in 1953, the year in which the first Jewish woman, Rosalind Wiener Wyman, was elected, at the age of 23, to the Los Angeles City Council. This signal achievement reversed the previous decades of political neglect and paved the way for the defining force in L.A. politics of the past half-century: the renowned Bradley coalition that drew on the combined strengths of the African-American and Jewish communities to elect Tom Bradley as mayor in 1973. This coalition featured the new assertiveness of Westside Jews, who had left behind Boyle Heights and become leading representatives of a liberal politics that continues to characterize Jews in Los Angeles and elsewhere to this day. Among the alumni of this coalition are leading Jewish political figures of our time, such as Henry Waxman, Howard Berman, Zev Yaroslavsky and a former Bradley aide named Wendy Greuel. It was the Bradley coalition that opened the way for today’s stunning degree of Jewish political participation that reversed the neglect of the previous era and restored the political power held by Jews in the original phase.
Eric Garcetti thus should be seen not only as the first Jewish mayor of our city. Along with new City Attorney Mike Feuer and Controller Ron Galperin, he is heir to a 60-year process of Jewish political re-enfranchisement that curiously calls to mind the earliest years in the history of modern Los Angeles.
David N. Myers teaches Jewish history and chairs the UCLA History Department.