When he greets students next month who have enrolled in his four-session class “The Sepulveda Pass: From Creation to Carmaggedon,” instructor and historian Erik Greenberg will be returning to familiar territory.
Geographically speaking, so will his students. From their classroom at the Skirball Cultural Center, Greenberg and his pupils will be learning about the pass from the pass.
The Skirball, which opened in 1996, has become a kind of ground zero for Jewish cultural life within the Sepulveda Pass, along with its neighbors, American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), Stephen S. Wise Temple, Milken Community High School and Leo Baeck Temple.
In addition to being a hub of Jewish culture, the Sepulveda Pass is a thoroughfare between two significant concentrations of Judaism in Los Angeles: L.A.’s Westside and the San Fernando Valley communities of Sherman Oaks and Encino.
“One concept I very much like thinking about is the pass as the Brooklyn Bridge of Los Angeles,” says Greenberg, who grew up in New York and moved to Los Angeles in 1990. “Like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Sepulveda Pass and the San Diego Freeway bridge two major communities, and they do it by crossing this really challenging geographical boundary.”
Adele Lander Burke, vice president of the Skirball’s Learning for Life adult programming, says the class aptly and uniquely tackles the center’s aims. It will meet Feb. 10 and 24 and March 3 and 17.
“Part of our mission at the Skirball is to link Jewish heritage and values with the broader story of America and American values,” Burke says. “We get a sense that this is not just a freeway connector you might see as you zip through. The positioning of several Jewish institutions in the pass is a part of the story of how Los Angeles has changed physically and how the Jewish community has moved geographically. This is something we have not looked at before.”
Greenberg’s fascination with the pass — its geography, history and cultural significance — is a mixture of scholarly and personal interest. The director of education for the Autry National Center, Greenberg lives and works in the eastern San Fernando Valley. He ventures onto the actual Sepulveda Boulevard stretch of the pass — as many Angelenos do — only when the 7.5-mile section of the boulevard between Valley Vista Boulevard and Brentwood proves a more traffic-friendly alternative to that demon known as the 405.
These days, ongoing Sepulveda Pass/I-405 improvements, which will result in the relocation of bridges and widening of the freeway, have turned the area into an ever-shifting maze of road closures, detours and construction vehicles. The strategic closing of sections of the I-405 within the Sepulveda Pass — and the anxiety that created for many area residents — helped birth and popularize the term “Carmaggedon.”
But as Greenberg’s class will remind people, there was a time many years ago when there was no I-405 for Angeleno pioneers to brave. In the 18th century, the first Europeans crested the pass and moved down into what Miguel Costanso, part of an expedition led by Gaspar de Portola, called a “very large and spacious valley.” He was referring to what would later be known as the San Fernando Valley.
Instructor Erik Greenberg. Photo by Emma Greenberg
Traveling the pass would not have been an easy trek back then, Greenberg notes, but that hasn’t changed with time.
“It’s outrageously steep,” Greenberg says of the pass. “It rises very quickly and descends very quickly. Anybody who has ever walked, biked or driven a car with a manual transmission on the pass knows it’s unrelenting.”
Greenberg says his class will chart the history of the place, including how land that once belonged to the Tongva Indians gave way to Spanish mission and ranchero use. It will consider the formation of suburbs, but also will talk about people- — the Sepulvedas, who lived in what is now the South Bay, and engineer William Mulholland.
Moving closer to the present, he’ll talk about the relocation of the former University of Judaism (UJ), which had previously been at several different L.A. sites, to its Familian campus on Mulholland Drive. Schedule permitting, the final class will feature a visit by Skirball Chairman and CEO Uri Herscher and a discussion of how the area known as the top of the hill became a Jewish hub.
“I always perceived the development of the pass to be linked to the development of Stephen S. Wise and the University of Judaism, which came about through the late 1950s to the 1970s,” Greenberg says. “But Uri points out that really the first Jewish institution on the pass is Leo Baeck Temple at the bottom of the pass.”
Greenberg’s connection to the pass began in 2000, when his wife, Amy, took a four-month conversion class at the UJ and went through formal conversion a year later. Their then-3-year-old daughter, Emma, was immersed in the mikveh as well.
Although his own academic work prevented him from taking the classes with his wife, Greenberg found his commitment to his faith increasing the more his wife learned. The concept of journeying to the top of a hill — in this case, the UJ — and returning with knowledge now had a personal resonance. The subject became a theme of a seminar paper Greenberg wrote for an environmental history class at California State University, Northridge, in 2004.
“Almost every Jew is a Jew by Choice,” Greenberg says. “Through her learning at the top of the hill, Amy gave us the opportunity to make that choice, to learn what we didn’t understand and to choose.
“The Sepulveda Pass has an intensely personal connection for me,” he adds. “My interest in the past emerged from my personal experience, so I’m excited to come back to the pass and think about it again.”
Students will have the opportunity to share their histories with the Sepulveda Pass, to review photographs and readings and to think about the concepts of names and neighborhoods. It will be a class heavy on student input, says Greenberg, who, at the Autry, has been known to make mountains out of crumpled paper and flow water through them as a way to demonstrate environmental phenomena.
“I hope to come up with some good fun stuff having to do with land and earthquakes,” he says.
Perhaps even a field trip for students?
“Maybe if the class is successful,” Greenberg says with a laugh. “If I do it again, we could put them all on bikes or something.”