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Russians & Gays & Lesbians, Oh My…

West Hollywood: a city where different Jewish communities are learning to live together

by Tom Tugend

March 23, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Paul Koretz, a 44-year-old politician, owns up to an unusual distinction. He is the only member of the city council in the 15-year history of West Hollywood to have a wife and family at home.

Anywhere else in the country, being married with young children would be considered a plus for an ambitious office holder. In tolerant West Hollywood, his status is not a handicap, just an anomaly.

While Los Angeles as a whole acclaims itself the world capital of diversity, nowhere is the mix as singular as in the pistol-shaped, 1.9-sq.-mile enclave sandwiched between Beverly Hills and the Hollywood section of Los Angeles.

Allowing for overlaps between categories, half the city's 38,000 residents are Jewish, 35 percent are gay men, 3 percent are lesbians, 19 percent are senior citizens, and 12 - 15 percent are Russian immigrants. West Hollywood may be the only city whose official 1998 population survey included check-offs for bisexual (7 percent) and transgendered (1 percent) taxpayers.

But West Hollywood is more than a demographer's delight. It includes Southern California's most vibrant night life, mainly along the fabled Sunset Strip. When snooty Beverly Hills rolls up the sidewalks at night, the action is just warming up at the Strip's rock and roll clubs, comedy shows and tony restaurants. "We're the Left Bank of Beverly Hills," says Scott Svonkin, Koretz's right-hand man.

After some rough times, the economy is now booming. Luxury hotels and swank night spots are going up while design-oriented businesses are encircling the landmark Pacific Design Center, dubbed The Blue Whale for its shape and color. It's gotten to the point where city officials must restrain developers from encroaching into residential areas.

The city has an enviable range of social service programs for the elderly, immigrants and the AIDS-infected, and relations between the diverse citizenry and law enforcement agencies are, by all accounts, remarkably harmonious.

Back in 1984, harassment of gays by Los Angeles city police and fear that rent controls for apartment dwellers might be abolished led to an unusual gay-seniors alliance that pushed through incorporation of West Hollywood. The city now contracts for law enforcement with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which puts deputies through a sensitivity training course before assignment to West Hollywood.

When it first became a city, West Hollywood was dubbed the "Gay Camelot" by the press, which marveled at a municipality run by a five-person city council (one of whom serves as mayor on a rotating basis) with a three-man majority of gays.

Since then, the makeup of the council has fluctuated. At one time there were three Jews on the council, now there is one; at another time, there were three councilwomen, now there is none. The present council again has three gays, one senior, and Koretz, who has served since 1988.

On Super Tuesday, Koretz squeaked through in a very tight race to become the Democratic nominee for the State Assembly in the 42nd district.

In the heart of West Hollywood lies Plummer Park, where on any day hundreds of Jewish immigrants from all parts of the former Soviet Union play chess, or cards for modest stakes, which are quickly hidden when strangers, who might conceivably enforce the park's anti-gambling rules, walk by. Anti-smoking rules are uniformly ignored as well.

The only monument in the United States to the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar stands nearby, with inscriptions in Russian Cyrillic script, English and Hebrew.

Most of the 5,000 to 6,000 Russian Jews settled in West Hollywood in two major immigration waves, 1978-79 and 1988-92, and their arrival led to inevitable frictions.

"Initially, the greatest conflict was between elderly Russian immigrants and the established Jewish seniors," says Koretz. "The American Jews complained that the Russians, using their official 'refugee' status, were getting more of the social services and affordable housing than the old-timers."

It also took the Russian housewives some time to learn not to cut into supermarket lines for fear that -- as in their homeland -- the stores would run out of supplies.

But more spectacular than the grumbling between two sets of elderly Jews was the encounter between the wildly different cultures of the Russian and gay communities.

There was hardly any physical violence, but "there would be a lot of screaming, and since they couldn't understand each other's language, we had a lot of misunderstandings," says Rabbi Naftoli Estulin, who runs the Chabad Russian Immigrant Program and Synagogue.

Helen Levin, director of the city-funded Russian Cultural Center, explains that "in the Soviet Union, homosexuality was a crime, punishable by seven years in prison. You can't expect people raised in that way to be open-minded and relaxed about openly gay behavior. They're changing, but it's a long process in education and tolerance."

In general, it has taken American Jews some time to adjust to the Russian immigrants, adds Levin. "The Americans expected a race of heroes, like Natan Sharansky. But most Russians didn't come for ideological reasons, but to make a better life for themselves and their children."

While Levin's cultural center is a more integral part of West Hollywood than the Chabad center, both offer a range of education, language, job training, counseling, social service, youth and senior programs. Since the immigrants must become U.S. citizens within seven years of arrival or lose their benefits, there is a heavy emphasis on citizenship training classes.

But, in line with Jewish custom, the two Russian centers don't speak to each other. For a while, there was an annual confrontation as each center sought to stage its Chanukah festival in Plummer Park. A modus vivendi has now been reached in which each organization stages the festival in alternate years.

Otherwise, a cold peace prevails between the two centers. "Rabbi Estulin can't tolerate a woman who raises her voice and is independent," says Levin. "I can manage my relationship with anyone and have an understanding with every agency, but not with Chabad."

Estulin shrugs off the relationship problem. "They see me with a beard and they think I'm from another world," he says. "I'm just one of the boys, one of the guys."

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