May 24, 2001
Everyone Loves a Wandering Jew
It was more than a bit jarring to flip to the Los Angeles Times May 5 opinion-editorial pages and be confronted by a Magen David displayed prominently above the lead editorial, topped by the banner, "Rebuilding the Temple."
This is the Los Angeles Times we're talking about, a paper whose editorial pronouncements have not, to be charitable, leaned toward Israel.
Nor has the Times displayed particular sensitivity when reporting about local Jewish issues. Though the paper seems to leap at every opportunity to publish puff pieces about Islam, Buddhism and the New Age movement-of-the-week, it chose to demean Judaism by giving front-page, Passover-eve coverage to the views of yet another wave of historical revisionists -- archaeological theorizers denying that the Exodus ever took place, thereby effecting a wholesale negation of three millennia of Jewish history and disconnecting the Jewish people from the land of Israel.
When the six-pointed star appears on the op-ed pages of the Times, it's usually an anti-Israel device in one of Paul Conrad's cartoons.
When the Times does deign to acknowledge that Jews (17 percent of our city and rising) are a component of Los Angeles' polyethnic quilt, the nod generally manifests itself as one of those patronizing Rosh Hashanah brisket recipes in the food section. (How long before the next wave of revisionist crackpots avers that Rosh Hashanah never existed?)
Rebuilding the Temple? Could the Times be coming around? Then I read the editorial and everything fell into place.
The "temple" in question was the Breed Street Shul; the Star of David was the centerpiece of the synagogue's facade, and the editorial's purpose was to pump for a bill pending in the California legislature that would provide one million dollars to help renovate the once-thriving but long-vacant Boyle Heights landmark and turn it into a multiuse community center.
For those of us who remember when daily minyans still convened in the Breed Street Shul and recall how assiduously gentle, Los Angeles-born Rabbi Noah Ganzweig and his late son Mordechai labored to keep the sanctuary operative, the graffiti-scarred shell that was once Congregation Talmud Torah has nothing to do with living, breathing Judaism. On the contrary, it is a sad relic, a citadel of nostalgia in a once-thriving Jewish neighborhood now conspicuously devoid of Jews.
Maybe that's why the Times likes the idea of replacing the house of worship with a secular institution: by supporting the preservation of the merest whiff of Jewish nostalgia without having to be encumbered by the pesky presence of Jews, the Times editorial board can allow itself to feel welcoming and tolerant.
Israel, on the other hand, is the anti-nostalgia, the embodiment of a strong, assertive, sometimes rude, but conspicuously living Judaism. By its very existence, Israel puts the lie to the anti-Semitic canard that the alleged killers of Christ will be doomed to wander the world and will never merit a homeland.
Which may be why the Times, and much of the non-Jewish world, has so much trouble with Israel.
An affection for Jewish memorials coexisting with ambivalence or antipathy toward Jews is nothing new. In contemporary Poland, anti-Semitism thrives in the absence of a Jewish citizenry, but standing-room-only crowds flock to a Yitzhak Perlman klezmer concert. Heck, I've hit the bestseller list in Poland. Simultaneous with Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, the Nazi leader set about confiscating and stockpiling huge stores of Jewish religious objects. Hitler wasn't motivated by a love for menorahs, mezuzahs and Torah scrolls. His plan was to create a museum to a dead culture that would serve as the crowning glory of the Final Solution.
Hitler failed, but minor-league versions of such mausoleums do exist. A few years ago I visited a former synagogue in Toledo, Spain, that had once served as El Greco's home and was turned into a "Jewish museum," complete with ritual objects in glass cases and descriptive labels implying that these shiny gewgaws were archaeological relics with no practical use. Witnessing Judaism buried alive that way was a truly repellent experience, and several of my traveling companions who were Holocaust survivors voiced their anger to the Spanish tour guide. Perplexed by their reaction, she responded, "What's the problem? The Jews can visit the museum, too." (The Spanish have a long way to go in terms of cultural sensitivity. Another guide on the same tour intoned, "We kicked the Jews out in 1492, and that was a terrible thing, because the Jews really know how to move the money around." And in the window of a gift shop outside of Madrid, I spied miniature dolls of the Grand Inquisitor, Franco, Mussolini and Hitler.)
Nor are Jews the only victims of cruel triumphalism. In Queensland, Australia, I visited a "Native Cultural Center," where a brief newsreel recounting the genocide of the aborigines was followed by a live show featuring a half-dozen dispirited and hostile dark-skinned young men demonstrating "native crafts." Every toot of the didgeridoo resonated tragically. I left the theater in tears.
Don't get me wrong. Renovating the Breed Street Shul isn't a bad idea. On the contrary. Los Angeles has been woefully lax about preserving its architectural history, and the synagogue is a proud exemplar of such. And, if properly done, the resultant community center could serve as a testament to the once-thriving Jewish presence in East Los Angeles rather than the worst kind of tokenism.
What is wrong, however, is amplifying Jewish echoes while failing to understand the cultural and national aspirations of a living, breathing people just too stubborn to wander its way into oblivion.