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Jewish Journal

L.A.: The New Israel

by Merissa Nathan Gerson

May 24, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Merissa Nathan Gerson

Merissa Nathan Gerson

When I was asked to go "learn about the L.A. Jews," my brother, hailing from Washington, D.C., suggested Canter's Delicatessen. But I quickly learned that according to true L.A. Jews, Canter's is not a Jewish place, not really, not L.A. Jewish.

I arrived in Los Angeles for the first time last week. It was the old man with the Star of David necklace that I noticed first. Jewish Stars, I had thought, were to be hidden and protected. This Canter's place, this L.A. thing, this Jewish pride was not the Rocky Mountains from where I recently drove, no sir.

Canter's, the "non-Jew" restaurant, was lined with Manischewitz products, gefilte fish and jars of matzah ball soup. Even the ceiling art, those awful mosaics of autumn leaves, they were somehow Jewish.

Raised in a Conservative Jewish, Holocaust survivor home in Washington, D.C., my father, an immigrant from Poland, was adamant about his children fitting in. He didn't want us to have to deal with the anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment that he was dealt as a kid in the Bronx. He didn't want us to feel so different.

We were bred to be hypernormal, to be Jewish, but first and foremost, white, successful Americans.

L.A. Jewish, the real thing, it was implied, existed in Pico-Robertson: bagels and a photo of the Chabad Lubavitch Rebbe, payot, kippot. For my often-shrouded Jewish self, it was like candy to a baby. At a kosher coffee shop I ordered a bagel with cream cheese and an iced coffee from a Latino man.

"Do you know a lot about Judaism from living here?" I asked.

"What?" he answered, looking confused, like Jewish wasn't given a second thought, positive or negative.

An Orthodox man was reading the paper across from me, and I asked him a few questions. His family came here from Poland after the war, and he has spent his entire life between Los Angeles' Orthodox section and Israel. The comfort level of his Jewish self, his Jewish surroundings was incomprehensible to me.

His 20-year-old son walked in a few minutes later. He was wearing a kippah, jeans and a casual T-shirt.

"How was shul?" his father asked.

"Long," he answered.

This guy had been praying since 6:30 a.m., and his arms were striped from the lines his tefillin left on his skin. I asked what he did for fun, and he said, "I am in a band. A mix of the Beatles, old Jewish sounds and Shlomo Carlebach."

Where kosher is the norm, and tefillin is not Madonna's S & M performance device but an actual religious practice, somewhere between the Latinos and the Koreans, lie these L.A. Jews. Not complicated, not hidden, just there, like an American coffee shop, like a white neighborhood, comfortably Jewish, and Jewish with fervor.

After a solo trip to Israel, where my Jewish identity relaxed into the camouflage of so many other Jews, I recognized that to be Jewish in America, for me, was like belonging to a secret club. It was a quiet, silent, hidden pride that I was taught. Upon moving to Boulder, Colo., for graduate school, I saw how foreign my Jewish identity was to mainstream Christian, white America.

The longer I was in Colorado, the more I saw that I was different for being Jewish. My comfort zone dissolved as years of paranoid fears came true, and I became a spectacle for my religious leaning. "Are you from Israel?" "I once knew a Jew." "You don't believe in Jesus? You are on your way to hell."

It was subtle, the ignorance, but enough for me to know I was not home in D.C. anymore, certainly not in Los Angeles, but in the middle of the country in a mostly white mountain town.

Los Angeles is a far cry from Boulder. What L.A. Jews may not know is how good they have it. When your point of reference is Christian rock on the Borders bookstore loudspeaker, Canter's is a Jewish mecca in and of itself.

Canter's would have been enough for me, enough to restore a sense of safety and Jewish pride after my experiences in Boulder and beyond. Canter's and the kippot, the Hebrew signs across the street, the glatt kosher grocers, they were only a piece of what was to come in Pico-Robertson. And these two Jewish landmarks aside, there were still the Workmen's Circle, the sign for the Jewish Women's Center in Venice Beach, the synagogues from Beverly Hills to Pasadena.

When you have spent time away from what feels like a Jewish home, Los Angeles becomes the new Israel.

Los Angeles is a gateway to the prospect of positive Jewish American identity. There is a fearlessness to the Hebrew on the walls, the Jewish labor movement mural on the building. There is a fearlessness to having a kosher Subway sandwich shop.

My instinct was to wonder if Jews are frequently attacked, if it is dangerous to wear the Jewish Star without a T-shirt to hide it and guard it. Is it OK, L.A. begs the question, to be Jewish and proud and out?

Judging from what I see here, the answer is an overwhelming yes.


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