A brief history of Jews in Los Angeles

Only partially accepted into Anglo-American associations, schools, and businesses, Jews in America developed networks that also drew on relations with non-Anglo populations to survive and ultimately to thrive. In Los Angeles, the Boyle Heights neighborhood provides one of the most eminent examples (Sanchez 2004, 633-661). Jews have long occupied a liminal position in the landscape of ethnicity, race, and religion in the United States. Since they were sometimes incorporated and sometimes excluded from conventional notions of “whiteness,” they built solidarities with both Whites and people of color. Similarly, they have made considerable progress in the normative American economy while they have also maintained distinct domains in business (Brodkin 1998, Alexander 2001, Sandberg 1986, Vorspan and Gartner 1970). The liminality ofjewish communities exposes the social and economic structures between which they have been suspended, sometimes confusing color lines as well as religious ones.

Los Angeles itself has been a multiethnic and multireligious space, well before Jews arrived, since the earliest days of colonial settlement when it was host to native, Spanish, and mestizae populations. In 1850, the census listed eight Jews living in Los Angeles, and the first city council of Los Angeles, convened in 1850 included Morris L. Goodman, a Jew among its Christian members. By 1880, there were approximately 500 Jews living in the small metropolis (Wild 2005, 29). In these early years of Los Angeles (1850-1886) there were high rates of intermarriage between ethnic and religious communities generally; neighborhoods were often integrated and ethnically diverse.

As Anglos began to dominate Los Angeles both politically and numerically in the late 1800s, other Angelenos were expected to adopt White values and lifestyles.3 Between 1890 and 1930, during the period of the most aggressive Anglification, Los Angeles’ population grew from 50,000 to 1.2 million (2.3 million including metropolitan districts), including nearly 100,000 Jews. While a dominant Anglo establishment took shape, the other ethnic and religious minorities blended, intermingled, intermarried, and developed hybridized identities. Mark Wild tells us: “A 1936 Federal Writers Project abandoned any attempt to map the racial groups of East Los Angeles, concluding that ‘they are so intermingled that an exact segregation has not been attempted’” (Wild 2005, 31). While many ethnic groups including Jews were forcibly isolated and geographically bounded in the midst of prevalent racism and restrictive housing covenants, solidarities between marginalized groups flourished in surprising ways. In its boom years of the early twentieth century, the marginalized portions of Los Angeles exemplified a new, hybridized, pluralistic America, one that invented tradition instead of following it.

Between the 1880s and the 1920s, a great wave ofjewish immigrants arrived in America from Eastern Europe, typically coming to the well-established American cities of Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Chicago, and most prevalently, New York. An overlooked but no less significant movement took place a short generation later, when, according to Deborah Dash Moore, “[ajfter the war American Jews began a journey that would rival the mass migration of their immigrant parents.” Having been exposed to America’s sun belt during World War II military service, young Jewish men decided to relocate in substantial numbers to Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, and especially Los Angeles. According to Moore:

Jewish communal estimates suggested that during the peak year of 1946, five hundred Jews arrived each week [to Los Angeles], or over two thousand a month, making them roughly 13 percent of incoming residents. Such large numbers unsettled the established Jewish community, a minority of less than 5 percent of the total county population prior to the war.... Jewish migrants more than doubled the city’s Jewish population, from 130,000 before the war to over 300,000 in 1951. Everyone, it seemed, was a newcomer: Only 8 percent of adult Jews in 1950 had been born in the city (1994, 23).

“By the 1960s,” Moore concludes, “only New York and Tel Aviv exceeded L.A. as the world’s largest Jewish cities” (Moore 1994, 23).

The post-war wave overwhelmed all traditional institutions of Judaism and Jewish culture that had been established by earlier migrants. Nevertheless, Jewish ethnic identity persisted without substantial institutional support. According to demographer Bruce A. Phillips, generation after generation formed and reformed Jewish ethnoburbs (similar to those of their Asian neighbors) throughout the city: first in the thirties in Boyle Heights and along the Hollywood corridor (from Echo Park to Hollywood); later in the forties around Fairfax and in the West Adams area; then post-war Jewish communities blossomed in the south around Roberston-Pico, in the north in the San Fernando Valley, and out west in Cheviot Hills, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica. Today many of these areas of first, second, and third settlement are still recognizably Jewish, though some areas have become largely symbolic, again, much like settlement practices of Asian neighbors (Phillips 2016).

It was in this context of rapid demographic growth and waning institutional religious support that Jewish ethnic identity began to flourish independently of formal religious institutions. According to the most recent Pew study of American Jewry conducted in 2013, “62% say beingjewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion.” According to the same survey, this trend has been developing over the course of the past half-century, starting post-war, with Jewish millennials (bom after 1980) being the most pronounced generation of the phenomenon of the Jew of no religion (with 32% of Jewish millennials proclaiming that status). Even the most religious Jews now consider membership in the group to be mostly a matter of ethnicity and not formal practice or theological belief.4

Though Jews have increasingly intermarried in considerable numbers over the past half century, there has been a strong tendency for any household with a Jewish parent to rear the children as Jewish (now “about eight-in-ten,” according to Pew, including those who are raising children as Jewish but not by religion) (Pew 2013, 67). Ninety-four percent now claim they are “proud to be Jewish,” while 75% say they “have a strong sense ofbelonging to the Jewish people” (Pew 2013, 52). So it would seem that Jews in America created a stable ethnicity that can be unhinged from traditional forms of the Jewish religion?

It has been among these local and national trends that Los Angeles’ Jewry has come to contend with neighboring ethnic cultures and their concomitant forms of spirituality. Los Angeles Jews have accordingly developed unpredicted religious hybridities, particularly with Asian traditions, as they have reimagined Judaism as predominantly an ethnic (instead of predominantly religious) identity. While Los Angeles Jews continue to identify ethnically as Jewish, many have turned toward Hindu spirituality, gurus, yoga, and (more famously) Buddhist meditation to fulfill their spiritual lives. Los Angeles has become a veritable factory exporting Jewish led, practice-centered, experiential, Hindu and Buddhist spirituality nationwide. This is a Pan-Jewish American phenomenon with expressions nationwide, but the character of Los Angeles as a city for people who migrate there with aim to define themselves - and not to be defined by - institutional structures has given particular strength both to Ju-Hus (Jewish-Hindus) and Ju-Bus (Jewish-Buddhists) hybridized spiritualities. Furthermore, the significant integration of the Jewish community into multiethnic and multireligious Los Angeles has ensured social contact, which furthers processes of learning, appreciation, and adoption of the practices of other religious groups.

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