Beyond the binary: Los Angeles and a New York state of mind.

Author:Baumgarten, Max D.
Position:Essay
 
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"If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn't matter even if you're Catholic; if you live in New York, you are Jewish.

--Lenny Bruce, early 1960s (1)

"This is a different ball game today--you've got another Brooklyn here. When I came here, it was Los Angeles. Now it's a Brooklyn."

--Rabbi Edgar Magnin of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, 1978. (2)

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Los Angeles Times published multiple articles about the Fairfax District in Los Angeles, a neighborhood that boasted the highest concentration of Jewish residents throughout the city and a plethora of retail stores, religious institutions, and eateries that catered primarily to Jews. Chronicling the character of the neighborhood as it contended with the prospect of racial integration, the outward migration of middle-class Jews, the arrival of new Jewish immigrants, rising crime rates, and urban renewal, these articles advanced the trope of the Fairfax District as a reincarnation of a quintessential New York City neighborhood. As one article from 1973, appropriately titled, "Fairfax: Lowest East Side of the West," noted, "It's a scene out of New York's Lower East Side: of old men in long black coats and hats and full, graying beards, of skull caps called yamulkas [sic] and chanting young men with the wood-block-and-thing of 'tefillin' wrapped around their arms, praising God." (3) Similarly, political reporter Bill Boyarsky described Fairfax as a hotbed of anti-liberal populist discontent, a Jewish "Nixonland" of sorts, and quipped that if "Archie Bunker were Jewish, he might live in the Fairfax District." (4) Another article--this one exploring community initiatives to address the neighborhood's high unemployment rates, its disintegrating commercial strip, and its overcrowded housing, all in an effort to preserve Fairfax's Jewish ambience--labeled Fairfax as a "good area filled with good people. It's an old style neighborhood like those on the East Coast." (5)

Such explicit comparisons between Los Angeles and New York, while employed as descriptive journalistic shorthand that help to evoke a sense of nostalgia and ethnic distinctiveness, also illuminate the very real commonalities between the cities that boasted the two largest Jewish populations in postwar America. The middle-class and lower-middle-class Jewish residents of Fairfax and Brooklyn's Brownsville, Williamsburg, and Canarsie areas (where many Lower East Side Jews eventually settled) responded in similar ways to the changing social composition of their neighborhoods. In these locations, ethnic pride, religious revivalism, and skepticism toward outsiders and suburban life guided Jewish efforts to salvage what was considered the authentic ethnic character of these older, seemingly marginalized neighborhoods. Jewish residents and community leaders in both cities constructed modes of civic engagement that sought to balance the ideals of liberal integration with exclusionary notions of community. (6) If Jews during the 19ZOS and 1930s had found in areas of "second settlement" an opportunity to cultivate new styles of Jewish urbanism and liberalism in a middle-class setting, New York and Los Angeles Jews a half century later tested whether it was still possible to fashion themselves as a meaningful part of an ethnically diverse, cosmopolitan-oriented, urban fabric.

Historians of the American Jewish experience have generally overlooked these parallels between Los Angeles and New York. In fact, the first wave of professional American Jewish historians paid very little attention to Los Angeles as a Jewish city. (7) Only in the early 1990s did Los Angeles properly enter the American Jewish historical imagination as something more than comedic fodder for a Woody Allen joke ("who would want to live in a place where the only cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light?") or the city where the Brooklyn Dodgers and pitcher Sandy Koufax found a new home in 1958. (8)

As a leading scholar of American Jews and their cities, Deborah Dash Moore helped to bring Los Angeles into focus as a serious historical subject. While Moore was neither the first nor the only academic to characterize Los Angeles as the archetype for a new urban form, she was instrumental in crystallizing the idea that Los Angeles and New York encapsulated two different urban paradigms and distinct variations of the American Jewish experience. (9) As such, in current-day American Jewish historiography, New York is typically understood as the focal point of American Jewish life, home to its core traditions and values, whereas Los Angeles is considered the laboratory for American Jewish communal reinvention and innovation. Los Angeles in this equation emerges as the place where Jews accomplished what the urban industrial centers of the East Coast and Midwest prohibited.

One wonders why distinctions between New York and Los Angeles, both real and imagined, have formed the foundation upon which historians tend to approach Los Angeles and what this focus on differences reveals and obscures. (10) The impulse to differentiate Los Angeles from New York has prevented historians from fully appreciating the growing convergences between Jewish life in those two cities since the late 1940s. This dichotomy has also left little room to recognize when and where Los Angeles Jews were denied the opportunities to innovate and to contend with their own acute hardships and corrosive social conflicts. My objective is not simply to question the characterization of Los Angeles as an incubator for reinvention or to highlight the commonalities between Los Angeles and New York, but more precisely to propose a different model for considering the dynamics between metropolitan Los Angeles and New York. Looking at the ever-evolving relationship between the two cities through a grounded comparative framework enables historians to account for and integrate Los Angeles into the broader narrative of American Jewish history.

The question of whether the history of Jews in New York can help to explain the experience of Jews elsewhere looms large over American Jewish historical scholarship. Many American Jewish historians treat New York as the epicenter of American Jewish life and the prototype that can help to explicate and illuminate general trends. (11) Others, intent on moving the field away from its traditional New York-centered focus, seek to examine "what Jews achieved and endured beyond New York and its environs" and how regional particularities helped to cultivate unique modes of Jewish identity and community. (12)

Deborah Dash Moore falls into both camps. Moore's At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews (1981) examines how upwardly mobile second generation New York Jews during the interwar period constructed a Jewish identity and "a type of ethnicity that was consonant with middle class American values." (13) This process, Moore contends, was primarily rooted in New York City's vibrant neighborhoods. Second-generation Jews left the Lower East Side and other working-class immigrant enclaves and clustered together, largely segregated from non-Jews, in compact though comfortable middle-class neighborhoods within the Bronx and Brooklyn. While New York Jewish identity proved pluralistic and flexible, it was also structured in a manner that drew Jews into an identifiable communal pattern; second-generation New York Jews, as Moore puts it, "wedded 'the close proximity, co-operation [sic], intimate social contact, and strong feeling of social consciousness' characteristic of an urban neighborhood to a host of ethnic activities." (14) Throughout the Grand Concourse, Flatbush, and Borough Park areas, as Moore explains, Jews cultivated informal associational ties with one another and became involved with a plethora of local institutions and organizations, such as the synagogue center, public schools, unions, and the Democratic Party, in a manner that underlined their visible presence as a middle-class ethnic community.

While At Home in America does not examine Jewish life outside of New York City, Moore contends that second-generation Jews devised an exportable synthesis of middle-class and Jewish values ("the grammar") that provided the framework for Jewish ethnic persistence in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Cleveland and was carried by third-generation Jews into the suburbs. (15) Yet, as Moore demonstrates in her later monograph, To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A. (1994), the Jews of Los Angeles did not conform to the second-generation model but positioned themselves as no longer bound to New York City and as standing outside its sphere of influence. (16) Examining the mass migration of Jews from Northeastern and Midwestern cities to Los Angeles and Miami after World War II, Moore presents Jewish life in the Sunbelt's premiere...

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