A Thriving Metropolis of Its Own
By Susie Davidson
LOS ANGELES – In a city that 500,000 Jews call home, there appears to be something for every denomination. Further, where one might assume that whatever Judaic observance might exist in a mecca of moviemaking glitz and superficiality would be overwhelmingly secular, observant factions are just as prevalent, if not more so.
The weekly Jewish Journal is filled with discussion groups, committee meetings, Judaic academies and federations, culture clubs, singles’ events, entertainment and more. Synagogues and JCC’s abound; the majestic Skirball Center and University of Judaism crown the lofty hills above Bel-Air just beyond the Getty Museum.
Chabad centers and Beit Midrashim appear along beachfronts and boardwalks amid art exhibits, concession stands, performers, skaters and overall 60’s-era revelry. In Fairfax Village, all manner of Judaica line the boulevard with aplomb: bakeries, bookshops, butchers, restaurants, pizza shops, a large mural, womens’ organization thrift stores.
“It used to be much larger,” says L.A. native Simon Rutberg of Hatikvah Records on 436 No. Fairfax, where Yiddish music blares onto the street.
“Klezmer is over,” he asides. “Yiddish is the thing now.” He claims his store is the only one of its kind in the world. “Not only is it all Jewish music, but I have a lot of out-of-print releases.” Playing at the moment was “Chants Yiddish,” a French collection no longer commercially available, and he turns to complete some orders.
“The Jewish population has also expanded eastward of Fairfax,” says Rabbi Rachmiel Lieberman of Brookline, who happens to be in the Chabad center two doors down.
Across the street at number 417, Canter’s, a culinary institution, still serves up a storm of deli within their expansive locale, which includes an adjacent “Kibbutz Room” where entertainment and liquor freely flow.
“It’s a family-run business,” says Jacqueline Canter, granddaughter of founder Ben, who graciously pauses amid the President’s Day horde. “The secret to our success is to keep the quality high and the prices low.” Business is still bustling in these times, she explains, as their offerings are not high-end.
That is certainly the case, as their menu, lobby bakery and meat counter reflect traditional NYC Kosher-style offerings at half the price. Founded in 1924 in a Jersey City and later Boyle Heights storefront, and in L.A. since 1948, Canter’s still pickles its own pickles. They donate food to Jerry Lewis phonathons; regular dining celebrities have included Jack Benny, Elizabeth Taylor, Sydney Poitier, Buddy Hackett, Mel Brooks, Wilt Chamberlain, Brooke Shields, Rodney Dangerfield, Muhammed Ali, Shelley Winters, the Cars and Henry Winkler. Michael Mann, producer of Miami Vice, has written there for hours at a time.
Back on the street, David Noubahar of the Solomon Bookshop says things have been lively since it opened 14 years ago. “And we have another location on Pico Boulevard in West L.A., he says. (Steven Spielberg’s mother Leah Adler operates the Milky Way, a Kosher dairy restaurant in Pico, another Judaic area.)
“Chabad came here about 35 years ago”, says Rabbi Yosef Mishulovin, who has just placed tefillin on a passerby who wandered in. “They perform mitzvahs on the spot for people on the go,” quips Lieberman. “The door is always open.”
“We established schools, and soon enough, the community grew,” explains Mishulovin, who arrived from Crown Heights in the early 1980s. He isn’t kidding. Yeshiva Rav Isaacson on La Brea has 1300 students, and their high school, 800.
Chabad operates myriad community centers including a 42-bed facility at Olympic and Hauser Boulevards which has successfully treated numerous addicts and alcoholics with its renowned three-part program of Jewish values and optional Jewish study, an Alcoholics Anonymous-style 12-step program and moral-development counseling.
Did observant Jews come to L.A. in order to bring some Yiddishkeit into an area where the presiding industry needed more traditional values? “No,” Mishulovin responds. “The weather is good.”
And it is. Though only about 60 degrees or so, it is sunny and welcoming. And for Jewish visitors and residents, the outreach of community only adds haimische to the hospitality.