Like valleys everywhere, the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles is defined by its surrounding mountains. Smoky purple and taupe, the jagged peaks are visible through the smog from every vantage point.
So it is fitting that my first glimpse of the San Fernando — so legendary that it is near-universally referred to as simply “the Valley,” as if there were no other — came as Oggi and I crossed the Santa Monica Mountains and a vast, shimmering expanse of semi-urbanity came into view.
At a remove from the beaches and nightclubs that draw L.A. tourists, the Valley is instead peppered with strip malls, entertainment-industry headquarters, tidy ranch homes and traffic-packed boulevards. Cosmopolites have long dismissed the area as a culture-free punch line — the very worst kind of suburban sprawl.
With family to visit and time to kill, however, I found myself poking below the Valley’s admittedly bland surface — and discovered a fascinating mélange that is, in many ways, both more ethnically integrated and more accessible than the manicured precincts of L.A.’s West Side. Like the rest of Los Angeles, the Valley also boasts a richly diverse and culturally vivid Jewish community, with enough events, concerts and exhibits to fill virtually any weekend agenda.
The Los Angeles Times website has a terrific interactive map of local farmer’s markets, so fresh, locally grown fruit was my first order of business. In Calabasas (auspiciously, “pumpkins” in Spanish), an upscale mountain suburb on the Valley’s far west end, I bought grapefruits that tasted like lemons soaked in honey, then stayed to stroll around the cutesy, faintly precious downtown, a collection of old-style Western buildings that looked like the set of High Noon.
If there’s one thing California does well, it’s produce. Bursting with the kind of flavor you only find a few miles from the fields, organic oranges, kale and leeks draw shoppers every day of the week to markets in strip-mall parking lots and vacant lots. I couldn’t resist stopping again for clementines in Canoga Park, a largely Mexican neighborhood with what appears to be the greatest concentration of taquerías in the Valley.
A dozen grapefruits and several veggie tacos later, Oggi and I found ourselves cruising down the liveliest commercial strip of the Valley. Ventura Boulevard starts out sleepy in Calabasas and gathers steam as it traces the Valley’s southern perimeter, dividing the suburban tracts from the posh hills and reflecting — in its multilingual signage, storefronts and sidewalk clientele — the subtly shifting dynamics of each neighborhood.
In Encino, Ventura is dotted with Hebrew signs and kosher markets trumpeting Israeli groceries, shawarma and baklava. Persian restaurants and Russian delis with names like Rasputin are common along this stretch. When we stopped in for a snack at Itzik Hagadol, an offshoot of the popular Tel Aviv grill, the tables were filled with families grazing over little plates of sautéed mushrooms, pickled carrots and chopped Israeli salads.
Eastward we drove, past the profusion of vape lounges, fro-yo parlors and vegan bakeries that epitomize modern L.A. Sherman Oaks, where several landmark malls popularized Valley culture in the ’80s, is a hotspot for Jewish institutions these days. In Studio City, the most urbane part of the strip, you could even see pedestrians – actual live people, not in cars! — browsing boutiques and sitting at cafés.
Heading back to the West Side, we took the scenic route, winding upward through green, jungly hills studded with villas to the jaw-dropping heights of Mulholland Drive. As the car rounded curve after curve, panoramic views of the Valley and distant mountains unfounded.
This mountaintop aerie seems a mostly unlikely spot for a university campus — but it is in fact home to the American Jewish University, formed several years ago when the University of Judaism, known for its continuing education programs, merged with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.
The day we visited, AJU was hosting the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony in a concert of eclectic Jewish fare that ranged from Mendelssohn to contemporary Argentine klezmer. It was a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, but it was also a 20th birthday party for the L.A. Jewish Symphony, whose founder and director, Noreen Green, will debut a newly formed Jewish choir at AJU in May.
After touring the mixed-media exhibit at the university’s Platt Gallery, we wandered outside to the sculpture garden, where the verdant cliffside is a setting for works by such talents as Jenny Holzer and Sol Lewitt. From atop Mulholland Drive, the Valley below appeared as if in miniature, fading into a patchwork of glistening lights as twilight fell.