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Ucla Lauches Study Looking at Jews in Los Angeles and Beyond

April 15, 2005
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There’s more to Jewish Los Angeles than Hollywood, and a wide-ranging UCLA project aims to paint a fuller and more accurate picture of the metropolis’ 650,000 Jews. “Los Angeles is one of the greatest Jewish cities in the Diaspora, the second largest in the United States, and it is time to subject it to serious inquiry,” said historian David Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

The inquiry to be undertaken by the center, joined by the Autry National Center and the Huntington-University of Southern California Institute on California and the West, will focus on two critical sets of questions.

First, how is the Los Angeles community similar to the New York/East Coast model, which historically has been taken as representative of American Jewry, and how is it different? Has the geographical and social openness of the West created a distinct type of American Jew?

Second, how does the Jewish experience in Los Angeles differ from that of the city’s other ethnic groups? How has the complex interaction with Latinos, Asians and African-Americans affected Los Angeles and its Jews?

To make the questions even more complicated, Los Angeles Jewry constantly reinvents itself. The city’s older Central and Eastern European groups, and a smaller Sephardic one, have been complemented in recent decades by distinct new colonies of Iranian, Russian, Israeli and South African Jews.

Not only do Jews move to Los Angeles from other countries and from older parts of America, they also migrate restlessly within the sprawling metropolitan area, abandoning old neighborhoods for new ones and exploring and expanding new suburbs and adjacent counties.

Given all the variables, the project is a scholar’s delight, involving professors and graduate students and representing many disciplines, from UCLA and other schools. Aside from Myers, key researchers include Stephen Aron, executive director of the Institute for the Study of the American West, and doctoral student Karen Wilson.

The study’s first formal step is a yearlong research seminar, which started last fall and explores some of the project’s main topics.

Myers credits Phil Blazer, president of Blazer Communications, with inspiring the seminar idea when he turned to UCLA for help in creating a two-hour documentary on Los Angeles Jewry, past and present.

In the near future, a Web site will include a detailed time line of the Jewish presence in Los Angeles, starting from 1840, when the first Jew is known to have arrived. A high-level international conference is scheduled for Nov. 12-14.

In the saga of the Jewish people, the 165-year history of Los Angeles Jewry represents a small span. It’s long enough, however, to fit into the overall mission of the UCLA center, Myers believes.

“We no longer have the luxury of studying the past without considering the present. Nor can we afford to contemplate the present without recalling the past,” Myers said.

CJS and its 22 affiliated faculty members apply this insight to a broad array of studies. This academic year the center will host some 50 free lectures, symposia and conferences for the campus and outside communities.

Along with the seminars on Jewish Los Angeles, the calendar lists a series on Sephardic studies, another on the Holocaust, and a workshop on the relationship between the so-called “Jewish question” in Europe and the present-day “Muslim question” there.

The center’s agenda also includes explorations into diverse areas such as contemporary Israeli literature, Jewish texts, Jewish messianism, German-Jewish studies, the future of Israel’s Jewishness, assimilation and the Yiddish tango.

Myers sees the center, which was founded 11 years ago, not just as a locus of first-class scholarship and a place to educate Jewish teachers and intellectuals, but as a great and underused resource for the community.

“I spend about 15 to 20 percent of my time on community-related activities,” Myers said. “I’m working to overcome the image that we are a cloistered ivory tower.”

Like the rest of the University of California system, CJS has been hit by budget cuts, and Myers is seeking community support to ensure the center’s growth. His top priority is to fund endowed academic chairs in Yiddish studies and American Jewish studies.

In the long run, Myers sees the center as a place where scholars can explore not just Los Angeles’ Jews but the frontiers of Jewish culture. He believes that “there is no better place to do so than in Los Angeles.”

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