Welcome to sunny, cosmopolitan, Jewish Los Angeles

The California city is dotted with intriguing sites.

LA 311 (photo credit: Arthur Wolak)
LA 311
(photo credit: Arthur Wolak)
LOS ANGELES – Famous for its warm, sunny weather, densely packed freeways and the landmark hilltop Hollywood sign, this is one of the most populated cities in the US.
Ever since California achieved statehood in 1850, Jews have come to the West Coast in large numbers. Today there are about a million Jews residing throughout California, with the largest Jewish community settled in Los Angeles County. In fact, based on total population, Los Angeles is among the biggest Jewish cities in the world. Within the US, it ranks second only to New York.
Dotted with intriguing Jewish sites, the city is so spread out that tourists have to search long and hard to find them. However, once these gems are discovered, no visitor will be disappointed. Proof of its substantial Jewish population is provided by the city’s educational institutions. Besides dozens of Jewish day schools, it boasts rabbinical schools for nearly every denomination.
The Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion trains Reform rabbis and cantors, while the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) educates Conservative rabbis. Orthodox yeshivot, such as Chabad’s Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon, are also found here.
The Jewish population has been fortunate to be able to work in every conceivable industry. But in the world’s movie capital, none has been more noteworthy than the film industry. Indeed, the original foundation of Hollywood depended on the important contributions of primarily Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
In his book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, Neal Gabler argues that its founding Jewish moguls, studio executives and producers transformed their early Jewish experiences in oppressive prewar Europe into escapist entertainment that helped define early American film.
Whatever degree of truth this argument may hold, their influence was as significant as it is undeniable.
Many key Jewish motion picture studio founders helped make Hollywood a filmmaking center of global importance: Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky (Paramount Studios), Carl Laemmle (Universal Studios), Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack Warner (Warner Brothers), Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn (MGM), Jack and Harry Cohn (Columbia Pictures), William Fox (Fox Film Corporation) and Joseph Schenck, William Goetz and others (Twentieth Century Pictures), later merging into 20th Century Fox, and David O. Selznick (Selznick International Pictures), whose father, Lewis J. Selznick, was among the earliest pioneers of the American motion picture business.
Several of these studios, such as Paramount and Universal, still exist and can be visited. Evidence of their founders‚ achievements and those of numerous other significant Jewish talents can be found in DVD rental shops throughout the world. However, here they can also be found in the stars along the Hollywood Walk of Fame on one of the top tourist attractions, Hollywood Boulevard.
Unlike New York or Montreal, distinctive Jewish neighborhoods in Los Angeles are less obvious, since most of the area’s Jewish population has shifted to the San Fernando Valley in the north of L.A. County. Yet there are still unique pockets of Jewish interest closer to the center of the city.
The most historic is the “Bagel District,” as the area along Fairfax Avenue is affectionately known. Although less vibrant now than in decades past, the Fairfax neighborhood – once the epicenter of Jewish L.A., situated north of Wilshire Boulevard and east of Beverly Hills – is where many kosher (and non-kosher) delis, butchers, bakers, Judaica stores and synagogues can still be found.
Established in 1924, Canter’s Deli (at 419 North Fairfax Avenue), famous for its milehigh sandwiches, remains a landmark frequented by locals, tourists, and celebrities.
THE CONTEMPORARY Jewish population reflects Jewish communities from all parts of the world. Today, a major portion resides in the San Fernando Valley, where communities such as Northridge, Encino and Tarzana are lined with Jewish shops and restaurants, both kosher and uncertified “kosher-style.”
Of the latter, Art’s Delicatessen in Studio City (at 12224 Ventura Boulevard) attracts many locals and out-of-towners. Similar to Canter’s Deli in Fairfax, Art’s Deli has been a Valley landmark since 1957. Its large clientele keeps returning to this local mainstay where the proud owners boast “Every Sandwich is a Work of Art.” Given the deli’s name, who can argue? Yet, before reaching the Valley, an area of substantial Jewish presence can be found in West Los Angeles along Pico Boulevard.
Newer Jewish restaurants and bakeries thrive there. West Pico is lined with food establishments like Nathan’s, Pico Kosher Deli, and even Subway for glatt-kosher sandwiches, accompanied by several kosher ethnic restaurants, such as Chick’n’Chow (kosher Chinese) and Sushiko (kosher Japanese), near the glatt kosher Elat Burger & Kabob. There are also many kosher dairy restaurants, including Circa and Bibi’s Warmstone Bakery Cafe.
The street is also home to the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance (9786 W. Pico Boulevard). This important educational institution has informed millions of visitors about the Holocaust and the continuous global dangers of anti-Semitism and ethnic hatred. The center was established in 1977 by founder and dean Rabbi Marvin Hier, a two-time Oscar-winning producer of the Holocaust documentaries Genocide and The Long Way Home. Hier was named by Newsweek as the “most influential rabbi in America” (2007 and 2008).
As head of the Wiesenthal Center’s Moriah Films, he continues to help write and produce films to educate the general public about the horrors of the Holocaust.
Another important educational institution focused on Jewish heritage and culture is located in the nearby Santa Monica Hills. The Skirball Cultural Center (2701 N. Sepulveda Boulevard), situated in a 1996 structure designed by Israeli-Canadian-US architect Moshe Safdie (famous for his city plan for the city of Modi’in and his design of Vancouver’s Library Square), is a unique resource. It features changing exhibits and a variety of Jewish musical, theatrical, comedic, literary and cultural programs for the half-million visitors who visit each year.
The permanent exhibit, “Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America,” shares with visitors of all backgrounds the Jewish values, history and accomplishments of the past four millennia. Many children’s programs, especially the interactive exhibit inspired by the story of Noah’s Ark, complement the adult educational offerings. There is also Zeidler’s Cafe and Audrey’s Museum Store with a broad selection of Jewish books for sale.
With a map and list of places to visit, travelers to L.A. have a lot of options for a memorable experience.
The writer is a freelancer based in Vancouver.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Independent.