The Autry National Center is a gem. Tucked away in Los Angeles’s sprawling Griffith Park, the museum is packed with exhibits about the American West. There’s a stagecoach and a 19th-century fire engine, along with vintage guns and guitars. My favorite installation is the ornate saloon, all mahogany and brass, which provides a taste of life in the late 1800s, if not, alas, a taste of the period’s liquor.
Despite its charms, the Autry might not seem the most likely place for an exhibit about American Jews. (One thinks of Mel Brooks in quasi-Native American regalia, shouting “Loz im geyn” from a cliff top.) But the Autry takes pains to highlight the diversity of the American West, giving weight to the contributions of Latinos, blacks, Asians and especially Native Americans. In this context, its new exhibition, “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic,” seems fitting.
A secondary impetus for the exhibit might be the general ignorance about the Jewish presence in the most important city in the American West (sorry, San Francisco). While most American Jews know much about the immigrant communities of Eastern cities, we’re much hazier about the origins of the large, vibrant and diverse Jewish community of Los Angeles.
Right from the start, “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic” evinces an earnest desire to educate the visitor. The exhibit begins with a kind of introductory space, wherein a series of questions is projected onto one wall: “Why did they come here?” “How did they live as Jews and Angelenos?” On another wall, the text points out that “Boyle Heights and Hollywood are the best known ‘Jewish neighborhoods’ in the American West.”
The heart of the exhibit is arranged chronologically. The first section, “Remaking Los Angeles/Making Angelenos (1850–1900),” describes a frontier town.
The 1848 Gold Rush brought some 300,000 treasure hunters to California, including a number of Jewish merchants who set up shop in Southern California to sell supplies to them. A silver Mass chalice, a panning basket and a saddle suggest the mix of cultures, and documents like an 1873 Certificate of Deposit from the Jewish-owned Farmers & Merchants Bank suggest the Jewish presence.