It’s just a t-shirt hanging on the wall in a corner of the Autry Museum’s new exhibition, Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic. Although a few artifacts of that nature exist on the bottom of my dresser drawer, it’s not my t-shirt—but I feel a sense of ownership about this one.
Within the Autry’s excellent panoramic view of the L.A.’s Jewish history—a city whose Jews gave Hollywood movies to the world, along with Barbie dolls, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and Nudie Cohn’s sequined Western wear, not to mention the Dodgers stolen from Brooklyn and Sandy Koufax pitching his perfect game—the framed t-shirt represents my personal addition to the Mosaic.
It found its way into the exhibition through an article I’d written for the Forward. The story was about a group that flourished in the West Coast suburban Jewish culture of 1950s and 60s. Located in the small community of Whittier, south of L.A., they called themselves the Whittier Havurah.
In the post-WW II era they were the city’s newest residents; highly educated, intellectually-driven men and women with college degrees, mostly first or second generation Jews. They were doctors, businessmen, housewives, teachers, entrepreneurs, and engineers, many of whom worked in the aerospace industry that was once based in the area, some of them key figures in the Apollo space program that put Americans on the moon.
They met in each other’s living rooms, seeking a Jewish way of life that matched their passionate curiosity and fierce intellects, happy to escape the old neighborhoods and old world ways of the East. “We loved Judaism, studied it and read intensively,” recalled Rosalind Perle, a Havurah member, “but could not abide with the ‘hocus pocus’ part.” With thriving young families in a booming California that celebrated youth, the Whittier Jews rejuvenated their faith.
Annual retreats to Camp Ramah, holiday gatherings, potluck dinners and study groups attracted more and more members to the Whittier Havurah. At its apex, the group grew much too large for anyone’s living room and numerous enough to consider forming its own synagogue under the Reconstructionist umbrella. Indeed, Reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan visited the group, acknowledging its influence on the movement he’d founded. “At one point,” one member told me, “it was thought that the children would carry on.”
But that never happened. A decision was made to leave bricks and mortar to the synagogues and allow life to run its natural course.