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.
Shortly after my story was published, I was contacted by Karen Wilson, a research fellow at the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. She expressed an interest in my Forward article. The Whittier Havurah was a significant piece of the story she was aiming to tell as curator of the upcoming exhibition at the Autry Museum. Could I put her in touch with any of the surviving members?
The group was down to a just a handful of members by the time I came to write about them. In their 80s and 90s, they’d taken the remaining money from their fund and scheduled a final gathering at a retirement community in Orange County. When I called to tell them of Wilson’s request, they told me how much it meant that the Forward, the newspaper of their parents’ generation, had published a story about them: Would I please do them the honor of representing the Forward at the Whittier Havurah’s last hurrah?
It was a long drive south from L.A., so I brought my son along. For one thing, I hate freeway driving and the 22-year-old hot rod was happy to take the wheel. For another, I wanted him to slow down a bit, to experience—or at least join me in witnessing—life passing on, as it inexorably does, in its next-to-final stages, something not ordinarily on the mind of a newly-graduated college kid. And why should it be, for a guy with his whole life before him?
For me, on the far side of that equation, the occasion was deeply moving and at first somewhat disconcerting. The elderly Havurot arrived in the small rented hall, many shuffling in with their walkers and canes, or on the arms of their grown children. We sat and ate a modest lunch while stories were told, laughter evoked, and members not present solemnly mentioned. An array of decent wines helped fuel more than a few “L’chaim!” moments, in which I indulged with gusto since I wasn’t driving home. Finally we stood and joined hands, circling around the room and singing in a halting but spirited semblance of the kind of dance this group must have kicked up its heels to in its heyday.
Like them, I’d come from the East, arriving on the West Coast in 1981 from New York City. It feels like a long time ago. The Diaspora has taken Jews to the ends of the earth and to some very strange places, not the least of which, in my personal experience, is Los Angeles. The city is now home to five percent of the world’s Jewry (same as Jerusalem). Having lived in L.A. longer than I’ve lived anywhere, I’ve often wondered: Does that make me an Angeleno, and in any case, what do all my years here add up to?
The answer came as I looked across the room to see my son, the native Angeleno, moving hand-in-hand with a couple of Havurah oldsters and singing along. Blame the merlot served by the worthy Havurot, but my eyes grew moist at the sight; living pieces of the Mosaic moving together in time.
In my Forward story, I wrote: “There may be no monument erected, no plaques declaring the group’s remarkable history…” But I was wrong. At the opening of Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic, which she brilliantly curated, Karen Wilson confirmed to me that the t-shirt—a memento of a 1974-75 Whittier Havurah gathering— was a gift to the exhibition from one of the Havurot, thanks to my connection to them. And there it will be viewed by visitors to the Autry museum until the exhibition’s closing in January, 2014.
The plaque beside the framed t-shirt recaps their story. They came, they lived and loved—as Jews, as parents, and as people—and now they are gone. Choosing not to leave behind an edifice or institution, they left behind their ineffable mark on America, an indelible one in their children’s memories.
And this t-shirt, as fragmentary in its wood-and-glass museum case as a pottery shard, as enigmatically coded as a parchment scrap from a Dead Sea cave and as ephemeral as the sprawling city whose departed inhabitant it once clothed.
Rex Weiner is the Forward’s West Coast correspondent.