Valerie, Dianna and I leave Silverlake a bit after 6 a.m. I wear a tiny owl backpack stuffed with extra socks, band-aids, Neosporin and even though I never touch the stuff, two bottles of water. I very seldom wear a backpack but I think mine is cute but Himself worries people with throw cans at me. We pass the Sunset Junction, dead of hipster frenzy and turn down Santa Monica. The regulars are buying coffee and lottery tickets at the 7/11 and working folks are waiting for buses to take them downtown or to the Westside. We head South through what is now called Virgil Village, although the new moniker hasn't increased the value of the real estate, still rife with taco tables, laundromats and littered sidewalks. We turn west on Beverly, much the same, panderias, bodegas and bus traffic. Around Wilton, Korean signage alternates with Hispanic. I've driven these streets, once primarily white and working class, for as long as I can remember. I've never walked them and while I am familiar with just about every restaurant on the route, I am astonished at the richness of what is in-between.
Many of the signs aren't translated but there is among the food-centric a robust enthusiasm for Korean cuisine. I wander into a crowded place one night with the kids because there are a handful of white diners which make it likely that some English is spoken. We enter and are informed that the restaurant serves only octopus. My kids demur. Perhaps it is venal to spend hours pursuing restaurant menus at the L.A. Library website but perhaps we food-obsessed clean up our karma a tad by nurturing positive interaction across cultures.
We reach Hancock Park. Exercisers in coordinated workout gear walk briskly and young couples stroll pushing fancy baby carriages and walking pedigreed dogs that are picked up after, unlike in the other neighborhoods we've traversed. Dianna says good morning to everyone we pass and I am not surprised, although sort of embarrassed in front of Valerie, that black hatted men in dark suits don't so much as make eye contact. Orthodox families are on their way to Shul. Dianna and I explain to Valerie a little about traditional Jewish customs and religious law. We walk behind a teenage girl with thick glossy black hair. She wears a calf length skirt and black tights and pushes a pram. I explain that there must be an Eruv in place or it would be prohibited to push a baby or even carry a diaper bag on the Sabbath because outside of the home this is characterized as work. An Eruv is literally a string that encircles a neighborhood and thus expands the boundaries of “home.” The girl with the carriage can hear me and tries a few times to glance back surreptitiously. Maybe I'm telling it all wrong or maybe she's impressed that a goy like me has a basic understanding of these customs. Many Orthodox people are contemptuous of non-observant Jews, mere gentiles. Among the Ultra Orthodox there is an even stronger distaste for outsiders and one sect might consider a different group completely inauthentic. Often Ultra-Orthodox Jews refuse food that's been deemed Kosher by an Orthodox Rabbi with a different affiliation. The girl with the carriage, discretion ultimately bested by curiosity, keeps looking back. She is about sixteen and probably is soon a candidate for an arranged marriage and covered head. I'm not sure really what she makes of two frizzy haired women in sweatpants explaining Jewish practices to their African American friend who finds it fascinating.
I am still on my big Jew jag by the time we reach Pico/Robertson. Valerie's a bit befuddled when I recall my parent's sheepishness about their heritage. I ask Val if she's ever wished she weren't black and she posits that she's never been in a milieu where this would be preferable but connects that my parents experiences are similar in some ways to those of her own parents. We stop at a coffee shop and I continue on the self loathing rant, using the story that everyone's heard a million times about my mother 's resistance to being outed. She refused to invite any of her friends to our Jewish wedding. Mom sighed appreciatively that her maiden name Kroner wasn't necessarily Jewish. Her niece married a man named Finkelstein and Mom frequently expressed disgust that they hadn't changed it. Once I was sending a letter and asked if the name was spelled “Finklestein” or “Finkelstein” and my mom snapped, “It doesn't fucking matter.” I add that the tendency to denounce Jewish heritage isn't limited to those born before or during the Holocaust. Dianna thinks Jon Stewart's real name is something like Horowitz but a man at the next table pipes up that the Daily Show host was actually born Jon Leibowitz. The man reports that he remembers this because Leibowitz is his name as well, although other branches of his family changed it too.
There is a mikveh across the street and we explain the most prurient details of ritual immersion to Valerie. The mikveh attendant inspects for cleanliness prior to the immersion in the pool. Finger and toe nails are inspected. Hair (carpet and drapes) is combed to insure that there are no strands tangled up with underwear lint. The mikveh is visited prior to ritual events, holidays and conversion to Judaism. A visit to the mikveh is required after menstruation or childbirth before sexual relations can resume. Orthodox women have written that the “niddah” period or abstinence prior to immersion in the mikveh has a salubrious effect on their sex lives. Many women also defend the covering the head of a married women either by hat, scarf or wig in public, and indicate that this enriches and sanctifies romance. It's fine that women feel these practices are spiritually beneficial. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that these customs are not rooted in male notions that menstrual blood is impure and that men are so unable to control their urges that it's best to keep one's wife under wraps.
The description of exotic religious practices shifts to more “Is it good for the Jews?” myopia. The power that the ultra-Orthodox wield in Israeli national affairs is ironic because most sects deny the existence of the nation of Israel because a true Jewish state can only be established after the arrival of the messiah. Yet, huge Israeli Ultra-Orthodox families suck up social welfare resources. The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) are exempted from military service and demand public funding for their schools. I point out that while the Haredi comprise less than 10% of Israel's population, the small Agudat Yisrael party they support, controls the balance of power between the country's two major parties and for the most part leans very heavily to the right.
I also note that Hawkish American Jews funnel a lot of money into Israel. Operation Birthright is a program that provides a free trip to Israel for all Jewish American teenagers. The kids are inculcated with Israeli nationalism and I presume the visit is designed to groom future boosters and donors. And if bankroller Sheldon Adelson has anything to say about it, Republicans. Adelson also gives generously to a number of right-wing causes. Adelson felt that the liberal media held too much sway in Israel and wrote a blank check for the creation of new daily and weekly newspapers, mere smokesceens for pure propaganda on behalf of conservative Prime Minister Netanyahu. Adelson has made headlines lately for hefty contributions to kindred spirit Newt Gingrich. How Adelson would love having a president who considers the Palestinians an invented people.
Our last stop is the Westside Pavilion. I don't want to sound holy or sanctimonious, like the parents of kids who had no TVs in the 60s, but I really hardly ever go to a shopping mall. This doesn't mean I don't buy lots of shit, I just buy it online. Westside shoppers have the same fervor as exercisers and the families en-route to temple. Slaves to fashion, like food fiends, help smash a lot of cultural barriers. Women of all shapes and colors toddle around wearing over-the-knee boots with six inch heels and black leggings, toting three or four bright shopping bags in one hand and fiddling with an Iphone in a snazzy case with the other. We pass through cosmetics where a teenage girl is having makeup applied for what must be some sort of “come as a drag queen” soiree.
We are on mile 13 or so and noticing really for the first time how dicey, and bereft of public bathrooms that don't require a token, parts of West L.A. are. We pass the old Kelbo's on Pico, now a strip club. The ancient diner Rae's, is unchanged since the seventies, which was probably the last time the windows were washed. I point out, near Sepulveda, the site of a long defunct methadone clinic that employed me about thirty years ago. It was a warehouse with a safe and a locked cubicle for the administration of methadone. There were phony cameras in the bathrooms where clients provided urine samples to be tested for drug use but everyone knew they were fake. Counseling offices were formed by sheets of particle board that didn't extend to the high ceiling. Not only could you hear every word of an ostensibly private counseling session, it had a remarkably crisp, stereophonic quality. The clientele was an utterly mixed bag, sort of what you'd find at the Hollywood DMV. Hookers, gangbangers, movie and rock stars, engineers, lawyers and waitresses. One of my jobs was to arrange for people to receive methadone doses while traveling and I considered myself a real friend of the arts when working with itineraries for a number of concert tours and film shoots.
We cover a few filthy blocks under the freeway, pass Centinela and arrive officially in Santa Monica. We are picked up by Dianna's accommodating husband Richard at the 16 mile mark. We are fetched from a bus stop in front of a crowded 99 Cent Store and chauffeured to The Lobster, a fancy place with a swell view of the Santa Monica Pier. This is sort of funny. Despite all of my contempt for the tyranny of Orthodox practice, I myself abstain, according the Jewish dietary laws, from pork and shell fish. Fortunately I find a lovely piece of bass on the menu that would have been at home on the Chief Rabbi's Passover table and a nice white ale on tap. We share a blackberry cobbler although I think I eat the most. The sun is rising when we set out in Silver Lake and six hours (and the giant city I was born in fifty-five years ago) later, the ocean shimmers and it's fine to have dessert.