Summoned: Identification and Religious Life in a Jewish Neighborhood
by iddo tavory
chicago, 224 pages, $27.50
In a clear plastic Ikea storage bin that my wife and I have been hauling across North America every time I take a new academic job, I recently found an old Christmas card. The card says “Merry Christmas from the Yellens and a Very Happy New Year!” Abe and Rose Yellen were my mom’s parents. The card shows cut-out, black and white photos of their heads superimposed on cartoony line drawings of their bodies. My grandparents are both encased in Christmas stockings. My uncle Barney is shown sitting up in a baby buggy. He was born in 1944, so I’m guessing the card is from 1945 or 1946. My mom, Sonya, who must have been about twelve at the time, is popping out of a present under a big Christmas tree.
Everyone in my family is Jewish.
Abe ran a silk-screen printing shop in Los Angeles. His parents, Isaac Yelowitz and Sophia Gluskoter, had come west from Chicago in the 1920s, when Abe was a teenager. Rose’s parents, Barnett Dorkin and Fannie Silberglitt, made the move to LA from Brooklyn around the same time.
They weren’t alone. Los Angeles was growing by leaps and bounds in the 1920s. Jews came in especially large numbers. Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College estimates that in the space of ten years, from 1920 to 1930, the Jewish population of LA swelled from 28,000 to more than 90,000, making the city the second largest center of American Jewry behind New York. Jewish migrants came for the same reason as everyone else: jobs. Hollywood was flush with cash, and that the titans of Hollywood were Jewish must have made it seem like a welcoming town. Other sectors of the local economy were taking off as well: aeronautics, oil, the garment industry, light manufacturing.
It wasn’t completely welcoming. Jewish families couldn’t live anywhere they wanted. Often two or three generations removed from life in the shtetl, most Jews had modest incomes. Working-class Jews tended to settle in Boyle Heights, just east of downtown. Others with a bit more money moved into still affordable neighborhoods like Echo Park and Silver Lake. When economics couldn’t ensure segregation, Anglo-American homeowners and landlords relied on restrictive covenants to do the job.
Over the course of the 1930s and 1940s, Jewish Los Angeles pushed west, centering itself on West Adams (near the University of Southern California, and home then to a thriving middle-class African American community) and Fairfax, where Canter’s Deli opened, expanding from its original location in Boyle Heights.
Abe and Rose, married in 1931, settled down into this scene. They moved around a lot in the 1930s—it was the Depression—but mostly they stayed in the orbit of West Adams. The thing about the West Adams and Fairfax neighborhoods, though, is that they weren’t that Jewish. Jews were overrepresented, and there were synagogues and Jewish businesses, but Jews remained a clear minority. What’s more, many of the Jews in LA were secular. They wanted to assimilate into the American mainstream, to blend in so their families would have more opportunities.
The lore in my family is that Abe lost his faith because his father, who was very religious, would leave home for long stretches of time. Everyone was sure he had another family somewhere else. Abe concluded that if what it meant to be a religious Jew was to be a hypocrite and a liar, he wanted no part of it. I don’t doubt the story, but Abe was also swept up in a great wave of West Coast Jewish secular enthusiasm. Hence the Christmas card. Hence the notation in the holiday section of my mother’s baby book from March of 1934 that she had attended her first seder—and also received her first Easter basket. Hence the bemused scribble, in my grandfather’s writing, that my mother “at six years is a firm believer in Jesus ’cause all of her friends do.” My mother (long deceased) was never bat mitzvahed and rarely if ever went to temple. The Jews in her neighborhood wore their religion lightly.
Not so the people profiled in NYU sociologist Iddo Tavory’s carefully observed and insightful book Summoned, a rich ethnographic portrait of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews living today in the Beverly-La Brea neighborhood, which abuts Fairfax, with West Hollywood to the north. Summoned takes us inside a social world of between eight hundred and nine hundred families who inhabit an area of about forty square blocks. The neighborhood is synagogue-rich: Some two dozen temples can be found there, scattered along commercial strips also teeming with high-end restaurants, dive bars, tattoo parlors, cafes, hipster boutiques, kosher butchers, and Judaica stores. A high concentration of synagogues is important because the Orthodox won’t drive on the Sabbath, and need to walk to services.
As was true for West Adams in my mom’s day, the Jews in the neighborhood are outnumbered. Orthodox families tend to have a lot of children; the high level of Orthodox fertility is the main thing keeping the American Jewish population stable, given declines in fertility among the non-Orthodox. (Childbearing is linked to low rates of labor-force participation among women. Also, among Orthodox Jews—as among Evangelical Christians—it’s part of a strategy of religious reproduction.) Even so, Orthodox Jews account for less than a quarter of Beverly-La Brea residents.
They don’t see their minority status in the neighborhood as a reason to get out there and mix it up, though. Except when they’re at work—many of the men have “non-Jewish jobs”—or when they’re running errands, members of the community make it a point to interact only with one another. Kids go to religious schools. Families from the same Orthodox denomination—say, Chabad-Hasidic or Yeshivish—hang out together. Men meet frequently for Torah study. Tavory describes Beverly-La Brea as an “Orthodox island” in the vast sea of multiculturalism, commercialism, and debauchery that is Los Angeles. In fact, what stood out to him most when he moved into the area to start his research is how “thick” and “dense” community life seemed to be. It’s not just that Orthodox Jews interact only with one another. Those who consider themselves frum—devout—are constantly interacting: getting together to debate the finer points of theology, hosting Shabbat dinners, gathering for morning prayers, planning weddings, gossiping.
Tavory came to realize that all this socializing served a purpose: It kept community members from being pulled into the outside world. It also provided occasions for people to be called on by their peers to act like Orthodox Jews. “Summoned” time and again in these interactions to perform their social identities, reminded at every turn of who they were (and of who they were not) and of how they were expected to behave, the people Tavory studied stayed remarkably true to their ideals, occasional lapses notwithstanding. Tavory’s broader point is that religious communities—actually, all communities—maintain themselves not just by teaching new members norms and values, but also by filling people’s daily lives with situations that end up activating and reinforcing their self-conceptions. When Tavory, a secular Israeli, donned a yarmulke to walk through the neighborhood and found himself exchanging knowing nods with Hasidic men who would have otherwise ignored him, he too was being summoned to Orthodoxy.
If you’re a sociologist or anthropologist, this is interesting. Readers who are neither will likely be more intrigued by other features of Orthodox life Tavory describes. Utterly fascinating to someone like me who is totally outside that world was his description of charitable practices. Apparently, there’s a constant stream into LA of Israeli Orthodox Jews who are indigent. How they get the money to come no one really knows, but they end up walking around the neighborhood, knocking on doors, and asking for donations. They say it will go to “institutions in Israel”—but it’s no secret that the money goes to them. Although these meshulachim are not exactly welcomed, Beverly-La Brea residents feel compelled to help them out, a classic case of ethno-religious solidarity trumping common sense, since the whole arrangement is a highly inefficient private welfare system/scam.
The internecine struggles among different flavors of Orthodoxy also fascinate, as does Tavory’s detailed description of the complicated tactics people have to adopt to navigate the streets. Walking in LA is hard for anyone. It gets especially hard when you have to avert your eyes every few minutes from bus stop ads featuring scantily clad women (or men). Or when you’re waiting to cross the street with your family on the Sabbath, but can’t press the “walk” button to trigger the light and have to wait for a Shabbos goy to come along and help you out.
What Tavory doesn’t really get into is how we transitioned from the world of my mother’s childhood to the world of Beverly-La Brea today. Let’s be clear: Orthodox Jews make up only about 10 percent of the U.S. Jewish population. Among the other 90 percent, there are plenty who take their faith seriously. But on surveys, about a fifth of American Jews say they are not religious, while two-thirds say that for them, being Jewish is mostly about culture, not religious belief. By and large, the mid-twentieth-century trend toward Jewish secularization has continued. Yet we have also seen a resurgence of religious fundamentalism in the U.S., among Jews and in other faith communities—and certainly around the world. What are its roots?
Tavory introduces us to the East Coast rabbis, who, in the 1960s and 1970s, were aghast at California secularism, and set up shop in Beverly-La Brea to convert the sun-tanned Jewish masses. But there’s a broader story here of changing patterns of religious engagement and new dynamics around assimilation. And broader questions worth asking: Is religious fundamentalism ultimately compatible with democracy? How should religious traditions be reworked to accommodate new claims for civil rights? Under conditions of religious freedom, is self-segregation—moving into a neighborhood of the religiously likeminded—justified?
My wife and I have an eight-year-old son who happens to be obsessed with Torah and plans on getting a bar mitzvah. He also wants to move to LA someday to become a filmmaker. I’m happy he has more of a Jewish identity than my mom did, or than I had as a kid. But if at some point down the line he decided to go crazy and send a kitschy Christmas card, would it be the worst thing in the world?
Neil Gross is Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology at Colby College.