My latest Skribbles, in honor of National Architecture Week.
I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and like many Angelenos, I came here as an adult. At this point in my life, I have lived in L.A. much longer than my first eighteen years in Chattanooga. I have come to love the story of Los Angeles—my husband is a big hometown booster—and I have visited and learned to appreciate all that Los Angeles has to offer, from San Pedro to San Fernando to San Gabriel to Santa Monica.
A fascinating piece of the L.A. story is the history of the Jews who have settled and thrived here. From its earliest days, Jews have helped to build L.A. as we know it—whether as bankers, merchants, performers, teachers, builders, or Hollywood producers—and they continue to contribute to the fabric of the city through the arts, civic life, industry, and education. This ongoing story was brought vividly to life on a warm Sunday in June when fifty curious souls boarded a touring coach at the steps of the Skirball to spend a day exploring Jewish Los Angeles.
The catalyst for this day trip was Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage, on view at the Skirball for just one more month. The exhibition presents personal stories of growing up in Los Angeles and California through the use of cleverly edited home movies and wonderful added audio commentary. Visitors quickly learn of the challenges of moving to California in the 1930s and 1940s, adapting to a new environment, and encountering the various cultural groups that were also settling here.
The bus tour was ably conducted by Dr. Bruce Phillips, a professor of sociology at Hebrew Union College and Senior Research Fellow at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Bruce is a demographer: he studies patterns of settlement, affiliation, intermarriage, and immigration. He gathers the raw data and then attempts to deduce from it the stories of our lives. The ways he finds information are amazing. For example, by browsing the 1930 Los Angeles telephone directory, he was able to learn where Jews lived by pinpointing the houses of worship.
To prepare for the daylong bus tour, Bruce and I took the telephone directory records and headed out to find the long lost synagogues. We ended up as far south as 42nd St. and Grand Ave., where today we find the Greater Faith Temple, which was once called Congregation B’nai Amuna. Many of these old synagogues are now churches, but they all retain the original cornerstones with Hebrew dedications, as well as distinctively Jewish ornamental decorations on their facades. We were excited to bring our bus tour to these landmarks of Jewish homegrown history.
Our first stop was Greater New Vision Missionary Baptist Church on Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd, where Pastor Lucious Pope welcomed us. This building was the former home of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, which now sits proudly in Westwood on Wilshire Blvd. The church has retained the original designs in the sanctuary as well as the name in Hebrew on the front. As we peeked inside on a Sunday morning before regular services, the Greater New Vision congregants were warm and welcoming. Our visit to their church also gave us insight into the changing demographics of our city: the African American church now shares its space with a Spanish-speaking evangelical congregation. Continue reading
On a recent trip to visit my husband’s family in northwest Arkansas (my annual pilgrimage to the South, which a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey like me approaches with a healthy mix of excitement and Woody Allen-esque trepidation), I got a chance to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas. I’d visited the site a year ago, when only the shapes of the museum’s future buildings were visible from a viewing platform in the forest. Now, after five years of planning and construction, the new museum—which opened in November of last year—is revealing itself to be unique in design and mission, but similar to the Skirball in some very significant ways.
Legend (and New Yorker reporting) has it that Alice Walton, Walmart heiress and lifelong art collector who founded and funded the museum, came to the Skirball (incognito at first, or so another version of the story goes) a few years ago when considering architects for her new museum. She visited the Getty Center and other significant buildings designed by working architects in Los Angeles, but came away from L.A. feeling that she’d found her man in the Skirball’s Moshe Safdie. Something about Safdie’s emphasis on built environments that encourage gathering, his signature commingling of structure with the natural environment, and the light and openness of the Skirball’s spaces seemed to Ms. Walton the ideal architectural point of view to take to house her burgeoning collection of American art.