Part 1: ‘Magazine Means Store’ – the Story of WeHo’s Jews from the Former Soviet Union

Russian-speaking Jews socializing in West Hollywood’s Plummer Park (Photo by Steven Gold)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article, from a story written by Lynn Kronzek and commissioned by the City of West Hollywood, provides a look at the lives circa 2000 of Jews from the Soviet Union living in West Hollywood.

WEHOville recently came upon Kronzek’s story in researching another story on the death of Yefim Stolyarskiy, a prominent member of the city’s Russian-speaking Jewish community. While some things have changed (for example, in addition to Stolyarskiy’s death, Daphne Dennis has retired as WeHo’s social services manager) Kronzek’s story still offers an insightful perspective on a segment of West Hollywood’s population that often is overlooked and not understood.

This is the first in a series of five excepts from Kronzek’s work, published with her permission and illustrated with photographs taken in West Hollywood by Steven Gold, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University.

A drive to West Hollywood rewards me with a convenient parking space on Sierra Bonita and the finale of a symphony, recognizable even to these untrained ears as the work of a Russian composer. Yet, different folk rhythms simultaneously cause confusion and add intrigue. The radio host informs his audience that they have been listening to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony Español.

My destination is the Los Angeles Association of Russian Veterans of World War II, perhaps the sturdiest bridge between everyday life in the old Soviet Union and the new West Hollywood. My garbled, handwritten notes indicate the headquarters to be located around the corner from Santa Monica Boulevard, close to Plummer Park. When I step into a magazun to ask directions, one of the customers graciously escorts me to the end of the block and through an alleyway. The building appears on the left: an immaculately clean, freshly-painted, converted garage– with a red, white, and blue “Viva Gore 2000” sign.

West Hollywood is not a hub of Hispanic culture, nor as of yet are there many intersections between Latinos and Jews from the Former Soviet Union (JFSU).

My quintessential L.A. experience, like so many others, defies easy generalizations: What of the supposed affinity between JFSU and the Republican Party?

Yefim Stolyarskiy– Soviet military academy graduate, decorated officer, and president of both the L.A. and California veterans associations– explains why his organization has gone Democratic. Several years ago, a group of primarily Republican Congressional representatives moved to deny benefits to refugees who didn’t pass their citizenship tests in English. Mastery of a foreign language, and its excessive reliance on memorization, grows more difficult with age. The veterans, who currently range from 75 to 97, protested the Republican plan; in fact, this initial immersion in the American political system converted most of them to Democrats. They also formed close relationships with American veterans, who help teach them what they will need to know for citizenship.

Chabad, a Lubavicher Hasidic (Orthodox Jewish religious) group with its Russian outreach center on Santa Monica Boulevard, has a different approach. By scheduling classes and inviting U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents to officiate, the organization processes hundreds of people each year. Rabbi Naftali Estulin’s portrait gallery shows alumni; he points to a turbaned contingent, and explains that many are not Jewish.

From Russian to Soviet, and Other Definitions

This series of articles focuses on Jews from the Former Soviet Union (JFSU); the more casual– and politically incorrect– term is Russian Jews. Taking the broadest view, their ties to Los Angeles are historic. Russian Jews first arrived in significant numbers during what was known throughout the country as the Great Wave of Immigration (1880-1920). The 1910 census indicates 7,478 Angelenos of Russian stock; the figure ascended to 20,209 by 1920. Russians were L.A.’s sixth largest immigrant group at both counts.

In the past, researchers generally classified as Jews persons who cited Russian birth, parentage, or ancestry– on the ground that most Russian immigrants to the United States were, in fact, Jewish. This practice (at least when applied to L.A.) ignores groups like the Christian Molokans, also Russian, who numbered several thousand in the first few decades of the 20th century. It also belies other types of demographic diversity. Estimates also show 18,000-20,000 Jewish Angelenos in 1917. With impending restrictions in American immigration laws, the population more than doubled to 45,000 by 1923. Russians certainly accounted for a large subpopulation, as did Polish and Eastern European Jews overall. Furthermore, their official citizenship had changed with wars and expanding/contracting borders on the continent.

For these and other reasons, the early Russian Jews viewed themselves differently than did the U.S. census takers. Anti-Semitism and limited economic opportunity previously confined them to shtetlach, ghettos within the stifling Eastern European “Pale of Settlement.” Isolation had the effect, too, of binding communities and distinguishing their folk customs and Jewish ritual practices. It is not uncommon, even these days, to hear Jewish Americans refer to their Litvak (Lithuanian) or Galitzianer (Galician) roots. This very intimate connection, a sense of peoplehood, spawned Jewish institution-building here in L.A.; it also is a feeling initially foreign to the Jews of the FSU.

Of course, they readily identify with their city or republic of birth, but the ties are less apt to be romanticized. The Soviet Union held Jews as a separate ethnic (rather than religious) group, in a similar fashion to Uzbeks, Moldovans, Russians, and other people residing within its boundaries. Furthermore, the Soviets gulped the Baltic States and Central Asia after World War II and, to some extent, homogenized them. Religious and cultural practices were discouraged. At the same time, higher educational standards and physical mobility sometimes led citizens away from the provinces and their erstwhile shtetlach.

Those living in West Hollywood today don’t unite in landsmanschaften (clubs that maintained contact between people of the same town or region), as did their early 20th century predecessors. One local shop, the Odessa to Yerevan Bakery, beckons Ukrainian and Armenian customers, respectively, who have few historic ties, other than, perhaps, some trade and a love for wholesome breads and toothsome sweets.

Instead of reconstituting the communities of their homeland, the Jews from the FSU tend to coalesce along the lines of activities and interests—sometimes ephemeral as a chess game in Plummer Park. Thus, it is easy to grasp their diversity, but difficult to gain a sense of its composition. Anecdotal evidence hints that Ukrainian-born refugees might hold a slight edge. Whatever the case, West Hollywood is the regional center for Jews from the FSU. Even if the émigrés don’t live in the city itself, they gather here. As many as 100 Central Asian/Caucasian Jews (from Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and other nearby republics) congregate each week at Chabad for an early-morning Shabbat minyan, or prayer session.

Tomorrow:  The story behind the four-decade journey of members of West Hollywood’s Russian-speaking Jewish community.