An old joke about Jewish identity describes the man who ventures into the Deep South in tum-of-the-century orthodox regalia: black beaver hat, black frock coat extending almost to the ankles, black trousers, black shoes and socks. He sports an enormous beard and curled forelocks. When the children in the street stare at him and begin to taunt him, he damands incredulously, “What’s the matter, haven’t you ever seen a Yankee?"
When I came to La Jolla 21 summers ago, 1 frequently had the impression that the natives had never encountered a “Yankee” like me. At the beach, I was known as. “that European woman," and when I inquired at the various markets for sour cream, I was told with asperity, “We don’t sell sour products here.”
At that time, I had to travel to the North Park Bakery for yurzeit candles (memorial candles for the dead, used on the Day of Atonement or to commemorate the exact date of death) and for kosher salt. Why do I use kosher salt, since I do not keep a kosher home? This coarse salt is simply the best thing to bring out flavor in tossed green salads as well as in general cooking. I learned to cook, not by pouring salt from a Morton’s box with a spigot, but by weighing salt in the palm of my hand after digging into a salt box. My salting style does not vary to this day, and whenever my salads receive compliments, I attribute the praise to the kosher salt.
Needless to say, in those days whenever I did my Jewish shopping, I stocked up on rye bread, bagels, and strudel, and marveled that anyone could eat packaged white bread without knowing the lam (flavor) of Jewish pumpernickle.
Two decades later, there is hardly a supermarket that does not stock these items, including matzos, kasha, and frozen prepared foods, including stuffed cabbage and blintzes. Kasha and borscht and stuffed cabbage are Russian as well as Jewish food—in Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago the hero returns home after a long stay at the front to be told by his wife that she has saved a treat for him, namely some kasha. Known also as groats, it is served like rice, either as an accompaniment to meat, or as a dish in itself. But kasha was difficult to come by outside of ethnic areas in large cities. Its availability at present, along with other products, is due to two factors: the mass media have popularized Jewish food, and the entire country has become aware of ethnic cookery. It is not simply that Jewish culture has pervaded San Diego, but that we have come to reassess and prize the ethnic—the same would be true for pizza, a national dish, or tacos, which can be found as far north as Vancouver.
Yiddish words like kvetch (complainer), schlepper (idiomatically, a loser who drags around), and chutzpah (aggressive nerve) have made their way into American argot, as well as shamus, a jail term for the screw or guard, which originally meant the clerk of the synagogue, or smack for drugs, which was the Yiddish word for sniffing. Irving Howe’s The World of Our Fathers is a national bestseller, though it deals with immigrants who settled in New York. In other words, the phenomenon of the popularization of Jewish culture and heritage in San Diego exists as a microcosm for its pervasiveness in the United States.
It would not be a faulty generalization to say that as a whole Jews are very food-oriented, and hence my guide to Jewish life begins with eppes essen –something to eat.
Bread and Bagels and Pastry: the best come from North Park Bakery at 2841 University Avenue. They distribute to many supermarkets, and their products are available at all Fed-Mart branches. The bread at Blumer’s, 5379 El Cajon Boulevard, looks good, but lacks the proverbial tarn. This applies especially to Blumer’s bagels, which seem like the perfect size for parties or brunches, but which have very little taste.
Bagel World, 6323 El Cajon Boulevard, sells its product throughout San Diego, and I especially like their onion bagels. Their pumpernickle bagels resemble chocolate donuts, but don’t have the deep flavor of true black bread. Specialty Breads, 1245 Market, puts out bagels and onion rolls that look like the real Levy but don’t taste it, and have preservatives added.
Delicatessens and Restaurants: I have not sampled every one of the delicatessens in San Diego, but the finest corned beef and pastrami sandwiches are still to be found at Blumer’s. Haiman’s, at 412 University, has excellent sandwiches as well as Danish pastries. Lindy’s North Park has good food to take out. I am not a partisan of either of the two Mavin’s (201 Mission Valley Road; 1222 Prospect, La Jolla). Their menus are authentic, but their execution and service are careless.
Kosher deli means not only that the meat has been slaughtered and authenticated by a rabbi as passing both ritualistic and high quality tests, but also that it is prepared to satisfy traditional taste. I have been outraged in many a so-called delicatessen where the corned beef proves corned, but without the seasoning and know-how that distinguishes kosher corned beef. The same applies to kosher frankfurter as compared to, say, an Oscar Meyer all-beef. To the discerning palate, the first tastes like beef, the second ersatz.
Lox, or smoked salmon, served with bagels and cream cheese costs approximately $9.00 a pound. It’s available at many non-kosher delicatessens, even at the G. and B. liquor store in La Jolla. Some of the best take-out kosher delicatessen products are found at Fed-Mart.
A kosher butcher shop exists at Eli Witt’s, 2936 Monroe. The meat, slaughtered and packed under rabbinical supervision in Los Angeles, gets shipped here.
Kosher catering, a. recent service, is performed by Ruth Ford, 442-5836.
Community Centers: Without a doubt, the Jewish Community Center, 4079 54th Street, remains the heart of all Jewish activities. Not only does it sponsor classes in art, music, athletics, and theater, but the United Federation Board, the United Jewish Appeal, and the newly founded College of Judaism, which offers classes in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Judaica, emanate from the Center. The Center divides itself equally between concerns of American Jewry and Israel, a dualistic emphasis found in most Jewish establishments throughout the U.S. Particularly since the wars in the Middle East, the survival of Israel as a state has become one of the foremost goals of American Jewry. In this matter, the Jewish Community Center of San Diego proves no exception. In addition, its facilities are open to everyone. You don’t have to be Jewish to exhibit art or participate in its athletic program.
The Jewish Community of La Jolla, 453-0178, has functioned as a social and cultural center for the past 13 years. Among its offerings are a Sunday school for children, lectures, book reviews, etc.
The La Jolla Yiddish Society is not a “center,” but rather a Yiddish language circle whose participants meet every six weeks to speak the ancient language. Started with a handful (you must pass a spoken language “test” to be admitted), it mushroomed until its membership had to be restricted. But its chairwoman will happily advise other aspiring Yiddish groups (459-7996).
Counseling and Social Welfare Services: Jewish Family Service at 3355 4th Avenue, staffed by psychiatric social workers, does family, marital, and personal counseling. It also makes referrals to other social welfare agencies in town. Unlike in some cities, no Jewish child adoption agency exists at present in San Diego. But a Geriatric Drop-In Center has a new location at 4002 32nd Street, and The Hebrew Home for the Aged, 4075 54th Street, performs exactly what its name implies.
Education: At the university level, both San Diego State and UCSD have programs in Judaic studies. A College of Judaism and Teacher’s Institute has been started at the Jewish Community Center, and a Hebrew Laboratory School at 4605 Alice, begun by Rabbi Penner, provides a day school that covers kindergarten through the second grade. All education dealing with preparation for bar mitzvas and bas mitzvas (confirmation for boys and girls at age 13) must be done through synagogue programs.
Camps: Many Jewish families send their children to Jewish camps, all of which are located in other parts of California but utilized by San Diego families. Each has a small but distinct ideological difference. Brandeis, in Simi Valley, started as a leadership training program for youth. Originally a Zionist camp (not related to Brandeis University) and oriented towards proselytizing for Israel, it no longer has Israel as its primary concern. All Jewish camps are pro-Israel, but the emphasis at Brandeis has shifted to American-Jewish leadership.
Hess Kramer, in Malibu, affiliated with the Jewish Community Center of Los Angeles, stays non-denominational within the Jewish community, appealing to the entire spectrum of Judaism, from orthodox to reformed.
Ramah, in Idlewild, continues to be operated by the United Synagogue of America, the parent body of the conservative movement.
Swig, in Los Gatos, represents the reformed denomination. But even at Swig, children are taught traditional prayers, and emphasis is placed on ritual.
Gift Shop: Source, at the Jewish Community Center, sells religious items used in Jewish ritual and secular items. Many products come from Israel, but Source also sells books, jewelry made by local nonsectarian artists, etc.
Newspaper: Southwest Jewish Press Heritage (583-3300) is published in English. Its central office is in Los Angeles, but the San Diego edition deals with local events as well as with news stories about Judaism in the United States and Israel.
Synagogues: In recent months, I have been asked whether any synagogue in San Diego duplicates the turn-of-the-century. Lower East Manhattan atmosphere found in the .film Hester Street. The answer— that there is not—applies to any other part of this country as well as to San Diego. An accurate depiction of the modern orthodox synagogue can be seen in the British film Sunday, Bloody Sunday. At the bar mitzva services in this movie, the women sit upstairs, segregated from the men. But at the orthodox temples in San Diego, the women and men are not separated.
Attendance at synagogues peaks with the High Holy Days, marking the onset of the Jewish New Year each autumn. The first celebration, Rosh Hashona, is followed about eight days later by the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur has traditionally been the most sacred of days for Jews (hence the sense of violation when the Israelis were attacked during the “Yom Kippur war”).
On Yom Kippur, traditional Jews fast, asking forgiveness for any acts of violation of the human or religious spirit. When the ram’s horn sounds at the sunset of Yom Kippur, the human slate has, metaphorically speaking, been wiped clean. Every Jewish adult and child has a fresh start for the new year. No past or future atonement burdens Jews at the onset of the year, bringing the intimation of renewed hope.
When I was a child, my family attended an orthodox synagogue not far from Hester Street. Small children were exempt from fasting on Yom Kippur, but in' a zealous mood I fasted at least half a day. Women and female children sat in the rear while the men dovined (prayed). Men wore hats rather than yarmulkas (black skull caps), women carried no purses or secular objects, and some women dressed completely in white. When the Torah (scroll containing scriptures) was carried through the congregation, females, with heads covered, had the privilege of kissing the Torah after the men had done so. This was, and is, done by placing one’s fingers to one’s lips and then to the Torah.
The synagogue of my childhood, the synagogue of my mind, was so dimly lit that we had to grope our way to the hard benches. The atmosphere appeared so reverential, with the voice of the cantor singing the Kol Nidre, that the secular world retreated. The high mournful voices of the male congregation appeared like the saddest and most beautiful collective chant in the world. However one may define the religious spirit, I found it in that badly ventilated stark room where men rocked back and forth and wept openly and did not leave that place from earliest morning until sundown. At sundown, when the ram’s horn was sounded, we all kissed and wished each other Happy New Year. Then the women raced home to place the New Year’s feast, after the fast, upon the table.
Without meaning to give offense to any denomination, I have found all Jewish services here, including the orthodox, much too secular. Whole families sit together, an improvement by any standard, let alone the feminist. But the synagogues are brightly lit, women show off their latest finery, and the spirit of the Old World, the intensity and fervor, has, after 75 American years, been vitiated.
The reformed Temple Beth Israel holds its services at the Civic Center. There are flowers on the stage, a women’s choir, and lights are never dimmed. The service is stately and dignified, but it’s extremely public. You don’t have the comfort of the dark to cry in; there’s no corner where you can escape and be alone with your prayers.
Last year I went as far as Vista, searching for “that old feeling.” The congregation was housed in a modest hall, but the fluorescent lights burned blue overhead. When I asked the shamus why we had to have the glaring lights, he replied that no system existed to lower them—it was either on or off.
One of the difficulties of commemorating the Jewish New Year is that most synagogues will admit members only. This presents problems to someone like myself who does not participate on a regular basis and belongs to no congregation. Yet, I have rarely missed Yom Kippur services, in memoriam to my dead parents and grandmother.
Usually at this time of the year I begin calling around to find where I can be admitted without membership. Often I am given a ticket by someone who cannot attend. Practical reasons, such as the press of people and the need for consistent funds, dictate rules about membership. But in my childhood, no one was denied admission for the High Holy Days, though we may not have set foot into the place before. We crammed in together, in the spirit of the occasion, some to lament, some to growl, all to pray. At times we could hardly breathe because of our numbers, but no one complained. No one stood at the entrance of the shule to collect tickets, because tickets were part of the secular realm. Those like myself, who in early years attended open synagogues, can duplicate such places only in memory.
For those with chassidic (mythical) fervor, Chabad House at 6115 Montezuma does provide the closest thing to old Jerusalem flavor. Last year I attended a concert there and saw men and small boys in traditional long frock coats, with their sidelocks unshorn. The men on stage, looking as if they had stepped out of Chagall paintings, danced and sang and played music. At the end of the evening, many men from the audience joined those on the stage in ritualistic dance in a circle. On the floor below the stage, the women danced together.
I have not covered every synagogue in this guide, since they are listed in most directories. However, Conservative Congregation Beth-El (452-1734) has been started in La Jolla, with building still in progress. For Jewish students away from home, Hillel at the San Diego State campus, and the Jewish Student Union at UCSD, can direct young people to religious services.
I would like to thank Tevya Lewis, Irmitchka Gusfield, and Zelda Goodman for their help, and since this guide will appear during the period of High Holy Days, Happy 5737 to all!