Mayor Eric Garcetti talks multicultural background and Jewish upbringing

PODCAST PLAYBACK — Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti discussed his multicultural background and Jewish upbringing on the Jay’s 4 Questions podcast with Jay Sanderson, CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles:

“For me, it was just who I was. I was Jewish, I was Latino, I was an Angeleno, I was an American. I think identity is always these rippling concentric circles that are a part of who you are, but it meant, you know, going over to Grandma Juanita and Grandpa Sal’s (Salvador) house for menudo, and it would be spending time — my Jewish grandparents were divorced — at either Grandma Julia’s house or Grandpa Harry when I was young, and lox and bagels. You know, all the sense that both things were normal and very much who I am, and it’s allowed me to be a border-crosser, and I say that provocatively considering all the talk about borders. I think we as Jews know a lot about crossing borders, but I’ve never been scared about boundaries or borders. I’ve kind of loved travel, I’ve loved living in other places, I’ve loved navigating culture in a way that when I became mayor of this town, I think I made it very easy to look at a town as diverse as ours and feel always at home.”

Sanderson: Did the worlds ever meet? You know, I have this vision of a Passover Seder at your house, where, you know, this multicultural menu and everything else. Did it meet here or was it separate?

Garcetti: “Absolutely. The holidays, we’d have Mexican dishes and Jewish dishes together. The grandparents would be together, it did. But they also kind of coexisted in their own lanes. They just existed as two things that were very central to who I am and who I was, and there didn’t seem to be a contradiction. It’s funny, you know, both sides of the family grew up in Boyle Heights which when my grandparents grew up there was both very Jewish and very Mexican. People in Los Angeles, many growing up today don’t realize what a Jewish shtetl it was in Boyle Heights. But when I look at it, even though my parents didn’t meet there, they kind of grew up on opposite sides of the track in LA — my dad in South LA, my mom in West LA — their parents must have been on the same streets passing each other a generation before, and my Mexican grandfather used to say he got into trouble and hang out with Jews named Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, you know, he was kind of hanging out with Jewish gangsters. And so, when his son was marrying a Jewish daughter, I think he was very excited because he was very comfortable in that culture too. There wasn’t as much excitement vice versa, but I think my dad overcame.”

Sanderson: And did you have in your life what I call now a Jewish ‘aha moment’ where your identity as a Jew came to the forefront?

Garcetti: “Not one single singular moment, but a number of them. The first was I went to Jewish camp between elementary school and junior high school – Gindling Hilltop Camp and the Wilshire Boulevard Temple camps… I come from a very secular Jewish background. My grandparents weren’t even very devout. They had a strong sense of being Jewish, but they did they didn’t practice, and my mom too. So I came in lip-synching songs at the Hilltop and left leading services. It was the first exposure to the practice of the religious side of Judaism. The second was probably when I was 16 and went to Ethiopia and worked between the two airlifts with Ethiopian Jews, and really had a strong sense of how maternal this religion in this culture was, even in its different branches. And then, probably throughout high school, passing as most people thought I was just an Italian, I would hear anti-Semitic jokes that people thought they could tell me in private; I’d hear anti-Mexican jokes and beaner jokes that people would talk about, and after a couple of years, I would say, ‘Oh, I’m Jewish’ or Latino. But it allowed me again to see both sides of what people sometimes think of Jews in a negative way, but to also understand and embrace it as an insider, as well.”

Sanderson: I think that people that don’t realize how much time you spend as a foster parent, as a parent to Maya. So I’m wondering, now as a parent who has parented many children — and it’s it’s extraordinary what you and your wife have done — how do you translate your multicultural world and your Jewish world as a parent?

Garcetti: “It’s pretty easy. I mean, you have to be conscious about it. You know things like PJ Library, I signed Maya up for so she can get a good Jewish education through the books that come each month. I take her to Shul when I can, and invite her to ask questions. I think at the same time, it’s also really important to impart the values, not just the practice. So, from the earliest age, she’s had a Tzedakah box, she’s taking that money pretty religiously and giving it out. She cares a lot about homelessness like her daddy does, and she gives that to organizations. We’ve tried to expose her to the world as it is and to not sugarcoat it, which I think the temptation for parent system shield their children’s eyes from pain or suffering or challenges. I think you can’t do it too deeply, but wherever we can I want her to have an honest appraisal of this world and the way she can fix it.”

Sanderson: So you’re the Jewish mayor and people call me the mayor of the Jews, and your job like my job – even more so – is a 24/7 job. How does that feel? You’re young and you really have sacrificed a lot for the city of Los Angeles and for your career. It must be rough at times not to have the same kind of private life you might have had if you were a pianist or in musical theater.

Garcetti: “You’re exactly right. You probably know as well, I always joke it’s rabbis, mayors, and journalists get to see everybody, but we’re always on call, kind of like a rabbi too, and we always have to deal with people’s conflicts and pain. We have to be there for their triumphs, we have to be there for their tragedies, and it is a huge sacrifice… For me, it’s been a huge sacrifice. You don’t evolve a lot individually during your time, certainly being mayor – I’m too busy serving to spend a lot of time reflecting, reading and evolving, but that’s okay because I spent a lot of my life before coming to public service being able to have that sort of education, that sort of exposure, and I do try to just as often as I can and as difficult as it is to stop everything to come in and have my rabbi, maybe, talk to me about Talmud – we kind of discussed the state of the world – have some practice, have some prayer, have some moments where I can punctuate what would otherwise be a giant run-on sentence.”

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