05/09/2013 03:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Autry Museum Opens Jews in Los Angeles Exhibit

Yesterday, when I left the opening of the dramatic Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic exhibit at the Autry National Museum (4700 Western Heritage Way, LA 90027 (323-667-2000) across from the L.A. Zoo in Griffith Park, take 134 Freeway east to Autry-Zoo Exit), I headed for Langer's Delicatessen (7th St. and Alvarado) for a pastrami sandwich. As I jocularly told the serious 'mounters' of this stunning exhibit, they had done a smashing job in preparing it over eight years, but were missing a vital ingredient of the Jewish experience in our fair city... nothing about Jewish food. No Langers, Nate 'n Al, Factor's, Brent's... no pastrami, corned beef, brisket, chopped liver, stuffed cabbage.

UCLA Professor Stephan Aron, executive director for the museum, sheepishly told me that no food was allowed in the galleries but they would have several discussions in coming weeks about that subject. Apart from that slight but significant omission, this is a fascinating show well worth visiting even if you are not Jewish. And if you are, it is a vital show to bring family and friends to observe the heritage of our religion in its 160-year development of the city. It augments the usual sweeping description of our pueblo beginnings, through orange groves and oil wells, Hollywood, to the inimitable California lifestyle. It demonstrates how Jews were key players in the transformation of a frontier town into today's dynamic metropolis.

We see Grauman's Chinese Theatre (now owned by the Chinese), City of Hope, Breed Street Shule, Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Even mention of the Halimis, 1981 escapees of the Iranian revolution, leading an exodus of such families to L.A. A Russian menorah, a bilingual Yiddish-English synagogue sign, and the Sephardic Book of Minutes illustrates the diversifying population. I was stunned to see Andy Warhol's portrait of a woman I knew, Marcia Weisman, a founder of MOCA.

W. Richard J. West, Jr. is the new President/CEO of the Autry... and a native Cheyenne.

I happen to love the Autry, which is celebrating its silver 25th anniversary this year. Have been coming here for years, bringing out-of-town friends to show them some unknown aspects of L.A. Remember that wonderful Blacks in the Old West show some years ago, and the one about movies? A whole show devoted to Western guns, saloons, and such. I even knew cowboy actor George Montgomery, in whose namesake gallery the Jewish show is appearing. Their exhibition, Art of the West, opening June 15, will showcase the extraordinary depth of their Western art collection. (Coincidentally, I had spent that morning at the Trust Company of the West to view their California Plein Air/Western Paintings, which will be the subject of another Huffington shortly.) At the Autry I met the new president and CEO, Richard West Jr., former director of the National Museum of the American Indian, who is a native Cheyenne. Nice guy, dapper but unpretentious.

Statue of Gene Autry at the entrance. (No, he was not Jewish.)

Anti-war poster from a pice of art by Lorraine Schneider. Photo by Susan Einstein.

This new Jewish exhibit, here until January 5, explores how a growing Jewish community settled, prospered and helped shape the economy, politics, and culture of our city. It depicts the story of neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and Fairfax, people like Billy Wilder, Max Factor, my friend Herb Alpert (Fairfax High), Sandy Koufax (here is a signed baseball by him) and Frank Gehry... and linchpin industries like our movies and suburban land development.

We see how Jews helped change the region by recruiting the Brooklyn Dodgers, inventing the Barbie doll, and joining other Angelenos in electing the city's first Afro-American mayor, Tom Bradley. Jewish activism was acknowledged by Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke at Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1965; his sermon is available at a listening station. We even established the world's first gay and lesbian synagogue. Yes, this exhibition demonstrates the Jewish zeal for righteous causes.

Barbie doll, by Ruth Handler of Mattel, circa 1960.

It features more than 150 stories, documentaries, objects and images of family, community and society. With the discovery of gold in 1848, a surge of Jewish merchants arrived to supply gold miners heading north. The city even had a Jewish chief of police in 1870. Today's Wilshire Blvd. Temple was built by L.A.'s first Jewish congregation in 1862. Max Fctor's cosmetic empire began as a service for film community. We learn of the 19th century merchant Newmark family, who came here with four marriageable daughters and helped further the growth of the city.

The rise of Hollywood created a new Jewish elite whose conservative politics clashed with the liberal perspectives of a recently-arrived Jewish middle-class. As I was the producer of Billy Wilder's last film, Buddy, Buddy, I was intrigued by seeing two of Billy's Oscars ("Lost Weekend," "Sunset Boulevard") displayed in a case, and asked how they had gotten them. "We begged the family and they finally agreed," I was told.

I was struck by seeing a model of Gehry's Walt Disney Hall, and remarked that most people did not know that Frank was Jewish. There is Herb Alpert's A&M gold record in 1962 for "The Lonely Bull," There was the small piece of art by Lorraine Schneider which became the slogan of an entire generation: War is not healthy for children and other living things. The original Barbie doll created by Ruth and Elliot Handler is here; they were friends of my brother, Stan, who invented G.I. Joe, one of the world's most iconic toys.

The guest curator of the exhibit, Karen Wilson, who escorted me through the show, said: "Whether seeking economic mobility, religious freedom, or simply a chance to survive, Jewish engagement with the possibilities of Los Angeles has epitomized the particular Western ethos of unfettered reinvention." I made note of a lecture on Saturday, June 1st, by Ann Kirschner about her book, Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp, the Jewish woman from New York who became the common-law wife of Sheriff Wyatt Earp, a subject which interests me. My old buddy, Fred Weintraub, will be talking about his new book, Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me, on Sunday, June 30.

I was delighted to se that they have finally fixed the menu of the renovated café, a subject which I exhorted them about endlessly... now they serve fry bread tacos, buffalo burgers, red corn chicken tortilla soup. And did you know that the Autry Farmers Market is held here every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Remember that the museum is closed on Mondays. Do you wonder why I love this museum? Now if I could get a Langer's pastrami sandwich hereabouts, it would be perfect.

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