Jews, G-strings & free speech, oh my

Venice Beach BoardwalkThe New York Times headed out West the other day for a very interesting look at a clash between traditional faith and modern sensibilities, in a "Los Angeles Journal" entry that ran under the lilting headline, "At the Intersection of Synagogue and Boardwalk, a Feud." It's a great read, with only one real flaw that I could find -- a flaw that may have something to do with the fact that this story was covered by a newspaper on the East Coast during an age of tight budgets and high travel costs. More on that in a moment.

The story focuses on life in the Pacific Jewish Center ("Welcome to the Shul on the Beach!), a small Orthodox synagogue that is located on the famous boardwalk at Venice Beach. This is not, needless to say, your normal place to try to hang up a mile or two of fishing line to create an "eruv" -- the symbolic, ritual zone that allows Orthodox believers to perform certain tasks on the Sabbath.

The synagogue also has an interesting next-door neighbor, a shop called "Unruly" that, as the Times gently puts it, is "a purveyor of T-shirts, bathing suits and undergarments." That leads us to the key section of this interesting tale from the, well, nearly Naked Public Square.

Worshipers say workers in the shop blast music on Saturday mornings, overwhelming the religious service held with the door open to the boardwalk. When the worshipers ask for the music to be lowered for an hour, they are met with hostility, they say, some of it smacking of anti-Semitism. Once in a while, the police have been called.

Further, there have been occasions when mannequins dressed in G-strings and other clothes that are decidedly not part of the customary wardrobe of Orthodox Jews have been placed on the synagogue's property line -- as a matter of provocation, some members suggest.

"We haven't been judgmental about their merchandise," said Judd Magilnick, a member. "It is a question of common courtesy. Even the more Bohemian, alternative-lifestyle types on the boardwalk are aware of our requests and wait until afternoon on Saturdays before they strike up the band. We have friendly cooperation from everyone else, even people you think would be accountable to no one."

Meanwhile, Ruly Papadopulos, whose wife owns Unruly, insists that the harassment is the other way around. The Unruly owners utterly reject all claims that they have done anything that suggests anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, now you have protesters marching around outside the Unruly shop -- under the "Sexetera" neon sign -- in response to a verbal clash between the Papadopulos and a non-religious Jewish science writer, a classic he said vs. he said situation that is related to the synagogue, but not really. This, in turn, evolved into a First Amendment case involving the rights of the demonstrators, etc. etc.

venice beach synAll of this complicated material is handled quite well, including the brief mention that a very controversial Orthodox Jew -- film critic and talk-radio star Michael Medved -- was once a leader in this Venice Beach congregation. The editors even gave reporter Jennifer Steinhauer enough room for some historical background on why the synagogue in located where it is. When it comes to politics and media skills, this is not your normal Orthodox synagogue on a beach.

So what is the problem? For me, it is a mater of reporting. Could the Times have allowed Steinhauer to have more time to spend a few Sabbaths with the congregation -- perhaps before making contact with the Unruly crowd -- to confirm the reports about the loud music? Does anyone have any photos of those inappropriately located mannequins in G-strings? What are the facts here?

In other words, I would like to know more about who is telling the truth.

Reporters do this kind of work all the time, although, in this case, we may need to ask about the financial health of the Times L.A. bureau. It may be harder to do this kind of expensive, multi-day background research on the West Coast if the reporter is from the East Coast. It's easier to get some of the details right when you have a chance to see and hear them for yourself.

But it's a good story. Check it out.

Photo: For an even better look at the synagogue and the shop, see this Flickr pic.

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