The “Kosher Burrito”
L.A.’s First Elected Jewish Mayor
Eric Garcetti was sworn in as mayor of Los Angeles last July—making him the first Jew elected to head the city. The former Rhodes Scholar and jazz pianist is no stranger to L.A. politics: He served on City Council for 12 years, and his father, Gil Garcetti, was the district attorney during the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial. Garcetti, who has jokingly called himself a “kosher burrito” because of his mixed heritage, talks to Moment about greening Los Angeles, performing gay marriages in City Hall and how his Jewish grandfather inspired his politics.
How did you get the nickname the “kosher burrito?”
I’m an average Angeleno in the sense that here we’re a swirl of different cultures and geographical currents. I’m half-Mexican and half-Jewish with an Italian last name. An inside joke is that I’m a mestizo doble, “double-mixed.” My mother is Jewish, and I’ve always considered myself Jewish. I wasn’t raised in a particularly religious family, but one with a strong Jewish identity. I went to Jewish camp, and have been involved in Jewish philanthropy, which is a strong part of my ethical framework.
What does the fact that three of our biggest cities are now led by Jewish mayors mean for American Jewry?
It’s a proud moment that the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Jewish immigrants are now chief executives of three of the largest cities of this country. Jews tend to live more in urban areas, and New York, Chicago and L.A. have always had strong Jewish populations. L.A. had never elected a Jewish mayor before, but it’s notable that we had Bernard Cohn, a Jewish mayor who was appointed in the 1800s. There was also a Jewish member of the city council around the same time, and one of the first founders of the Chamber of Commerce was Jewish.So Jews in L.A. have been an important part of the civic fabric for a century and a half.
Have Jewish values influenced any of your policies?
Certainly, the decision to make my life about social justice and improving the world around me comes from Judaism. How can I not be involved in issues of immigration reform, when it’s an important part of my own story and my family’s story? How can I not care about things like sweatshops, when my grandfather was a tailor who started a clothing company in Los Angeles and was very proud that it was a union shop?
My grandfather was very politically active. After he had a successful clothing company, he was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s tailor. But he also stood up against the Vietnam War when Johnson was president. He took out a full-page ad in The New York Times criticizing him, knowing that he would lose an important client. So for me, everything stems from the work of my family and their values, that you stand up for what you believe in, and know where you come from.
California is now at the forefront of gay rights. Do you support gay marriage?
I’ve been supporting equality my entire life. It’s something I feel very deeply about—it’s one of the most important civil rights issues today. I was proud to perform the first same-sex wedding in City Hall in 2008 for two women who met in my office. I performed about 18 weddings that summer and fought hard for equality—not just marriage equality, but across the board for LGBT communities.
L.A. is notorious for its smog and huge appetite for water—how do you plan to address these and other environmental issues?
Whether it’s air, water, energy, recycling or the way we get around in the car capital of the country, I want to make sustainability a value that permeates everything we do. I’m appointing a Chief Sustainability Officer for the first time in the City of Los Angeles, and this person will have authority across all departments. In terms of specific goals, I want L.A. to be one of the first cities to completely get off of coal. I want to expand the amount of green space we have, to rethink our relationship to water and to try to get as close to becoming a zero-waste city as we can. We already have the highest recycling rate of big cities in America at 32 percent, but we can go further.
Do you have a message for American Jews?
This is a great moment for American Judaism. It’s being re-thought and re-imagined, and our political role should also be re-thought and re-imagined. There are certain traditional issues Jews have been active in, such as hunger and support for Israel. But I think it’s time for Jews to take on a broader social-economic justice agenda and create a cultural and ethical relevance to the United States. I’m happy to be a small part of that and help to inspire other Jews to be agents of change here in America.
To read an expanded interview with Eric Garcetti, go to momentmag.com.