I have known Zev Yaroslavsky for more than 50 years since our days as fellow activists in the Soviet Jewry Movement. I was a bit player then in San Francisco, and he was a pioneering activist in Los Angeles and on college campuses across the nation.
Zev was impressive to me then and my respect for him has grown exponentially over the years. Among the finest public servants I have ever known, Zev is not only a pragmatic can-do politician but he bases everything he does in idealism and his vision of a better world. His record of accomplishment as a 20-year member of the Los Angeles City Council and then a 20-year veteran as a member of the powerful 5-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, is second to none. Zev reminds me of New York’s Robert Moses who Joseph Caro immortalized in his seminal work Power Broker.
I have watched Zev work but until I read this memoir, I had no idea of the scope of his activism and the impact he has had on so many areas – on behalf of the homeless, the environment, health care, transit, policing, first amendment rights, the economy, the 1984 Olympic Games, LA’s culture and the arts, and development of a city that never had a master plan.
Zev just published his memoirs: Zev’s Los Angeles – A Political Memoir From Boyle Heights to the Halls of Power with Josh Getlin – and it is a fabulous and exciting read. It’s actually a page-turner. I read this 350-page tome in about four days (the print is small, btw) because I couldn’t put it down. It’s that good – personal, political in the best sense of its meaning, and a veritable history of the city over the past 100 years.
Zev’s origins are in Boyle Heights east of downtown Los Angeles as the son of Socialist Zionist immigrants from Ukraine. He lost his mother as a boy and his father as a young man, but those early years, his parents, older sister (who made Aliyah to Israel) and his education at Fairfax High School and UCLA where he earned a master’s degree in history, set the stage for his life of service. Among the most ethical of politicians (he gives the title “politician” a good name), Zev was motivated by a simple and compelling desire to make the city and the world better.
He was among the youngest city councilman ever elected in the history of LA at 26 years-old in 1985. He learned the ropes in how to gain and use political power not only through the tough-knocks of experience but by virtue of his keen intellect and insatiable curiosity about all things. Zev identifies as an outsider despite being an institutional leader. Following the principle “all politics is local” (per Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill), Zev loved engaging with people no matter their station, from the homeless to the high-and-mighty, and he was fearless in engaging with his political opponents for the sake of the common good. Smart and passionate, Zev’s combination of virtues and qualities made for a natural leader. There was never a difficult challenge he refused to take on if he thought he could address it effectively.
Zev could have been the Mayor of Los Angeles after Tom Bradley stepped down from power, but he chose to run for the Board of Supervisors instead when Ed Edelman stepped down in 1994. He was easily elected. He may have held more power to do good in the Hall of Administration than had he led the city. LA Mayors share authority with the City Council and often are frustrated as they strive to accomplish what they hope to do. All Zev had to do on the Board of Supervisors that represented 40 million constituents (larger than most states) was to persuade a majority of the five supervisors to agree and then be certain that whatever decisions the Board took were followed up by competent administration.
Over the course of his 40-years of service, Zev strategically and irrepressibly checked off the list of challenges facing the city and county. In so many areas he led the way to positive change. He was so respected as a local leader that he was invited to join the National Democratic Institute that nurtures emerging democracies around the globe and monitors elections, conducts seminars on local governance, and helps build democratic institutions in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
Zev is also a life-long lover of classical music, and his engagement in reconstructing the famed Hollywood Bowl, helping to get Disney Hall built, and making LA a center for classical music and the arts is also part of his legacy.
The love of Zev’s life was his wife of more than 50 years, Barbara (née Edelston) who was a remarkable woman in her own right and to whom Zev dedicates this memoir. They adored each other, their children and grandchildren. He writes lovingly of her in the opening pages of the book. When she died tragically in December of 2018 from a mosquito bite that afflicted her with the West Nile Virus, Zev called me to ask if we could hold her funeral at Temple Israel of Hollywood. I said yes not only out of my respect and fondness for Barbara, but for Zev who I consider a cherished and life-long friend. It was the largest funeral I have ever officiated. 1100 mourners filled our sanctuary and was a who’s who in political, legal, cultural, and religious Los Angeles.
One more thing that I share with Zev – his earliest years as a left-wing Zionist and his life-long commitment to the people and State of Israel. Zev’s universalism and humanitarianism are rooted in his being a Jew and part of the peoplehood of Israel. He cares deeply about Jews as evidenced in his significant activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry so long ago, and for everyone with whom he engages regardless of ethnic, racial, national, and religious origins.
When talking with Zev in a crowded room, he never looked around to see who else was present. He was fully with whomever he was speaking. Zev is fundamentally a humble and modest man though he shares in this memoir his interaction with the rich and famous, from Neil Diamond to UCLA Coach John Wooden to Dodger Broadcaster Vin Scully and to President Bill Clinton, but while pinching himself and thinking, how did this Jewish boy from Boyle Heights end up here?
Zev’s intellect and curiosity are contagious, and his passion for everything decent and good is the mark of the man. Those virtues are revealed on every page of this memoir. I urge you to read it.