In Search of Fairfax

Fairfax High School

Fairfax High School was founded in 1924 as a public school that specialized in agricultural and mechanical education for students living in what was then a largely rural part of Los Angeles. As the neighborhood gradually became more residential and commercial, Fairfax High transformed into a more academically focused school. Through the mid-1960s, Fairfax High was consistently one of the top-rated high schools in the city of Los Angeles, with about 90% of its graduates attending college. The school's esteemed alumnus include parodist Allan Sherman, politician Jack Kemp, television writer Larry Gelbart, and musician Herb Alpert.

To a certain extent, Fairfax High during the postwar years, was the quintessential "all-american" high school, reminiscent of the social dynamics portrayed in the film American Graffiti. Indeed, socializing at Fairfax High was very much built around athletics, cruising culture, and the seemingly all-important social club. As one alumni recalls, "everybody who was in the social swim was in a club. There were very few independents. There was a hierarchy. There were the clubs that had the more attractive and affluent, popular kids, and the ones who were less so." Club life also played a crucial role in facilitating social interactions between male and female students. 

Yet, the school, especially from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, also exuded an identifiable and distinct Jewish ambience. Fairfax High was the first public school in Los Angeles to offer a modern Hebrew language course; many of the teachers were Jewish leftists; perhaps most importantly, 90% to 95% of the student body was Jewish (The non-Jewish students who attended Fairfax during this period tended to be white Christians). According to one alumnus, “Jews at Fairfax High ran things. It’s not like there was an establishment they were locked out of. They were the establishment. They were confident.”

Some, however, found this experience overwhelming. For Lewis Erenberg, who was part of a lower middle class Jewish family that moved from the racially diverse neighborhood of Boyle Heights to the Fairfax area, there was something discomforting about attending such an ethnically homogenous school. As Erenberg explained in his memoir, "at Hollenbeck [in Boyle Heights], I had accustomed myself to being part of a minority but at Fairfax I was a member of the majority group just by living in the neighborhood....I found it strange to live in an area that was so heavily populated by one group."  Similarly, many non-Jewish students, as one such 1955 report from the Los Angeles Jewish Community Council's Community Relations Committee reveals, complained of discrimination and exclusion from social activities and received permits from the district to attend schools elsewhere. Ultimately, the outward migration of non-Jews from Fairfax High School reinforced the perception of the school that the school did not adequately accommodate its non-Jewish students.

Sources: Lewis Erenberg, "Boyle Heights Boy: A Memoir of Growing Up in LA," Unpublished; Bonnie J Morris, The High School Scene in the Fifties: Voices from West L.A. (Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 1997); Lynn C Kronzek and Southern California Jewish Historical Society, Fairfax: A Home, a Community, a Way of Life (Los Angeles: Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, 1990); Garnt Lee, “Fairfax--It’s Still Where the Heart Is,” Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1975, "Report of Committee on Community Integration," January 6, 1955, Committee on Community Integration, 1955 folder, box 5, The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles’ Community Relations Committee Collection IV, Urban Archives Center, Oviatt Libary, California State University, Northridge.  

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