Valerie Lapin Ganley was my first friend at Hollywood High School.
The class we shared was ridiculous. Our final exam consisted of filling in the blanks, completing our school fight song, which made absolutely no sense. I cringed every time our teacher referred to the boys as “cats” and the girls as “chicks”. Everyone had a friend, except me. I was the new girl.
My first impression of Hollywood High was loud. From every classroom, we heard the traffic from Sunset Boulevard and Highland Avenue. Three-thousand students shouted in 40 languages. Gangs were constantly posturing and erupting in brawls. Loud. Always loud.
Val and I spoke for the first time on day six. She ducked in as the bell rang, and took the only empty seat in the classroom, to my left. We were assigned a worksheet to complete in pairs. To my amazement, she turned to me. Her mind was quick, and she was wickedly funny. She was lovely, with wild dark hair, but showed absolutely no interest in her own beauty. Most excellent: her voice was soft. In the midst of Hollywood High’s loudness, Val spoke quietly, and that more than anything else drew me to her.
At fifteen years old, “family history” was the dinner we ate last weekend, so it would be decades before I learned about Val’s Grandpa David, a deeply influential figure in her life. Her grandfather spent his childhood in Belarus (between Russia and Poland), where brutal religious persecution was the norm. As a child, David worked to smuggle Jews out. At age 13, he said goodbye to his parents, and never saw them again. He crossed the Atlantic, joined his brothers and sisters in New York, married, and gave birth to Ruth, Val’s mother. He served his country as a U.S. Army medic on the front lines in Europe during World War I. He survived the war, and was an extra in the film All Quiet On The Western Front, wearing his uniform. He enrolled in Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, and eventually moved to Los Angeles, California. Val grew up hearing about “his hard work, his drive to build a better life for his family.”
As an adult, Val carried her grandfather’s legacy as she worked to build a better life for many different people, in many different arenas. She marched with Cesar Chavez. She was a Kennedy delegate at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. She campaigned for domestic partners benefits in San Francisco, long before same-sex marriage was legalized.
Val turned to documentary films. She produced, directed and wrote. She became a voice for immigrants, for the underserved, for racial equality, for the economically oppressed. Her film Shalom Ireland is one of her favorites, because “Irish” and “Jewish” are not often paired together, and in Val’s words, the film “turns stereotypes on their heads.”
Her current project circles back to her grandfather. She has just released The Long Ride, a documentary about the birth of the new Civil Rights Movement for immigrant workers. This film combines several subjects close to her heart – unions, civil rights, activism and the immigrant experience. She explained to me: “When I look into the faces of immigrants, I see Grandpa David. I look at immigrants I’ve known for decades, and see their children graduating from college and embarking on promising careers. I am personally enriched by knowing them and learning about their cultures, and I know our country has benefited as well.”
Val still speaks quietly. She’s still razor-sharp intelligent and wickedly funny. But today, she adds to the mix a fierce commitment to raising social awareness, to using film as a voice for those without a voice.
To contact Val or to learn more about her films, visit her website.
5 responses to “My First Friend At Hollywood High”
Thank you for your blog post and bringing back memories of our days at Hollywood High. As you mentioned, just as I’ve been thinking a lot about my Grandpa David as I make The Long Ride, Shalom Ireland was also inspired by my family immigration story. I made the film when I learned that my great-grandparents were the first Jews married in Waterford, Ireland. Who knew there were Jews in Ireland and that they would play a significant role in the fight for freedom in Ireland, as well as the establishment of the State of Israel? One of the great pleasures of making Shalom Ireland was meeting Joe Morrison. Joe was a docent at the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin. His mother was a Lapin too. We could never figure out exactly how we may have been related, but we decided to consider ourselves cousins anyway. After all, how many Irish Jews with the same surname could there be? We must be related. At the peak of Ireland’s Jewish population there were only just over 5,000. Joe took us on a tour of the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin which is included in the opening sequence of the film. You can view the clip at http://www.ShalomIreland.com. You’ll see by Joe’s curly eyebrows that we must be related!
Valerie Lapin Ganley
Thank you for the comment, Val! What a marvelous piece of family history! You’re the only person I know with Irish/Jewish heritage.
It must be that I have the luck of the Jewish!
What a great story of an extraordinary woman, her admirable body of work in film and activism, and the roots of your long friendship.
Valerie Lapin Ganley and I became fast friends in the late 80s through unionism and political campaigns. (Like Hollywood High, these arenas also have fight songs, no small amount of posturing, and are very LOUD!) Val’s work in media, especially film, has been a respected resource for multiple communities in struggles for economic justice and social parity. In her stories, she captures ties among differing peoples and cultures in the same way she’s found common connection with people in her Life. From what you report, this apparently is a habit from way, way back.
I’m enthusiastic about the completion of The Long Ride and expect it will be informative and inspirational in the way we know Val’s efforts to be. Thanks for your blog and terrific insight.
Thank you, Alexis, for your kind words. How lucky we both have been, to know Val!