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 bright as all get out, 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.
Novels by Amy Kaufman Burk
Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable
Caroline Black, 15 years old, leaves her college prep academy for the local public high school, which opens her world. Written in reaction to witnessing gay students bullied in high school.
Caroline Black, a rookie psychology intern, goes through one year of training, working with her first patient – a young man who is stormy, seductive, complex and troubled. Written in support of healthy sex and sexuality, in support of lesbian and gay parents, and as a voice against the stigma of therapy.