Barbara Myerhoff, Chronicler of Venice Jews, Dies

Barbara Myerhoff, an anthropologist who became nationally known for her study of impoverished Jews struggling to preserve their heritage in the foreign, unfriendly environment of Venice, Calif., died Sunday.

She was 48 and died in St. Joseph’s Medical Center after a months-long battle with cancer.

Myerhoff was best known for “Number Our Days,” a 1976 television documentary which later became a book and then was loosely adapted as a play at the Mark Taper Forum. The public television drama won an Academy Award in the documentary field.

The documentary on the Jews of Venice was an outgrowth of her five years of field work there which was published as a book in 1978.


A longtime professor of anthropology at USC, Myerhoff came to the attention of sociologists and anthropologists in 1974 with “Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians.” In that book she studied the myths and religions of those Indians.

But “Number Our Days,” she said later, was done “in my backyard.” She was living in Sherman Oaks and prowling the haunts of Venice’s aging Jews where she found a forgotten people struggling to maintain their ancient culture in a hip, often tawdry environment.

With Elinor Lenz she had recently completed “The Feminization of America,” a study of American women as they move from a domestic into a public world. That book is to be published in the fall, Lenz said.

Lynne Littman, the TV producer of “Number Our Days,” said Monday that she and Myerhoff had just finished filming a second documentary, this one financed by Norman Lear and scheduled for TV broadcast later this year.


“Originally it began as an overview of the Fairfax area (of Los Angeles) but when we found out Barbara had cancer we shifted the focus to one of orthodoxy coupled with Barbara’s life and eventual death,” Littman said.

A funeral service is scheduled today at 11 a.m. at Hillside Mortuary in Culver City. Myerhoff is survived by two sons, Matthew and Nicholas.