A new lease on life for a vandalized Jewish mural

In West Los Angeles, a small community comes together to paint an image of hope and peace.

The restored mural on the side of the building belonging to the Southern California Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, located in Los Angeles (photo credit: KELLY HARTOG)
The restored mural on the side of the building belonging to the Southern California Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, located in Los Angeles
(photo credit: KELLY HARTOG)
One of the more concentrated Jewish enclaves in West Los Angeles is known as the Pico-Robertson area, so dubbed because it intersects these two main boulevards in the city.
Wrapped around the corner of Robertson and a small side street, one block from Pico, is a tiny, nondescript building, save for its massive 21 x 6-meter wall mural with the Yiddish title “A shenere un besere velt” – a more beautiful and better world.
The mural and the building belong to the Southern California Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle. The building was established in Los Angeles in 1908, but Eastern European Jewish immigrants founded the organization in 1900 – an extension of their unshakable commitment to promoting secular Jewish economic and social justice.
The organization continues to this day, offering everything from Yiddish-language classes, music, art and culture, and incorporating secular Jewish values in all its programs based on the Eastern European heritage of American Jews.
The mural, painted by Filipino immigrant Eliseo Art Silva in 1998, is a testament writ large to everything The Workmen’s Circle stands for, melding Jewish and American images of social justice, including a rendering of the Deuteronomy quote, “Justice, justice shall you pursue”; and portraits of everyone from Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem to Chicano labor organizer Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and American Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, who wrote the “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty.
On February 6, residents awoke to see the mural vandalized with spray paint declaring: “FREE PALESTINE!!!” At some point later on that day, someone else turned the word FREE into a four-letter expletive beginning with the letter “F.”
The Los Angeles Police Department declared both acts hate crimes, and the investigation is still ongoing. The City of Los Angeles footed the bill for the removal of the graffiti (not a common undertaking by the city), and also paid to have the restored mural covered in an anti-graffiti coating.
The Workmen’s Circle worked quickly to have the mural restored, contacting Silva, who less than a month later returned to update the work. The restoration took just over a week, and on June 29 the Workmen’s Circle finally held the mural’s official rededication ceremony, with Silva as the honored guest.
Dozens of local Jewish organizations and synagogues along with secular and Muslim organizations signed a “peace statement” as part of the rededication ceremony, which read in part: “These expressions of extremism on both sides of the Israel/Palestine issue do not serve the cause of justice or peace in the Middle East. Rather, they prove once again that hatred is the enemy of decent humanity and its art.
We hope that this expression of community support will encourage all people of goodwill to deal with the issues in a rational, peaceful and constructive manner.”
While Workmen’s Circle members appreciated the official statement, their numbers are small, with members tending to the older side; their funds are even less significant, and their frustration is palpable.
At the rededication ceremony, fewer than 20 people showed up. Member Hershl Hartman, who is in charge of publicity and outreach for the Workmen’s Circle, told The Jerusalem Post that funding to restore the mural came from small community contributions and “our dwindling reserves.” The organization does rent out its space to help defray costs, but Hartman said that it “had no big givers, no big fancy names in the Jewish community who came forward with checkbooks open to restore the mural.”
Shaking his head, Hartman added, “Had the desecration occurred on a synagogue, it would have been front-page news – not just in the Jewish media, but in all media.”
In addressing the small but dedicated audience, Hartman said the rededication was a blessing – an opportunity to recite the Sheheheyanu prayer. “It’s a prayer of celebration, a blessing that we have lived to see this day, and our celebration is entirely justified.”
However, he added that celebration isn’t enough. Funds are still required to help protect the mural from future acts of vandalism; the aim is to eventually install motion detector lights and closed-circuit video cameras. “If you are happy and proud of the restoration, we need a 21st-century expression of that feeling,” Hartman said, before passing around a basket urging attendees to deposit whatever cash they could into it.
While everyone condemned the vandalism, Silva told the attendees that as a result of the incident, the newly restored mural was now so much more powerful.
“We all know the mural was the recent target of a hate crime,” he said. “Thoughtless and hurtful as it was, public art, in its most effective form, invites the first step towards compassionate interaction.”
Now, he said, having the opportunity to redo the mural makes it “living, [something] that can speak to the public and be relevant for generations to come… by responding to hate and ignorance with love, peace and compassion through art.”
Silva told the Post he had heard about the incident from a friend who contacted him on Facebook. He said he was surprised the mural had survived 16 years unscathed, especially as it was highly visible, in a well-trafficked area.
“Honestly, I know murals will get tagged,” he said. “Sometimes I look for the opportunity to engage people through dialogue following these sorts of incidents. While of course I didn’t want this to happen, I think this was an opportunity.”
Silva was a wet-behind-the-ears non-Jewish muralist, who at 24 had only done one other major project, when he won an international competition beating more experienced artists for the project in 1998.
He swayed the judges with his design, which he said came from reading both The Diary of Anne Frank and an essay by Edgar Bronfman titled “To be Jewish is to ask questions.”
Part of the essay he quoted at the rededication ceremony read: “We should continue to follow Moses’s example and question the status quo, fight for causes that lessen human suffering, and expand freedom. It is a joyous enterprise even – or especially – when it is difficult.”
Following on that theme from 16 years ago, as part of the restoration effort, a new image was added to the mural.
A small corner that once simply portrayed a flock of doves in varying colors symbolizing the Workmen’s Circle mantra of a “beautiful, better world,” was given a new lease on life. This time around, Silva painted a tree over the doves and the word “Peace” in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
“This new design seems to be a perfect fit for a section of the mural that represents harmony with the world,” Silva said. “The legacy of art is to instill imagination and shape the world, and the [biblical] text ‘Justice, justice, shall you pursue,’ guided the restoration efforts.”
“I’m very much driven by social justice, suppressed history and images,” Silva said. “I wanted to bring out what had been suppressed to show how that can inspire the neighborhood.”
His viewpoint dovetails with the ethos of the Workmen’s Circle, or as Silva puts it, “I call it weaving history and heritage.”