Late last year, three artists and their volunteer helpers began sifting through thousands of old photos to choose the images for the Fairfax Community Mural--a pictorial history of the Jewish community in Los Angeles.
Now the painting has begun on the wall of a delicatessen parking lot, but a picture of the city's first synagogue has aroused some controversy.
Known as Congregation B'nai B'rith, the Gothic-style structure at 3rd Street and Broadway featured a stained-glass window with a five-pointed star instead of the six-pointed figure that is commonly accepted as a symbol of Judaism today.
"People look at it out of ignorance or whatever and think we made a mistake, but it's historically accurate," said Yael Schy-Magram, who helped coordinate the project for the Youth Department of the Jewish Federation Council.
The picture is based on a photograph in which the five-pointed star is clearly seen on the synagogue, which was built in 1873. There is also a contemporary oil painting that shows the same thing, but no explanation for the use of that motif survives.
"I have no idea what would have motivated them to do it," said Max Vorspan, vice president of the University of Judaism and author of "The History of the Jews of Los Angeles."
In any case, the six-pointed star--known as Magen David (literally, in Hebrew, the Shield of David)--did not become universally recognized as a Jewish symbol until the end of the 19th Century, Schy-Magram said. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica and other sources, the five-pointed star was occasionally used as a Jewish symbol but the six-pointed version was settled on when the Zionist movement was founded in the 1890s.
Adding Point Is Ruled Out
Some passers-by have suggested adding one more point to make the symbol look more familiar, but that option has been ruled out.
"It's really silly to change it," she said. "It would be like changing history. Like putting a mustache on Sandy Koufax because you don't like him clean-faced."
The one-time Dodger pitcher is also featured in the mural, which traces the Jewish community from its beginnings downtown through its move to Boyle Heights and finally to the Fairfax District.
In addition to chief artist Arthur Mortimer, the project involves artists Peri Fleischman and Stephen Anaya and more than 40 high school students and senior citizens.
Starting last November, the group visited libraries, museums and historical sites, settling on a scheme that features seven large background pictures and four to six smaller insets for each panel.
"They chose the pictures they liked best, subject to Arthur's approval, and he took them and arranged them so they look nice artistically, and that's what our pictures are," Schy-Magram said.
The subjects include early rabbis and businessmen, a Jewish police chief, the film industry, a garment workers' strike, a Navy man from World War II, children going to Hebrew school and roller-skaters outside the Bay Cities Synagogue in Venice.
The last panel, depicting Fairfax Avenue of today, shows people chatting on bus benches, shoppers picking over fruit, Orthodox men in traditional garb and members of other ethnic groups who live and work in the area.
One small portion will be left blank and filled in with a picture of the painters at work.
Once the project is complete, an explanatory brochure will be available at the site and at nearby stores.
Mortimer said a few of his volunteer assistants have shown real drawing skills, but the rest will be playing supporting roles now that the research phase is over and the actual paint is on the wall.
Art Is First Priority
"Our first priority is art, so we can't just turn people loose with brushes and say, 'OK, you do it'," he said.
One of the volunteers is Hannah Hamburger, who admits to being more than 70 years old. On a sunny day last week she was up on the scaffolding, daubing beige paint onto a portion of the wall featuring a peace march of the 1960s.
"This is creative," she said. "This keeps me going."
Donald Kavin, a recent graduate of Fairfax High School, said he has learned more from the mural project than he did in his art classes.
"Up to now I didn't feel like part of the community," he said. "Now I feel like I'm contributing something. I just wish people would stop asking about the star."