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Vision of a Better and More Beautiful World Takes Shape

Culture: Mural project that began as a tribute to the Jewish community has taken on global significance.

January 04, 1999|CAITLIN LIU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For several months, mail carrier Troy Westfield watched the once-blank wall on the Horner Street side of the Workmen's Circle building slowly come alive before him.

First appeared the blob-like shapes and figures sketched in black. Then children, middle-aged folks and a few elderly women and men painted in the lines with vibrant blues, pinks and greens. Hazy silhouettes sharpened into famous Yiddish writers. Swaths of yellow crystallized into a giant menorah. Faces of famous civil rights leaders--including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez--became recognizable.

"It's a beautiful mural. It's actually the favorite part of my route," Westfield said. "It's nice how they put all these different cultures and nationalities in the mural."

The 20-foot-by-70-foot mural in the Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles began bursting into form and color over the summer and is now complete. Titled "A Shenere un Besere Velt," Yiddish for "Toward a Better and More Beautiful World," it is at once a tribute to Jewish culture and a reminder of an often painful past. But most of all, its creator and sponsors say, it depicts the struggle for justice, equality and human rights, by Jews and non-Jews alike, around the world.

"The mural is a reflection of the community. Not just the people inside the building, but also the people outside the building," said Eliseo Art Silva, the artist commissioned by the Workmen's Circle, a progressive Jewish cultural and social services organization.

In multicultural Los Angeles, that means a mural that tried to extend far beyond the Ashkenazi, or Central and Eastern European Jewish, roots of the Workmen's Circle.

The mural's original plans called for almost all Jewish symbols and Yiddish cultural heroes, such as authors Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for literature, and I.L. Peretz, sometimes called the father of modern Yiddish literature. After deliberations within the Workmen's Circle, input from community members and last-minute suggestions by volunteer painters, an effort was made to include other racial and Jewish ethnic communities.

Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who saved the lives of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, is now featured alongside King. Also added was the poet Emma Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew, or Jew of Spanish or Portuguese origin, whose stanzas displayed inside the Statue of Liberty--"Give me your tired, your poor"--have become iconic for the early immigrant experience in America.

Underneath depictions of the Holocaust and a Passover feast is the stylized sun of the Philippine national flag, symbolizing people's struggle for freedom and independence worldwide. There are phrases and quotes in English, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew.

The mural was the brainchild of Eric Gordon, director of the Workmen's Circle. A 2 1/2-year fund-raising campaign that included a silent art auction, a raffle and private donations raised more than $15,000 for the mural. A nationwide contest was held to select a muralist. Out of more than 40 entrants, Silva, a 26-year-old Filipino American artist, emerged as the winner.

Reactions to the mural have been mostly positive, community leaders say. "The area around the Workmen's Circle center is a very heavily Jewish neighborhood," said Jon Friedman, a board member of the South Robertson Neighborhoods Council. "There are Jewish themes throughout [the mural]. It's a major aesthetic contribution to the community."

Dotting the image-laden artwork are also symbols of the history of the Workmen's Circle, such as Jewish garment workers fighting for their rights, and the City of Hope, a cancer treatment and research center in Duarte, whose founders included Workmen's Circle members.

"One or two people have said . . . that it looks like graffiti," Gordon said, but the comments have generally been positive.

Ida Bernstein, 91, was one of the 30 or so volunteers who helped Silva paint the mural. Whenever she passes by, she stops to gaze at its many scenes. "It reminds me of my heritage. Sometimes it makes me feel good. Sometimes it makes me feel very sad," she said.

In 1919, her parents, her brother, two sisters and numerous other relatives were killed in Ukraine during one of the region's many pogroms against Jews, she said. The mural will help make sure that the struggle of Jews will never be forgotten.

"Nowadays, people don't learn too much history," she said. "The mural tells the story of the past and what we should do in the present."

Kevin Simon, an attorney whose office window faces the mural, said he often looks out at it when he works late into the night. "It reminds me of hope, and that there are good people out there--people who are fighting and risking their lives for the betterment of mankind."

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