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Workmen's Circle Mural: A More Beautiful and Better World in South Robertson

The entire history of liberal/progressive/activist/left wing American Jewish life can be seen, in a microcosm, at the corner of Robertson and Horner in an area known as South Robertson. Inside the building is the Los Angeles headquarters of the Workmen's Circle, a nationwide social justice brotherhood dating back to the turn of the 19th century. On the outside of the building, a mural celebrating culture and justice features the face of Clara Lemlich, placed alongside M.L.K. and Cesar Chavez.

A Yiddish saying, A Shenere un Besere Velt, meaning a more beautiful and better world, titles and captions the painting on the outer wall. Housed inside is the legacy of immigrants, bricklayers, and tailors from Eastern Europe, who pooled resources and created community networks for career advice and health care. In fact, before the City of Hope Cancer Research Center in Duarte, CA was an actual hospital, it was a support group of East Coast lefties, called the Jewish Consumptive Relief Association, who moved to Southern California where the dry air was better for their tuberculosis.

From the 1900s until the 1950s, nation-wide local branches of the Workmen's Circle, or Arbiter's Ring in Yiddish, numbered in the hundreds. The organization was founded by "recently made citizens and people in the process of becoming citizens who wanted the community of a shtetl, without the authoritarian rule of the Rebbe," explains Eric Gordon, director of the Los Angeles Workmen's Circle branch, from 1996-2011.

Gordon's prior work history included a spell with the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), whose mission is to "memorialize through public art." When Gordon took over at the Workmen's Circle he immediately suggested a mural be painted on the outside of the building, "because my eye had been trained to look out for great walls." A committee looked at entries from around the country, whittled the artists down to three, and then chose Eliseo Art Silva, based on a scale drawing that incorporated packets of reading material about the aforementioned liberal/progressive/activist/left wing of American Jewish life.

In addition to his portraiture skills, Silva also offered to "give rise to the voices from within the community center and project them into the neighborhood as a site of public memory." It was exactly what they were looking for. Gordon was also reviving the tradition of the Vegvayzer, a spiritual advisor trained and certified to preside over life ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals, without all the Lord Almighty stuff. Socialists aren't big on the Almighty stuff.

The outside of the building, as painted by Eliseo Art Silva, depicts images of socialist political candidates like Eugene Debs and Meyer London gleaming in the late morning South Robertson sunshine. Centered below a menorah, a broken shackle,and a dove, champions of the working folk like Forward magazine, Boruch Charney Vladek and Rose Schneiderman are memorialized. Ok, those aren't household names, even in Jewish Los Angeles, but they are the lineage and legacy of families who helped bring the union wage to America.

For the artist who painted them, "surfacing suppressed images and narratives" fuel his work. In addition to South Robertson, Eliseo Art Silva's murals are visible in other parts of Los Angeles, such as Mid City, South Central, and Historic Filipinotown.

Eliseo revealed his own Filipino heritage with the sun he was allowed to paint above the Statue of Liberty. Although the exact subject matter in the mural was determined by group decision, Eric Gordon suggests that Eliseo's outsider perspective contributed the largest face in the painting, a child swinging a Purim gragger.Eric recalls comprehending that a young face counter balanced all the old fogeys in their Who's Who of Jewish Progressives, but he had to ask Eliseo. Why did Purim, a minor post-biblical Jewish holiday, figure so prominently?

The artist explained that of all the holidays he read about in the packets of information, Purim was the one that most commemorated the fight against intolerance. It is the story of a Queen who divulges to her King, if you kill those people, you must kill me too, fore I am one of them. Not only did that resonate with him as an artist and a person, it reflected the mission of the Workmen's Circle to stand up against oppression.  

It was in that spirit back in '96, that Eric Gordon, his committee, and Eliseo Art Silva approached a brick wall. Their intention, as the artists puts it, was to create a "second classroom." They succeeded.Still free and legal, their lesson reaches pedestrians and motorists everyday.

Photos: Yosuke Kitazawa

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