Most Angelenos wouldn't associate Jews with spray paint and wheat-paste, but what about murals? Twenty years ago, before the city began a war on street art and pushed murals and graffiti underground, targeting artists with lawsuits and jail time, the city's diverse communities embraced a flourishing mural culture, often under the influence of current UCLA professor Judith Baca and her organization SPARC (Social Political Arts Resource Center).
As an undergrad at Colorado State, Janna Fisher became interested in the black and Chicano mural movements, which originated in 1970s Chicago, but when researching topics to focus on for her master's thesis, she was shocked and pleased to discover that Jews had created street art of their own.
“I was like, you're kidding me. No way!” she recalled. “You usually think of [murals] as from less privileged communities.”
This past Sunday, Fisher, 26, clad in bold geometric red jewelry and a yellow tweed dress, shared her expertise with forty curious young Jews on the Los Angeles Jewish Murals Tour, an event organized by BINA, a Woodland Hills-based group that encourages intellectual engagement and community among Jewish and Israeli professionals aged 25-45.
Street art expert (and LA Weekly sex blog contributor) Daniel Rolnik, who came along on the tour, says he believes that “murals” are an older, more conventional form of street art than today's more subversive and attention-seeking pieces. “People doing murals are very educated. They're not going to rob you,” he says, perhaps referring to some aspects of graffiti being associated with gangs. “They're not coming from a culture of chaos. Street art comes from a thuggish culture.”
And apparently the culture he describes is not very Jew-friendly. “If you're running with a bunch of black or Latino dudes, most of them are Christian or anti-religious,” Rolnik says. Today, Rolnik says, the few Jewish street artists he knows hide their heritage and avoid Jewish imagery, for fear that their playful style would indicate they were mocking Judaism in some way.
The four murals Fisher chose to show off, however, were clearly intended to celebrate and pay respect. The tour began in what Fisher termed “the heart of Orthodoxville.” Across the street from a Chabad house on Robertson, just south of Pico, lies the Workmen's Circle mural, commissioned by the labor organization's former director Eric Gordon, a former SPARC employee who served as publicity or project manager on a number of LA's Jewish murals. In sneakers, a tan bucket hat and khakis that unzip to become shorts, Gordon himself came out on Sunday to reminisce about the heydey of Jewish murals.
Painted over the course of four months in 1998 by Filipino artist Eliseo Silva, the mural is a smorgasbord of the Jewish, leftist experience, depicting proletariat heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and the anarchist Emma Goldman alongside the Jews exiting Egypt, a Klezmer band, a Yiddish newspaper announcing the creation of the state of Israel, a child celebrating Purim and Jewish sweatshop workers, among many other images.
After looking at Silva's original sketches, Gordon tells us he asked Silva to remove a yarmulke from a figure's head and change the boy blowing the shofar to a girl, so that Orthodox girls walking by might be inspired. Workmen's Circle and BINA are both technically secular organizations, and the tour group assembled reflects how contemporary Judaism blurs the line between religion, ethnicity and culture. Gordon points out a verse of Deuteronomy written in Hebrew and commands: “Please, everyone read together!”
Silence. Wrong crowd.
Like most of the people in her audience, Fisher doesn't belong to a synagogue. “I consider myself very Jewish, just the way I talk and the way I look, everything about me,” she says. Her grandfather switched from Orthodox to Reform Judaism because the Reform temple was the only one that had air conditioning, she explains. “I feel like people who are Jewish get me better, but I am not religious at all.”
Soon we file onto a coach bus to head to our second stop: Canter's Deli on Fairfax. No time to stop for pastrami on rye, so everyone gets a bottle of water and her choice of kosher snack, including those neon orange, peanut-butter-filled cheese crackers, which evoke memories of Jewish summer camp and day-school field trips all around. Most of the people on the tour are female, and conversation tends towards the usual topics: food, bars, Jewish geography and boys.
“He used to be so sweet and menschy, and then he totally changed. He let LA get to him,” one girl sighs.
The black and white mural in the parking lot at Canter's, Fisher tells us, reflects actual photographs donated to SPARC by the local Jewish community in 1985. Highlights include an homage to the first Jews in L.A., who formed the Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1841; a group from 1914 dressed as Native Americans, commemorating the many Jews who donned blackface and redface in early Hollywood film; and a pro-Israel rally at the Hollywood Bowl during the Six-Day War in 1967. Asked about the significance of a certain boy being bar mitzvahed, Fisher responds, “I don't know. Someone's grandson needed to be on the wall.”
Next we walk a few blocks up Fairfax to the National Council for Jewish Women to see a mural that celebrates a diverse group of female leaders, including quite a few goyim. In a scene vaguely reminiscent of Judy Chicago's work, such luminaries as Senator Barbara Boxer, Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchu, feminist author Betty Friedan and former Burmese President Aung San Suu Kyi converse over the signature challah, wine and candles of a Jewish Shabbat dinner. Many people pose for iPhone photos, inserting themselves into the multigenerational, international mix.
Finally, we head to the boardwalk in Venice for the last mural of the day, which covers the front and side of the Israel Levin Senior Center of Jewish Family Service. Artist Christina Schlesigner, one of the founders of SPARC, imbued the work with its surroundings, including a rollerblader, a local cat and the nearby Shul on the Beach. She even allowed a homeless man named Dougo to contribute a flying angel. Most prominent, though, is her homage to Jewish artist Marc Chagall, whose iconic fiddler has been transported from his snowy, dark roof to a joyful beachside, another immigrant having achieved the American dream.
Back on the bus, a girl who had emailed her grandparents to let them know she was going on the tour finds that she has a response waiting in her inbox:
“Congratulations! Now we know you will marry a Jew. We are very proud of you and your Jewish murals. Love, Nana and Papa.”