Making Judaism radiate with color
Hillel Smith believes art has the power to transform Judaism, and he hopes his latest creation — a 25-foot-tall mural in Pico-Robertson featuring text from ha-Motzi — can prove it.
“I mostly connect to the sense of tradition and heritage,” he said. “I think that comes through in the work I do and utilization of brachot (blessings). I’m updating it. I’m starting with this very firm foundation and building from there.”
The Los Angeles-based artist recently completed a new mural on the back wall facing the parking lot of Bibi’s Bakery and Café, on Pico Boulevard between Crest Drive and Livonia Avenue. The vibrant piece depicts Hebrew text accompanied by some wheat sheafs that also are symbolic representations of challah.
Smith, 31, said he chose to paint the Hebrew letters because he’s always “coming up with a new way to test the boundaries of visual Judaica and contemporary Jewish design. I’m trying to make something that’s bright, bold and engaging, and has, at its core, real Jewish content.”
American Jewish University’s Institute for Jewish Creativity commissioned Smith’s mural through its WORD: Artist Grant, the Bruce Geller Memorial prize, that grants $500 to $2,000 to L.A. artists producing works inspired by Jewish text. Smith received $1,500.
The Bibi’s piece, finished Sept. 2, isn’t Smith’s first Jewish mural in Southern California. In 2013, he made a spray-painted mural on a handball court at Camp Ramah in California, located in Ojai. In Hebrew, it says, “U-k’ne lecha haver,” which means “acquire for yourself a friend,” and it contains an image of an outstretched hand.
At the Orthodox synagogue Westwood Kehilla on Santa Monica Boulevard, he created a mural last year called “Simchat Torah,” which means “the joy of Torah.” It depicts men, women and children dancing around with both a Sephardic and Ashkenazi Torah.
And last year, Smith worked with Tel Aviv-based artist Itamar Paloge on a mural for the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center. It is of a giant orange-and-blue Hebrew letter alef. Asylum Arts and the NextGen Engagement Initiative of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles funded the project.
Smith grew up in Pico-Robertson, attending Gindi Maimonides Academy and Shalhevet High School, along with B’nai David-Judea Congregation. When he was a child, he said he noticed that there wasn’t much diversity in the Jewish art he saw.
“One thing that’s always bothered me is that a lot of Jewish art is just of Hassidim on bicycles and really lovely watercolors of Jerusalem,” he said. “That’s kind of it. It blew my mind when I discovered the Jewish artists from earlier in the 20th century. They were at the forefront of their own artistic movements and made work in Hebrew.”
After graduating from Shalhevet, Smith studied art at the University of Pennsylvania. He became interested in Hebrew typography and creating colorful illustrations, paintings and installations.
Over the years, his work has taken him to Jerusalem — home to two of his murals — as well as Venice, Italy, where he had the opportunity to make three images for the new, illustrated Venice Haggadah. The book is to be released in 2017.
Smith also has a blog (hillelsmith.tumblr.com) featuring something called “Parsha Posters,” which visually explores learnings from the weekly Torah portions. They are concert-style posters that feature “the crux of the story and a typographic illustration based off it,” he said. For example, for Parashat Re’eh, he made interpretive illustrations of the beasts Jews are allowed to eat, which include an ox, sheep, goat and antelope. The poster is called, “What’s for dinner.”
In all of Smith’s work, he uses vivid colors that jump off the page — or wall.
Filling a Gallery With Faith
As you approach the Barbara Mendes Gallery on South Robertson Boulevard, you know you’re in for an experience. The brightly colored, psychedelic exterior of the little gallery in the SoRo neighborhood doesn’t cry out Jewish art, and neither does the gallery’s proprietor at first glance. Barbara Mendes looks every bit the ex-hippie, from her tie-dyed clothes to her funky glasses, but when she opens her mouth and starts chattering about kashrut and the Tehillim, you realize that you’re speaking to a woman who’s been on a journey to finding her very Jewish self and her Jewish art.
“My life is a thread of miracles,” Mendes said, smiling broadly. “I was always an artist … by the time I got to kindergarten, I was, like, take me to the art corner.” Her first miracle, she said, was that her parents recognized her talent and enrolled her in art schools, where she thrived. Although her parents were Jewish, they didn’t give her much of a Jewish education, and religion wasn’t stressed in her household.
After graduating from high school, Mendes embarked on a career as an independent comic-book artist under the nom de plume Willy Mendes. Her comics, now included in numerous anthologies, show the groundwork of the style, with its intricate details, psychedelic motifs and bright colors that now mark her paintings.
“What’s interesting is, searching for spirituality, look how mystic this is,” Mendes said, pointing to one of her early comics, “but shame on me … Hindu!”
So how did Mendes move from a self-described spiritual seeker who leaned toward Buddhism and embraced hippie culture to become a practicing Orthodox Jew? According to Mendes, it started with a wall. “I was painting a mural on Fairfax, and a guy said, ‘Excuse me to stop you, but I want you to paint my synagogue.’”
Mendes was intrigued. She’d never painted a synagogue, never really done much in the way of Jewish art, but she figured that because she was Jewish, she’d accept. When Mendes found out the synagogue she’d be painting was the Pinto Torah Center — a Sephardic congregation dedicated to outreach and Torah study in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood — she knew that a strange force was at work. “The Mendeses and Pintos are like this,” said Mendes, weaving her hands together to show the closeness of two of the most prominent Sephardic families in the Americas.
After getting reacquainted with her Judaism, Mendes, who’d had two children with her first husband before divorcing, met her second husband and started going to yeshiva on her own four nights a week. “I became religious late in life, at age 45,” said Mendes, now in her 60s.
“Once I began learning and once I attended a year of the Torah cycle in the synagogue, I did a Bereshit mural to celebrate.” That mural started Mendes on a path that took her through painting out Shemot, and now to Vayikra, a mural-sized oil painting that serves as a centerpiece in her gallery’s current exhibition, “Jewish Art in Elul and the New Year.”
Mendes’ Vayikra mural is stunning in its size and detail. Stretching 16 feet wide, it illustrates pictorially every passage of the Torah portion. Everything from the laws of kashrut to the rules about whom the High Priest can marry is sketched out in intricate vignettes. The painting took nearly three years to complete, Mendes said.
Several other artists join Mendes in the exhibition. Sarah Devora Podolski created two variations on the Star of David. Rae Antonoff shows off some very impressive micrography, creating scenes featuring biblical women drawn by writing words from their stories in tiny Hebrew. Rae Shagalov’s work is mainly calligraphy, much of it drawn from inspirational teachings from different rabbis. Aharon Aba ben Avraham’s work draws heavily from rabbinic tales. And Freda Nessim has some clever takes on God.
Most interesting, other than Mendes’ work, is that of Yorum Partush. One piece, a sculptural wall-hanging dedicated to Partush’s deceased brother, includes a tallit and more than two dozen real shofars. Partush’s other piece, which references the Holocaust, includes tefillin boxes, barbed wire and working lights, weaving them into an installation that evokes the trains that were used to transport Jews to concentration camps.
“Jewish art is not like contemporary art,” Mendes said. “Contemporary art is saying, ‘These are my deepest feelings; I hope you’re interested enough to want to have them in your house.’… We’re offering interpretations of the religion that we share a love for.”
Mendes is proud that the majority of artists in this show are women. “Judaism is the royal road,” she said. “However, 5,000 years ago there was a different perspective of women, and I do not submit to that view of women.
“As a woman-run gallery, you’d better believe I give a voice to women,” Mendes said. “I’m also interested in being a role model to young women because I’m deeply disturbed by the larger culture,” she said, referring to the world outside her Orthodox community.
“I’m a fan of pop music. Some of these songs I just love, and I belt them out when they come on the radio. Love ’em! ‘Starships!’ ” said Mendes, referring to the hit song by Nicki Minaj.
“But, oh my God, when I saw that woman performing on the video, I was horrified, because this is burlesque. … It’s fine, but not for my granddaughter.”
Mendes hopes that her current exhibition portrays a much more positive image. “I wanted to start the holiday season going and involve the whole Jewish community in ‘Jewish Art in Elul,’ ” she said, smiling. “Since each Jewish artist is giving a visual expression to how they feel about Judaism … maybe it will inspire the viewer to see that their own take on Judaism and the religious process is also valid.”
“Jewish Art in Elul and the New Year” continues at the Barbara Mendes Gallery, 2701 S. Robertson Blvd., through Oct. 12 For hours and other information call (310) 558-3215 or (323) 533-6021.
Picture looks bleak for mural adorning former JCC
The mural was meant to be a collaboration: A public arts agency led the bid for its creation, the surrounding community approved its design and Chicago artist John Pitman Weber stayed in the homes of local residents while he and a team of volunteers painted it during the summer of 1993.
But the sprawling artwork adorning the former site of the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center (VCJCC) in Sherman Oaks may soon be painted over by the building’s new tenants, who say its content conflicts with their mission.
Depicting the epic struggle of slaves marching toward freedom memorialized in the Passover haggadah, the boldly hued mural that has brightened Burbank Boulevard for the past 15 years could be whitewashed as soon as October.
“It’s a really beautiful mural,” said Aaron Paley, president and co-founder of Los Angeles-based Community Arts Resources (CAR), who grew up attending classes and programs at VCJCC. “It has become a landmark in that neighborhood. It would be a shame to lose it.”
VCJCC left its home of almost 50 years in early July for new quarters in Van Nuys, when the old site was purchased by The Help Group, a nonprofit learning center for children with special needs. Officials with The Help Group on July 16 sent Weber the 90-day notice required by law before they can legally remove the mural from the property.
“Unfortunately, the mural is not consistent with our mission and our plans for the building,” spokesperson John Farrimond said in a written statement. “And as such, we have notified the artist that these plans do not include the use of his mural.”
The move has sparked outrage from VCJCC members and public arts advocates, who claim the artwork’s destruction would flout the spirit of unity in which it was created.
The mural’s imagery was meant to appeal not only to the institution but also to the larger community, said Lester Paley, longtime VCJCC board member and past president and also Aaron Paley’s father.
“It’s a nonsectarian mural on the theme of freedom,” said Lester Paley, 82, who first contacted Venice-based Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) about putting a mural on the building’s front wall in the early 1990s. “It has been seen by people all over Los Angeles. It doesn’t make any sense why children who are autistic or developmentally disabled shouldn’t be able to see it.”
Designed in 1992
“I think this mural is the most important thing I’ve done in my career,” said Weber, who has created public artworks in New York City, Chicago, London and other cities around the world. “It’s my best mural. It treats the scenes in a very universalizing way.”
SPARC chose Weber to head the project from among hundreds of applicants. The artist worked closely with VCJCC and had his designs vetted at public meetings, said Judith Baca, SPARC founder and artistic director. She said the site’s mural, which was paid for with public funds from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, is a prominent stop on citywide mural tours her organization runs.
“While it is a story that is specifically a Jewish story, it is also a universal story,” said Baca, a muralist whose works appear across Los Angeles. “I am a Latina; the story of immigration relates to all of us.”
VCJCC members began to fear for the mural’s preservation when the Jewish Community Centers Development Corp., which owned the Sherman Oaks property, sold the site to The Help Group in early July, CAR’s Paley said. The center’s last day in the building was July 6. Now, their almost 50-year legacy at the iconic structure is embodied in one 85-by-16-foot cement stucco wall.
“We’re very happy that the community center has found a new home,” Paley said. “But in the meantime, we’re still hoping to safeguard this community treasure.”
The Help Group, which has operated from the building next door for more than 40 years, bought the VCJCC property to expand its programs for autistic children, Farrimond said in a statement. He added in an e-mail that officials do not plan to raze the site but are “preparing it” for its new use.
“The Help Group appreciates the value of art in the community and recognizes the disappointment that the artist and some members of our community may be experiencing,” the statement said.
Farrimond added that The Help Group doesn’t wish to offend its longtime neighbors.
“There is no disrespect intended by our decision,” he said. “It is a decision that is based on our mission to serve a greater number of children affected by autism and their families.”
However, opponents say they don’t understand how a historical mural would hinder The Help Group’s services.
“I’m dumbfounded,” Weber said. “I think the mission of supporting and aiding autistic children is wonderful. But I don’t see how the mural can possibly be in contradiction with a desire to support and educate children.”
The artist said he has even offered to paint out the religious symbols officials might think are “specifically sectarian.”
As the clock ticks down on the artist’s 90-day notice, which ends on Oct. 18, Baca said SPARC is working with the Jewish community to find a way to either relocate or reproduce the mural.
One possibility involves using strong glues to lift the paint from its original surface and apply it to another. But Weber would need another 85-foot wall to put the sweeping mural back up. Baca said the process could mean spending $100,000 to move a piece that cost only $50,000 to create.
“We don’t have the funds to do that,” she said.
A more likely option might be taking photographs of the mural to make a digital printout that could be fitted to a smaller surface. Lester Paley said VCJCC’s new site on Friar Street has a 25-foot wall that might be a good candidate.
“If we transferred it over to that wall, it would be reduced to one-third of the original size,” Paley said. “It wouldn’t be as effective, but at least it would be seen by Victory Boulevard.”
For Weber, who has seen his public murals painted over before, the situation reflects larger issues of change and preservation.
“I don’t think it’s just a question of who lives next to Burbank Boulevard,” he said. “I think it’s part of a bigger question: What do we value from our past?”
Feminist ‘Scroll’ unfurled for Weisberg retrospective
Fifteen years since it was last exhibited at the Spertus Museum in Chicago, Ruth Weisberg’s “The Scroll,” a 94-foot mixed-media painting that encompasses the Jewish feminist narrative in mural form, will be displayed at the Skirball Cultural Center as part of a mid-career retrospective of her work titled “Ruth Weisberg: Unfurled,” opening Tuesday, May 8.
Done in five stages, “The Scroll” begins with creation and the birth of a child. A mother and baby are seen touching one another in an homage to Michelangelo’s “Sistine Chapel.” Weisberg, dean of the Roski School of Fine Arts at USC, continues her narrative with images of growth, rebirth through death; fittingly, the work is installed at the Skirball in a space that suggests the notion of the womb, curving from one corner of the girdle-shaped room to another.
Following the mural’s initial unfurling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, it was shown at the Skirball in the late 1980s, when the museum was based at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. Several years later it went to Chicago.
Curator Barbara Gilbert points out that this is the first time that “The Scroll” has been exhibited in such a setting. Previously, it was hung in a horizontal format. But that is not the only difference this time around. “Now we realize how significant this was to her career … Her other works have evolved from it,” Gilbert says.
In the show’s catalog, Matthew Baigell, emeritus professor of art history at Rutgers, writes, “No painting by a major artist concerned with a narrative sequence based on tanach or on aspects of Jewish secular history appeared until Weisberg’s ‘The Scroll.'” He adds, “It is in effect the first Jewish American mural cycle based on Jewish subject matter … [and] from a Jewish feminist point of view.”
Indeed, the tallit section features Israelite women like Miriam, as well as a scene from the bat mitzvah of Weisberg’s daughter, in which mother and child are joined on the bimah by Weisberg’s sister and Rabbi Laura Geller.
Merging the biblical and historic with the personal is a trademark of Weisberg, who seems to be suggesting that past and present are one and that we can see our own narratives in the ancient narratives of our forebears.
Weisberg uses chiaroscuro in much of her work, not only “The Scroll” but also some of her early intaglio prints, such as “Together Again,” a companion piece to “The Children,” in which she drew pictures of children based on a photograph she had recovered of unknown Eastern European Jewish kids from the first half of the past century. Although they wear the plain clothing we often associate with those headed for the concentration camps, the children hold hands, forging a stance of strength and optimism against an uncertain destiny.
“Doing children is not in in the art world,” Weisberg says with a chuckle. “People are afraid of sentiment. Sentimentality I want to avoid, but deep feelings are something I want to engage.”
She also engages memory and movement. In showing otherwise forgotten children next to trains, an evocation of the cattle cars, and ships like the St. Louis, Weisberg suggests that travel or dispersion has always been a part of the Jewish narrative and will always be a part of the future.
“The Scroll” shows this motion, beginning and ending with immigrants arriving, presumably in America. The middle section, known as revelation, derives from philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s theory of the three stages in life: creation, revelation and redemption.
Though one may be tempted to recall the Book of Revelation, which was likely written by a Jew — as Jonathan Kirsch points out in his new book, “A History of the End of the World” — there is nothing apocalyptic about this section of the painting. It features an inverted tree of life with the roots at the top, tying into the kabbalistic concept that we reach upward for a connection with God. Underneath the tree, a wedding takes place, another theme that runs throughout the painting, most notably in the painted Torah bindels inserted in several places.
If one wonders what prompted Weisberg to create such a massive mural, Gilbert notes that Weisberg studied Christian murals for several years in Italy. Weisberg concurs.
“I really was aware of what had been done in terms of large-scale works … within the Catholic canon,” she adds. “This had never been done before from a Jewish point of view.”
Given Weisberg’s background of studying Italian art that depicts the Christian Bible, it is not surprising that at this moment the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has hired her to create art that serves as a “conversation” with a painting by Guido Cagnacci, a Baroque Italian painter. The painting deals with the rebuke of Mary Magdalene. “Maybe, you shouldn’t mention that,” she jokes.
Ruth Weisberg will appear in conversation with Nancy Berman on Thursday, May 3 at the Skirball Cultural Center. The exhibit, “Ruth Weisberg: Unfurled” will open May 8.
A Boil is Lanced in Boyle Heights
The call came in last Wednesday from one J.R. Durrer, an Encino resident who works in Boyle Heights. Durrer had been heading west up Seventh Street, where he caught a red light at the corner of South Boyle. A glance at the mural on the wall surrounding the auto maintenance shop to his right put him face to face with what he characterized for The Journal as "an unflattering caricature of a Jewish landlord."
Pulling up to this work-in-progress the next morning, I came face to face with Durrer’s propensity for understatement.
He had described the mural as a kind of timeline chronicling the Hispanic presence in California. Sure enough, it begins with the bucolic image of a peasant tilling the fields. The scene quickly segues into a more urban setting, though, culminating with a Latino mother in her apartment kitchen who is feeding her baby in his high chair. Outside her door, alas, a pot-bellied, hook-nosed Chassidic Jew lifted straight out of Der Sturmer hammers on her door, demanding "la renta."
The mural had gone up in a part of town that, since its foundation in 1880 until its decline following World War II, had been renowned as a center of L.A. Jewry.
Carved up by the freeways, the neighborhood subsequently lost much of its cohesion, character and charm. Although reminders of better days still echo faintly from some of its still-distinctive architecture, Boyle Heights has largely been sucked up by the blobopolis now known as "East Los Angeles." Today, by virtue of the gangs and drug trade in its streets, Boyle Heights virtually epitomizes contemporary urban blight.
Despite this, however, many current and former residents have refused to write it off. This discordant mural, for instance, went up a scant mile and a half from a joint effort by the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, and the East Los Angeles Community Corporation to create a community center within a restored Breed Street Shul, whose circa-1923 structure at 247 N. Breed St. has endured as the area’s last surviving synagogue.
Nor is this the only such current attempt at revitalization. Along with the Jewish Historical Society, the International Institute of Los Angeles, Self-Help Graphics, Theodore Roosevelt High School, and an advisory group of scholars and community experts had also come together in an initiative called Neighborhood Sites and Insights. This is an attempt to foster community-based, interdisciplinary research, an exhibition, and public programs designed to promote intercultural collaborations and exchanges among organizations, scholars and community members.
I was still clicking away at the mural with my camera when a jeep pulled up. The window rolled down and the driver, a bright-eyed Anglo woman in her mid-to-late 30’s, peered out at me and smiled. "I assume," she said, "that your interest is in the right-hand side of the mural?"
Her name, I learned, was Dawn Pentecost. An artist and illustrator, she lived a few blocks west, where she manages a building of artists’ lofts. A week ago Friday, she recounted, she had been driving up the 5 when the mural, then still a sketch, caught her attention.
"I saw this figure bellowing, ‘La Renta!’ and then noticed he had a circle on his head," Pentecost said. "I grew up in Muskogee, Okla., but even I knew — or at least I thought I knew — that this was a yarmulke. I couldn’t believe it. The next day, I brought my sister to the site, and she not only validated what I thought I was seeing but pointed out that the figure had sidecurls as well."
That Monday, Pentecost called the office of Los Angeles County First District Supervisor Gloria Molina. The people who took her call, she said, were incredulous and suggested she speak with one of Molina’s field deputies, Rorie Nazareth, due in the next day. Meanwhile, they pointed Pentecost to 14th District Councilman Nick Pacheco, chairman of the Housing and Community Redevelopment Committee.
Pacheco’s office dispatched its own representative, Juan Rocha, to look at the mural. He called back to inform her that he could see "how this could be seen as offensive." Rocha said the wall was privately owned, however, and therefore was governed by a whole set of ordinances different from the ones applying to city property.
"Rocha told me he would send a building inspector to see if there might be a code violation that he could use to ‘coerce the owners into painting it out,’" Pentecost said.
Reached by The Journal, however, the inspector, Henry Ojeda, reported that he could find no obvious grounds for taking this route. "It’s not graffiti," he said, "so it’s up to the city — and not the county — to determine what kind of art can remain and what can’t." Rocha subsequently informed the city’s Cultural Affairs Office, which most people consulted believed most likely to have jurisdiction in this matter.
As Pentecost and I spoke, we were approached by a woman who identified herself as Rorie Nazareth. The three of us decided to call on the folks at the Llantera Soto Inc. auto-maintenance and tire shop at 976 S. Boyle, hoping they might help us track down the artists. Here, we made the acquaintance of Carole, a Latino woman who runs the business with her sister.
Carole had already spoken with building inspector Ojeda, and had concluded that the mural was problematic, insofar as it purportedly attacked someone’s religion. Carole said the artists were two Latinos in their late teens or early 20’s. They had approached her some weeks earlier, asking for permission to paint the wall. She said that she could see no reason not to comply — that is, as long she didn’t have to pay for the privilege.
Carole said she signed some forms and gave the young men some of her business cards, which the artists said they would present to the city. They did not leave her with a copy of these forms, she said, adding she did not have a card with the artists’ particulars. Indeed, she hadn’t seen them since, as they tended to show up early in the evening, after the shop had closed for the day. That is, until the neighborhood began experiencing a wet period.
"Look, I don’t want to offend anybody," she said. "If someone wants to come by with a roller and some paint, I’d be happy if they painted over it."
"I’ve got some rollers and some paint back at my building," Pentecost piped up. "If you like, I can come by with them and do it myself."
Later, over burgers at a nearby eatery owned by Czechoslovakian Jewish immigrants, I asked Pentecost how, as an artist and, presumably, someone dedicated to free expression, she could be so quick to white-out someone else’s work in progress, however objectionable. At the least, I suggested, doing so might render her vulnerable to some kind of legal action.
"Well, I’m not Jewish," she said. "My ancestors were Huguenots, persecuted Protestants who fled France for England during the Reformation. We all talk about tolerance. But as a human being, that doesn’t mean you have to accept everything and anything. I don’t think we have to accept expressions of anger and hate in our environment. We have to have standards.
"On the other hand," she added, "I’d rather use this incident to open up a dialogue with the artists and the community than give them a chance to say, ‘Aha, the Jewish people who control the media are hammering at us.’" She went on, "Look, I wouldn’t knock these guys’ artistic abilities. They’re pretty talented. But their conceptual abilities are clearly lacking. They may not even know precisely what they’re conveying. I’ve worked in companies where entire marketing departments have signed off on a poster, only to discover after it was printed and distributed that it was offensive, and indeed, actionable.
"And, as you can tell from some of the people living here who’ve been telling us they find the mural offensive, most people simply are not visually sophisticated. And because so few Jews still live here, they probably aren’t particularly educated about Jews, either. I’ll bet these guys are simply dredging up something from a lesson they may have had in school about how the Nazis persecuted Jews under their occupation."
These kids were playing with powerful, almost universal archetypes. But the components that constitute them are as specific and deliberate, it seemed to me, as prefabricated Lego blocks. There was stupidity here, to be sure. But there was also the kind of malice that, in different times and places, manifested itself in murder and mayhem.
So what, in fact, did the law say? And how did any existing legislation play out in Los Angeles, which, with over 2,000 outdoor murals, could claim to be (among so many other things) the mural capital of the world? How does society balance the rights of artists to self- expression against those of property owners, residents, and even casual passers-by? Did the city, or any other agency, actually authorize this thing? Or perhaps (shudder) even fund it?
According to a newsletter put out by the organization Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, a clutch of laws prevent the destruction of public works of "fine art," but the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act enacted by Congress affords property owners the right to alter or tear down the structure bearing a mural they had consented to.
Before they may do so, however, they must make a good-faith effort to contact the artists and give them 90 days to remove the mural, at the artists’ expense. If the mural can’t be removed without damage, however, or if the artists’ whereabouts are not known, the owners may tear it down without prior notification.
Any further consideration of this particular mural’s artistic merits could, however, be rendered moot if a city or agency with appropriate jurisdiction had either funded or otherwise authorized this effort. But making this determination, I learned from Councilman Joel Wachs’ office (which I contacted after Molina’s people confided that the city, and not the county, had jurisdiction in this matter), would be no mean feat.
In a town as spread-out and fragmented as Los Angeles, I was given to understand, any number of agencies — municipal or community-based — could have seen fit to green-light an undertaking of this kind. Recruiting young people to paint murals has long been a stratagem-of-choice for recruiting those at risk for gang involvement. Equally conceivable, however, was the prospect that this was a hit-and-run operation by a pair of freelance miscreants who deliberately may have misled the property owners into believing that the relevant authorities had sanctioned their efforts.
Hoping to narrow down the potential playing field, I called the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, ostensibly, the first place people turn to for permits to create murals either on public structures or on private ones in plain view of public thoroughfares. By the time I got through to someone authorized to speak to me, though, I learned that Wachs and Pacheco had already beaten paths to their door and were given to understand, as was I, that no record could be found in Cultural Affairs files either requesting permission or authorizing a mural at this location.
Next, I placed a call with the city’s Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), whose founder, Judith Francisca Baca, had personally overseen the creation of more than 400 murals citywide, including the Great Wall of Los Angeles. One of her people called back to inform me that this decidedly was not one of their efforts. Moreover, I was told that however vigorously SPARC might champion an artist’s freedom of expression, it would never countenance a mural as ostensibly hateful and racist as the one described.
Toward day’s end, meanwhile, I &’9;learned that Pentecost had been making headway of her own tracking down the parties responsible for the mural. A friend of hers with ties to the community’s muralist network told her he would probably be able to identify the culprits before evening. Driving by the mural late in the afternoon, meanwhile, Pentecost reported that the Chassidic figure had mysteriously disappeared.
"Perhaps he or one of the neighbors spoke to the artist," she said in an e-mail to me. "Or maybe someone else took matters into their own hands. Maybe the city stopped by. All I can tell you is that, as of 4 p.m. this afternoon, the caricature has been painted out to white."
"Great," I replied by e-mail, "but what about your hopes to use the incident to open up a dialogue with the artists and the community? That might have been useful too, no?"
Her reply was not long in coming. "My friend described the guys who did these murals as ‘druggies’ and ‘potheads.’ He surmised that their political opinions are about as well-thought-out as a bad rap song. So dialogue would (probably) have been truly disappointing."
Surely, no one would make the argument that this mural reflected the values and aspirations of the people who now reside in Boyle Heights. Nor was I going to "shry gevalt" because Ms. Pentecost and others in her community had chosen to rid themselves of some odious agitprop left to befoul their doorstep.
"Hey, what are you worrying about?" she said, as we parted company. "People are still much too taken up with the Eminem business to bother with this.
"And anyway, no one wants or needs the JDL protesting down here. I just finished speaking to a woman up the street who has been a local Chicano activist for years and years. She’s a single mother with three kids who walks with a cane, and even she volunteered to come by with some rollers and blot this thing out."
Mural, Mural on the Wall
A new mural joins the A-list of great Jewish murals in Los Angeles. At Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation in Pacific Palisades, local artist and temple member Wanda Warburton-Peretz recently unveiled “The Jewish Holidays,” a 16-foot by 8-foot mural depicting Judaism’s annual celebration cycle.
The bright, almost kinetic work uses child-friendly designs and splashy colors, while the words “Shabbat Shalom” glow warmly in the center.
The mural took two years to design and about 200 hours to execute on a curved wall in the rotunda that joins –appropriately — the Early Childhood Center and the religious school classrooms. Warburton-Peretz based her design largely on what she learned while attending Rabbi Neil Weinberg’s Introduction to Judaism class at the University of Judaism.
“Learning about the ethical principles, historical and agricultural significance, the symbolic foods and objects associated with each of the Jewish holidays was so amazing during my conversion process,” she said. “The idea of a mural started percolating in my mind even before I went into the mikvah. I am so pleased to have finally completed it in a place where kids of all ages can enjoy the colorful characters and scenes, and educators can use it as a teaching tool.”
The artist worked with both of Kehillat Israel’s rabbis, Steven Carr Reuben and Sheryl Lewart, as well as religious school director Nancy Levin, to personalize and fine-tune the overall design, weaving in pictures of the main sanctuary’s Torah covers and a ceramic tzedakah box that is presented to each new bar and bat mitzvah. It also features the Reconstructionist Press’ machzor and siddur and its newly published Passover haggadah, “A Night of Questions.”
The mural was dedicated on Oct. 20, just before Kehillat Israel’s Simchat Torah celebration. During a brief ceremony, Warburton-Peretz was honored for her “creative Jewish spirit.” Kehillat Israel’s senior staff presented her with a beautiful handmade tallit. Rabbis Reuben and Lewart, along with Cantor Chayim Frenkel, officiated at the ceremony and gave Warburton-Peretz the honor of carrying the first Torah around the sanctuary during the Simchat Torah processionals.
They must put something in the water at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills. Not only did the school recently take first place nationally in the fiercely competitive Academic Decathlon; another team from ECR won the first annual Jewish Quiz Bowl, on April 26, at the Westside Jewish Community Center. For their efforts, grand-prize winners — classmates and close pals Rich Cain and Steve Glickman, both 18-year-old seniors — received summer Israel trips worth about $2,500 each, courtesy of the Jewish Federation’s Israel Experience Program and the Jewish Community Foundation.
Thirty teens from 15 public high schools participated in the Quiz Bowl, which was modeled after the Academic Decathlon and sponsored by Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles Teen Services.
In the weeks leading up to the contest, students were provided with a packet of information on Zionism and Israel’s history and politics, as prepared by Stacey Barrett, director of Jewish education for JCC/LA. Barrett also offered two study sessions for the students, who were selected to compete on the basis of an essay on their most significant Jewish experience. The teams prepared during their free time for the timed multiple-choice test, which they took in front of an audience of family, friends and community members.
In the end, the competition boiled down to a heart-racing tie-breaker between Cain and Glickman and the second-place team of Dmitri Khaytovich and Igor Vaysbeyn, from the Los Angeles Business Magnet’s Russian Jewish Club. Placing third were Damian Cavaleri and Morgan Wyenn of Monroe High School.
JCC Teen Services, which launched the Jewish Quiz Bowl in honor of Israel’s 50th birthday, intends to make it an annual event, with different questions but the same top prize — a trip to Israel. — Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer
Shultz at the Skirball
“Mixed sovereignty” among the Israelis and Palestinians is the key to peaceful coexistence in the Middle East.
That was the message of former Secretary of State George Shultz on his recent visit to the Skirball Cultural Center. The lecture, which attracted approximately 600 people to the museum, was the first of four public symposiums, dubbed “Vantage Point: U.S. Foreign Policy & the State of Israel” (with Alexander Haig to follow on May 21; Dennis Ross on June 4; and a film on Harry S. Truman on June 30).
Warning against what he called the “dangerous road” of separatism, Shultz — who served as U.S. secretary of state from 1982 to 1989, during the heat of the Cold War — emphasized that programs educating Israelis and Arabs to respect each other must start on the individual and community level.
The Reagan-era politician also shared some insights into the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations during his term, and offered his opinion on the current state of affairs. He called on the need for the United States to play “a strong role” in the peace talks, but tempered this advice by adding, “I don’t think we should get in the position of trying to order people to do things…because we’re dealing with security.”
Shultz elicited the biggest laugh of the afternoon by recalling a Jerusalem Post cartoon that depicted Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders beating on Shultz with clubs. The caption underneath read, “Well, at least they all agree on something…” — Michael Aushenker, Community Editor
Honoring the Fallen Soldiers
In a dignified and deeply moving ceremony, Los Angeles Jews and Israeli diplomats and residents last week honored the memory of 20,330 men and women who gave their lives for the survival of Israel since the founding of the state to the present.
Their sacrifices were not only for their own country but for the Jewish people throughout the world, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky noted. Thanks to the Israeli Defense Forces, “we are masters of our fate and no longer at the mercy of others,” he said.
More than 1,200 people crowded into the sanctuary of Adat Ari El in North Hollywood for the one-hour ceremony, organized with military precision by the staff of the Israeli Consulate General.
The tribute to the fallen took different forms: in an address by Consul General Yoram Ben Ze’ev; in the “Kaddish” recited by Consul Aharon Bar-Nathan; in the rendition of “Yizkor” and “El Male Rachamim” by Cantor Ira Bigeleisen; in the poems of Amir Gilboa and Natan Alterman; and in the songs performed by the Los Angeles Shir choir, conducted by Judea Pearl, and the Kibbutz Artzi choir from Israel, led by Yuval Ben-Ozer.
Mimi Sommer, of the consulate staff, presided over the ceremony, conducted in Hebrew and English. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Everyone loves a birthday party. And Jewish students throughout Southern California went all out to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Israel’s birth.
* For students at Valley Beth Shalom Day School, Yom Ha’atzmaut was a chance to dress as tourists and go to Israel for the day. Without leaving their school, they visited a biblical zoo stocked with live animals, an army base complete with an obstacle course, a Yemenite Village where they baked pita, and, of course, the Western Wall. Everyone lunched on falafel along a re-creation of Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street.
* At Emek Hebrew Academy, one highlight was an outdoor display, “Pictorial Essay — 50 Years of Israel,” to which all students contributed. The youngest children played the Geography Game, which used a Monopoly-type board to test their knowledge of Israeli places, and the Aliyah Game (a variation on Chutes and Ladders), which explored the struggles and challenges facing emigrants to Israel. Older students learned firsthand about life in Israel by forming a council to hammer out the bylaws of a new kibbutz.
* At Pasadena’s Chaim Weizmann Community Day School, children from all grades created a mosaic mural that depicted Israel’s history. The mural, which measures 3 feet by 8 feet, was first displayed at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, but will soon find a permanent home on the school’s campus.
* With the help of their families, Adat Ari El’s day-school, religious-school and preschool students all contributed decorated squares to a huge Israel-themed patchwork quilt. — Beverly Gray, Education Editor
Remembering the &’009;&’009;Children
Under gray skies, 800 schoolchildren gathered at Pan Pacific Park on April 23 to remember the youngest victims of the Holocaust. The event was notable for bringing together students from many cultures. Student leaders from Daniel Murphy Catholic High School shared the stage with youngsters from Temple Emanuel Day School. A multiethnic chorus from Melrose Avenue Elementary School sang in awkward but heartfelt Yiddish and Hebrew. Orthodox day schools were represented by a choir from Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy.
One highlight was the appearance of Dana Schwartz, who provided a child’s perspective on the Holocaust. Schwartz, born in Poland, endured the horrors of the Nazi regime from ages 4 to 10. Even the more restless students became rapt as she described scenes from her childhood: boiling water and pretending it was a meal, hiding under the floor of her apartment building in mortal fear of Nazi boots, watching babies starve, being forced to separate from her parents.
Steve Erdman, the child of survivors, drew the audience’s attention to the nearby Los Angeles Holocaust Monument. He explained that it was built to bear witness to events that happened because the world stood silent. Noting that, in recent years, there have been other outbreaks of genocide — in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia — he urged his listeners not to forget the value of human life. As flames atop the monument were ignited, the sun finally came out from behind the clouds, and everyone joined in the singing of a modern Hebrew song, “Halleluyah.” — Beverly Gray
Yom HaShoah in West Hollywood
A different kind of Yom HaShoah commemoration took place at Plummer Park in West Hollywood on Sunday evening, April 26, as the struggles and persecution of gays, lesbians and Russians were recalled by a gathering of more than 500 people.
“This was organized to bring together the different constituents of West Hollywood — the gay and lesbian community, the Russian community, the Jewish community and even the non-Jewish community,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, who hosted the program and recited the “Kaddish.”
Sponsored by the city of West Hollywood, the Human Services Commission, the Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board, Congregation Kol Ami, the Russian Community Center and the Lesbian and Gay Interfiath Clergy Association, the program included the performance of a Russian folk song; renditions of “Somewhere” and “America the Beautiful” by the West Hollywood Chorale; remarks by Si Frumkin, chair of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews; a reading of real stories about gay and lesbian victims of the Holocaust; a reading of a Babi Yar poem; and a scene from the play “The Diary of Anne Frank.” All remarks and readings were translated into both English and Russian.
Members of the non-Jewish community were represented as well. The Rev. Dan Smith of the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church, representing the Lesbian and Gay Interfaith Clergy Association, led the audience in a special prayer that called for “love and respect for the whole human family.”
“If we forget the Holocaust, then we forget the most tragic event of the 20th century,” said Smith. — Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer
Yom HaShoah at &’009;&’009;Pan Pacific Park
“Under the green trees of Poland play no more little Moishele and little Shloimele.”
Almost half a decade later, under the green trees of Pan Pacific Park, Cantor Ira Bigeleisen of Adat Ari El sang these words, in Polish, before 1,800 Los Angeles residents who came together on April 26 to commemorate the Holocaust.
Sponsored by the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, the Jewish Federation and Second Generation, the ceremony was the largest Yom HaShoah commemoration in Southern California. Among the program’s participants were Yoram Ben Ze’ev, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles; state Treasurer Matt Fong; Lt. Gov. Gray Davis; Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush; and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Keynote speaker Michael Berenbaum, president and CEO of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, praised Fong and Quackenbush for their efforts in securing from European insurance companies monies that rightly belonged to Holocaust victims and their heirs.
The program was followed by the lighting of the Flames of Memory atop the six 18-foot triangular columns that make up the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument, situated in the corner of the park. These six flames burn for 24 hours each year on Yom HaShoah, one flame representing the 1 million children who perished in the Holocaust. — Orit Arfa
The Los Angeles Shir choir and the Kibbutz Artzi choir from Israel both participated in the tribute to fallen Israeli soldiers. Photo by Moshe BrantzPasadena day school students from all grades created a mosaic mural.More than 500 people paid tribute to the struggles of gays, lesbians and Russians in the Holocaust at a West Hollywood commemoration. Photo by Iosif Gurevich