Shuk art: Two 20-somethings are changing the face of a Jerusalem landmark

Solomon Souza, looking bored, stretched out on a mattress lying on the floor of the apartment he shares with Berel Hahn in the artsy Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachalot.

“So, should we paint something, bro?” Souza said.

“A man, a woman or a dog?” Hahn replied, barely glancing up from his cellphone.

“Not a dog,” Souza said.

A few minutes later, they were out the door, ducking through a series of narrow alleys until they arrived at Machane Yehuda. 

During the day, Machane Yehuda is a labyrinth of vegetable stands, spice vendors and all manner of specialty shops and restaurants. By night, when metal shutters come down on most of the businesses, it becomes a hotbed of nightlife — and, for Hahn and Souza, one giant canvas.

One shutter at a time, the pair has turned Machane Yehuda — known as the shuk — into an art gallery, using spray cans to create vibrant murals of everything from rabbis and biblical scenes to Israeli prime ministers and one of their roommates.

The images are both historical and contemporary. One recent subject — actress Roseanne Barr, a vocal supporter of Israel — dropped by the shuk in March to take a look at her likeness.

“I kind of see [the whole shuk] as one big painting,” Hahn said. “Each painting is just a pixel.”

Souza, whose friends call him Sunny, is the one who actually wields the spray cans, while Hahn is the dreamer, the big thinker. Their project was originally Hahn’s idea. 

Now, he acts as Souza’s informal manager, obtaining permission from shop owners to paint their shutters, fielding calls from reporters and standing by Souza while he paints so that curious passersby won’t break his focus. Hahn has made himself a familiar face among the mostly Sephardic, mostly middle-aged men who run the vegetable stands.

Souza, 22, grew up in a suburb of London until his mother “realized she was a Jew” and brought him to the West Bank settlement of Efrat, about 20 kilometers southeast of Jerusalem. After returning to London to complete his high school education, he moved back to Israel for good.

Standing over 6 feet tall with a large, reddish beard, Hahn, 26, grew up in the Chabad movement in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. His Chasidic roots are apparent in his soft-spoken and sincere manner, as well as in his propensity to speak dreamily about his artistic vision and his love of Yiddishkeit.

The idea for the murals first popped into his head when he was wandering through the shuk on a Saturday, when the market takes on a funereal quiet.

For a while, he let the idea stew. At the time, he was working a night-shift job applying carbon fiber strips to the ceilings of parking lots for structural support. His crew would pick him up at Machane Yehuda for the jobs.

“It began to haunt me — it’s almost as if the shutters were screaming,” he said.

The only things standing between him and a project that would fundamentally change the character of the market at Jerusalem’s cultural epicenter were a few cans of spray paint.

“A friend of ours was like, ‘You know what, I’ll reimburse you. Go spend a few hundred shekels on paint and just start,’” Hahn said. “So we got permission [from a shopkeeper], and after the first night, there were requests for more and more.”

Souza was living in the artistic mecca of Tsfat in Israel’s north when he got a phone call about the idea from Hahn, whom he’d known from their time as a yeshiva in Nachlaot.

After a few trips down to Jerusalem, Souza decided to stay.

“I said to myself, ‘I should be there, I should be there,’ ” he said. “I got back to Tsfat, and I was like, ‘Why am I here?’ ”

While Souza seems content simply to paint, Hahn waxes poetic about his vision of awakening an artistic movement centered on Jerusalem’s diverse cultural heritage. 

“The true character of Jerusalem is a festival ground,” Hahn said. “When the Temple stood, people came three times a year to party.”

Their immediate goal is to paint every shutter in the market. But Hahn hopes to eventually to reanimate Jerusalem’s roots by organizing a Shabbat festival to showcase the city’s kaleidoscope of indigenous influences.

“Imagine a Shabbat where you can really taste all the flavors of the Jewish culture — each community within the Jewish nation represented, all of their unique traditions represented as authentically as possible,” he said.

There are still more than 100 shutters to go before the painting phase of the project is complete. A trapezoidal loop off the main alley known as the Iraqi shuk is totally devoid of murals, perhaps because there are few nightlife spots there. (“There would be if I was painting there,” Souza said.)

But before heading out on this Wednesday night, lying on the mattress in his living room, Souza looked content to remain where he was. Hahn was insistent — perhaps because there was a reporter present — and his enthusiasm eventually won out: The reluctant artist stuffed some spray cans into a tote bag and the two were out the door.

Arriving at a shutter on the outskirts of the market, Souza rolled a cigarette and lit it, while Hahn retrieved some cardboard vegetable boxes from the day’s commerce to place underfoot for any errant paint. 

The topic of the mural that night was close to home: Rabbi Gershon Avtson, head of Yeshiva Beis Menachem in Nachlaot, where the two first met.

“He definitely brought us together,” Souza said.

Finishing his cigarette, and then another, Souza opened a picture on his iPhone of the rabbi gazing off into middle distance. The artist then pulled a mask over his face to filter out paint fumes and went to work.

Souza’s painting sessions regularly draw a crowd, and even on this midweek night, people passing by a main traffic artery bordering the shuk stopped to watch, take photos and ask questions.

“Does it cost money?” several passersby asked Hahn, seeming surprised by the fact that the entire project, Jerusalem’s latest artistic sensation, is the work of two guys with a big idea and some spray paint.

“It costs a lot of money,” Hahn said. “If somebody offers you coffee at their house, it’s not free.”

Hahn estimates the project has so far cost upward of 20,000 shekels — about $5,000 — in paint alone, funded by a friend of theirs who prefers to stay anonymous. That figure doesn’t account for the time Hahn and Souza donate.

“It’s a gift to the city,” he said. 

The brushstrokes on the wall: Jewish muralists of Los Angeles

On the walls of Los Angeles, the mural capital of the world, where are the Jewish brushstrokes?

Two concurrent exhibitions are currently highlighting the work of Edward Biberman and his 1941 Venice post office mural — at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and at the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice. The two shows remind us that some Jewish artists changed the way we look at our area’s built landscape.

Edward Biberman, self-portrait (Courtesy of Gallery “Z”)

For decades now, a quasi-survey of L.A. Jewish history has appeared on a wall adjacent to the Canter’s parking lot on Fairfax Avenue. But a couple of generations before the paint dried on that work in 1985, Jewish artists, like prophets with paintbrushes, were pursuing justice on the walls of Los Angeles by creating murals, some of which have by now been covered up, or long ago put in storage, or even allowed to fall almost into ruin.

Among the most prominent among these artists is Hugo Ballin (1879-1956), a native of New York City, who created scenic backgrounds for silent movies, and also produced around 100 of the films. Ballin also painted murals. Notable among them is his epic 320-foot 1929 mural circling the interior of the dome of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which he called “History of the Jews.” He also painted the murals inside the Griffith Observatory, illustrating, aptly, the history of astronomy in 1934, and he explored Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” — freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from want and fear — in his mural in the Burbank City Council chambers, which was dedicated in 1943. In the section on freedom of religion, Moses with the Ten Commandments dominates, while below him a Protestant clergyman preaches, a man dressed in white blows the shofar and another holds a sefer Torah.

The “Four Freedoms” Hugo Ballin, Burbank City Council Chambers.

However, the “Freedom From Hunger” section, which illustrates how America relieved its hunger pangs, produced some bellyaching of another sort. Depicted in this scene of plenty is a donkey, located right behind the mayor’s seat at the council table, that is being loaded up. According to an article written by William M. Kramer in the journal Western States Jewish History, “if you looked from the correct angle, it looked as if the donkey’s ears were coming out of the mayor’s head.” As a result, in 1962, the lower part of the mural was covered by a drape, and in 1964 a remodel of the council chamber concealed the upper part.

Then, in 1989, Kramer, who was the rabbi at Temple Beth Emet in Burbank, came to the mural’s rescue. During a City Council invocation, Kramer reported, he explained the mural’s historical significance, influencing the council to open the curtain. To circumvent the problem, he noted, the mayor’s seat was “slightly shifted.” Then, during a second remodeling in 2001, the ceiling was raised, exposing the entire work, and the entire mural was cleaned.

At the City of Hope in Duarte, another significant mural by Jewish artists also came close to disappearing.

The T-shaped mural is located above an arched doorway and was created in 1935-1936 for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) by two artists who grew up in Los Angeles: Philip Goldstein (1913-1980), who attended Manual Arts High School, and Reuben Kadish (1913-1992), who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home and studied at the Otis Art Institute.

Detail from mural at City of Hope by Phillip Goldstein and Reuben Kadish. (Edmon J. Rodman)

Using nude and draped characters, the two young artists created a dramatic commentary on life, from birth to death, with the arts forming a bridge over the doorway.

Both artists would go on to become established New York artists — Goldstein would later change his last name to Guston and become a leading member of New York’s Abstract Expressionist school, and Kadish, after a stint of dairy farming, also became a New York painter and sculptor of some note — yet their mural was largely forgotten.

By the 1960s, the mural was falling into disrepair when Robert J. Reid, a hospital official, brought its sad condition to the attention of Ernest Lieblich (1914-2009). Born in Germany, and trained as a cantor, Lieblich was president of FoodCraft, a pioneer in delivering beverages and snacks to offices. After seeing the mural’s condition, Lieblich, an avid benefactor and supporter of both the hospital and the arts, agreed to finance the restoration of the mural as well as the building, which today serves as the hospital’s visitor center.

Edward Biberman (1904-1986), who painted “Abbot Kinney and the Story of Venice” for the Venice post office, was the son of a well-off Philadelphia Jewish family of Russian immigrants who owned a women’s dress store. After getting both an economics and arts education and living in Paris for three years, Biberman met the Mexican muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco while living in New York. He would go on to spend a summer with the Navajo in Monument Valley and fall in love with the West, leading him to move to Los Angeles, in 1936.

Suzanne W. Zada, who was a friend of the artist and is the representative of the Biberman estate, observed that “given [Biberman’s] background, he had incredibly revolutionary ideas.”

This can be seen in a work that made him a runner-up for a Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts competition for a mural at the St. Louis post office — his design depicted the role of the black solider in the Civil War (sketches for which are on view at SPARC). He then was awarded three L.A. murals, two for a downtown U.S. federal building and post office, (one remains on display at the U.S. Courthouse, Western Division; the other is in storage) and the Venice post office job.

At LACMA, Biberman’s approximately 6-foot-by-16-foot mural-on-canvas greets the museumgoer with a resolute-looking likeness of Abbot Kinney, the man who developed Venice, shown standing before his vision of canals, gondolas and bungalow houses.

On one side of the image are Venice boardwalk amusements, including a rollercoaster and, surprising for a still very racially divided city in 1941, a black couple chatting with a white woman.

“Nothing there is by accident,” Zada said.

On the other side, darkening Kinney’s vision, is an oil slick and derrick.

In a letter to Biberman that is included in the LACMA exhibition, Venice Postmaster Leo H. Strickland made clear he wanted the derrick out of the picture.

“There has been nothing but dissension and court action to have those derricks removed,” he wrote.

“These old derricks are as integral a part of present day Venice as are the skyscrapers a part of present day New York,” Biberman wrote in a letter to an official in the Public Building Administration. “These postmaster-turned-art-critics are really getting me down,” he added.

The mural hung in the Windward Circle post office until the building closed in 2012; it was sold to Hollywood producer Joel Silver, who plans to use it as new offices of his production company. Silver, according to the Los Angeles Times, also leased the mural, had it restored at his own expense, and plans to reinstall it sometime after work on the building is complete, in 2015.

Biberman also painted portraits, including of the noted African-American singer, actor and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson, as well as of Dashiell Hammett and Lena Horne, which were purchased by the Smithsonian for the National Portrait Gallery. In response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Biberman also painted a searing-eyed painting of the civil rights leader.

From 1938 to 1950, Biberman taught at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. However, as a consequence of his brother Herbert Biberman, a Hollywood screenwriter and director, being accused of contempt of Congress and of being a communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Los Angeles — Herbert Biberman was blacklisted and became one of the Hollywood Ten — Edward Biberman was accused of being a communist, too.

Anticipating being fired, he stepped down from his teaching post, though he later became a lecturer at UCLA Extension as well as at Loyola Marymount University.

“He was what I call gray-listed,” said Ilene Susan Fort, curator of the LACMA show, who obtained Biberman’s FBI file through the Freedom of Information Act, through which she discovered that, even until the late 1950s and early ’60s, the FBI was sending “encyclopedia salesmen” to his home to snoop around. “I was appalled,” she said.

Zada recalled that Biberman was “dedicated” to the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and donated to the agency several of his prints to auction.

Did Biberman’s ethnic background influence his work?

“Yes, I think so,” said Fort, who along with Zada, said Biberman was not religious.

“He was very much a humanitarian,” Fort said.

“His figurative work is all dedicated to social justice,” Zada said.

Have an idea for an L.A. Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at

Three’s Company

Perli Pelzig first knew he had talent at the ageof 5, when he would chalk life-size figures of animals on thesidewalks in his native Germany. These figures attracted attentionfrom passers-by, and, not long after, Pelzig was named “wunderkind”for his dazzling artistic capabilities.

Pelzig, a two-time recipient of the AmericanInstitute of Architects’ Art in Architecture Award, continued to drawand paint during his early years. In 1937, his creations were noticedby a Hanover art professor who invited Pelzig to study at his artschool for no cost. But not for long. Active in Zionist youthorganizations in Germany, Pelzig immigrated to Israel in 1938; he was21. For many years thereafter, he traveled back and forth betweenIsrael and the United States, releasing his manifold creative energyby working on paintings, murals and stained-glass windows wherever hewent.

While his formal art training is limited, Pelzighas produced paintings, murals and windows that are housed in museumsand galleries worldwide, from Canada, to Venezuela, to Israel, to NewYork, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

In the 1950s, he began a series of paintings ofthe universe. These acrylic works, which contain images of planets,asteroids and suns, express the artist’s interest in theouter-worldly. Pelzig often draws upon Jewish themes for his work,and he has designed the stained-glass windows of Sinai Temple and theHerrick Memorial Chapel at Occidental College.

Pelzig’s “Freedom for the Arts” was designated bythe Park Labrea Arts Council to be exhibited, along with the works ofthree other artists, atop Park Labrea towers in the second annualTallest Art Show.

Pelzig, 80, today lives in Hollywood, where hecontinues to paint and sculpt ideas that interest him.

Michael MuchnikChassidic Colors

As one of theforemost Chassidic artists of today, Michael Muchnik tries to instillwithin his artwork not only intricate and beautiful craftsmanship butrich Chassidic ideas as well. His artistic mastery and delicate styleattract the lay viewer to his work, but Muchnik prides himself moreupon the esoteric Jewish ideas that come through his work.

“The unique part of my paintings isn’t what theirmade from but the way I’ve interpreted and portrayed Chassidicideas,” said Muchnik, who visited Los Angeles last month to exhibithis work at various Chabad houses around the city.

Working mostly with acrylics, watercolors andlithographs, Muchnik uses his imagination to portray themes and ideasthat are important to him. His work includes renditions of kiddushcups, biblical themes and Jewish holidays, usually imbibed withChassidic or Midrashic commentary. Many of his paintings contain asymbolic object, such as Miriam’s tambourine and Joseph’s coat(pictured above), that blend with the soft and elaborate landscape inthe background, and thereby grant a sense of universality andgrandeur to the objects.

Muchnik studied at the Rhode Island School ofDesign, where he concentrated in graphic design and became attractedto Judaism. He heeded his urge to learn more about Judaism andChassidim and later studied at the Rabbinical College in Morristown,N.J. Muchnik now successfully integrates both of his passions andareas of study.

Irine Fire Accidental Artist

“Third StreetPromenade””

Irine Fire discovered her artistic capabilities byaccident. Not long before she immigrated to the United States fromKiev nine years ago, Fire played with watercolors to release somenervous tension she experienced before her move. As an editor of anart journal in Kiev, she had many friends who were artists, thoughshe herself had never painted. Fire put the images she produced –flowers, landscapes, trees, faces, animals — on her wall; when herfriends saw her creations, they pronounced their friend an artist,much to her surprise.

“I’d never thought I’d be an artist,” saidFire.

She continued drawing and painting after shesettled in Los Angeles. When her life as a new immigrant presenteddark and bleak moments, painting allowed Fire to add color to herlife. When the well-known Russian sculptor Alex Shagian visitedFire’s Hollywood apartment to help her with a story she was writingfor a Russian newspaper, he reacted with the same enthusiasm Fire’sfriends evoked when they saw her work.

“I began to believe in myself and couldn’t stop,”said Fire. “Now I paint and paint and paint.”

Inside her studio apartment, Fire’s colorful andexplosive works, which exhibit similar qualities as the works of herfavorite artists, Van Gogh and Chagall, practically wallpaper herapartment. She paints whatever interests her — flowers, scenes inLos Angeles, people, self-portraits — sometimes working fromphotographs, sometimes solely from her imagination.

While Fire is open to working all mediums, sheprefers acrylics. They allow for brighter colors than other mediumsand are conducive to her working conditions — Fire’s studio is inthe corner of her compact kitchen.

While her style is most closely akin to the styleof post-impressionists, Fire considers her work unique and does notprescribe to any method or school.

“Since I’m not educated [in art], I’m not afraidto do anything,” says Fire.

One of her paintings serves as the cover of a bookabout self-educated artists, “Passing in the Outsider Lane” (JourneyEditions, 1995), written by Dan Prince, an art collector whoexhibited Fire’s work at his gallery in Santa Monica. Her paintingshave been exhibited at the Festival Of Russian Culture at ClaremontCollege and will be exhibited at the Simon Wiesenthal Center amongother works by Russian artists.

“Colors are inside me,” says Fire. “I’m verylucky.”