Our Mural: “A Shenere un Besere Velt” (A More Beautiful and Better World)
A mural by Eliseo Silva
Sponsored by the SoCal Arbeter Ring/Workers Circle (formerly Workmen’s Circle)
The 70’ x 20’ mural on south exterior wall of the Workers Circle building at 1525 S. Robertson Blvd. explores numerous themes including Jewish holidays, culture, education, traditional Jewish support for labor and social justice, universal healthcare, immigrant rights, and the Yiddish language, as well as the historic struggles against fascism and totalitarianism. Characters depicted on the wall include great Yiddish writers, such Mendele, Sholem Aleichem and Peretz, cultural leaders such as Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, and Sugi Hara, and the Jewish holidays are celebrated in bigger than life size. Designed and painted by well-known artist Eliseo Silva, an immigrant from the Philippines, the mural speaks not only to the Jewish community, but to other immigrant communities in Los Angeles.
Silva has created murals in various parts of Los Angeles County, and in his native Philippines. He has won numerous awards, including Most Outstanding Visual Artist from the National Arts Center of the Philippines, Best of Show in the 1993 US-Philippines Exposition, and the 1997 Award of Design Excellence for Outstanding Design in Public Art from the Los Angeles Board of Cultural Affairs Commissioners. Not only a visual artist, he has curated exhibitions, taught and lectured at all levels from elementary school to university, and has researched and written scripts for public commemorations of the 1998 Philippine Centennial.
Details of “A shenere un besere velt”
Still fastened to the pedestal’s interior wall is the modest bronze plaque that was placed there without fanfare in 1903. On the plaque is a poem by poet Emma Lazarus that speaks eloquently of America’s purpose. Emma Lazarus was asked to write such a poem in 1883 as part of the campaign to raise funds for the Statue of Liberty pedestal. Both Emma Lazarus and Joseph Pulitzer were Jewish.. The Statue of Liberty had deep meaning for them — as deep as Barholdi’s passion for his lost town of Colmar. And so Emma Lazarus, New York born and bred, wrote “The New Colossus” in despair and in protest of tyranny. She died in 1887, never to know that her poem would become an emotional inspiration for millions of immigrants to the United States.
Meyer London was born in eastern Europe and came to America in his late teens. He tutored pupils in order to put himself through high school and then, in 1886, NYU law school. He lived his entire life on the East Side in New York, a man neither quite of the people nor apart from the people. His strongest attachments were to the workers who pioneered in forming the Jewish unions. For them he was an advocate, adviser, and, sometimes, informal loan agency. London ran as the socialist party candidate for congress from the ninth district in New York in 1910, 1912 and, with the help of the garment workers union, was finally elected to the position in 1914.
Boruch Charney Vladek
Born in the village of Duka, Minsk, B. Charney Vladek joined the revolutionary movement as a boy. He served his political apprenticeship with the “Bund” or General Jewish Worker’s Union of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. Soon after his arrival in America he entered the political life of the nation as an active Socialist and spokesman for labor. Vladek was instrumental is the founding of the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC). On February 25, 1934, Vladek who was then general manager of the Forward, attended the founding meeting of the JLC, at which he was chosen president. In addition to his other activities, Vladek was an active and esteemed member of the Workmen’s Circle.
Morris Hillquit was born in eastern Europe and came to America in his late teens. He was immediately drawn to the radicalism of the East Side where he engaged in nighttime political discussions in Yiddish, Russian, and English on the roofs Cherry street. Hillquit was one of the men most influential in molding the American socialist and labor movements. IN 1901 he co-founded the Socialist Part of America with Eugene Victor Debs. During his life Hillquit worked as an attorney for the labor movement, defending employees in labor disputes; a politician, who unsuccessfully ran for congress in the ninth district in New York; an author; and a lecturer who was usually his party’s choice as spokesman in public debates. Hillquit ran for mayor of New York in 1917 attracting thousands of East Siders to work as volunteers for his campaign.
Eugene Victor Debs
Eugene Victor Debs was born on November 5, 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana. His life and career spanned some of the most turbulent times in American labor history. He became deeply involved in the labor movement and his work as a union organizer and labor leader gave Debs major influence in national labor affairs. In 1900 Debs accepted the united Social Democratic party’s presidential nomination. After losing the election to William McKinley he worked to unify socialism in America and succeeded in united the SDP and the Socialist Labor party. He ran again for president in 1904, 1908, and 1912. In 1916 Debs changed his goals and ran for Congress in his home district in Indiana. During his campaign he emphasized keeping America out of WWI, which made him a threat to a nation living in fear of radicals, anarchists and communists. Debs was charged by the federal government, under the newly enacted Sedition and Espionage Acts, for making an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio on June 18, 1918. He was convicted, along with hundreds of others who had committed similar “crimes” to ten years in prison. He served a little over three years of that sentence during which time he again ran for president in the 1920 election. After Wilson’s defeat, President Harding ordered Deb’s release from prison on Christmas Day 1921.
Rose Schneiderman emigrated to the United states from Russian Poland in 1890. The eldest daughter of a Jewish tailor, she entered the needle trades and soon joined the Jewish labor movement. Schneiderman became active in the Women’s Trade Union League for which she ultimately became an organizer. She realized, early on, that male unionists were reluctant to organized female workers and that women would have to organize themselves. Schneiderman, who was an intimate friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, helped formulate codes of conduct for business and labor under the National Recovery Administration. Schneiderman was also active in the women’s suffrage movement, was actively opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment, and began a bid for the United States Senate which she was forced to abandon.
Following the infamous fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) held a series of hearings at which Rose Schneiderman was one of more than 1,000 workers who testified about hazards in the workplace. The WTUL also sponsored a meeting to protest the fire on Sunday, April 3, 1911, at the Metropolitan Opera House. The meeting proved to be a tremendous success, in part due to a speech given by Schneiderman.
The Freedom Campaign for Soviet Jews
For a generation and more, Jews around the world yearned and fought for the freedom of Jews in the Soviet Empire. It is only one of the many ironies of history that in the pursuit of our just case, we were obliged to join hands with those whose aims were not pure, those who cynically sought to poison the existing opportunities for peace and global understanding. Still, we remember that for many years, Jews in Poland, Lithuania, Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe were denied the right to celebrate the Pesakh recalled by their elders. They were able to enjoy the Seder only in their dreams
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Son of a Southern Baptist preacher who became one himself, with a Ph.D. in theology, Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of America’s finest exemplars of the social gospel. Like all those anonymous writers of spirituals, he took the Bible stories of the Jewish Testament — above all the liberation from Egypt — and converted them into resounding appeals for freedom, for Black people and for all people. He gave form to the bus boycotts that once and for all eliminated the shame of segregation on our public transportation, and he marched with millions who sought free and unencumbered access to the voting polls. Towards the end of his life he had become a prominent voice arguing against the War in Vietnam, its racism toward the people of Indo-China, its unfairness to working-class youth, its big-power chauvinism. And when he was shot down, he was in Memphis, standing with the garbage collectors on strike and arguing for a union contract. His dream was so simple, and yet so quintessentially American and so profound, that he attracted widespread support among clergy of all faiths. He is universally honored as a martyr for all humankind.
Cesar Chavez came from a family of farmworkers who traveled all throughout Central California following the various crops that fed the nation. As a young man he became involved in community organizing and addressed not only labor rights but living conditions, health care for the workers and their families, education, and racism. Early on he was a follower of the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. He organized the United Farm Workers, and the early campaigns against non-union growers such as Gallo Wine galvanized the nation into awareness and support. All across the country, the grape boycott symbolized the struggle for a better life for America’s workers, and proved that non-industrial workers could also be organized into a powerful and effective force.
Japanese Consul General Sugihara was stationed in Kaunas, Lithuania, or Kovno as it was known to the Jews. In August 1940, defying his government’s orders, he wrote over 2,000 visas allowing more than 6,000 Jews to escape across the Soviet Union to freedom. After the war he fell into disgrace in Japan for his insubordination. Over 40,000 people today owe their lives to his moral courage. He has been honored by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as a Righteous Gentile. He died in 1986, but his widow has lived to see the day when his name is known and counted among the heroes of 20th century humanity.
Possibly the world’s most famous anarchist, Emma Goldman flourished in the early years of the 20th century as a writer, orator, editor of Mother Earth magazine, and organizer. She often spoke to Workmen’s Circle branches. In Mother Earth she published two articles on the tenth anniversary of the Workmen’s Circle. Later on, the Forverts serialized her autobiography, Living My Life, in its pages.
“Of all social theories Anarchism alone steadfastly proclaims that society exists for man, not man for society. The sole legitimate purpose of society is to serve the needs and advance the aspiration of the individual. Only by doing so can it justify its existence and be an aid to progress and culture. The political parties and men savagely scrambling for power will scorn me as hopelessly out of tune with our time. I cheerfully admit the charge. I find comfort in the assurance that their hysteria lacks enduring quality. Their hosanna is but of the hour. Man’s yearning for liberation from all authority and power will never be soothed by their cracked song. Man’s quest for freedom from every shackle is eternal. It must and will go on.”
It was 1909. Young women, 16 to 25, were working 56 hours a week for low wages made still lower by charges for electricity used at the machines, for chairs and lockers in the unsanitary shirtwaist-makers shops. Their union had 100 members and a treasury of $4 when the organizing drive began in July 1909. But the workers were ripe for action. When the eloquent little Clara Lemlich interrupted a packed meeting at Cooper Union in New York on November 22 with her passionate call for a general strike, what followed was an avalanche — “The Uprising of the 20,000.” Most of the strikers were Jewish immigrants, with a couple of thousand Italians. Mass picketing, demonstrations and parades maintained workers’ solidarity and evoked the sympathies of middle-class elements. Nothing could break the strike. When it ended on February 15, 1910, more than 300 of the 500 struck firms settled on the union’s terms of a 52-hour week, wage increases, and union recognition. Local 25 of the ILGWU emerged with a membership of 10,000. The entire American trade union movement applauded the gallant shirtwaist-makers.
Anzia Yezierska belongs to that first generation of immigrant writers that included Henry Roth, Abe Cahan, Samuel Ornitz, Michael Gold, and Fannie Hurst. In her book The Bread Givers, Yezierska uses cadence, sentence structure and syntax to show the relationship between the Old World ideas expressed in Yiddish and the new America. She came to the United States from Poland in 1901 at the age of sixteen. After more than a decade of living in the ghettos of New York and working in sweat shops and factories, she felt that she was fluent enough in English to begin writing. She became the first Jewish-American woman to be widely recognized for her stories about discrimination and other difficulties faced by the immigrants who lived in the slums of New York. Her first novel, Hungry Hearts, was purchased by Samuel Goldwyn for $10,000 and she was invited to Hollywood to write for the movies. She returned to New York where she lived in loneliness and poverty once again. At age sixty-five she wrote her autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse.
Born Sholem Rabinovitsh in Ukraine in 1859, he took the name Sholem Aleykhem when he signed his second Yiddish story that way in 1883. The expression “Sholem Aleykhem” in Yiddish is simply a way of saying hello. The name stuck, and in time he became the most popular and beloved Jewish writer, who taught his people, steeped in tragedy, to laugh at its own troubles. As everyone knows, his stories of Tevye the milkman became the basis of “Fiddler on the Roof,” but he wrote at least half a dozen full-length novels as well, including Stempenyu, about a Jewish klezmer, and essays, poetry, songs, and plays. He is buried in the Arbeter Ring cemetery in New York. In the epitaph he penned for himself, he wrote:
Here lies a Jew, a plain one,
Who wrote in Yiddish for women and for plain folk;
His whole life he scoffed at everything,
Derided the whole world.
The whole world enjoyed itself,
And he —
— he was in trouble.
And precisely when the crowd laughed, clapped, and amused itself,
He grieved — this only God knows,
Secretly — so none should see.
Itzhak Leyb Peretz
Peretz stood at the center of modern, secular Yiddish-speaking Jewry. He was adored in his own lifetime. New, young writers from all over the Russian empire flocked to his home in Warsaw for advice and encouragement. Such stories as “Bontshe Shvayg,” “If Not Still Higher,” and “The Three Gifts” made him famous and beloved by millions of Yiddish readers in Russia, Poland and all over the world. When he died in 1915, over 100,000 Jews dropped their work to follow his coffin through the streets of Warsaw to its final resting place.
Sutzkever celebrated his 85th birthday in the year 1998. He is the only living figure portrayed on the mural. Originally from Vilna, and early recognized as one of the city’s leading Yiddish poets, he survived the Holocaust, later moving to Israel. here he continued his Yiddish activity, most notably as the editor of a long-running magazine Di goldene keyt. Here are two poems, in Yiddish, and translated by Dr. Barnett Zumoff, immediate past president of the Workmen’s Circle:
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Isaac Bashevis Singer was honored with he Nobel Prize for Literature in 1974, the only Yiddish writer to date so honored. He is portrayed here in his tuxedo, reading his speech in Stockholm. Singer was a fabulist, a born storyteller, a magician of words. Steeped in Torah and Talmud, he believed in angels and mysticism, and wrote uninhibitedly about dybbuks, mistresses, and sex, in settings ranging from his native Poland to the Upper West Side of New York City which was his home in later life. His novels and stories have been turned into plays, musicals, and films.
“I don’t worry that humanity might abandon learning. We are living in an epoch where the real struggle for existence takes place in universities, laboratories, libraries. Since I am a Yiddish writer, people often ask me why I write in a dying language. My answer is that no medium of learning can ever die. There are some four billion people on this earth, but the way we multiply we may have billions of people some hundred years from now, and every one of them will need a topic for a Ph.D. They will bring up every book, every manuscript, good or bad, and write countless dissertations.”
Abe Cahan was the founder and first editor of the Forverts in 1897, and except for a short interregnum, remained so for almost 50 years. At one point it became the largest circulation Yiddish language newspaper in the world. Closely aligned with the Arbeter Ring, it promoted Socialism as an ideal, and even bore the Marxist slogan “Workers of the world unite” on its masthead. The newspaper encouraged the literary careers of many Yiddish writers in America, including the Singer brothers, I. J. and Isaac Bashevis, and virtually every other great name in Yiddish-American letters. The Forverts played a tremendous role in Americanizing the Yiddish-speaking masses, teaching manners, telling people how to vote, and giving advice in the famous column A Bintl Briv. Cahan was also a writer of importance. He published an autobiography in several volume and Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, the first novel by an immigrant about immigrant life, on which the movie Hester Street is based. His most famous novel is The Rise of David Levinsky. He is portrayed here in front of the Forward building on the Lower East Side.
Glikl of Hamlin
Glikl is recognized as the first real writer in Yiddish. She was a strong, independent widow in 17th-century Germany who against all odds raised 12 children, managed the family finances, and even opened her own factory. Her diary, which she left to her children as a record of her life and wisdom, recounts historical events which impinged on the Jewish community of her day, such as the pogroms in Poland and the vagaries of the mercantile system in which she played a part.
In recent years Malka Heifetz-Tussman has become one of the best-known Yiddish women poets. Though her first poems appeared in 1919, and she wrote for some of the best Yiddish journals, her first book, Poems, did not appear until 1949. That book, and her subsequent Mild My Wild (1958) were published in Los Angeles,. Four subsequent books appeared in Israel. She came to America in 1912, and wrote first in Russian, also in English for a Chicago anarchist journal, Alarm. She attended the University of Wisconsin, later moving to Los Angeles, where she taught at the Arbeter Ring shule and was an instructor of Yiddish language and literature at the University of Judaism. She later moved to Berkeley, where her son was a philosophy professor. She was awarded the Itsik Manger Prize for Yiddish Poetry in Tel Aviv in 1981.
Mendele Mokher Sforim
Mendele is der zeyde, the grandfather of Yiddish literature. He was born Sholem Abramovitsh, but he was known as Mendele the Book Peddler. At first he wrote in Hebrew, but his strong desire to be “of use to his people” made him turn to Yiddish, the language of the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe. Although heavily influenced by the Haskole, the Jewish Enlightenment, he transcended its didacticism to create a style and a modern literary language for both Yiddish and Hebrew sufficient to earn him the title of “founder” of the modern literatures in both these languages. The publication in 1864 of his first Yiddish novel, Dos kleyne mentshele (The Little Man), marks the beginning of the modern period in Yiddish literature.
Kheshbon Magazine, published for more than 50 years here in Los Angeles, was for many years the only Yiddish-language publication on the West Coast, supported by the Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club, founded in 1926.