Hershl Hartman squinted in the late Friday afternoon sunlight at the south wall of the SoCal Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring building, a tired structure bravely holding down a corner of Los Angeles along the Jewish stretch of South Robertson Boulevard. A few weeks ago, someone spray-painted “Free Palestine” on this wall, defacing a mural commemorating the Jewish activist organization’s 114-year history. Opposition spray-painters then replaced “Free” with a more aggressive four-letter word.
The dueling acts of vandalism have officially been classified as a hate crime and are now under investigation by the LAPD—but the members of the Workmen’s Circle weren’t going to wait for resolution before fixing the mess, and hired the original artist, Eliseo Art Silva, to restore the mural, which he originally painted in the 1990s.
The building-length artwork depicts Shalom Aleichem among Yiddish literary icons, alongside anarchist Emma Goldman and one of her many lovers, with Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez hovering beside a child waving a Purim grogger, silently evoking the ancient noise of rebellion and survival. It’s topped off with the Workmen’s Circle’s theme, “A more beautiful and better world,” and the partisan anthem lyrics, “Zog Nit Keynmol.”
“It’s ironic,” said Hartman, a member of the SoCal Workmen’s Circle District Committee. Not only has the Workmen’s Circle championed a two-state solution in the Middle East, but its highest-profile activity in Los Angeles—a Kol Nidre service attended by hundreds each year—features an Arab-American woman who leads the congregation in the hymn, “Peace, Shalom, Salaam.”
California was once a thriving outpost of the New York-based Yiddish workers’ organization, counting 6000 members and 20 regional branches from Fresno to Bakersfield and San Diego. Today only this building remains to serve an aging membership. But it occupies a busy stretch in a neighborhood that in recent years has grown increasingly Orthodox—and stands as a quiet reminder of the vibrant, secular Jewish presence that existed here a century ago.
On Saturday, Silvio finished his work by adding a bit of new imagery to the existing mural—a sort of revelation, he explained when I stopped by to take another look. A blank bit of curved wall facing the boulevard had baffled him before. Now the words Peace, Shalom, Salaam appear against a motif inspired by Palestinian woven fabric designs. “A mural brings the message to the street for dialogue,” he told me, by way of explanation. “Until that happens, things are not gonna change.”
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of the artist’s name.
Rex Weiner is a writer based in Los Angeles and Todos Santos, where he is the co-founder of the Todos Santos Writers Workshop. His articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone Italia, The Paris Review, and The Jewish Daily Forward. His Twitter feed is @RexWeiner.