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Jewish Journal

Graffiti at Workmen’s Circle

by Claire Bergen

February 20, 2014 | 12:24 pm

This past Sunday afternoon, I pulled up behind the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring building and viewed its now twice-graffitied mural, then went inside to discuss the past and future of secular, progressive Jewish culture. For the past two years, my cohort of the Secular Yeshiva – a bi-monthly study group examining Jewish culture and history from a non-religious, politically progressive  perspective – has met here, on the other side of the mural.

Many of us are teachers at the Sholem Community, whose Sunday school introduces children to Jewish history from a non-religious perspective and invites them to participate in and create new cultural holiday observances. They learn the history of labor, immigrant rights and civil rights movements, and gather to sing in Yiddish, Hebrew and English about peace and social justice.

Many in the community have pointed out the irony of the original graffiti writers' choice of canvas: of all the Jewish organizations they could have chosen, they picked the one most likely to have had the words “Free Palestine!” spoken within its walls. Two years ago I attended an event held in the Workmen's Circle building organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, a “safe space” to discuss the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement “no matter your political position.” The Workmen's Circle itself has promoted a two-state solution. 

Others have expressed anxiety that it was just this sort of rare open dialogue that set the stage for the defacing of the historic mural. Was it a coincidence that this incident came the week after Scarlett Johanssen's Superbowl ad for Sodastream was targeted by the BDS movement, bringing that campaign some of its highest-profile publicity? Only a few weeks after Swarthmore Hillel declared that it would no longer abide by Hillel International's policy of not allowing speakers critical of Zionism and Israel's actions? Was it an inevitable result of the steady growth of movements – which include many Jews – questioning whether a state can be both Jewish and democratic?

The timing seems to indicate that we've reached some kind of tipping point, at least here in Los Angeles. But I see this incident as the legacy of another, deeply entrenched, pattern in the American Jewish community. The graffiti literally erased symbols of the rich history of the pursuit of justice and liberation by Eastern Europe's Yiddish-speaking civilization. Those of us raised with all the privileges of third-, fourth- and fifth-generation white Americans too easily forget that this pursuit was in their economic and social interests – and is in ours, too. The history written over last Thursday with silver and black spray paint is a history that has been figuratively erased by American Jewish educational institutions for at least the past four decades. My own childhood quest to learn what happened to the Jews between the destruction of the second temple and the rise of Theodor Herzl, unsatisfied anywhere else, led me to the Workmen's Circle, to Sholem, and to other organizations promoting the legacy and continuation of Yiddish culture.

I find it difficult to believe that this blank spot in the standard Jewish historical narrative is an accidental oversight. A community still traumatized by the horrors of WWII, seeking redemption in our nationalist triumph, has let the history of Yiddish Eastern Europe gather dust on the shelves of the library hidden in the back room behind the mural. Those of us who seek touchpoints of contemporary Jewish identity are left to grapple with Israel - as safe democratic refuge or undemocratic colonial oppressor.

Is it any wonder that on a side street off of Robertson Boulevard, a colorful celebration of cultural heritage has been reduced to a terse three-word debate? 

I wonder if the authors of those very short political commentaries were more savvy than many have taken them for: is it that they didn't know how progressive the Workmen's Circle is? Or did they know that, of all of the buildings housing Jewish community organizations in Los Angeles, this was the one that would respond with an offer of dialogue? Did they know that this organization – with its aging, dwindling membership but powerful legacy of the Yiddish Bund and its historic insistence on doikayt, hereness, addressing the “Jewish question” in Eastern Europe instead of faraway Palestine – was the one most likely to open wide the debate? Did they see this as the only way of asking this community to ask some extremely difficult questions - questions that will open old wounds and expose vulnerabilities?

Just as the mural, coated with an anti-graffiti agent, will be restored, so too can we restore a connection to our cultural heritage – but not merely by preserving relics of the past.

Reading the Yiddish stories of Mendele and singing the lyrics of the Yiddish “sweatshop poets” will liberate no one from checkpoints, home demolitions, humiliation and ongoing violence - or from fear, isolation, a sense of embattlement and re-triggering of the traumas of the rising tide of anti-Semitism that swept 1930s Europe.

But perhaps they can provide ground to stand on as we grapple with the legacy of what is left after Jewish life in Eastern Europe was erased, followed by the erasure of our collective memory of it. If we are not taught about the history depicted on that mural, it remains a meaningless backdrop to a very present question of peace and justice, a battle of slogans and a struggle between symbols over an unopened treasure trove of our own historic background. Perhaps this history can provide context for an open discussion that, inevitably, will need to take place if we want an ethical future, or, as the mural says: far a shenerer, beserer velt – a better, more beautiful world.

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