West Rogers Park is still a Jewish neighborhood, although not as overwhelmingly so as it was in the 1970’s. Chasidim are a common site, and true to Chicago, you can spot children headed to the Bernard Horwich JCC on a Sunday morning, a Cubs hat instead of a kippah, tzit tzit poking out beneath a t-shirt. On the east side of the building is a mural, from which the years have peeled off small patches. Brightly colored tiles which have fallen are scattered amongst woodchips and grass, and overgrown bushes cover the a quote at it’s base. “From Deep Within My Soul’s Despair, Rose a Striving Reaching High,” it reads, in English and in Yiddish.
Seamstresses labor over a sewing machine, backs bent, the fabric tumbling off of the table and unfurling into a wall. A man carrying a suitcase wanders into the foreground. Behind him is the ghetto, with its archetypal synagogue and the Kosher butchershop. In relation to Chicago, there is a sign that reads ‘Maxwell Street’ and a building which is labeled JPI, referencing the Jewish People’s Institute, both landmarks of the city’s Jewish West side, which is now a memory. Above this scene of hardship, wandering, and separation, is a stage. A fiddler plays music while a woman dances, a reference to the Yiddish theatre and performing arts. A podium reads ‘United Hebrew Trades’ behind which a trade-unionist holds a sign which says ‘A Living Wage For All.” To their left a youth hoists a Yiddish newspaper for sale, and in the corner, a poet is hunched over a small desk, pen in hand. A golden chain arcs above their heads, symbolizing strength and perseverance. The mural is framed in white with blue designs.
Religious symbols, like menorahs, lions and Magen David are placed next to symbols of the trades, science and culture. There is a treble clef and an open book, quill pens and an ink well, a hammer and pliers, and ‘AR’ a reference to Arbeiter Ring, or the Workmen’s Circle, a century old mutual aid society founded by Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
“The Fabric of Our Lives,” is the name of this mural, which was designed by Cynthia Weiss and Miriam Socoloff, and finished in 1980. They first got the idea for the piece when they attended a conference on “Jews and the Labor Movement,” which was commissioned by the Jewish Labor Committee in 1978. Both women had worked on murals in Black and Latino communities, and were inspired to apply their skills to celebrate Eastern European Jewish culture and history.
They proposed their design at a community meeting in West Rogers Park. The Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center (BHJCC) was the intended location for the mural, partly because of the neighborhoods large Eastern European Jewish community, but perhaps because of the mural’s political themes, the BHJCC was reluctant.
The Rogers Park Mural Committee was formed to overcome obstacles and organize the community in support of the mural. With the help of civic and labor leaders, the mural committee pressured the BHJCC, and with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, local business and fifteen unions, “The Fabric of Ours Lives,” was realized.
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