"Faces of Judaism" Mural

"Faces of Judaism" Mural

Faces of Judaism Mural

Stimulates Dialog at CRLS

By Sharon Stentiford

What would cause an African American artist to want to create a mural about Jewish people?

Community muralist and teacher Jameel Parker admits that this project has sparked controversy and been full of challenges from the beginning. Parker’s inspiration for the project came from viewing the photography of James Van Der Zee of the Harlem Renaissance. One Van Der Zee’s photo shows a community of unlikely-looking American Jews: members of an African American synagogue standing under a Star of David and banner that reads: “The Moorish Zionist Temple of the Moorish Jews 127 W. 132” – complete with Hebrew lettering on the side. This fascinated Parker and made him ask, “What does being a Jew in America and in the world look like, and who defines that?”

When Parker approached the business community of Cambridge for a place to display the mural – which he envisioned as a work of public art visible to all -- there were no takers. Although the mural does not invoke politics or proselytize, perhaps due to tensions in the Middle East and the violence directed toward symbols of Judaism, said Parker, “We (couldn’t) find a place to put this thing.” A Cambridge Arts Council grant ultimately came to the rescue and a home was found for the mural on the second floor of CRLS in the sun-filled atrium outside of the Pearl K. Wise Library.

Although there are monuments across the world and murals in California and Detroit that deal with the holocaust and strife of Jewish history, Parker knows of no other mural that focuses on the Jewish people, as people. “Faces of Judaism,” which uses as its primary subject matter students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) where Parker teaches, measures 8 X 24 feet and was created mostly by his students. It is the largest mural of its kind in the country. To the surprise of many viewers, the faces of young people depicted are not solely the traditional Ashkenazic, Hasidic and Sephardic Jews of Israel and Eastern Europe that many people think of as Jewish. The mural also includes the faces of local young people of Asian and African descent alongside local Semitic-look ing Jewish faces. This reflects the global existence of “nontraditional” Jews within the sum total of Jews, as there are significant numbers of, for example, Black Ethiopian and Black Ghanaian Jews, among others, says Parker.

Scenes from everyday life include a young man reading a book, a young woman creating a work of art, teenage girls congregating and soccer players in the field. With emotions ranging from studious concentration, elation and happiness to peace and worshipful solemnity – the mural presents a collage of the everyday interspersed with the sacred. Raised stained glass and wooden segments stick out to give it a sense of immediacy and 3-D movement. A regal palette emphasizing blues, purples, reds, greens and golden browns predominates.

The eye is drawn to the center top of the mural, to a young Korean girl wearing a Jewish prayer shawl and holding the Torah. In real life, Emily was adopted into a Jewish family, has been raised Jewish, and has even visited the Wailing Wall in Israel. She is related by marriage to both CRLS Dean of Students Maxine Berry and to Joan Soble, a CRLS “Teaching for Understanding” professional development coach.

Soble says that when you use the word “diversity” in the Jewish community, it normally applies to groups having different religious practices such as Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. However, she notes, when “diversity” is used in the Cambridge public schools, it normally refers to racial, cultural and ethnic differences. Having collaborated with Jameel Parker on other educational projects in the past, Soble knew that Parker used art to deliver a message and that “this mural was definitely made to make people think.”

When Soble listened to Parker talk about the mural in terms of her “Teaching for Understanding” framework and she saw it herself, she said, “One thing we knew was that everybody was going to react to this mural… People have a lot of strong ideas about what different people look like.”

Parker sees the mural partly in terms of artistic expressing, saying, “The day of being (an African American artist) and having to be confined to just do African American subject matter should be over. If I’m limited, I can never be a great artist for the world and I can’t tell my students to take on the world.” Parker describes that in the trial period before the mural was displayed, its subject matter generated “dialog – heated dialog.” He recounted that one observer within CRLS said to him, “I don’t want to be racist, but why do I see a black face on this Jewish mural?” But Parker maintains that the purpose of the mural is to “provoke thought and bring people together as opposed to just (getting them mad).”

The trial period response was divided. At Hebrew College where Soble teaches, and with input from the Anti-Defamation League and Governor’s Task Force Against Hate Crimes, a focus group was formed over whether this mural should be displayed. Says Parker, this group “was a chance to have open dialog of what constitutes a Jew and who should be excluded from being represented in Jewish identity – and who is to determine that.” One woman in the group, notes Parker, said she came into the group “looking for something to pounce on” but that she left not being angry. Ultimately, says Parker, “People who want to get along, they get along.”

Parker notes that in the case of both Blacks and Jews, their community “supercedes religion and skin color.” For example, a Black Muslim may have aunts, uncles and cousins who are Christian yet they are of the same people. He notes that African American Alice Walker was married to a Jew and that her daughter wrote about that experience. “Looking at the mural,” says Parker, “you should be able to see yourself, your neighbors.”

As people came forward and reacted to the mural within the CRLS community, Soble discovered some students and colleagues whom she did not know were Jewish, were indeed Jewish. Thinking about her adopted Korean cousin who has never known any religion other than Judaism, Soble wonders, “Who is going to tell (this young woman) she’s not Jewish?”

Jameel Parker also teaches the “Young Masters Among Us” class in conjunction with the Fogg Museum, introducing young students to artistic mentoring.

Sharon Stentiford is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.