"Something of His Own Soil": Jewish History, Mural Painting, and Bernard Zakheim in San Francisco (1)

By Boone, M. Elizabeth | American Jewish History, June 2002 | Go to article overview

"Something of His Own Soil": Jewish History, Mural Painting, and Bernard Zakheim in San Francisco (1)


Boone, M. Elizabeth, American Jewish History


When Franklin Delano Roosevelt agreed to support artists struggling to make a living during the Great Depression, arts administrators in San Francisco received funding for a major mural project in which Jewish artist Bernard Zakheim (1896-1985) would participate. Zakheim was one of approximately twenty-five artists commissioned to paint the interior of Coit Tower, the large monument constructed atop Telegraph Hill in 1932-33 with funds bequeathed to the city by Lillie Hitchcock Coit. These murals have traditionally been viewed in the context of San Francisco labor relations during the early 1930s. All during the spring of 1934, while the muralists were painting, unemployed longshoremen and their union were threatening to strike, and by early summer they had brought waterfront commerce to a grinding halt. Several of the murals in Coit Tower contain references to labor, the union, and far-left political ideals, and San Francisco newspaper writers and later scholars have carefully focused on these details in their discussions of the works. What has not been previously recognized is the ethnic content, specifically the Jewish content, that is also apparent in the mural cycle because of Zakheim's participation. (2)

Zakheim's contribution to the Coit Tower project (figure 1), a representation of the main reading room in a public library, played a key role in the controversy over political imagery, especially after the editors of the San Francisco Examiner took the hammer and sickle--the symbol of the Communist Party--from another artist's mural in the tower and placed it above a reproduction of Zakheim's painting. The doctored photograph appeared in the paper on July 5, 1934, the same day the longshoremen's strike turned violent and two union members were shot and killed. Zakheim, deeply interested in Communism, had prominently depicted on the right side of the mural his friend and fellow-Coit-Tower-muralist John Langley Howard reaching for Karl Marx's magnum opus, Das Kapital. But Zakheim's concerns extended beyond these political and economic issues, and consideration of other books in the painting--especially the Hebrew texts above the narrow gun-slit window and in the hands of the artist himself--reveal a concurrent interest in viewing history from a pluralistic perspective. By looking at Zakheim's career as a muralist more fully, one finds that the Library at Coit Tower is just one of several mural projects in which the artist purposefully included Jewish literature, the Jewish tradition, and the Jewish contribution to life in the United States in his work.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Bernard Baruch Zakheim (figure 2) was born in Warsaw in 1896 to a family of wealthy Hasidic Jews. As the youngest son in the family, Zakheim was expected to prepare for the rabbinate, but at the age of thirteen he expressed his desire to work with his hands and become an artist. His mother, citing the Old Testament prohibition against making images, objected to his choice. Eventually a compromise was reached: Zakheim enrolled in a school of applied art and trained to became a furniture designer and upholsterer. Private art lessons, and eventually a scholarship to the Warsaw Academy, provided the young man with an introduction to fine art. (3)

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

During World War I, Zakheim became politically active. He followed the Russian Revolution with keen interest, developed a concern for workers' rights, became involved in the Polish independence movement, and joined the Polish army in 1918. Captured and held for nine months as a German prisoner of war, Zakheim made drawings of military installations. Upon his release, he left the hardships of Europe for the United States. By 1930, ten years after his arrival in California, he was the owner of a successful furniture company, one of the few businesses in San Francisco with a forty-four-hour work week and a self-imposed closed shop. …

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