6: Mural and commentary, Ben Shahn’s "Jersey Homestead Mural," 1937-1938.
Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was born in Lithuania to Jewish parents, and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1906. In his work, Shahn attempted to contribute to social dialogue through his realist style, exposing unjust American living and working conditions. His mural for the community center of Jersey Homesteads is one of his most famous works.
Suggested Activities: Have your students take turns identifying what is going on in various sections of the mural. Ask your students to research what happened to the Jersey Homestead project. They may wish to consult one or more of the following sites: This excerpt of an oral history interview with Shahn, this resource on Shahn and the mural from the New Jersey Historical Commission, or this website on Shahn, which is part of a larger project on the legacy of the New Deal. How was Ben Shahn involved? What was the connection between his life and his art?
Have your students read the commentary by Diana Linden. Ask students if they agree that the mural casts Jewish immigrants’ experiences as a version of the Exodus story. Where do they see evidence of that in the painting? What does Linden mean when she says that Shahn wanted to "privilege contemporary American life and working-class identity over elements of Jewish religious tradition and ritual"? Why might Shahn have wanted to do that? Ask your students if they ever make choices about which aspects of their identities to prioritize, and why.
Sources: Ben Shahn, Jersey Homestead Mural, 1937-1938, via Roosevelt Arts Project.
Diana L. Linden, Ben Shahn's New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene. (Wayne State University Press, 2015), 61-62.