Born in Lithuania, Ben Shahn learned fresco painting as an assistant to Diego Rivera in the 1930s. As one of the artists commissioned for the New Deal Arts Project’s national mural program, Shahn created murals across the country that emphasized the role of the working class, immigrants, and socialists in shaping the American dream.
This first panel from Shahn’s mural for the community center at Jersey Homesteads (now Roosevelt, NJ) tells the story of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe: Albert Einstein walks off a metaphorical bridge into the new country—carrying his beloved violin—along with Shahn’s own mother (Gittel Lieberman Shahn), the painter Raphael Soyer, and Charles Steinmetz, the German-born mathematician and electrical engineer. To their right immigrants toil in textile sweatshops and sleep outside due to the lack of ventilation in their tenement apartments.
The mural appears to be based on based on the structure of the Haggadah, the Passover story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery and oppression.