A mosaic at the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center on the Far North Side tells the story of Jewish immigration to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Titled “Fabric of Our Lives” and created in 1980, its images and words portray challenges they faced, coming to Chicago and elsewhere, typically from Eastern Europe, with little money, no jobs and often no grasp of English.
The 15-feet-tall, 13-feet-wide, glass-tile mosaic had suffered from the onslaught of decades of Chicago winters but restored in October at a cost of about $8,000 by Miriam Socoloff and Cynthia Weiss, the artists who originally had assembled the work in 1980.
“In addition to our strong feelings for the themes of the mosaic, it was profoundly meaningful and satisfying to repair something,” says Weiss, 67, amid a year marked by the coronavirus pandemic and loss. “2020 was such a hard year. There was so much devastation.”
The Horwich JCC, at 3003 W. Touhy Ave., is in a neighborhood that’s fairly heavily Jewish.
One of the tenets of Judaism is that people should work to repair the world. That made it even more meaningful to painstakingly restore the mosaic, Weiss says.
Socoloff, 71, says the weather hadn’t damaged the faces of any of the figures in the mosaic, but there was damage to some key parts of the work.
For one thing, the letters had fallen away from a sign a woman bears that calls for “a living wage for all” — meant to represent the labor union movement of the early 20th century, a time when many Jewish immigrants worked in sweatshops, toiling at tasks such as sewing garments for little pay. Socoloff says that’s a message that’s “still very much pertinent today.”
Before starting work on the mosaic four decades ago, “I didn’t know the history of Jewish labor,” Socoloff says. “This was all new to me, learning about the sweatshops, even though it was the history of my own family.”
One of her grandmothers immigrated to the United States and lived in New York tenements while working in a sweatshop before moving to Chicago.
Weiss had a grandfather who lived in Philadelphia and helped Jewish immigrants there adjust to their new country and find jobs.
The mosaic includes a musician, a Yiddish theater actor, someone holding newspapers representing the Yiddish press and a writer, for all of the “sweatshop poets and intellectuals,” according to the artists.
Sweatshop imagery takes up a big portion of the artwork. Three women are shown working on sewing machines, their fabric flowing into Maxwell Street, the historic first stop in Chicago for many Jews coming from Eastern Europe.
Maxwell Street — the last of which was destroyed in a Mayor Richard M. Daley-era move to create the new University Village near the University of Illinois at Chicago, much as it had been chopped up decades earlier to make way for the Dan Ryan Expressway — was home to many Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century and, continuing long beyond that, to its eponymous, bustling open-air market.
The mosaic also offers another nod to Maxwell Street with a scene of a woman and a child making a purchase from a man offering his wares from a Maxwell Street pushcart.
Along the base of the mosaic is the line: “From deep within my soul’s despair arose a striving reaching high.” That’s repeated in Yiddish.
There also are symbols of Jewish papercuts — a form of folk art that involves cutting images and sayings from paper — that include religious symbols and the tools of laborers, like a hammer and tile nippers.
“Those three ideas of culture coming from everyday experience, mutual aid and organizing for a living wage for all — those are the three ideas that are really meaningful to me,” Weiss says.
Weiss and Socoloff — who’ve known each other since they were neighbors in Chicago in the late 1970s — were trying something new when they created “Fabric of Our Lives.”
“We had never made a mosaic,” Socoloff says. “So in a way, the whole thing was an act of faith.”