Milan may have “The Last Supper,” but San Francisco has a divine fresco to call its own: “The Jewish Wedding” by Bernard Zakheim (1896-1985).
The outdoor 10-by-10 foot mural had been a fixture of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco ever since Zakheim completed it in 1933. But when the walls of the JCC were set to come down to make way for a new facility, Zakheim’s fresco nearly tumbled down with them.
Fortunately, reason carried the day. The fresco was saved from the wrecking ball, and is back up in the JCCSF, fully restored and ready for its close-up.
A dedication ceremony will take place at the JCCSF on Tuesday, June 22, with members of the Zakheim family in attendance.
They’ll be there not only in honor of their patriarch and his work, but also because Zakheims took part in the rescue effort themselves — along with a $15,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant and a contribution from the Fleishhacker Foundation. Nathan Zakheim, the artist’s son, oversaw the removal, restoration and reinstallation of the mural.
“It was a matter of principal,” said Masha Zakheim, daughter of the artist and herself an art scholar. The fresco “had received wind damage from fine sand particles. It was like sandpaper on the surface.”
Those days are over. The mural now rests on a third-floor staircase at the JCCSF, a bit off the beaten track, but safe.
“It’s such an important piece of JCC history,” said Lenore Naxon, executive director of the Eugene and Elinor Friend Center for the Arts. “This is our gift to the city.”
The mural presents a striking tableau. A merry band of revelers, tumblers and musicians celebrate the nuptials of a demure Jewish couple. They’re a diverse bunch, some with African and Asian features, representing the family of man.
Given Zakheim’s politics, that’s no surprise. Born in Poland to a family of Chassidic Jews, Zakheim arrived in San Francisco in 1920, newly radicalized and bent on studying art. “He was slated to be a rabbi,” recalls his daughter, “but by his bar mitzvah, he had become an apostate.”
Added Naxon, “Bernard Zakheim was the quintessential San Francisco character. He became a communist; he studied with Diego Rivera.” In fact, the Mexican muralist had a major impact on Zakheim.
“In 1930, Rivera came to town to do a couple of frescos,” noted Masha Zakheim. “My father was very impressed by him.”
Zakheim won a competition to do the JCC piece, the first by a local artist in any of San Francisco’s public or semi-public buildings.
Extracting the mural wasn’t easy. It was painted on a load-bearing wall, and had to be carefully cut out, crated and lifted by crane in September 2001. It sat in storage for months until the new $65 million JCCSF neared completion.
To celebrate the June rededication of the Zakheim mural, the JCC will offer public lectures by visiting sholars, and a multimedia exhibit, “Restoration and Celebration — the Murals of Bernard Zakheim” in the KS Gallery runs through August.
“We’re so gratified,” said Masha Zakheim. “My father was a very progressive man, though full of contradictions. He wanted to see the work restored, and this came close to not happening. But we prevailed and now the mural is there.”
The dedication of “The Jewish Wedding” takes place 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, June 22, at the JCCSF, 3200 California St. A lecture titled “The Life and Times of Bernard Zakheim” follows at 7 p.m. The lecture “Ben Shahn and the New Deal Muralists” by Diana Linden takes place 7 p.m., Tuesday, June 29, at the JCC. Admission is free. Information: (415) 292-1200.