When I married my beloved late husband, sculptor Stan Schwartz, (yes, there have been three-not my fault!)-I became aware of a white building on the corner of Robertson and Horner streets. It called itself THE WORKMEN’S CIRCLE-ARBETER RING, and Stanley told me the Arbeter Ring was an old, secular Jewish organization and that his father had been a founding member in New York. "We should check it out," he said. Check it out we did, and this magical place with its charismatic director, Eric Gordon, gradually became the vibrant center of our life together.
The first thing you will notice on the outside wall of the building is an enormous mural by Eliseo Silva, celebrating men and women of every religion, race and place who worked for freedom and social justice in our world. People like Emma Lazarus, Martin Luther King, Abe Cahan, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Aleichem, Molly Picon, Emma Goldman, Cesar Chavez and Chiune Sugihara. And upon entering this unassuming edifice, you discover paintings on every wall, and learn that The Arbeter Ring is also an art gallery, with monthly exhibits of the work of well- known artists and sculptors, (including, in later years, the unique animals in wood by my talented Stanley Schwartz.) The name of this little known feast for the eyes is, "A More Beautiful World Gallery." Arbeter Ring Director, Eric Gordon is not only the AR director, but has become, over the years, a very dear friend, described by Stanley as "the son I wish I’d had!"
So much happens in this best-kept secular sanctuary, that it would take more space than I have to list, in full, all that occurs here, but I will do my best, and start with Eric Gordon, the life-force of the Arbeter Ring, along with his brilliant Assistant Director, Kirsten Cowan, without whom the building would crumble into a pile of broken words, paint chips and weeping piano keys.
Eric was born in New England and attended Yale and Tulane, earning a PhD in history and Latin American Studies, mastering, along the way, several exotic languages. With his ringing bass voice he was a member of The Gay Men’s Chorus, in New York, from 1979 to 1990. He was also a founding member of the People’s Voice Café, also in New York and now in its thirty-first year. Somehow he found time to write two very important books, the first, a biography of composer Marc Blitzstein, MARK THE MUSIC (St. Martin’s Press), and BALLAD OF AN AMERICAN, co-authored with its subject, Earl Robinson (Scarecrow Press). Before coming to The Workmen’s Circle, in 1995, Eric worked for SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center).
With the arrival of Eric, The Workmen’s Circle quickly became a dynamic center of learning, culture, meaningful entertainment, and social activism.
Some of the many musical performers over the years-a very incomplete list-have included Stephanie Valadez, Charlie King,, Roy Zimmerman, Suni Paz, The Prince Myshkins, Jo Ellen Lapidus, Ray Korona, Kalman Bloch, Cindy Paley, Eliane Lust, Batsheva, Kol Echad Jewish Chorus, Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz, The Jacques Thibaud Trio, The LA Klezmer Orchestra, Folkworks’ own Ross Altman and Uncle Ruthie, and the two in-house Workmens Circle choruses, Voices Of Conscience, directed by Ruth Judkowitz, and Mit Gesang Yiddish Chorus; director; Kathryn Rowe.
The concerts and music events at the Arbeter Ring have been really amazing events, the only problem often being, sparse attendance. The AR welcomes any help or ideas regarding publicity. But be prepared to actively help in implementing your ideas!
Recently, the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were celebrated in a concert featuring the Arbeter Ring choruses, Ross Altman, The Ringtones (a spinoff of both AR choruses), Uncle Ruthie, and others. (This year on Wednesday, November 18th at 7:30pm, the AR will present Richard Milner, the Singing Darwin Scholar! Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday May Day celebration brought out a big crowd and many performers.
(This might be an appropriate place to mention the AR newsletter, The Arbeter Briv, which will keep you accurately informed about the myriad events taking place at 1525 S. Robertson Boulevard. Just go to www.circlesocal.org and you won’t miss any of the events happening every week), or phone 310-552-2007.
And so much does happen here, in addition to the great variety of musical events.
There are films, many experimental, and in the last year a series of outstanding Cuban and Israeli films. There are dramatic presentations: The Dybbuk; scenes from Our Town, and others. There is a book club and potluck on Fridays-many potlucks in fact, some Vegetarian, some Vegan, and some with everything, even meat! There are Yiddish classes: Beginning, Intermediate and Advanced; and there is Poetry Plus, led by this writer, the third Thursday of every month, at 7:00pm: two hours of original and other poems, songs, short fiction and often a guest poet. There is a Men’s Group which is proving very meaningful to its participants. A Women’s Group recently disbanded due to, among other problems, a surfeit of recipes-it may be resurrected soon, with a more serious format. There are lectures, authors and book signings, and political discussions.
On November 8th the Workmen’s Circle will be presenting a concert at 1:00pm to kick off an unusual art show of T Shirts through the ages, containing political and social messages. The title is The Revolution is Only a T Shirt Away. The exhibit opens on that day and continues for two months, and should be an eye-opening afternoon of music by Ross Altman, Uncle Ruthie Buell, The Ringtones and some surprise performers. In January the AR has its annual Awards Event, featuring, this year, Roy Zimmerman, and honoring The California Nurses Association (for their endorsement of the single- payer health plan) and Janet Hadda (for her work in Yiddish).
The Workmen’s Circle is also a polling place, which brings us back to the purpose of The Workmen’s Circle. During the grocery strike you saw Workmen’s Circle members distributing sandwiches and songs to the striking grocery clerks. At the Vons Market on Pico and Fairfax, yours truly accosted shoppers with old time union songs and the following new words to Shall We Gather At the River:
Before you go into this market,
To buy your groceries and wine,
Listen to this song we’re singing
On the Union Picket Line;
Don’t go shopping at this market!
Drive your car away-don’t park it!
Don’t go shopping at this market,
Instead, join the picket line!
People showed up with more guitars, flutes, banjos and even some musical dogs. And the clerks really loved the old time Union songs!
Three of the favorite and best attended events at the Arbeter Ring are the secular services for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), and Pesach (Passover). These services feature a mix of the traditional and the secular. Says Eric, "We refuse to be told that our Jewish life is only about God. People are told that you have to join a synagogue. You don’t. There is an emotional component involved and we address that in our services, with the Kaddish, a traditional prayer."
Eric has more to say about the purpose of The Workmen’s Circle. "We are a community center, open to all people, races, and faiths, not just a bunch of Jewish Commie Pinkos!J We’re like a Labor Lyceum, of learning, self-improvement, supporting unions and social issues. The Workmen’s Circle is a place where we try to develop the fully conscious, forward looking, progressive human being!"
And let me add to Eric’s profound utterance, that here at LA’s best kept secret, we also have a lot of fun doing all this! Did I mention that Eric Gordon is one of the funniest people I know? I will end with this gem from Eric Gordon: "If people joined hands all over the world, three fourths of us would be under water!"
THE WORKMEN’S CIRCLE SONG
by Uncle Ruthie Buell
(Tune: "May the Circle be Unbroken")
There’s a building on the corner,
On a street called Robertson,
And I love to find my friends there
When my day of work is done.
May the Workmen’s Circle prosper, may it shine in friendship’s glow,
May it bring to all its people, ways to learn, and love, and grow!
There are paintings on the wall, and
There are choruses who sing
Songs in Yiddish, songs of protest,
Songs about ‘most everything
There are films and deep discussions,
There are potlucks, free of meat,
There are picket lines at markets.
There are marches in the street. (CHORUS)
There are classes, Yiddish "cheder"
And a Seder every year,
Every sort of celebration
Secular, and full of cheer! (CHORUS)
There are concerts-there are lectures
Plays and poets, authors, too,
Come on by, and join the Circle,
There is something here for you! (CHORUS)
(I’ll see you there!) URB
Uncle Ruthie is the producer and host of HALFWAY DOWN THE STAIRS, heard every Saturday morning 8:00am on KPFK Radio, 90.7 FM. She also teaches music at The Blind Children’s Center in Los Angeles. Ruthie does concerts for children, families and adults, as well as teacher workshops. She teaches beginning piano, and especially welcomes students with special needs. She can be reached at 310-838-8133, or at email@example.com.