Over 60 area residents from Monmouth and Middlesex counties swarmed into the Borough of Roosevelt on Nov. 16 for a tour of the town and a lecture on its most famous feature: a 12-foot-by-45-foot mural painted in 1937-38 by Ben Shahn.
The strong turnout was attributed in large measure to publicity generated by the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County, which is currently featuring an exhibit devoted to Roosevelt and its importance in Jewish life in Monmouth during the past 78 years.
The fresco was commissioned for a building that then was a community center and school, and which still is a functioning school, said Alan Mallach, a Roosevelt resident and a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington, DC.
Shahn, who was born in Lithuania and came to the United States as a child, was 40 and a town resident when the mural was completed and in his prime as a painter who focused on themes with social significance. His mural for Roosevelt, then called Jersey Homesteads, depicts the physical and cultural journey that carried almost all the municipality’s mainly Jewish population from the terror of European pogroms to the streets of New York City and ultimately to this little warren in Monmouth County.
The community was founded by the federal government’s Resettlement Administration as a cooperative farming and manufacturing experiment during the Great Depression. Mallach said the farming effort never really caught on, and the land was later sold to private owners. A ladies’ coat and suit factory, intended to be the other large employer in the area, fared a little better, hanging on until the early 1940s, he said.
Today, Roosevelt has a population of just under 900. It continues to be an unusual, creative community favored by artists, writers, musicians, and artisans. It is included as a historic district on both state and national registers.
But most Jewish residents have moved away, and what was once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood is now only approximately 15 percent Jewish, said Michael Ticktin, the borough historian, who will speak at the museum in Freehold on Sunday, Dec. 7. Nevertheless, there is an active shul that has just gotten its first full-time rabbi in more than a decade (see related story).