From sweatshops to ‘utopia’

From sweatshops to ‘utopia’

Exhibit on Jews of Roosevelt intertwines art with history

“Portrait of Bernarda Shahn, wife of Ben Shahn” by Mel Leipzig
“Portrait of Bernarda Shahn, wife of Ben Shahn” by Mel Leipzig

A child of Jewish immigrant garment workers, three-year-old Helen Barth moved with her liberal parents to Jersey Homesteads (now Roosevelt, where she still lives) in the late 1930s. Her parents were drawn by the vision of the town’s founder, Benjamin Brown, to create a cooperative settlement of 200 homes with a factory, a farm, and retail stores.

Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration aided the efforts to create the cooperative, and Brown promoted his project through union publications and Yiddish newspapers. He drew an entirely Jewish population from factories in New York City and each family had to pay $500 to join. A couple of years after its establishment, empty houses in Jersey Homesteads were opened to people not involved in the cooperative, including African-American families. 

“We never once had segregation in our town,” Barth told NJJN. “Everyone sat together and played together, and this is an idea of what it was like and how liberal we were.”

Her family remained in Jersey Homesteads after the farm failed and the coat and suit factory closed within a couple years of the town’s founding. Although no longer a cooperative, Barth said the town retained its strong community feel. “Everybody always looked out for each other,” she said.

An influx of artists between the late 1930s and the 1950s added culture to the town’s identity. It started with Ben Shahn who, with his partner Bernarda Bryson (later his wife), completed a mural in 1937 in the town’s combined elementary school and community center. The two artists fell in love with the ideals of Jersey Homesteads and moved in. They were followed by other artists whose work reflected the town’s socialist origins, like Sol Libsohn, Jacob Landau, and Louise and Edwin Rosskam.

Dorothea Lange photograph of wives and children of the cooperative farm homesteaders in Hightstown circa 1936. Photos courtesy Morven Museum and Garden

The history of Roosevelt — the town’s name was changed from Jersey Homesteads in 1945 in homage to the FDR administration’s efforts to create the Monmouth County town — and the work of its artists, past and present, will be showcased in “Dreaming of Utopia: Roosevelt, New Jersey,” opening Nov. 15 at Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton. As many current Roosevelt residents are also artists, the show will include work from contemporary ones such as Ani Rosskam, her husband Bill Leech, and Jonathan Shahn, son of Ben and Bernarda.

Ilene Dube, an arts journalist and creator of the 2017 documentary “Generations of Artists: Roosevelt NJ,” is the show’s guest curator. For her, visiting Roosevelt is like entering an alternate dimension, reminding her of an episode of the “Twilight Zone” where an advertising executive commutes home, falls asleep, and wakes up in a model town called Willoughby.

“Every time I went to Roosevelt to interview an artist, I felt like I was in Willoughby, some kind of utopia,” she told NJJN in a telephone interview.

Roosevelt’s history resonates with Dube on a personal level: Her grandfather, who died before she was born, grew up on a farm in New Jersey, and Dube said she “always imagined it was one of these cooperative farming communities.” Furthermore, the son of her father’s first cousin, Stanley Dube, worked for Louis Kahn on the design of Roosevelt’s concrete, flat-roofed, Bauhaus-inspired homes. The Morven Museum exhibit will include Kahn’s drawing of an idealized school in Roosevelt.

The town’s history and artistic heritage were intertwined. Many Roosevelt artists, Dube wrote in an email, “addressed issues in their work [that] are still very much relevant today: civil rights, economic equality, immigration, labor issues and fair pay, the right to free speech, peace, and justice.”

A 1938 photograph of the mural painted by Ben Shahn, which depicts the story of
Jewish immigration into the U.S.

One example is the 1937 mural, rendered in fresco by Shahn and Bryson, which will appear in the exhibit reproduced in vinyl from a photo by Ricardo Barros. The complex, detailed mural interweaves the story of Jewish immigration to America and the growth of trade unionism — it depicts the workers’ escape from violence and pogroms in Europe only to find themselves in U.S. sweatshops. These two experiences sparked in some immigrants the utopian vision of a cooperative settlement, where residents would work in the community-owned factory and farm. Although this utopian vision failed early on in Roosevelt, it continued to infuse community members who were able to remain and find jobs in surrounding towns.

Also in the Princeton exhibit are images from Ben Shahn’s illustrated Haggadah, which reflects a common theme in his art: the struggle against oppression.

A hand-colored lithograph of two of Landau’s 10 large stained-glass windows in the sanctuary of Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pa., are called “The Prophetic Quest.” Not only does this theme mesh with Roosevelt’s social justice roots but it also reflects a quote from Landau in a 2014-2015 Keneseth Israel programming brochure: “My life is about trying to articulate the struggle, the human predicament, the beauty and terror of existence, and the hope of transcendence.”

Other works displayed depict elements in the town’s history.

Bryson, who died in 2004, contributed a penciled portrait of the town’s founder, Benjamin Brown. According to the book “Utopia, New Jersey,” in 1928 Brown was invited by the Soviets to help organize the federal farm marketing system for the Russian-Jewish settlement in Birobidzhan, near the Chinese border. Brown, who had also been involved in other cooperative efforts, “envisioned Jersey Homesteads as a model in which Eastern European Jewish culture and the Yiddish language could be preserved,” Dube said.

Also in the exhibit will be Otto Wester’s original bas-relief doors for the Roosevelt Public School, which depict scenes from the early history of Jersey Homesteads, hammered into the aluminum.

Sol Libsohn, along with Ben Shahn (also a photographer) and Edwin and Louise Rosskam, documented living conditions across the United States during the Depression for the Farm Security Administration. Libsohn’s photographs in the exhibit will be divided between this professional work and snapshots he took depicting everyday life in Roosevelt.

Based on his father’s design, Jonathan Shahn sculpted a bronze bust of FDR as well as a miniature version of the bust that will appear in the exhibit. Eleanor Roosevelt attended the sculpture’s 1962 dedication in Roosevelt.

The “Generations of Artists” exhibit is a perfect fit for Morven, the house built by Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a home to five New Jersey governors.

“We try to marry the idea of history and fine art or art history,” said Elizabeth Allan, deputy director and curator of Morven Museum & Garden. “The context of the artwork is what we are interested in presenting.”

If you go

What: “Dreaming of Utopia Roosevelt, New Jersey” exhibit
When: Nov. 15, 2019-May 10, 2020; Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Where: Morven Museum and Garden, Princeton
Cost: $10, $8 seniors and students
Information: Morven Museum and Garden is hosting several
programs associated with the exhibit. For details, visit or
call 609-924-8144.

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