Pavilion of Promise
The 1939 New York World’s Fair was held in Queens, New York. Timed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington as the first President of the United States, the Fair’s theme was “Building the World of Tomorrow”. Recognizing that many people from around the world would attend the Fair (more than 44 million did over its two year run), a group of American Jewish business leaders, through The American Economic Committee for Palestine, determined to establish a pavilion at the Fair to demonstrate the progress taking place in the Land of Israel towards the establishment of the Jewish homeland there.
The Committee hired Meyer Weisgal, a Zionist visionary and organizer, to spearhead the plan. Weisgal wanted a miniature “Jewish State in Flushing Meadows” with every element of what became known as the Jewish Palestine Pavilion sourced in the Land of Israel. Mischar ve Taasya (Trade and Industry), the organizer of Tel Aviv’s Levant Fair, was retained to design the Pavilion and create its exhibits. The Pavilion’s 2,000,000 visitors witnessed the achievements of Jewish ingenuity and effort in agriculture, industry, culture and health while being reminded of the Jewish people’s historic connection to the land through a model of Solomon’s Temple.
Above the entrance to the Pavilion was a 14 foot tall sculpture titled “The Scholar, the Laborer and the Toiler of the Soil”, an Art Deco hammered copper relief by artist Maurice Ascalon (1913-2003), a pioneer of modern Israel’s decorative arts movement. Ascalon (born Moshe Klein) left his Hasidic village in eastern Hungary at the age of 15 to study sculpture in the ateliers of Belgium, and then in Italy. In 1934, in the shadow of Mussolini’s rise to power, he immigrated to Palestine where he continued his pursuits as a designer and sculptor.
He was commissioned to create this work to adorn the façade of the Pavilion and chose to illustrate what he anticipated would be three key facets of the Jewish state: education, industry and agriculture. In the late 1930s Ascalon founded the Israeli company Pal-Bell which crafted Judaica and other decorative arts items distinguished by their incorporation of a chemically-induced green patina. Today Ascalon’s artistic inspiration lives on through Ascalon Studios, the art studio he cofounded in the United States, which continues to be operated by Ascalon family members in the outskirts of Philadelphia.
At the end of the Fair, the sculpture could not be returned to Palestine because of shipping restrictions during World War II which broke out during the Fair. A sale of all of the Pavilion’s contents took place in October 1940. The sculpture was purchased for $2500 and donated to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago and remains an important piece in its collection. Spertus, together with the Ascalon family and Toronto-based Zionist memorabilia collector David Matlow, are exploring opportunities for the sculpture to be displayed in Israel, completing a round trip that began in the 1930s.