Murals bring Judaism alive for Oakland preschoolers

Hungry shoppers on Grand and Lakeshore avenues in Oakland probably know who Peter Lee is without realizing it. Or, at least they know his work.

Lee’s colorful murals decorate the Grand Bakery and the Holy Land Restaurant, among other establishments like the Rolling Dunes, Jenny’s Café and the Leaning Tower of Pizza.

It was at the Grand Bakery that the Korean-born artist first tasted hamantashen, and it was through his connections there and at Holy Land that he got his latest Jewish gig: painting murals at the preschool of Beth Jacob Congregation, the Orthodox synagogue in Oakland.

“We had this blank wall, and the kids were starting to draw with chalk on it,” said Cheryl Schwarz, director of the synagogue’s Gan Mah Tov preschool. “We decided we wanted to brighten up the play yard and that it would improve the school.

“We just told him to make it child-friendly and vibrant, and he just brought it to life,” she said.

His first creation: A mural depicting the six days of creation featuring a bright sun, crashing waves, blooming flowers, a monkey swinging from a tree and a soaring eagle.

When he finished that, Lee started on murals depicting the different Jewish holidays.

In his Rosh Hashanah mural, a boy stands and blows the shofar at a table with a round challah, while children eat apples and honey.

In the mural depicting Shabbat, a group of children of various ethnicities sit around the dinner table.

“I felt that it was very important to have this multicultural representation in our school as an addition to our small and slightly diverse group of children,” said Schwarz. “The teachers have begun to address diversity, and what better way than to point out our friends in the mural as they celebrate Shabbat together.”

And in the Chanukah mural, a large Chanukiah glows brightly in the window, as some children play dreidel on the floor and others reach for latkes, complete with applesauce and sour cream on the table.

As Lee worked over the course of several months, the curious preschoolers kept their eyes on “this quiet presence who always wore a hat while he worked,” Schwarz said.

“The kids watched while I did it,” said Lee, a member of the Hanover Ecovillage, a Lake Merritt community of mostly self-employed people devoted to community living.

They didn’t however, offer their input. “They’re very little, so they were really curious about what I was doing.”

Their favorite panel is in his creation mural, which features a fish resembling Nemo of the popular movie, “Finding Nemo,” Schwarz said.

For Lee, it was an opportunity to discover much more about Judaism than he ever had. He learned about the various holidays as well as some of the Hebrew alphabet, so he could paint each holiday in Hebrew.

And by painting the Purim mural, he learned something about hamantashen, which he enjoyed eating from time to time: the cookie’s shape actually meant something.

“I always liked those cookies, but I never knew they represented some evil guy,” he said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."