From Hungary to Israel to South Jersey
Maurice Ascalon’s 1939 World’s Fair sculpture was just the start of an unlikely career
“Dawn of the Future.”
That was what the forward-looking, marvel-filled, Art Deco-designed 1939 New York World’s Fair was looking toward. Its symbol was the Trylon and Perisphere, the Mutt-and-Jeff-y symbol of the coming utopia.
We could say that the joke was on them. World War II began about four months later. The immediate future was a nightmare.
But of course history keeps going.
The 1939 World’s Fair was replaced by the 1964 one — that fair’s symbol, the Unisphere, still stands in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, in Queens, also home to the New York Mets and Citi Field.
Eighty-four years ago this week — on May 28, 1939 — the Jewish-Palestine Pavilion, one of the World Fair’s exhibits, was dedicated. Its façade included a relief sculpture by Moshe Ascalon, a young Hungarian-Israeli Jew who eventually moved to Cherry Hill. Many synagogues and schools around the country — including Teaneck, Paramus, and Livingston — have artwork produced by Ascalon Studios, also in Cherry Hill.
Mr. Ascalon’s path to South Jersey was long, surprising, and paved with his own entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and raw courage.
His grandson, Eric Ascalon, who also lives in Cherry Hill, tells his grandfather’s story.
“My grandfather was born in a shtetl in eastern Hungary,” Mr. Ascalon said. It was 1913; the baby, somewhere in the middle of five children, Mr. Ascalon said, was named Moshe Klein. “He was always very creative,” he continued. “He was very artistic-minded. And that wasn’t exactly the most accepted thing in the community where he grew up.
“There was a gentleman in the town” — a place tongue-twistingly named Fehérgyarmat — who made the tombstones. He wasn’t Jewish, he didn’t speak Yiddish,” and he didn’t know the Hebrew alphabet. “So when my grandfather was like 13, he would help him translate the names into Hebrew letters.”
This was in the mid 1920s.
“So he worked with this guy, and he learned how to carve stone. He knew he really wanted to create, so by the time he was 15, he packed up and left home and went to Brussels.”
How did a poor boy from a remote village manage that? “I really don’t know,” his grandson said. “I think that he did it on his own, though. And it was largely the last time he saw his family. He lost touch with them. Later on, after the war, he maintained some contact with the ones who had survived.”
When he got to Brussels, he became Maurice Klein — Maurice is French, and Moshe, well, it isn’t French — and studied sculpture at the Fine Arts Academy of St. Gilles. “He wasn’t independently wealthy, so they” – it’s not clear who “they” are — “must have taken care of his tuition and room and board.
“That was his formal education,” Mr. Ascalon said.
After that, his father “roamed throughout Europe to apprentice with various artists. He stayed in Milan and apprenticed there for a while, and then he started producing his own art.”
But as Mr. Klein was learning to sculpt and then how to be both an artist and a businessman, Europe began to combust.
“In 1934, during Mussolini’s rule, he saw the writing on the wall. In 1934, he immigrated to British Mandatory Palestine. He was always a Zionist; he was always very passionate about it.
“He was a pioneer of early Israel.”
He was 21 years old. And he went from Klein to Ascalon. He named himself after the city of Ashkelon; it’s not a translation — Klein means small — but there’s a mild memory of Klein at the end of the word, if you listen to it closely. And when his family talked with him in Hebrew, often he remained Moshe, his grandson said.
Soon after he got to Palestine, Mr. Ascalon met Zipora Kartujinsky, and the two soon married. She had been born in Poland but moved to Palestine when she was a child. “She helped to establish a kibbutz,” her grandson said.
Soon, the enterprising Mr. Ascalon “started a metalcraft company,” Eric Ascalon said. He had a cousin who’d also made it out of Europe to Palestine, and they worked together; he began to work in metal himself, instead of focusing on stone. “The company was called Pal-Bell; eventually they manufactured all sorts of souvenir items, a lot of art deco metalwork, menorahs, candlesticks, things like that. They were exported to department and fine art stores around the world, to Macy’s and to Harrods in London.”
During that time, one of Mr. Ascalon’s friends, Arieh El-Hanani, approached him with a commission. Mr. El-Hanani, an architect who won the Israel Prize for his work and his importance to the creation of Israeli culture, was designing the Jewish-Palestine Pavilion. He asked his younger friend to make the metalwork that would stand at its entrance.
“The sculpture was made by hand, with a technique called repoussé,” Mr. Ascalon said. “It was hammered from the back. It also was chased — hammered from the front. It was made of copper, very thin copper — less than a millimeter thick.”
There are three massive figures on the 14-foot-high sculpture, which is named after them — it’s called “The Scholar, the Laborer, and the Toiler of the Soil.” Those three figures embodied the ideals of early Israel, with its traditional Jewish emphasis on learning joined — if not actively eclipsed — by physical labor at both industry and agriculture.
When the pavilion opened, guests listened to speeches by Albert Einstein and New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (whose mother, after all, was Jewish). As they spoke, Maurice Ascalon’s work stood above them.
“During Israel’s War of Independence, Pal-Bell already had somewhere between 100 and 200 employees,” Mr. Ascalon said. “My grandfather had a large factory — first it was in Jaffa, and then in Tel Aviv — and it was prolific.
“Because he was so skilled in metalwork, during the War of Independence the IDF asked him to make munitions. So he retooled his factory, and for a year or two he made munitions and detonators for the war effort.
“He employed an equal number of Jews and Arabs, and they all got along.” The Arab employees continued to work for his grandfather after the war, he added.
“The company grew by leaps and bounds after the war. In roughly 1954, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles — it’s the American Jewish University now — asked him to teach sculpture there. So he sold Pal-Bell, and they packed up and left.”
“My grandfather loved being an early settler in Israel, but he was always a city guy,” Mr. Ascalon said. “His eyes were always set on America. He didn’t plan on staying in Israel forever, although he continued to return there regularly during his life.”
Maurice Ascalon had visited the United States before, but he’d never been to L.A. Still, “he relocated the family,” his wife and three children, Eric Ascalon said. He became a sought-after silversmith, producing Torah crowns and other works of fine art, for synagogues.
Maurice and Zipora Ascalon had three children. The oldest, Adir, also was a sculptor, as well as a soldier in both the U.S. army and the IDF; he died in 2003. The youngest, Sarah Benjamin, died a few years ago. The middle child, David, is Eric’s father. “He’s also an artist; he apprenticed for my grandfather, and he still creates,” Eric said.
Back in the 1950s, though, the Ascalons adjusted to life in California. “My father started in Beverly Hills High School,” he said. The family changed coasts frequently, though; they often lived in Far Rockaway, and then in Manhattan. Zipora Ascalon, who also had become an artist, died in 1982.
After his wife’s death, Maurice Ascalon moved to South Jersey, “where he and my father started Ascalon Studios; although he’s partially retired, David Ascalon still runs the business today, his son said. “The emphasis is on synagogue art, arc doors, stained glass windows,” objects that fulfill the commandment called “hiddur mitzvah” — making religious objects beautiful, to intensify and enhance the roles they play in Jewish ritual.
At the very end of his life, Maurice Ascalon left Cherry Hill for his son Adir’s home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he died in 2003; Adir died just months later.
Maurice and Zipora Ascalon had three children and three grandchildren; all the grandchildren are the children of David and his wife, Ronit, who like David was born in Israel. All those grandchildren are married, but only Eric has children so far. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has three of them.
Soon, his grandfather’s World’s Fair sculpture will be moved to Israel; it’s a valuable piece of both art and history. In the meantime, other works by Maurice Ascalon and his studio are visible in synagogues throughout the state and the country, some of the artifacts of an extraordinary life.