(The brief sketch below borrows heavily from a lengthy, unpublished biographical sketch written by Fred Stetson that included interviews with several family members.)
Ben Zion Black was born in Kovno, Lithuania, and immigrated to Burlington, Vermont in 1910, where he became a professional artist, a mandolin player, actor, Yiddish poet and playwright, and commercial sign maker.
The son of an artist, Black attended several art academies in Kovno while further showing interest in theatrical writing and performance. It was during the latter, while casting for a play he’d written, that he met his future wife, Rachel Saiger. Her parents, however, disapproved of the relationship, and in 1905 took Rachel with them to join other family in Burlington. Black remained committed, however, sending post cards and small paintings, often inscribed with poems in Yiddish, to his beloved. In 1910, having earned money by painting commercial signs while traveling through Germany and France, he immigrated to Burlington to join Rachel, and they were married on February 19, 1912.
When he arrived in Burlington in 1910, Burlington’s second Orthodox synagogue was undergoing renovation and remodeling. Though Black does not appear to have been an active member, he was offered $200 to paint the interior of the sanctuary. He chose to paint the East Wall that housed the ark in an East European motif, incorporating the lions of Judah surrounded by heavy drapes, musical instruments and prayers. The ceiling was painted with an open-sky effect with a multitude of birds, an illusion many congregants later recalled left them with the lifelong impression of the sanctuary being open to the outdoors.
Black’s work, however, was not altogether well-received, in part because many questioned the use of angels (thought to violate the commandment prohibiting graven images) in addition to musical instruments, typically prohibited from use on the Sabbath). He received no further commissions to do synagogue interiors.
Having been deeply immersed in Kovna’s rich art and theatre community, Black found opportunities in Burlington wanting, and he and Rachel moved to Boston, where he painted large oil-cloth murals of adventurous scenes from movies. Rachel, however, was homesick for family, and the two relocated to Burlington in 1918. Black’s brother-in-law, George Saiger, offered him a job making signs to put in the front windows of George’s large North Avenue store, which sold groceries, dry goods and shoes under one roof (what Saiger claimed was Burlington’s “first department store”). Black quickly discovered he had a knack for this work that yielded a very comfortable living. In 1919, he opened B. Black – SIGNS OF THE BETTER KIND, at 15 Center Street in downtown Burlington (today the site of the Daily Planet restaurant), a business he would continue to operate for the next 50 years.
Ben Zion Black had a lifelong love of Yiddish, which he equated with the life’s blood of Jewish culture. A passion born in his Lithuanian youth inspired his indefatigable efforts to promote Yiddish culture in Burlington. He invited – and often underwrote – visits from prominent Yiddish scholars and performing artists. He assembled a collection of more than 5,000 Yiddish books and phonograph records. He wrote a column called “The Yiddish World” for a newsletter printed in Vermont and wrote Yiddish poetry that appeared in Yiddish newspapers and periodicals. He organized a 30-member mandolin orchestra; and he wrote, produced and acted in local theatrical performances.
Ben Zion Black died in 1972 and was buried in the Ahavath Gerim Cemetary on Patchen Road in South Burlington, VT.