Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Spain: Medieval Mikveh Discovered in Girona

Spain: Medieval Mikveh Discovered in Girona 
by Samuel D. Gruber 
(ISJM) I recently reported on a several mikva'ot that have been discovered and excavated in the old and new worlds.  The pace of discovery continues - now that archaeologists are on the lookout, and know what to look for.  The most recent discovery is of a late medieval mikveh from the Jewish center of Girona, Spain.  Archaeologists from the University of Girona led by Jordi Sagrera identified the remains of a pool and a water tank at the site of one of the cities three known synagogues.  In 1964 a large impressive mikveh was discovered at the Catalonian town of  Besalú, not far from Girona.

A statement issued by the Museum and Patronat Call di Girona says the mikveh is located on the site of the third and last of the Jewish Quarter’s synagogues that were built before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.

The archaeologists report that:
The pool was directly connected to a small adjacent chamber located on the western side, of which the western curtain wall and original rectangular adobe paving have been uncovered. Together they comprise a unitary and perfectly watertight whole, accessed via a single doorway in the southern wall. The lintel and lower parts of the doorjambs are preserved. The pool was fed by water from a tank located some two metres to the south of this doorway, a space which at the time probably served as an open patio.

The water tank, another new discovery, is a structure bounded by walls made of stone and mortar. It has a rectangular floor 110 cm by 160 cm and a depth of 50 cm covered entirely by a detailed opus signinum. The bottom is not flat but slopes in a northerly direction and it empties into a drain that passes through the northern wall of the tank towards the pool room.

All of the documented structures were covered with earth and re-used between the late  fifteenth century (the tank) and the mid-sixteenth century (the room adjacent to the pool). The results of the excavations have therefore been effective and we can now state that these are the remains of the ritual baths or mikveh used by the Girona Jewish population from 1435 until the time of its expulsion.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

New Publication: Alex Gorlin on Kabbalah in Art and Architecture

 Berlin, Germany. Jewish Museum. Daniel Libeskind, architect.  A building open for seemingly limitless interpretations.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2003

New Publication: Alex Gorlin on Kabbalah in Art and Architecture

Architect Alex Gorlin, known for his synagogue at the North Shore Hebrew Academy in King's Point Jewish Center synagogue in King's Point, Long Island and his recent addition to the Louis Kahn-designed Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, New York, has compiled a book about finding Kabbalah in art (mostly modern) and architecture.  The book isn't so much about artists'  and architects' attempts to insert Kabbalah in their work (though there examples of this), but rather of how to use Kabbalah as a lens for seeing and understanding art and architectural colors, forms and space. 

Kabbalah in Art and Architecture

By Alexander Gorlin. Pointed Leaf Press, 2013, 192 pages, $60. 

Gavriel D. Rosensaft, author of the Building After Auschwitz: Jewish Architecture and the Memory of the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) has previously written a review in the Forward.

I recommend looking at Gorlin's and Rosensaft's books together; the authors view some of the same buildings with different frames of reference.  Rosensaft has the deeper back story, with much more history and analysis, but Gorlin offers useful pithy descriptions in his extended captions, but always in the context of Kabbalah.  Their interpretations or not contradictory; they are complementary.  

But be warned - though the both the Holocaust and Kabbalah are often referenced in modern architectural works, sometimes an architectural shape is just a shape, an architectural void just a void.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

2014 Corcoran Chair International Conference March 9-10, 2014: Jews, Christians, & Visuality

2014 Corcoran Chair International Conference March 9-10, 2014

Jews, Christians, & Visuality 

This looks like a not-to-miss conference - though I'm not sure I can get to Boston those days.  Anyone interested in Jewish manuscripts and illustration should make the effort. 

Here is the schedule:

Corcoran Chair International Conference Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, Boston College

Please direct questions to

Sunday 9 March, 2014 12p.m.-6:00 p.m. Gasson 305  

Monday 10 March 2014, 9:00am-3:30pm Corcoran Commons Heights Room

Free and open to the public, on the campus of Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Ave., Chestnut Hill, MA 02467

Sunday 9 March, 2014, 12p.m.-6:00 p.m., Gasson 305:

Words of Welcome: James Bernauer, S. J., Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, Boston College
Greetings: Marc Michael Epstein,
Visiting Corcoran Chair in Christian-Jewish Relations, Boston College

12:30-1:40 p.m. 

"The Illuminated Haggadah: Fourteenth-Century Contexts" Adam S. Cohen, University of Toronto

1:45-3:45 p.m.  Session 1: Contrarywise: Starting with a view from the margins Jonathan Elukin, Trinity College, Chair

 "Meanings in the Margins: Text and Image in the Medieval Haggadah" Abby Kornfeld, The City College of New York "'The End of the Deed is Implicit in the First Thought': Implied ensuing action in medieval manuscripts made for Jewish audiences."
Marc Michael Epstein, Boston College / Vassar College

3:45-4:00 p.m. Break

4:00-6:00 p.m.  Session 2: Seeing God and Seeing Each other: Ocular meditations Hartley Lachter, Muhlenberg College, Chair 

"The iconography of God's presence in medieval Hebrew and Christian illuminated manuscripts" Aleksandra Buncic, University of Zagreb "The Eyes have it: Looking at Looking in the Iberian Haggadot" Julie A. Harris, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership

Monday 10 March 2014, Corcoran Commons Heights Room

9:00-11:00 a.m. Session 3: Texts and Contexts 

Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner, Boston College, Chair "'And the earth did not cover him': The murder of Zechariah and its revenge" Zsófia Buda, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Yarnton Bodleian Library, Oxford "Pharaoh Alfonso the French Falconer"
Leor Jacobi, Bar Ilan University

11:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Lunch Break

12:30-2:30 p.m. Session 4: Between Jews and Christians 

Ruth Langer, Boston College, Chair "Jews and Arts in Medieval Apulia" Linda Safran, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies  "Stars and Bones: Revisiting Ezekiel's Visions"
Pamela Berger, Boston College

2:30-3:30 p.m. 

Concluding Roundtable Discussion Hartley Lachter, Muhlenberg College, Chair Adam Cohen, University of Toronto Emma O'Donnell, Boston College

Monday, February 3, 2014

Four Free Lectures on Jewish Art and Architecture by Sam Gruber

Four Free Lectures on Jewish Art and Architecture by Sam Gruber

As it happens I'll be giving five talks and lectures on Jewish topics in Syracuse and Dewitt this month hand next.  Four are deal specifically with Jewish art and architecture and are free and open to the public.  

In addition, this Wednesday (February 5th), I'll be speaking about Jews and the Civil War at Syracuse Stage in conjunction with the current production of The Whipping Man, a play by Matthew Lopez, before the 2 pm matinee performance.

Here is information about talks at congregation Beth Sholom-Cheva Shas (February 16) and Temple Adath Yeshuran (March 9, 23, 30)

Sunday, February 16, 2014  (10:30 AM)

Sponsored By CBS-CS HAZAK, Men’s Club, Women’s Connection (Sisterhood)

Great Synagogues of the World

Jews are the “People of Book”, but surprisingly to many, they are also “People of the Building.”  Given the opportunity, Jews have built beautiful synagogues for their communities for hundreds of years.  Inspired by the detailed architectural accounts in the Bible, and also by their contemporary surroundings, Jews in many places have fulfilled the concept of Hiddur Mitzvah (glorify the commandment) through architecture and architectural decoration.  Great synagogues have been built in Europe of since Middle Ages, but especially since the lavish inauguration of the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam in the late 17th century the stream of impressive Jewish buildings has continued with little interruption on every inhabited continent throughout the world.  This lecture illustrates this architectural and artistic heritage with historic and contemporary images, and traces its survival in the 21st century with special emphasis on lesser known “great synagogues,” on recently restored buildings, and on some of the newest synagogues built.

Three Lectures on Jewish Art:  Between Modernity and Modernism

Temple Adath Yeshuran (450 Kimber Rd, Syracuse, NY 13224)

The 19th century was a transformative period in Jewish art.  It was the century when Jewish art and art by Jews moved from the synagogue and the home into the public sphere.   These three lectures address different aspects of the new development in a variety of setting as Jews encountered new media (oil painting, sculpture and photography) and experimented with new themes and styles.

Sunday, March 9, 2014 (refreshment 9:30 AM; lecture at 10:00 AM)

Jewish Artistic Identity and a New Jewish Art: 1825  -1925

Following the French Revolution, Jews gradually achieved more and more political freedom in Europe, and by 1825 many Jews had received secular educations and begun to participate in broad cultural and artistic activities.  Jews attended art, design and architecture schools and began to compete in open competitions, and also for private commissions.  Throughout a growing number of artists attended painting academies and exhibited in public exhibition.  While much of their work reflect popular taste and common secular and even Christian religious themes, they also produced a body of work based on the Hebrew Bible, synagogue life and the Jewish in which they were raised and sometimes still were grounded.  By the end of the 19th century, academically trained artists were most overtly addressing Jewish social and political themes in their art as well as religious traditions.  In the independent studios of the early 20th century many of these trends continued, though styles changes.  Many Jewish artists actively engaged in and promoted new art styles including impressionism, Art Nouveau, cubism, fauvism, expressionism and constructivism – sometimes distancing themselves from all things Jewish, and sometimes building on Jewish themes.

Sunday, March 23, 2014 (refreshment 9:30 AM; lecture at 10:00 AM)

Describing Jews: Photography of Jews and Jewish Photographers


Art and ethnography came together in the first part of the 20th century as Jewish photographers began to document traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  Some of the intent was preserve memories of a culture that was clearly changing; another part was already nostalgia – something Jewish painters had already pioneered.  From America, Jewish charities hired photographers to document the needy conditions of Jews in order to help promote aid programs and stimulate private contributions.   But Jewish artists – including many women – embraced photographer for its experimental and expressive qualities, too, and Jewish photographers joined the new artistic avante-garde of Expressionism, Constructivism and Dada, and also the new field of photo-journalism. In the post-World War II period, American Jewish photographers turned their camera on themselves and their more immediate environment.  The New York School of photographers blended autobiography, existentialism and a gritty realism to present a more varied look at American than found in advertising and the mainstream media.

Sunday, March 30, 2014 (refreshment 9:30 AM; lecture at 10:00 AM)

Recent Trends in Jewish Art: Who is Jewish and Whose Judaism?

In the past three decades Jewish art – and Jewish artists as become self-aware.  New museums and galleries, and lectures like these have once again stirred debate about what is “Jewish art?”  Post-war Jewish artists grew up in a world where Judaism was often defined by the Holocaust and Israel.  But many artists raised on pop art, comic books and TV, and having also witnessed the civil rights movement, ethnic politics, feminism and other group empowerment programs, have pushed traditional definitions of Jewish art to include new media and a whole new range of subject matter.  Importantly, they have been quick to identify their work as Jewish or even “too Jewish” and have used irony and often irreverent humor to address questions of religious, cultural and ethnic identity.  This lecture looks are some of the many and often competing trends and some of the most accomplished and sometimes provocative artists.