Tuesday, June 12, 2018

USA: Woonsocket, Rhode Island's Remarkable Tent of Meeting, of Concrete and Colored Glass

Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect, 1962.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect; Avigdor Arikha, stained glass design, 1962.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect; Avigdor Arikha, stained glass design, 1962.
USA: Woonsocket, Rhode Island's Remarkable Tent of Meeting, of Concrete and Colored Glass
by Samuel D. Gruber

Next week I will join a group art historians, historians, preservation planners, and Jewish community members on a visit to the remarkable B’Nai Israel synagogue in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. The synagogue was designed by Boston-based Jewish modernist Samuel Glaser (1902-1983), who had previously built Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts.

B'nai Israel was dedicated on September 16, 1962. The synagogue is a little known modern American masterpiece, in which Glaser's expressive concrete architecture structure serves as a frame for a dazzling set of enormous triangular stained glass compositions by Israeli artist Avigdor Arikha (1929-2010). Now the future of the building is uncertain.

George Goodwin, who wrote the definitive article of Glaser and the synagogue in Rhode Island History (58:1, Feb. 2000), described the building fully. He wrote in part:
"As he had with Temple Shalom in Newton, Glaser devised an essentially symmetrical plan. The sanctuary and auditorium, bi­sected by a vestibule, form one long pavilion; when the sanctuary's 260 seats are occupied, 400 folding chairs can be placed in the auditorium. A garden court­yard, called a Court of Festivals, is reached through sliding glass doors. The corridor around the courtyard leads to a lounge, a kitchen, six classrooms, offices, a library, and a chapel. Most of these rooms face the courtyard; a few face a rear parking lot. These interiors are uncluttered, bright, and cheerful. The synagogue's lower level— reached from the vestibule by a grand curving staircase beneath crystal chande­liers, or via a rear staircase (there is no elevator)—contains a vast central space surrounded by kitchens, food service areas, cloakrooms, lounges, and exhibi­tion cases forming a small museum.
B'nai Israel combines a rich variety of materials and textures. The main pavilion is reinforced concrete, decorated at its north­ern and southern ends by polychromed brick. Dark woods are used for hallway paneling and overhead beams. The corri­dor outside the chapel is clad with white marble. At the top of the corridor wall, inscribed in Hebrew, is the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Beneath, in neat rows, are the names of deceased congregants..."
The sanctuary was further embellished by a parochet and other textiles designed by Anni Albers (1899-1994). The synagogue also has notable artwork by Ludwig Wolpert (1900-1981), and a bimah design by Glaser's colleague Antonio de Castro (1930-2017). The architect himself donated an outdoor sculpture of a Burning Bush Menorah by Beverly Pepper (b. 1922), that is an early work by the artist who has gone on to fame for her monumental works.

The best images of the synagogue are by Louis Davidson and can be found here at https://www.synagogues360.org/gallery/bnai-israel/.

Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect, 1962.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect; Avigdor Arikha, stained glass design, 1962.
I've only seen this building in pictures, and thanks to distinguished scholar of (medieval) stained glass Madeline Caviness, I now have much better images of the windows - and I look forward to seeing these up close, and even more photographic documentation.  Prof. Caviness will be there on July 19th, too, as will George Goodwin. 

While I reserve final judgement until I fully experience the space and structure of B'nai Israel - I am sure I'll be mightily impressed. The building is related to a significant group of important mid-century synagogue designs related in time, materials, repressive language and architectural and congregational aspirations. But it does appear to me that B'nai Israel is especially comparable to Minoru Yamasaki's much larger North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois, completed in 1963, but under designed at the same time. Both buildings appear to me to be broadly based on the concept of the Mishkhan (Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting) described in Exodus as the first designed religious space of the Israelites. The Mishkhan is described in modular terms, mostly as a framework (Exodus 15-25). The idea of a temporary tent of meeting, erected in the desert for wandering people, had great appeal in the post-World War II period, especially in the combined context of post-Holocaust communal trauma and the widespread American exodus of Jews from cities to rapidly expanding suburbs. While in the late 19th-century American Jews focused on the idea of the Temple, and Reform Jews felt comfortable enough in their new American home to call the synagogue "Temples," and (as I have written elsewhere) to happily adapt Greco-Roman temple forms for synagogue architecture.

Glencoe, Illinois. North Shore Congregation Israel. Minoru Yamasaki, architect, 1964. Photo: Paul Rocheleau.
Glencoe, Illinois. North Shore Congregation Israel. Minoru Yamasaki, architect, 1964. Photo: Paul Rocheleau.
In addition to Yamasaki's influence, Goodwin has rightfully pointed out  the relationship of Glaser's use of concrete, especially in the sanctuary ceiling beams, to work by Marcel Breuer. Similarly, there is a correspondence in the position and form of B'nai Israel's entrance vestibule to Philip Johnson's design at Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel, in Port Chester, New York, though overall Glaser's work is quite different than Johnson's. B'nai Israel is dynamic and expressive; Kneses Tifereth Israel is rational and cool.

The future of Glaser's B'nai Israel is uncertain. The Woonsocket Jewish community is now tiny, and even in 1962 when the synagogue was dedicated the community was at its peak. It never grew into the excessive seating capacity of the new synagogue.Today, the building is need of repair, but it is not clear how much and how urgently.

Like so many other important religious buildings of the 1950s and 1960s, B’nai Israel now suffers from changing demographics, and changing tastes and style in religious worship, and unfortunately, B'nai Israel has been and remains too little known. It was not included in Richard Meier's seminal 1963 Jewish Museum exhibition Recent American Synagogue Architecture, and thus lost the chance to be recognized by a wider audience in succeeding decades, and the catalogue of that exhibit subsequently became a primer and guide to significant modern synagogue design. I greatly regret that i perpetuated B'nai IsraeI's isolation by not including it in my 2003 Rizzoli book, American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community (Beth El in Providence, Rhode Island's other great modern synagogue, did make it in).

Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect; Avigdor Arikha, stained glass design. Arikha's signature on the glass, 1962.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect; Avigdor Arikha, stained glass design, 1962. Photo: Louis Davidson.

Glaser's architecture remains impressive today bit it is the brilliance of the Arikha's thirty stained glass windows that draws the most attention. Good win writes that:
"... the sanctuary and auditorium's thirty stained-glass windows may be the finest ensemble in a modern American synagogue. Perhaps the architect thought about this medium in terms of his own name, although glass has meant something altogether different—and horrifying—to world Jewry since Kristallnacht in 1938."
And the great scholar of Jewish art Ziva Amishai-Maisels, professor emerita at Hebrew University, has recently written that:
"I have written about Arikha in my book, Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts and have always found him to be a fascinating and very important artist. The windows are one of his last and most successful forays into abstract art and should be preserved at all costs, whether in a synagogue, museum or any public place available, not only for their historical importance but for their beauty. They are not only important in a Jewish or Israeli context, but internationally, as he was an internationally renowned artist, starting from his abstract stage."
But it seems clear that that power of the windows is in large part because of their number  and their setting within their architectural frame. These enormous windows are not easily moved - and if they would be it is not c;ear they would maintain their power.  At next week;s meeting will explore as many options as we can imagine for the survival of the buildings and its windows.

We hope that this discussion is not too late. Other important modern synagogues have been torn down and as I write this, I learn from Brad Kolodny that Temple Emanu-El in East Meadow, Long Island, built in 1957 and designed by Davis, Brody and Wisniewski is soon to be demolished. Temple Emanu-El, of which I will write more, was of the synagogues prominently featured in the 1963 Jewish Museum exhibit.

Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect, 1962.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect, 1962.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect; Avigdor Arikha, stained glass design, 1962.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

USA: A Sunday Synagogue Walk on Broome and Eldridge Streets

New York, NY. Greek-Jewish Festival on Broome Street. Photo: Samuel Gruber May 2018
New York, NY. Greek-Jewish Festival on Broome Street. Photo: Samuel Gruber May 2018
New York, NY. Greek-Jewish Festival on Broome Street. Photo: Samuel Gruber May 2018
New York, NY. Greek-Jewish Festival on Broome Street. Photo: Samuel Gruber May 2018
USA: A Sunday Synagogue Walk on Broome and Eldridge Streets
by Samuel D. Gruber

May 6th, 2018 was a lively Sunday on New York's Lower East Side. The Greek-Jewish Festival was in full swing on Broome Street, filling the street for a block with music, food, and souvenirs in front of the historic Romaniote KKJ (Kehila Kedosha Janina) synagogue, while a few blocks down Eldridge Street the great Eldridge Street Synagogue - now the Museum at Eldridge Street - was open to visitors as part of the state-wide New York Landmarks Society organized Sacred Sites weekend. There were self-guided and docent-guided tours, all culminating in a lively concert in the sanctuary by the Eyal Vilner Big Band.

New York, NY. Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue, Broome Street. Photo: Samuel Gruber
New York, NY. Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue, Broome Street. Photo: Samuel Gruber
These two poles of Eldridge Street, now embedded for many years in New York's expansive Chinatown, are the ying and yang (are those Yiddish terms?) of the former Lower East Side religious and architectural experience. The Eldridge Street Synagogue, opened in 1887,  was the worship palace, the grand Moorish-style response of the Yiddish-speaking Eastern European downtown Jews to the often ostentatious architectural displays of their Uptown, German-speaking but increasingly Americanized "cousins". Meanwhile, gathered around Eldridge (and also around the nearby and now demolished  Beth Hamedrash Hagadol), were dozens of small synagogues, what we now call "tenement shuls," tucked into the dense residential fabric of the neighborhood dominated bu over-crowded tenement buildings. Most of these shuls belonged to Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jewish congregations and societies, too, all except for KKJ. This tenement shul, opened in the 1920s, was the home of different Jewish immigrant group.

KKJ's congregants came from Greece and mostly from the northern mainland city of Ioannina, for centuries the bastion of the Judeo-Greek language and culture and the ancient Romaniote liturgy - which predates the 15th- and 16th-century arrival and spread of Sepahrdi culture in the Ottoman empire, including modern Greece.  A visit to KKJ allows one to experience the space and decor of a Lower East Side tenement Shul, but through the museum and the weekly services, to imbibe something of the Romaniote culture.The shul and museum are open the public every Sunday, and the congregation is always welcoming to participants for Shabbat morning and holiday services, but check the on-line schedule first (For a traditional  Friday night or Saturday morning Ashkenazi service in another tenement shul, visit the Stanton Street Shul, located about a ten minute walk from KKJ).

A 5-minute walk down Eldridge Street from KKJ on Broome Street takes one to the great Eldridge Street Synagogue, but along the way one passes the former Tifereth Jerushelaim Synagogue, which for years was the studio of modern abstract artist Milton Resnick (1917-2004). Resnick, who was born in Bratslav, Ukraine, came to America in 1922. Thee former synagogue will soon re-open to the public as the exhibition space of the Resnick/Passlof Foundation celebrating the life and work of Resnick and his wife, artist Pat Passlof (1928-2011), who had her own studio in another former synagogue on Forsyth Street, also on the Lower East Side synagogue. Read more about Resnick and Passlof here.  Nothing significant of the synagogue interior survives, but it appears to have had a large upstairs 2-level sanctuary, presumably with a women's gallery. The building was mostly lit by the large windows on the facade.


New York, NY. Former Tifereth Jerushelaim Synagogue in 2005  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2005.
New York, NY. Former Tifereth Jerushelaim Synagogue, 87 Eldridge Street, now the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
According to the Foundation's website: "The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation will be a largely traditional exhibition space upon its opening in February 2018. Housed in Milton Resnick’s former studio building on Eldridge Street, the Foundation will exhibit paintings on canvas and paper by Resnick, his wife Pat Passlof, and other mature painters working out of the Abstract Expressionist tradition, broadly defined. The emphasis will be placed squarely on the one-to-one confrontation with painting itself."  Word from the Foundation is that the opening is now hoped for at the end of this month, but you can follow progress with the Foundation Newsletter free to subscribers here.

New York, NY. Former Tifereth Jerushelaim Synagogue, 87 Eldridge Street, now the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
The use of the synagogue as exhibition space adds another dimension to the Jewish history of the Lower East Side, recognizing the second lives of many synagogues in the area, and the prominent by mostly-undocumented role the American Jewish post World War Ii artists played in the continued Jewish history of the area. There is more than a century of Jewish secular and cultural life in between, and later actually within the walls, of synagogues and former synagogues.

The highlight of any tour of Lower East Side synagogues is a visit to the Eldridge Street Synagogue. I never get tired of visiting. Each time I'm struck by the beauty of place and the lasting quality of the restoration. I've written and lectured about the Eldridge Street restoration many time in the past, and I'm sure i will again. One aspect of the restoration, however that may link this place with the Resnick/Passlof Foundation, is the large new rose window above the Ark - a window designed by contemporary artist Kiki Smith and a work that moves the 19th century Moorish-style synagogue, and the late 20th-century restoration into to the world of 21st century art. For me, the new window overpowers the decades of meticulous restoration work, but mine is a minority view. The new window is a very popular addition to the building that opens a new chapter in the building's life.

New York, NY. Eldridge Street Synagogue. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
New York, NY. Eldridge Street Synagogue. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
New York, NY. Eldridge Street Synagogue. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
New York, NY. Eldridge Street Synagogue. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
I always try to bring new visitors to Eldridge and I love seeing their expression as they first enter the sanctuary. If you have never been - be sure you take a Sunday walk on Eldridge Street your next time in the city. Walk form KKJ to Eldridge, or the other way around, and get of the Jewish religious and architectural diversity of a century ago. And for lunch - there are scores of Chinese restaurants in every direction.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

USA: Revisiting LA's Breed Street Shul with Eye on Murals

Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Facade. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Facade detail. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
USA: Revisiting LA's Breed Street Shul with Eye on Murals
by Samuel D. Gruber

[n.b corrected and revised 5/31/2018

Until recently, it had been over a decade since I last visited the Breed Street Shul in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights district, once home to LA's bustling East European Jewish immigrant community. Today the area is mostly Hispanic but a few Jewish traces and landmarks remain. The Breed Street Shul is the most prominent of these. Local preservationists and community activists have been slowly restoring the massive building which was close to collapse two decades ago.

In 2005 I wrote about the effort in the Forward as it was just getting started The roof and windows had been repaired and the structure had been made dry and safe(er), though more structural work and the upgrading of all mechanical systems was needed, as well the complete rehabilitation of the adjacent space. These included a heavily damaged and graffiti-covered Beth Midrash, with a large desecrated mural behind the Ark. Stopping in for a brief visit more than a decade later some things had changed a lot; others not so much. The sanctuary is still a "large, empty hall, with a few benches, a battered bimah, and traces of wall paintings with the tree of life and signs of the Jewish calendar still visible" It still calls to mind many ruined or empty synagogue buildings I have visited over a 30-year period in Central and Eastern Europe. 

At Breed Street much of the destruction and loss of the building’s fixtures and decoration took place in a short time after 1996. 1986 photos on display by Bill Aron show the sanctuary and Beth Midrash as fully functional.

Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul in 1986. Photo: Bill Aron (on display at Breed Street Shul)
Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul Beth Midrash in 1986. Photo: Bill Aron (on display at Breed street Shul)
The Breed Street Shul, formally known as Congregation Talmud Torah, opened its sanctuary 1923, following designs by the architectural firm of Edelman and Barnett. In the heyday of the synagogue, 75,000 Jews lived in Boyle Heights and nearby City Terrace, and the Breed Street Sanctuary could accommodate about 1,100 of them. The synagogue’s architect, Abram Edelman (1864-1941), was the son of the first ordained rabbi to serve in Los Angeles. He was a prominent architect in Southern California for several decades and later in the 1920s he would help design Wilshire Boulevard Temple, thus having a hand in creating both the Orthodox and Reform centers of Southern California Judaism. Leo Barnett, his partner at Breed Street, was also his nephew.

Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2005
On this visit I paid much more attention to the wall paintings than I has before. In the sanctuary are painted large rectangular panels of mazoles or Zodiac signs of the months of the Hebrew calendar. These are on the parapet wall of the women's gallery and on panels dividing the big sanctuary windows on the south and north walls, and on the east wall flanking the ark. Overall, synagogue wall paintings have received short shrift from historians, and consequently we have lost many with little or no documentation. The penchant for decorating synagogue with sighs of the Zodiac representing the Jewish months, and hence the calendar and all cosmic time, was brought by immigrants from Europe, where Zodiac signs had been included in different media in Jewish art for centuries, including synagogue murals. There were many examples of this type of painting in New York, and a few examples survive.

The mazoles murals at the Breed Street Shul are charming, lively, and markedly different from similar signs found in synagogues in the East. They are also quite different from paintings on the sanctuary ark wall, which are described below. Presumably the mazoles  were painted around the time the synagogue was built (mid 1920s)- though they do have a 1950s looks to them and it is not impossible that they were added later. At this time we do not know who the artist was, but he (it was almost certainly a man) was clearly someone trained with a modern sensibility, and perhaps with experience in animation or commercial art.

Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Zodiac sign for the month of Iyar (Taurus). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Zodiac sign for the month of Iyar (Taurus). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018

Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Zodiac sign for the month of Adar (Pisces). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Zodiac sign for the month of Tammuz (Cancer). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Zodiac sign for the month of Sivan (Gemini). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Sanctuary view toward women's gallery. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
In addition to the mazoles, the Breed Street sanctuary is adorned with other painting on the ark wall. In the far left corner are paintings of instruments, probably referring to the 150th psalm. Two unusual paintings of trees flank the Ark. Each shows it roots, but the one on the north (left) has leaves but no fruit. The one to the south (right) of the Ark is meant to be an etrog tree - the fruits are clearly visible on the spindly branches. As if there is any doubt, at the bottom is an etrog box and lulav, the traditional signs of the holiday of Sukkot. Given this clear meaning, the first tree is probably meant to be a myrtle (הֲדַס / hadas), the aromatic evergreen that grows wild in Israel, and is traditionally considered the "boughs of leafy trees" referred to in Leviticus 23:40. It is one of the "four species" needed to celebrate Sukkot, along with the willow, lulav and etrog.

There was once a large painting in the center of the Ark but this is so damaged it is difficult to identity.  But it once represented a large Decalogue (Ten Commandments) sitting atop a mountain, with an expansive landscape around it. This presentation of the Law on Sinai is a known theme in synagogue art.


Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2006

Los Angeles, CA. Ark painting before damage.

Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Ark wall paintings. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2005
Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Ark wall painting of etrog tree. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2006
The greatest improvement at Breed Street is the repair of ancillary spaces and the complete renovation of the former Beth Midrash into an exhibition and meeting space. There is an informative exhibition on the history of the Boyle Heights neighborhood installed in the space. But the high point is the preservation of the original Ark and its conservation.  When I saw it in 2006 the pace was trashed and the mural was covered with graffiti. Now he large spoil painting has been fully cleaned and conserved. 

The painting style is in the tradition of theatrical backdrops, and perhaps a painter of film sets of the silent era was engaged for the work (as Hugo Ballin was at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple at about the same timer). Although there is probably no direct connection, the closest American synagogue example to this mostly architectural composition is the rescued mural form the former Chai Adam Shul in Burlington, Vermont. Like Burlington, the Breed Street Beth Midrash ark includes four columns, hanging curtains, and a Decalogue. Here there are also menorahs, Jewish stars and the priestly blessing.

Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Beth Midrash ark and mural before conservation. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2006
Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Beth Midrash ark and mural after conservation. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Los Angeles. Breed Street Shul. Beth Midrash ark and mural after conservation. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
We'll keep watching progress at Breed Street. It is a generational project. Total costs are in the millions, but without a Jewish use there doesn't seem to be a donor - Jewish or otherwise - in the offing. More than $50 million was spent to restore the contemporary Wilshire Boulevard Temple, but that is still serves as the center of a large and active congregation. The Breed Street Shul deserves a future ...who knows exactly what it will be? Whatever the future, I hope that the wall decorations, as modest as they are, are part of the plan.