Monday, August 24, 2015

USA: Middletown, Pennsylvania's B'nai Jacob is Small, but Still a Treasure (and tied to Pušalotas, Lithuania)

 
Middletown, PA. B'nai Jacob Synagogue, 1906. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Pusalotas, Lithuania. Former synagogue, view from southwest. (Photo: Evelina Kazakauskaitė, 2006. SLC Archives) from Synagogues of Lithuania, Vol 2, p63

Middletown, PA. B'nai Jacob Synagogue Sanctuary,1906. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Middletown, PA. B'nai Jacob Synagogue Sanctuary,1906. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

USA: Middletown, Pennsylvania's B'nai Jacob is Small, but Still a Treasure (and tied to Pušalotas, Lithuania)
by Samuel D. Gruber

[(August 26, 2015) Correction: in the first version of this post, I said that the former synagogue of Pušalotas was still used as a meat canning plant. This is not true. That function ended in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and the synagogue has been owned by the Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) Community (LJC) since 1993. Unfortunately, no use for the building has been found, and it is empty.]

(ISJM) A few months ago I had the pleasure of visiting the B'nai Jacob synagogue in Middleton, Pennsylvania, where the local Penn State University campus is located, just outside Harrisburg.  I'd known about this little gem for many years, first from a paper written by Matt Singer relating this building  to similar vernacular Gothic synagogues (you can read it here: Jewish-American Gothic Architecture), and also from Julian Preisler, who has been documenting Pennsylvania synagogues for many years. The opportunity to lecture at Penn State Harrisburg gave me a chance to visit - and I was not disappointed.  

Coincidentally for me (but as pointed out by Singer) the building bears striking formal similarities to the former Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vermont, and the B'nai Abraham Synagogue of Brenham, Texas, which was recently relocated to Austin (and which will be rededicated on August 30th.  These were all Lithuanian-Jewish (Litvak) settlements, and they all seem to have drawn on similar sources and/or been inspired in similar ways by local American vernacular construction. I'm also interested in Middletown's connection to Pusalotas, Lithuania, the town from which most of the Middletown Jewish settlers emigrated ca. 1900, and  whose Jewish population was massacred in 1941, but where the former synagogue still stands, and has been returned to the Jewish Community of Lithuania. My new position as a member of the Commission for the Issues Concerning the Jewish History and Culture has me wondering if something more should or could  be done there. 

Services are still held in Middletown once a month (but of course, no more in Pusalotas) and the small B'nai Jacob congregation works hard to maintain the building and its fittings. Three ark curtains have been saved and conserved, and these are hung in protective frames in the social hall downstairs.
 
Middletown, PA. B'nai Jacob Synagogue, 1906. One of three parochot (ark curtains) is preserved in the social hall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

The congregation is presently raising funds to restore the exterior entrance stairs which are deteriorating, and bowing away from the building.  More than half of the estimated $25,000 needs has been raised.  I encourage readers to make an online contribution - of any size - via the GoFundMe webpage, here.

You can read about the Middletown synagogue here:  Historic B'nai Jacob Synagogue, with a detailed description and analysis of the building by Matt Singer here:  B'NAI JACOB BUILDING ANALYSIS.

Middletown, PA. B'nai Jacob Synagogue, 1906. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

B'nai Jacob is a simple but refined one story brick structure, with tall narrow front, side and back windows with  pointed arches. It is only becasue of these windows that the synagogues is sometimes referred to as "Gothic" in style.  At the rear of the building, one can see a protrusion that represents the Ark, which has been erected to have a depth far greater than the Ark wall thickness. This arrangement is not unknown elsewhere in Europe and America, but neither is it common (I promise to write more about this feature, variations of which can be found in late 19th century synagogues such the former Adas Israel in Washington and in some of the simple synagogues of the agricultural communities of Southern New Jersey (Alliance, Brotmanville, etc.). 

Middletown, PA. B'nai Jacob Synagogue, 1906. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015
The sanctuary is reached by outside steps and the entire sanctuary is raised on a half story, allowing light into a a full basement used for community space. These exterior stairs, as previously, mentioned, need repair.

The interior arrangement is traditional, with a central bimah and seating for women in a gallery built above the entrance vestibule, reached by a dogleg stair the opens off the vestibule, before the sanctuary door. The synagogue walls are painted white - but given the colors and decorative patterns we have found in recent years beneath modern whitewash, I wonder of the original appearance wasn't a bit less austere.  But certainly the congregation here decided against the richly painted interiors of many contemporary immigrant shuls.The ark employs classical elements combined with the a pair of traditional (East Europe) carved wooden lions supporting a painted Decalogue (Tablets with Ten Commandments) set on top. The pews of B'nai Jacob were obtained from an earlier version of the Dauphin County Courthouse.
Middletown, PA. B'nai Jacob Synagogue, 1906. View from women's gallery.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015
Middletown, PA. B'nai Jacob Synagogue, 1906. View from women's gallery. showing central bimah.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Middletown, PA. B'nai Jacob Synagogue, 1906. Women's gallery.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015
Middletown, PA. B'nai Jacob Synagogue, 1906. View to women's gallery.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Middletown, PA. B'nai Jacob Synagogue, 1906. View of ceiling with large chandelier and of the lions and Decalogue over the Ark.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Middletown, PA. B'nai Jacob Synagogue, 1906. View of pews towards the Ark.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015
We know something about the origins of the Jewish settlers of Middletown, and the founders of B'nai Jacob, who according to Singer:
 "were, overwhelmingly, Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. Oral lore notes that the founders were not only all, or nearly all, Lithuanian, but were from small, rural villages in the vicinity of the city of Panevezys in north-central Lithuania. Records available through JewishGen, a Jewish genealogy website, confirm this assertion. An addendum to the synagogue’s National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form (B’nai Jacob was granted historic status in 1985), states that B’nai Jacob’s members were, primarily, from the village of Pusalotas in north-central Lithuania. 

These Lithuanian Jews were adventurous enough to immigrate to the United States and settle in an obscure, rural town (in these characteristics, of course, Middletown was similar to the villages from which B’nai Jacob’s founders hailed) with a minuscule Jewish community and no Jewish institutions prior to the building of the synagogue. Nonetheless, they maintained traditional Eastern European Orthodox practice, which included living within walking distance of a synagogue, as traditional Jewish law forbids traveling by vehicle on the Sabbath."
Pusalotas, Lithuania. Former synagogue, view from northwest. (Photo: Evelina Kazakauskaitė, 2006. SLC Archives) from Synagogues of Lithuania, Vol 2.


Interestingly, Pušalotas had a brick synagogue - but this was built until 1913, seven years after the one in Middletown, after Pusalotas's wooden synagogue burned down. The building survives and its present condition is described in detail in Synagogues of Lithuania, Vol. 2, pp 61-65. Funds for this synagogue were originally sent from immigrants in America to Rueven Brog, the grandfather of Israeli politician and former commander-in chief Ehud Barak (b. 1942).  Brog, who was a pharmacist. In 1912, he received the money from the United States but thieves broke into his house, killed Reuven and his wife Frida, wounded their eldest son and stole the money. Nevertheless, a synagogue was built near the market square, on the opposite side of the Catholic church in 1913.12.  Howard Margol  and Willie Mann (who was born in Pushelat in 1913), and present a history of the Jewish settlement in the town and include this about the synagogue:
The main centre of activity was the shul - a solid two-storey brick building which was the heart of the shtetl. This was the new shul that was completed in 1913 after the wooden synagogue burned down. The main hall had two large tiled stoves that were always lit during winter, as it was extremely cold. This hall was only used on Shabbat and Yomtov. For daily prayers we used a small room heated in winter with ready-cut wooden logs - there was always a tall stack of them in the open yard - as Lithuania had no coal mines. Prayers were held three times a day and we boys were expected to davven every day, which we duly did. The shul had no toilets, as there was no running water in the shtetl and no indoor plumbing. 
Most of the exterior of the substantial synagogue remains intact, as can be seen in photos taken in 2006. According to the authors of Synagogues of Lithuania, the synagogue interior was destroyed when the building to industrial purposes after the Holocaust. In the decades since World War II it has housed a dairy, a mill, and then a meat preserving plant. The property was returned to the Lithuanian Jewish Community, and in 2005 a memorial plaque for the victims of the Holocaust was set up on the southern wall of the former synagogue. To my knowledge no plans have been made to renovate or restore the building for any specific Jewish purpose.

 Pusalotas, Lithuania. Former synagogue, memorial plaque on the southern façade. (Photo: Evelina Kazakauskaitė, 2006. SLC Archives), from Synagogues of Lithuania, Vol 2., p64.





Sunday, July 19, 2015

USA: Beachwood Ohio's Fairmount Temple is a Monument of Mid-20th-Century Jewish Design

 
Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple. Percival Goodman, arch. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple. Percival Goodman, arch. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, entrance. Percival Goodman, arch., Abraham Rattner, artist. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, sanctuary. Percival Goodman, arch. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

USA: Beachwood Ohio's Fairmount Temple is a Monument of Mid-20th-Century Jewish Art and Architecture
by Samuel D. Gruber

If you are an admirer of Mid-Century Modern synagogue art and architecture - or are just merely curious - then Cleveland and the suburb of Beachwood, Ohio, are required stops. Two of the most splendid,  innovative and influential modern synagogues were built for Cleveland congregations in the early 1950s; designed by Eric Mendelsohn and Percival Goodman, the premier synagogue architects of the post-World War II era.

The German-born Mendelsohn designed the Park Synagogue, his late masterpiece,  for the Conservative congregation. Design began in 1946, and the synagogue was dedicated in 1953.  Soon after Mendelsohnbegan work, his younger American-born rival Percival Goodman was commissioned to design a large new home for the Reform Congregation Anshe Chesed, which decided to move from its impressive Euclid Avenue Temple at East 82nd and Euclid Avenue, dedicated in 1912. 

Congregation Anshe Chesed obtained a 32-acre parcel of land off Fairmount Boulevard  in Beachwood, just over the eastern border of the city, and area still new to Jews. The new facility, begun in 1951, was named the Fairmont Temple. It still serves a large and vibrant Reform congregation. The move wasn't easy. There was a protracted zoning battle opposed to Anshe Chesed's plans that went to the Ohio Supreme Court before the City of Beachwood approved the construction. Anshe Chesed’s Fairmount Temple was dedicated on May 31, 1957.

Beachwood, Ohio. An eagle soars above Fairmount Temple. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

I was recently in the Cleveland area lecturing, and was able to visit a few synagogues, as well as the excellent Maaltz Museum.  Unfortunately I did not revisit Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights - as it is only open on Saturdays (I did visit the beautiful and more recent Park Synagogue East on Pepper Pike,, designed by Centerbrook Architects, but that is another story). But the time I spent at the Fairmount Temple was enough of a reward.  Goodman's designed chapel and sanctuary and  most of the original facility is well maintained and still close to the original appearance, including the rich array of modern religious art by post-war Jewish Jewish luminaries Abraham Rattner and Ibram Lassaw. Many other works of Judaica from the congregation's history are well displayed. These include liturgical objects as well as Jewish-themed Fine Art, such as Abraham, Isaac and the Angel by Elbert Weinberg, about whose Procession I recently wrote.  

 
Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, entrance. Percival Goodman, arch., Abraham Rattner, artist. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Like many of Goodman's designs, Fairmount Temple is enlivened with bold accents - often of jutting diagonal forms. Here, we first notice the zig-zag roof line, and coming closer we are greeted by a entrance porch pushing forward and upward, supported by brightly designed mosaic-covered piers, that  thicken as they rise to support the porch roof. Abstract artist Abraham Rattner designed the mosaics and the bright angular almost shard-like forms remind us of Rattner's work at the Chicago Loop Synagogue, where he designed the great stained glass window.  Inside Fairmount, Rattmer also created large decorations for the chapel though some of these are now displayed in the social hall. 

An open court of the original design has now covered, and it has been given a veneer of Jerusalem or Jerusalem-like white limestone. This space now serves as a large and main foyer.  The limestone is at odds with the simple beauty of Goodman's wood and brick surfaces, but these survive throughout much of the complex. The highlights of the interior are the small chapel and the large sanctuary, which demonstrate Goodman's capacity for intimacy and grandeur, but there is also much to enjoy in the small details and the arrangement of parts.

 Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, chapel. Percival Goodman, arch., Abraham Rattner, artist.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

The sanctuary is large, light and airy. The first impression is that the side walls are made of stained glass panels, but in fact the walls are a lattice of pastel painted colored panels, set at an angle, that filters the light from the alternating clear window panes. The only colored glass is found in rectangular panes set into the east wall above and around the Ark. The floor slopes gradually to the front, where the bimah rises in steps to a moderately high platform, with the pulpits and Ark visible to all.

 Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, sanctuary. Percival Goodman, arch. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, sanctuary. Percival Goodman, arch. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, sanctuary. Percival Goodman, arch. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

The Ark is a free-standing niche of white marble or polished limestone. A large bronze wing hovering over a beaten bronze orb (presumably the sun) t hat also serves as the ner tamid, sculpted by Ibram Lassaw, is applied to the valence of the Ark. The wing recalls the wings of the cherubim seated on the lid of the Ark of Covenant as described in Exodus. This single wing is a dramatic abbreviation, and it also can refer to the sheltering wing of a protecting God. The orb recalls other works of Lassaw for other synagogues, notably Beth El in Providence, and formerly in Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, New York (now in the Jewish Museum, NY)

Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, bimah and Ark. Percival Goodman, arch. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015
 
 Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, Ark detail. Percival Goodman, arch., Ibram Lassaw, sculptor.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

More relief sculptures by Lassaw adorn the sidewalls of the sanctuary, affixed just under the window level. These ten abstract designs suggest galaxies and stars and planets that relate to the sun on the Ark, and suggest a symbolic divinely created cosmos. They are, however, referred to as the  "Attributes of God," or ten sefirot, with names including "Creation," "Wisdom," and "Creativity." Did this iconography come form Lassaw?  In any case, these sculptures need to be considered in the literature of Kabbalah and art, along with contemporary work by Barnett Newman and a few others.

The rear wall of the sanctuary is a wall of doors that can be opened to expand the space to the social hall. But above the doors is a large west-facing window made to in the form of a grid-like mosaic.

 Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, sanctuary view to rear wall. Percival Goodman, arch. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, sanctuary rear wall. Percival Goodman, arch. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

  Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, relief sculpture in sanctuary. Ibram Lassaw, artist.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, relief sculpture in sanctuary. Ibram Lassaw, artist.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, relief sculpture in sanctuary. Ibram Lassaw, artist.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, relief sculpture in sanctuary. Ibram Lassaw, artist.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

In the social hall. now affixed to the wall that connects to the sanctuary, are three large wall hangings designed by Abraham Rattner, originally form the chapel. I'll try to address the significance and meaning of these in a future post.

Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, social hall. Abraham Rattner, artist.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, social hall. Abraham Rattner, artist.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, social hall. Abraham Rattner, artist.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

One of the virtues of Goodman's synagogue work is how often he was able to combine expressive form and Jewish modesty through the use of simple - even humble - materials. Fairmount Temple is no exception (I have previously written about this in the context of Beth El in Springfield, MA). . Most of the work is achieve with simple brick, finished plywood for doors and panels, and plaster for ceilings and walls. It is striking - and a a lesson in aesthetics - to compare one side of the lobby area with its original Goodman brick with the piers opposite-  which are clad in polished stone. The brickwork on the exterior, too, is quite good. Variations in shading of the brick is used t good effect to create indistinct patterns or perhaps to suggest the ever present variations of the natural world - even in a design and constricted building. 


 Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, entrance hall. Note original brickwork on right and new stone on the left. .  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, Exterior wall outside chapel, note excellent brickwork.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Beachwood, Ohio. Fairmount Temple, Exterior wall outside chapel, note excellent brickwork.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

For further reading:

Elman, Kimberly and Giral, Angela, eds, 2001. Percival Goodman: architect, planner, teacher, painter. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery. Columbia University, New York.

Goodman, Percival. "Modem Artists as Synagogue Builders. " Commentary, vol. 7, no.1, (January, 1949).



Goodman, Percival. "Worship and the Arts in the Jewish Tradition." Architectural Record, vol. 118, (December, 1955), pp. 170-171.



Guth, Douglas J., “Artful Jewish Artifacts of Northeast Ohio,” Cleveland Jewish News (Dec. 19, 2002)

“Vigorous Art in the Temple” in Architectural Forum 1959 May, v. 110, p. 140-145.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Latvia: Death of Pioneering Researcher Meijers Melers (Meyer Meler)

 
 Meijers Melers at the Museum "Jews of Latvia." Photo: Samuel Gruber 2003

  Meijers Melers adding to his photo archive at the Rumbula Memorial outside Riga. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2003.

Latvia: Death of Pioneering Researcher Meijers Melers (Meyer Meler)
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) It is with sadness that I report the recent death of Meijers Melers (Meyer Meler), the premier researcher of Jewish cemeteries and mass grave sites in Latvia. Meijers Melers was born in 1929 and died April 25th at age 85.  Jewish heritage and Holocaust history was an unexpected second career for Melers. Trained as an engineer, he managed an electric power plan during the decades of Communist rule in Latvia. The fall of Communism and the reconstitution of an active Jewish community coincided with his retirement and Melers dedicated himself to locating and documenting Jewish cemeteries and mass grave sites throughout Latvia on behalf of the Jewish Community and the Museum "Jews of Latvia,"  which has posted an obituary on its website.

Fifteen years ago I got to know Meijers Melers on several trips to Latvia, during which time the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad was a sponsor of his survey research. The results of that work were published in a tr-lingual book Meler, Meyer, ed. Jewish Cemeteries in Latvia.  (Riga, Latvia: Riga Jewish Community - Museum Jews in Latvia, 2006. 133-134).  Then from 2007 to 2010 Melers assisted with four documentary expeditions in Latvia by the Center for Jewish Art of Hebrew University that collected further documentation on Jewish sites throughout the country, using Melers' work and experience as the starting point. In 2013, he published the 437-page Latvijas ebreju kopienas vēsture un holokausta piemiņas vietas about Holocaust-related sites in the country, and the Center for Jewish Art is presently preparing a publication about the synagogue of Latvia. 



 
  Meijers Melers at his Museum office. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2003

Melers personally visited all of the sites he identified in the country, and he described their condition and in many cases he organized efforts to protect these sites.  He was also always a warm and welcoming person, ready to show Jewish sites to visiting scholars and dignitaries. Though we did not share fluency in a common language, I remember his sense of humor - whcih could be both ironic and broad.

In recognition of his service to Latvia, in 2014 Meijers Melers  was decorated with the country's highest civil award, the Order of Three Stars. He has left a important legacy. His dedication is inspirational, and demonstrates the great contribution a single individual can make to Jewish history and Holocaust commemoration, or any common good, even as a life's second act.

May his memory be blessed.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

USA: Burlington Mural to be Unveiled on August 2, 2015

 Burlington, Vermont. Chai Adam Synagogue mural arriving at its new home at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, May 6, 2015. Photo courtesy of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue

USA: Burlington Mural to be Unveiled on August 2, 2015
by Samuel D Gruber
 
(ISJM) The early 20th century synagogue mural in Burlington, Vermont, recovered from a former synagogue turned apartment building, was successfully moved to its new home at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue on May 6, 2015. I posted about preparations for the move last March.  The mural was moved in May. The mural will be unveiled in its new location in a ceremony on the evening of August 2, 2015.

You can watch a short film documenting the move here:
https://www.cctv.org/watch-tv/programs/moving-lost-shul-mural-tour 

In the end the move only took a few hours - but all the technical details and conservation challenges took over a year to work out.

Work on this project is far from over.  Though conservation and cleaning work took place at the original site in the year before the move, additional cleaning and infill of damaged parts will take place over the coming year. The exact extent of paint infill has yet to be determined. Originally the plan called for restoring the mural at least to the 1986 condition, which was fully documented. This decision will be reviewed by the history, art and conservation team before new work begins.

As importantly, the Project is now beginning work on an exhibition and education component that is intended to provide extensive information - much of it online - about the the history, art, architecture, and communities of Jewish Lithuania and Burlington; a detailed history of the making and conservation of the mural; further information about the immigrant experience in Burlington and elsewhere; and the materials related to the Holocaust in Lithuania.  The intent is also to provide materials and information useful for new research and to be used for study and teaching. 

The Lost Shul Project has raised over $400,000 so far from hundreds of donors. Almost all the money has gone to conservation and moving costs.  Funds are still needed for further conservation and restoration and for the educational components. Contributions can be made on the www.lostshulmural.org website or can be arranged through Ohiavi Zedek Synagogue.