Thursday, January 17, 2019

USA: Wall Paintings at Sons of Jacob in Providence, Rhode Island

 Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Exterior. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

 Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Painted curtain, sky, lions and Decalogue over the Ark. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Elul / Betulah (Virgo).Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
USA: Wall Paintings at Congregation Sons of Jacob in Providence, Rhode Island
by Samuel D. Gruber 

Even since I got involved with the rescue and restoration of Lost Shul Mural in Burlington, Vermont several years ago I've had my antennae up for other unknown or too little known examples of American synagogue wall painting. I recently wrote about the Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea, Massachusetts as an excellent and well-preserved example of an early 20th-century painted American immigrant synagogue.  I  documented the wall paintings there as part of an ongoing project of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments to identify and record the decoration of American synagogues.

A remarkable comparable example is the Congregation Sons of Jacob in Providence, Rhode Island, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which shares architectural and artistic elements with the Chelsea Shul, including well preserved wall paintings on the Ark wall and ceiling. The Providence synagogue is now part of the Rhode Island Jewish Museum, a new effort founded in 2016 to tell the Jewish immigrant story of Rhode Island. Presently, the Museum is more concept and website than actuality, but the organizers have ambitious plans to restore the synagogue as a centerpiece. While there are have some events at the synagogue connected to the Museum at present there are no exhibitions or other forms of information available beyond what is online. I was very fortunate to have Harold Silverman, president of the congregation, give me a top to bottom tour of the building. It is due to the efforts of Mr. Silverman and a few others that the place still stands and the lights still shine. Much work is needed to preserve the synagogue for the future, but the small congregation has steadfastly kept the building - and its Jewish use and identity -  intact (I'll report more on the progress of the museum in future posts).

Founded in 1896 on Shawmut Street and now located on Douglas Avenue, Sons of Jacob is the oldest Orthodox Jewish congregation in Providence, and the only synagogue still in use in the historic Smith Hill neighborhood. The ground floor was built in 1906 and the sanctuary was designed in 1922 by Harry Marshak. From 1923 through 1936 Congregation president Sam Shore oversaw the decoration of the sanctuary, apparently painting some of the work himself, such as the Zodiac signs which surround the large central field of the ceiling – a open cloud-streaked sky. A history of the congregation can be read here.

These Orthodox shuls in Chelsea and Providence just barely survived the widespread demolition of Jewish neighborhoods for the construction of highways in the 1960s and 1970s. Both buildings officially house active congregations. But these are tiny groups that must struggle to maintain a minyan for services and the fund the ever-mounting expenses of maintain a large old building. Champions of all three synagogues are looking at ways to preserve them for another century, in not as active synagogues, then at least as museums or historical sites following the model of New York City's Eldridge Street Synagogue and a few other successful examples. Ideally religious services will continue alongside other activities, but how this can happen and who will fund the restoration and maintenance of the buddings remains to be seen.

Chelsea, MA. Walnut Street Shul. Aerial view showing proximity to I-95. Photo:Google.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Aerial view showing proximity to I-95. Photo:Google.
Congregation Sons of Jacob in Providence is a two story brick structure that now sits precariously close to the Interstate 95 (I-95) highway that slices through the city. It now faces the I-95, and significantly for an Orthodox Synagogue (but not unusually in American cities) its Ark is placed against the west wall. The outside of the synagogue is dignified, and shows its stained glass windows along its northern flank facing Douglas Avenue, it is the inside the really counts.

The ground floor Beth Midrash and other facilities are well preserved, and this is where most daily and weekly worship takes place. I hope that whatever necessary repairs and changes are made in the future, that this space remain little changed. It is a now-rare example of the combination of religious and social space of the immigrant shul, that allowed these institutions to serve as places of worship, but also as places of social gathering for Yiddish-speaking immigrants still adapting to the pressures and uncertainties of the New World. There may be a temptation to modernize this space, or to clear parts of it entirely to for exhibition or events...but any changes should be careful and modest.

Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ground floor Beit Midrash. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
The most striking feature of the sanctuary is its many murals. Above the ark is a mural depicting two lions supporting a tablet bearing the Commandments. The painting is framed by a wooden arch made to look like marble, beyond which and surmounting the ark is painted to resemble blue sky framed by red curtains tied with gold cord to columns at the sides.Such curtains are common elements in painted synagogues in Europe and America and recall of the Parochet of the Jerusalem Temple, but also serve as theatrical curtains often opening to reveal celestial or paradisaical landscapes..

Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. View to Ark wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
There are four painting of animals above the windows of the upper part of the Ark wall; depicted are the deer, the lion, the eagle, and the tiger. These animals refer, of course, to the passage in the Pirkei Avot / Wisdom of the Fathers  (5:23):
Judah ben Teima used to say: Be strong as the leopard, swift as the eagle, fleet as the gazelle, and brave as the lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven. He also used to say: The impudent are for Gehenna and the affable for Paradise. (He used to pray): May it be thy will, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant our portion in your Torah.
 Each of the animals is shown in an active pose set in an appropriate landscape setting.

Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Tiger ("Be strong as a leopard"). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Deer ("fleet as the gazelle"). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Lion ("brave as a lion"). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Eagle ("swift as an eagle").Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
More expressive as art are two landscape paintings the flank the Ark near its base, just above some enclosed boxes that carry electrical equipment. These are paradisaical landscapes, or might represent the Holy Land, in which case the lakes might be the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. These are no polished works, but seem to be more than mere copies of known works or photos. The loose brushwork suggests that the painter thought og himself as an artist, more than a mere ropiest. Unfortunately, we still known nothing about the process of choosing and making these images.  There are some landscapes paintings on the sides of an Ark in Beth Midrash downstairs, which recall the ark paintings, but are done in a finer hand, perhaps the same artist who painted the clouded skies on the Ark wall and ceiling.

Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. See landscapes immediately beneath the memorial plaques..Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Landscapesflanking Ark immediately beneath the memorial plaques..Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Landscape flanking Ark immediately beneath the memorial plaques..Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Landscape flanking Ark immediately beneath the memorial plaques and electrical equipment..Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Ground floor Beit Midrash. Landscape flanking Ark ..Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Looking up again, there is a painted border around the central ceiling section with twelve images set in cartouche-like frames representing the months of the year embellished with the signs of the zodiac. Within the continuous border, the ceiling is covered with painted clouds. Several examples of trompe-l'oeil painting are evident throughout the large room.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ceiling, sanctuary and women's gallery seen from near the Ark. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
The area from which the chandelier hangs is painted to approximate an elaborate medallion, similar to what we saw at the Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea, but also a common elements in ceiling painting in theaters, ballrooms and all sorts of elaborate interiors of this period. The fronts of the women's gallery are painted to suggest inlaid marble panels, while the posts supporting the gallery are painted to resemble marble columns

Sam Shore, congregation president from 1923 to 1936, who was "artistically inclined," supervised the painting of the sanctuary and is said to have painted the mazoles (symbols of the twelve Jewish months) himself. No one now remembers who painted the rest of the murals. It is worth noting that unlike at some other American Orthodox shuls, only the traditional figure if the water carrier designating Aquarius has been replaced by a non-figurative image - the well. Elsewhere the humans mingle with animals, and in the case of Sagittarius, the half-man half-horse centaur is used as the symbol. The figure of Gemini - two children on a see-saw - is especially endearing and American.

Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Nisan / Ṭaleh (Aries).  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Iyar / Shor (Taurus). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Sivan / Teomim (Gemini). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Tammuz / Sarton (Cancer). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Av / Ari (Leo). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Elul / Betulah (Virgo). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Tishrei / Moznayim (Scales). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Cheshvan / 'Aḳrab (Scorpio). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Kislev / Ḳesshet (Sagittarius)
Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Tevet / Gedi (Capricorn). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month o Sevat / D'li (Aquarius). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Adar / Dagim (Pisces).Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

For more of my posts about synagogue wall paintings see:  


USA: Winter Can't Stop Preparations for Burlington, Vermont Mural Move

1910 Synagogue Mural Revealed in Burlington; Conservation Efforts to Begin

Century-Old Jewish Mural’s Hidden History in VermontThe Forward (1/17/14)

USA: The Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea, Mass., A Synagogue Full of History and Art (Part 1)

USA: Green Pastures Baptist Church in the Bronx Protects its Synagogue Decorations 

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

USA: Mazal Tov, or Signs of the Time (New York's Stanton Street Shul & Its Painted Decoration, Part II)

USA: New York's Stanton Street Shul & Its Painted Decoration, Part I

USA: A Visit to Boston's Vilna Shul

USA: New Haven's Orchard Street Shul (1925)

USA: Cincinnati's Alhambra (Plum Street Temple's Dazzling Interior)

 

 

Friday, December 21, 2018

USA: The Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea, Mass., A Synagogue Full of History and Art (Part 1)


Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
USA: The Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea, Mass., A Synagogue Full of History and Art (Part 1)

by Samuel D. Gruber

I have continued documenting American synagogue wall paintings - a project conceived in conjunction with the International Survey of Jewish Monuments and the Center for Jewish Art. This past week that meant a visit to the remarkable Congregation Agudath Sholom in Chelsea, Massachusetts; better known as the Walnut Street Shul.

I brought along two knowledgeable friends - Dick Bauer with whom I have previously explored former synagogues in Roxbury and Dorchester, and Jessica dello Russo, a native Bostonian (from the North End) who is president of the International Catacomb Society, and whose interest in the painting of Jewish sacred spaces stems in part from her knowledge of the Jewish catacombs of Rome (And yes, while there is no direct connection, both the Vigna Rondanini Catacombs in Rome and the Walnut Street Shul contain painted peacocks, and the Villa Torlonia and the Walnut Street Shul have curtains behind Torah Arks). Jessica joined me at Boston’s Vilna Shul for a visit a few years ago. The Vilna Shul, which was saved from demolition in the early 1990s, is an important painted younger "cousin" to the Walnut Street Shul, which was also founded by Litvak (Lithuanian) Jews.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Peacocks on ceiling above Ark. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
We three were given an enthusiastic welcome by congregation president Ed Medros and Board Secretary Richard Zabot, both who whom have deep knowledge of the building, the congregation, and the broader Jewish history of Chelsea. Ed, Richard, and their small but active board are working hard to maintain the building and to transition the Shul from a private congregation into a welcoming center of Jewish religion, history and culture for all of Chelsea and the larger community beyond. The building was significantly restored in 1991, and though there are some areas that need repair, especially the north stairway; overall it is in good shape. A big and expensive challenge will be to upgrade the electrical system and plumbing, parts of which are more than a century old.

There is so much history and art packed into this ample structure (it was built in 1909 with a sanctuary to seat more than 1100) and Ed and Richard have been filling it even more as they have allowed the Walnut Street Shul to become a repository of historical items small and large from the Chelsea Jewish community and from other synagogues in East Boston that have closed in recent years. What the synagogue will be in the future is not certain - and we all discussed this in some detail. There are lessons to be learned from the Eldridge Street Synagogue and Kehilla Kedosha Janina in New York, and the Vilna Shul right in Boston. The next few years will see some serious review of the facilities and planning for the future.

Meanwhile, Ed pulled out for us to view the recently received – but still in pieces – chandeliers from the  Revere Synagogue that recently closed and has been demolished. The plan is to curate this material with proper registration, conservation, and presentation, so that in time the Shul will also serve as museum of sorts of Jewish Chelsea. Qualified and enthusiast volunteers will be needs for a lot of this work.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Ed Medros shows recently acquired chandelier formerly in Revere Synagogue. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
The most impressive art, however, is the wall decoration of the sanctuary, reputed to be the work of a Mr. Spector, about whom nothing else is known. The ceiling is painted in brilliant colors as a cloudy sky lit up with light - presumably at sunrise - since the sun is seen rising over the east wall immediately above the Ark. We see the sun and its rays.  Over all the sky resembles the painted ceiling of the Sons of Jacob Synagogue in Providence, Rhode Island, and for the rising sun I'm reminded of the sun painted in the apse of the Ark wall at the former Chai Adam Synagogue in Burlington). 

On the edge of the ceiling, effectively painted in trompe l'oeil perspective, are two peacocks looking west over the congregation. There is a long history of including birds in synagogue decoration. these ones remind me of the exotic parrots perched on the edge of the ceiling of Tsoir Gilod Synagogue in L'viv, Ukraine, painted in the 1920s.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
L'viv, Ukraine. Tsori Gilod Synagogue, wall painting. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2006.
A large ornately painted circular medallion from which a chandelier descends is painted over the bimah, and a group of birds is also painted resting on the edge of this amidst flowering vegetation.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Painted medallion on ceiling. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Painted medallion on ceiling. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.


Above the west end of the women's gallery is painted a rectangular panel with a view of an ancient structure. I really wanted this to be a representation of a matriach's tomb corresponding to this exclusive women's space. The National Register of Historic Places nomination identifies the scene as Rachel's tomb, which is frequently painted, but this does not look like any such representation I am familiar with. Ed Medros thought it was Ruth's Tomb - a scene rarely represented - but definitely identified and visited in Hebron from at least the mid-19th century. After some research, however, I think it more likely that it represents the Tombs of the Kings of the House of David. The image is very close to a scene depicted in the center of a color Mizrah print, probably published in Germany ca. 1900. The Tombs of the House of David are not often represented, but they do show up in the murals of a prayer house in Krakow, about which I've posted in the past.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary, looking west and showing all three sides with women's gallery suspended from ceiling. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Ceiling painting of Holy Land scene. This has been identified as the Tomb of Rachel, but is more likely a representation of the Tomb of the Patrirachs/Matriarchs in Hebron. Or something else? Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.

Mizrah (exhibited in Trebic, Czech Rep). Probably printed in Germany, ca. 1890-1900. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.

Mizrah, detail (exhibited in Trebic, Czech Rep.). Probably printed in Germany, ca. 1890-1900. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Tombs of the Kings of the House of David. Photo: Sławomir Pastuszka 2008.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Holy land scene and ladder and hole leading to synagogue roof (sorry, no genizah here!). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
The Walnut Street Shul Ark is a magnificent structure designed by local cabinet maker Samuel Katz, born in 1885 near L’vov, who emigrated to America in 1907.  Over the next decades he made at least two dozen Arks, including the one at the Adams Street Shul in Newton, Massachusetts (1912), and probably the Ark in the Vilna Shul in Boston  Over the Ark is a large painted red curtain, similar to ones that I have already written about, such as that in the Kupa synagogue in Krakow, Poland. The practice of painting curtains over an Ark is already seen in the work of Eliezer Sussman in the painted synagogue of Horb, Germany in 1735. The curtain opens to expose the Ark, so it should be seen as a representation of sorts of the parochet of the ancient temple before the Holy of Holies. There are more Arks on the first floor in the spaces sued for daily and Sabbath services (the main sanctuary has been reserved, at least for many decades, for the holidays).

The painted curtain falls onto two painted columns, one on each side. These have different capitals than the columns painted on the sanctuary side walls, and may refer to the Joachin and Boaz columns said to be on the facade of Solomon's temple (compare these to the columns and capitals in the former Chevra Linas Hazedek synagogue in the Bronx, NY). If so, the Ark wall painting conflates the Temple's exterior and interior.  Added this composition are two large blue six-pointed stars flanking the top level of the wooden Ark, and two bowls with flowers, painted in the wall space flanking the intermediate Ark level.

The curtain motif is common in synagogues and elsewhere. It appears in Catholic art, for example over shrines of the Madonna, and in secular rt also over royal portraits. The complete history of the use of her painted curtain in Jewish hart still needs further research. 


Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. View of Ark from women's gallery. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. View of Ark from women's gallery. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Detail of painted capital flanking Ark. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.

Along the side of the sanctuary are painted columns which show their bases and columns in the men's section of the main sanctuary, but bloom like flowers with their stylized capitals visible only in the women's gallery above. These are the only columns. The women's galleries are designed to hang from the ceiling so that their are no vertical obstructions to the congregants in the main hall.


Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. View of women's gallery. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Looking up to women's gallery and painted wall column. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. women's gallery, view to Ark. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
As already indicated, a remarkable assemblage of materials has already been collected at the synagogue. The most impressive are the many Ark curtains (parochets), as well as one extra Ark in addition to the three used at the shul for daily, sabbath and holiday services (though these days it is hard to get a minyan and the schedule of services is much curtailed). For me, in the short time we had for examination, the most fascinating items were many hand inscribed and illuminated books, certificates and wall plaques. We found the name of at least one artist - Irving Bookstein - who seems to have been active from at least the 1920s through the 1950s - and it seemed to me that much of the work we saw came from hand. We'll look for more information on this Jewish artist, and post separately about his work.

There are already several impressive on-line efforts by the congregation and affiliated organizations to collect the Jewish history of East Boston, and there are plans for a permanent exhibition to be installed in the former chapel of the Ohabai Shalom Cemetery in East Boston, the region’s oldest Jewish burial place (1844), which will open as the East Boston Immigration Center as the called the "Mystic River Jewish Exhibit Hall". The exterior was recently restored by the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, which won an award for the work.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Detail of Ark, designed and built by Samuel Katz. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.