Sunday, November 30, 2008
By Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) Not long ago I posted an historic photo of the Ark wall of the synagogue of Zhovkva (Ukraine) which showed an elaborate painting (c 1920) of Jerusalem. The image is interesting for many reasons, but I just want to point out the juxtaposition of the descriptive landscape (possibly derived from a postcard or Bonfils photo) and the symbolic elements of the ancient Temple, also represented near the Ark. The contrast demonstrates the long history of invoking the ancient Temple and Jerusalem in the synagogue, but also a shift in emphasis that began in the late 19th century and accelerated in the 20th, along with the spread of tourism and Zionism. When you start looking you’ll see all sorts of references to the temple, Jerusalem and Eretz Israel in synagogues. Some of symbolic, some are architectural, some are textual and some are representational. But after 1900 representational views become more common.
Some very vivid views of the Holy Land painted in 1929-30 in the Kupa Synagogue (see photos) in Krakow were restored a few years ago, and I had the opportunity to see them on my recent visit to Krakow a month ago (I want to thank my old friend Henry Halkowski for making it easy for me enter on short notice). The “restored” synagogue is difficult to understand since elements from different phases of its existence now co-exist, and because the essential elements that make a synagogue (bimah, seats, etc) are gone. The Kupa was seriously damaged during the German occupation in World War II. It was restored ca. 2000 and now serves as a lecture, concert and exhibition hall for community events and also can be rented for special occasions.
Located on a plot between Warszauera Street and Miadowa Street, the building is adjacent to the old walls of Kazimierz. It is thought that the synagogue name derives from the Hebrew world for "donation box" and that the synagogue was probably funded by donations. The Kupa was also known as the "Hospital" and "needy" synagogue because it cooperated with the Jewish hospitals and with the Jewish poorhouse.
Founded in 1643, the Kupa has been remodeled many times. The remains of the Baroque Ark can still be seen, but most other aspects of the interior date from the 19th and early 20th centuries, including unusual Gothic arches in the women's gallery. The two-story annex was added with entrance hall and washrooms in 1830-1834 and the western wing was built in the 1860s. The synagogue was connected to the adjoining building at the end of the 19th century. These annex spaces now serve the Jewish community as guest rooms.
There is much to see in the small space, and I only a short time. Four elements are worth noting here, especially since they relate to others items I have posted, or about which I plan to write.
1. First, on the south wall under the women’s gallery , the conservators have revealed part of a large wall painting of the lower part of a Menorah, flanked by painted ewers, signs of the Levites. Again, we have the Temple reference, but here it is not near the Ark. Prof. Bracha Yaniv of Bar Ilan University, an expert on Krakow Synagogue wall decorations, is writing about this image, and she points out that the Menorah is in exactly the right place in the synagogue, against the south wall just as it was in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:35: Put the table outside the paroches, and the menorah opposite the table, toward the southern side of the mishkan. The table should be placed on the northern side). So actually this Tabernacle/Temple reference is stronger and more explicit than those synagogues which scatter images of Temple and festival implements along the East wall.
2. A second decorative element that interests me a lot is the painting around the Ark, which is a large and impressive Baroque construction. On the wall behind the projecting stone Ark is painted a large red curtain, drawn apart just above the apex of the Ark. Of course this too, can have Temple associations, since a curtain in the Temple hung before the entrance of the Holy of Holies. Here, though, the curtain is hung behind the Ark, and it is open. What does it mean? Is it an earthly curtain, intended to create the illusion of greater synagogue space? Is it a symbolic curtain, representing either Temple or perhaps the revelation of the Torah? Or perhaps is it a curtain allowing a glimpse form this world into another? It could be all these things, or none. I’m not going to decide. But since I’m looking I am seeing these curtains almost everywhere - and they are one of the favorite European (or Polish) synagogue decorative devices carried over by immigrant artists from the old world to the new. I'm still looking for some contemporary user - a rabbi or congregant - who commented on their position and use.
3. Another interesting feature of the Kupa Synagogue is a dedicatory inscription set into the introdos of the window just south of the Ark. This inscription in high relief (see photo) refers to the Society of Cohens and Levites in Krakow that donated the window in 1647. According to Eli Valley, the text reads: "This window was donated to the synagogue by the Holy Society of Cohens and Levites for the glory of God and the glory of the synagogue, for its enlightenment." The text then quotes Numbers 6:25-26, "May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you! May the Lord lift up His countenance unto you and grant you peace." The letters highlighted indicate the Hebrew year 5407 (1647). I think this inscription is a very important one as it is an early textual source in which the functional role of the window is linked to God's light (his shining face), and a general sense of enlightenment beyond the strictly physical sensation. Prof. Yaniv tells me of a very different window inscription in the Shakh (after Shabtai ben Meir ha-Kohen, known as Shakh), Synagogue in Holesov, Moravia (Czech Republic). At Holesov, the patrons and painters employed an explicit biblical text that mentioned the Temple's windows (I Kings 6:4 וַיַּעַשׂ לַבָּיִת, חַלּוֹנֵי שְׁקֻפִים אֲטוּמִים / And for the house he made windows broad within, and narrow without), and inscribed this above the windows of the synagogue.
4. Most of the painted decorations - especially those on the ceiling - date from either the late 1920s. These depict sites in the Holy Land: Hebron, Tiberias, Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate, The Western Wall, Haifa, the terebinths (trees) of Mamre, the Flood, and the Temple Mount. The inclusion of these suggests a Zionist program, as I hinted above. The political and social situation for Jews was getting pretty bad in Poland in 1930. The Holy Land – as a spiritual and an actual retreat probably looked pretty good.
According to the Center for Jewish Art: "There are also Biblical scenes and illustrations to verses in Psalms, such as the painting showing people standing by the rivers of Babylon (Psalms 137:1-3), or musical instruments (Psalms 150:3-6). Another painting depicts Noah's ark including the figure of Noah – quite unusual since the use of human images was very rare in Jewish art. The signs of the Zodiac are painted over the women's gallery. The artist, although unidentified, was clearly professional.”
About the Restoration / Renewal
I did not see these wall paintings before they were restored, so I cannot say how much of the work is original and how much is new painting. A comparison with published (black and white) photos from before the restoration suggest there is a lot of new work, including substantial new painting of scene or over painting of the earlier work. I have mixed feeling abut this type of restoration (not conservation). On the one hand in continues (perhaps unwittingly) an old synagogue tradition of renewing wall painting by simply over painting earlier work, but often maintaining the basis of the earlier design. In some American synagogues where paint tests have been carried out as many as 2 dozen layers of paint have been found in buildings hardly more than a century old. Even in the Kupa, the older photos sow the patterns of an earlier design showing through some of the 1920s scenes. Still, with the Kupa (and with other synagogues in Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere) all normal traditions and patterns of maintenance have been broken. What remains of the pre-War years – even when in less than perfect condition takes of new meaning and added value. These are works of artist who quite likely met their deaths in the Holocaust. These are tangible remnants of a lost culture. Careful decisions need to be made about how to maintain them. Sometimes decaying plaster or flaking paint requires major new work. But more often it requires more serious thinking about what to preserve and why. The new work at Kupa is bright and vivid, perhaps as it was when first painted. A great deal of the history of the place, however is lost.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Check out this post on Ruth Ellen Gruber's blog:
Germany -- Forgotten Jewish Modernist Architects and Their Creations
For more on modern synagogues see some of my earlier posts:
Fate of early modern synagogue in Phoenix, Arizona, linked to Holocaust survivors and Steven Spielberg, remains unresolved
USA: New Synagogue by Alfred Jacoby dedicated in Park City, Utah
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
(ISJM) The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in
Monday, November 24, 2008
The Prague Daily Monitor has reported that a memorial to Holocaust victims was installed in the Czech town of Liberec, 90 kms NNE of Prague, on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The Renaissance-Revival style synagogue of Liberec, built in 1889 was set afire by the Nazis in 1938 and then demolished. Before the Holocaust 1600 Jews lived in Liberec. Only 37 survived.
The new memorial is located in the former ceremony hall of the Jewish cemetery, built in 1900 and used as a storage space until this restoration (which cost 7 million Czech crowns, about 250,000 euro). The cemetery, opened in 1865 and expanded in 1896, has also been restored in recent years. In addition to graves of local Jews, the cemetery also has graves of many World War I era refugees from Galicia, and a mass grave of 11 women prisoners from the labor camp in Bílý Kostel n. Nisou.
According to the Prague Daily Monitor, Czech Senate chairman Premysl Sobotka said such memorials must be built for people not to forget about the past and not to allow anything like this to repeat.
For the restoration of the cemetery hall and the creation of the memorial, the municipality contributed 4.75 million crowns, the regional authority provided 2.5 million crowns. The remainder came from private donors and the Holocaust victims foundation.
For more information on Czech Jewish sites, the best comprehensive source remains Jiří Fiedler's Jewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia (Prague: Sefer, 1991). I hope that Jiří, who is curator of documentation at the Prague Jewish Museum, is considering publishing a new edition updated to include all of the important restoration and commemoration work done in the Czech Republic in the past 20 years. In my experience, the Czech Republic has led the way in the scope and quality of their work in protection, preserving and presenting Jewish heritage.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
The Friends of the Jewish Museum of London has opened “Hidden Treasures- Sacred Textiles,” an exhibition of rare textiles from the collections of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation (Bevis Marks Synagogue) and the Montefiore Endowment, at the Bevis Marks Synagogue. Bevis Marks, built in 1701, is the oldest extant synagogue building in the British Isles.
Some of the Bevis Marks Torah mantles have been in the possession of the Congregation for three centuries.
The exhibition shows off other textiles, many of which have been conserved for the first time in years. Funds were raised from private sources for conservation, and more remains to be done.
Exhibited textiles include mappot, used to cover the scroll during interludes between reading, and a gilded linen jacket believed to have worn by the Reverend David de Sola at his circumcision at the end of the 18th century. A Torah mantle donated to Ramsgate Synagogue in 1833 was made from the wedding dress of Judith, Lady Montefiore, wife of Sir Moses. The gift was apparently in gratitude to God for her marriage. The use of cast off but still valuable clothing for materials for synagogue textiles was common in the pre-modern era (The Jewish Museum in Rome, for example, has a Torah mantle made from a dress that once belonged to Queen Christina of Sweden.)
Another mantle bears the initials of Moses Lopez Pereira, the first Baron Aguilar, who grew up in a family descended from conversos (forced converts to Christianity) but who reverted to Judaism in Vienna in 1722. He came to London with his 14 children in 1757. A decorated tefillin bag has special interest For Bevis Marks curator, Maurice Bitton: it has been handed down through his family from 18th century Morocco. "Every boy in the Bitton family," he said, "has used it on his barmitzvah down the generations."
For more on the exhibition click here
The exhibition runs until 15 March 2009.
Hidden Treasures, Sacred Textiles is open until mid-March from 11 am to 1pm on weekdays, and 10.30 am to 12.30pm Sundays
I wrote ten days ago about a new series of monuments marking the perimeter of the former Warsaw Ghetto. The monuments were officially inaugurated in a ceremony last week held at the Jewish Historical Institute.
Vanessa Gera of Associated Press filed the following report:
Warsaw marks borders of former ghetto By VANESSA GERA
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish officials marked the border of the former Warsaw Ghetto on Wednesday with plaques and boundary lines traced in the ground to preserve the memory of the tragic World War II-era Jewish quarter.
The markers were inaugurated with speeches by the Warsaw mayor and other officials. A group that included Holocaust survivors and members of the Jewish community then made their way in the rain together to reflect on the past at some of the 21 memorial plaques.
The head of Poland's Jewish community, Piotr Kadlcik, called the project "very important" and "the fulfillment of a dream."
"For many years it was deliberate — no one really remembered that there used to be another city here, there used to be another reality," Kadlcik said.
The read the full story click here
According to the Associated Press (Nov. 17) two Jewish cemeteries in Gotha and Erfurt, both cities in the Eastern German State of Thuringia, were desecrated. Police reported a pig's head and an anti-Semitic banner left at the gate of a cemetery in Gotha, and that several glasses containing a red blood-like liquid were thrown over the cemetery gate. A memorial plaque at the Erfurt cemetery was also covered in a red liquid.
This case is getting a lot of attention, and such acts should be reported, and noted with disgust. I only wish that even a fraction of the attention would be given to those occasions - that happen daily - when more and more local (non-Jews) in Germany, Poland and elsewhere, are caring for cemeteries.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Following up on last year's work surveying and documenting the 18th century Jewish cemetery at Hunt's Bay, Jamaica, the Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions is calling for more volunteers to continue the Jewish cemetery inventory again this year in the Kingston area, surveying two smaller historic cemeteries, and well as checking inventory work, done last year at Hunt's Bay. Jews fleeing persecution in Europe settled in Jamaica as early as 1530 where they played important roles in commerce and the sugar industry.
Volunteers will inventory, photograph, and map the Orange and Elliston sites and check work at Hunt's Bay. Lodging is at The Alhambra Inn (doubles roughly $90/night. volunteers pay their own travel and lodging costs, though some on-the-ground expenses are covered - pending funding from sponsors.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Cost: Inquire
Exhibitions: Ruth Weisberg at Norton Simon Museum
by Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) Two years ago the Skirball Museum mounted a impressive exhibition of Los Angeles artist Ruth Weisberg's work that demonstrated her importance as a Jewish artist and as feminist (see my review). Now for something completely (almost) different, The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California has mounted an exhibition of 20 Weisberg works inspired by the Museum's dramatic Baroque masterpiece by Guido Cagnacci, Martha Rebuking Mary for Her Vanity painted after 1660. Like much of the art shown at the Skirball, these works demonstrate Weisberg's love of figure painting, but even more than the explicitly Jewish works - which placed her in a cultural continuum - these works show Weisberg situating her work in an art historical - and specifically painterly - tradition.
Contemplating Cagnacci, Weisberg has created a series of paintings, monumental drawings and monotypes in which the moral and compositional complexity of the Baroque work is deconstructed; she imagines how the 17th century Italian went about creating his work - she explores all the pieces,and reinterprets them with her own brush, in her own voice. Repentance, anger and the triumph of virtue over vice are themes that Weisberg explored to some extent in her Scroll and other Jewish works about the Patriarchs and other biblical character. Here she turns her eye to the themes in a theatrically presented Christian moralizing work, re-presents them through in her more contemporary figurative and color style.
Read more here.
The exhibition will be on view until March 2, 2009. Weisberg, who is Dean of the Roski School of Fine Arts at the University of Southern California, is a past president of the College Art Association (CAA). CAA will meet in Pasadena in February, so members will have a chance to see Weisberg's newest work.
Looking Back, 2008
Mixed Media Drawing on Paper
30-1/2 x 22-1/4 inches
Courtesy of Ruth Weisberg
La Citta Ideale, 2008
Oil and Mixed Media Painting on Canvas
48 x 64 inches
Courtesy of Ruth Weisberg
Ruth Weisberg in her studio, 2008
Norton Simon Art Foundation; photo by Ramona Trent
Thursday, November 20, 2008
by Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) Dr. Nikos Stavroulakis writes that the Ezrath Nashim (women’s section) of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue of Hania,Crete, has been recreated, completing a two-decade process in which the ruined synagogue has been reclaimed, restored and revived.
The latest (and final?) work is "restoration" in the broadest sense. It is known where the women’s section was, but there are no visual or written descriptions of its former appearance, and there was only fragmentary physical evidence remaining in the synagogue.
According to Nikos, “We had little to work from other than a rough idea of its dimensions and elevation and the likelihood that it had been built in the late 17th or early 18th cent., and [that is] was built out of what had remained of the original bell tower [of the former church, from which the synagogue created]. The ground floor is open and gives visual access to the graves of the rabbis in the courtyard and there is a door from the street as well as another to the mikveh and also one to the synagogue proper. The upper floor is of wood in [the] contemporary (Ottoman) style, based on surviving similar structures in Hania where old Venetian buildings were re-vamped to suit expansion and also to regularize floor plans beneath.”
The rebuilt Ezrath Nashim “gives visual access to the interior of the synagogue through one of the Venetian arches (that to the south-east) and is spacious enough for our immediate needs for further expansion of the library.”
Rabbi Nicholas de Lange of Cambridge (UK), an authority on the Jewish history of Greece, and of Hania in particular, affixed up mezzuzot on Erev Rosh Hashanah.
Learning from Hania
After almost 20 years in the “business” of conserving and restoring old synagogues and cemeteries, I’ve learned that most projects take a long time, and often the very best projects need that time to develop and mature. Its never been easy getting money for projects, and these days its going be harder than ever to find grant and loans to carry out big restoration projects – unless governments start pouring money into public works, and the unlikely prospect that historic preservation is given higher priority than bridge repair.
No project demonstrates the virtues of taking time than the long-term and closely nurtured restoration and revival of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue. The saving of the abandoned and ruined Etz Hayyim, the last vestige of the Jewish community of Hania of Crete began two decades ago. Actual restoration on the structural parts of the synagogue began in March 1998 by the World Monuments Fund, but Stavroulakis, who has nurtured this project from the start, had presented the need for saving the building as early the 1990 Future of Jewish Monuments Conference in New York. It took getting the building listed as a WMF Jewish Heritage Preservation Priority in 1996, and the inclusion of the site on the first WMF Watch List of Endangered Monuments (also 1996), to really get the project rolling. WMF and Stavroulakis raised about $300,000 in planning and construction grants to take care of all the structural needs of the synagogue, including a new roof (this was a process I was involved in as a consultant to WMF). WMF than stepped back from an active role, and Stavroulakis raised additional funds and created the program for furnishing the building, rehabilitating adjacent spaces, and creating an active religious and cultural center.
Since then it has progressed in stages, and each stage as been part of a process of rediscovery, rededication and reuse of the complex. The result (I am told by those who have recently visited) is not just a dusty ruin, or an empty and cold restored building. It is a living center uniting past and present – a contemporary place rooted in the past. History is well served, but so are (the modest) needs of Jewish life in Crete.
Read Stavroulakis' account from the 2004 Conference: The Future of Jewish Heritage in Europe, (click "Stavroulakis" at bottom of page).
The biggest problem confronting former synagogues in need of restoration is often not money – but what to do with the building if and when it is restored. The truth is that without a use, money and effort are often not well spent if a building sits empty – and even neglected – when the conservators go home. Planning and budgeting use for an old building – something that often only develops over time – must be part of the process of every restoration project from the start. I most cases this may mean a slower project, but in the end it will mean better chance for the continued life of an historic building.
Few projects are shepherded by creative and charismatic individuals like Nikos Stavroulakis. But ordinary people, locally-based, with stick-to-it-ness can get things done. The world community, through organizations like the World Monuments Fund, and local government agencies, need to help with money and expertise, but it is usually good - even essential - to have committed people at the helm.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Obituary: Philanthropist Richard Jonas Scheuer
by Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) Richard J. Scheuer, Chairman Emeritus of the Jewish Museum in
I hardly knew Dick Scheuer, but remember being very thrilled when, as an unknown graduate student just beginning to learn about Jewish monuments he treated me like I was someone important.
On behalf of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, I extend sympathy to the entire extended Scheuer family.
On his important contributions to Jewish culture, I quote from the long remembrance from
"Scheuer’s love for Jewish art and architecture, and support for Jewish cultural institutions was based on the belief that “In a world of flux, Jewish museums help young and old build a sense of history, a sense of self, and a sense of direction.” As Chairman of the Jewish Museum in
Scheuer’s interest in biblical archaeology was sparked by his experience as a member of an expedition to
By Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) New York’s Jewish Museum marked the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht with the opening of Susan Hiller’s “J Street Project,” a photo documentary project of over 300 German streets that recall a former Jewish presence through their names – Judengasse, Judenallee, and other appellation with the prefix Juden. “The Jews are gone,” Susan Hiller has said, “but the street names remain as ghosts of the past, haunting the present.”
To read about the J Street Project click here.
Hiller creates a mosaic of a lost Jewish Germany – an alternative universe to that which most Germans (and others) know. This is a “Memory Project,” – in a similar vein to the Stolperstein Projectof which I have previously written. But “J Street” is but not specifically about the Holocaust, since it refocuses attention to the Jewish presence in Germany not just in modern times, but for millennia (recent archaeological excavations in Cologne, Speyer, Regensburg and elsewhere make this same point in a very different way).
Academics have been pursuing the long history of Jews in Germany for more than a century, since the birth of Wissenschaft des Judentums in the 19th century. A recent public display of this research tradition was the exhibition and conference held in Speyer in 2002 (See the collection of papers, The Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages (Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries): Proceedings of the International Symposium held at Speyer, 20-25 October 2002, ISBN 9782503516974, many of which deal with medieval Jewish streets and quarters in Germany and elsewhere). Hiller’s work is an art project, but in its expansiveness and inclusiveness it points the way to long-term research plan for archivists and archaeologists. So much more can be discovered and uncovered about the history of Jews in German lands. Hiller or some imitator could do a similar project in most countries in Europe – though few are as obvious as Germany in recalling Jews in their current street names.
Hundreds of towns in Europe once had Jewish populations. References to these Jews, as well as synagogues, can be found in historic toponyms. In Southern Italy, for example, from where Jews were expelled by the late 15th century, and particularly in rural areas, such has those in Calabria documented by Sonia Vivacqua and others. we still find Monte Giudei, Casale Giudeo, Acqua Judia, Judio Sottano and Judio Suprano, and other designations which are remembered long after the passing of the Jews. Sources tell, for example, of a vicus Judeorum in Naples that may refer to both a specific place and particular legal jurisdiction over it. Similar patterns can be described for England, France, and Spain.
Project Yesod, an ambitious but still largely unrealized project to advise local archaeologists on issues pertaining to “Jewish” archaeology, could make it a priority to list all these toponyms throughout Europe and to begin to use the methods of geographical and archaeological regional survey to better map and describe them, and to alert local authorities – the ones that allow building demolitions and excavations for sewer lines – of their presence.
We can learn from “J Street,” too. Signs are important for remembering the past – even if only the alert – like Susan Hiller – take the time to look. Collectively, we need to better define (historically) Jewish Space in Europe (and elsewhere). The first step is to identify that space, and like a biologist or botanist with a new or variant species – name it. Then we can decide – individually or collectively – if, when and how it can be (culturally) reclaimed.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Interview with Ivan Ceresnjes
The Institute of Global Jewish Affairs has published a lengthy interview with my friend and colleague Ivan Ceresnjes about the Destruction of Jewish Memory in the Former Yugoslavia. No one knows more than Ivan about the fate of Jewish synagogues, cemeteries and Holocaust sites in the region.
Ivan Ceresnjes was the head of the Jewish community of Bosnia-Herzegovina and a vice-chairman of the Yugoslav Federation of Jewish Communities until his emigration to Israel in 1996. During the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina he organized rescue efforts to evacuate Jews and non-Jews and also organized nonsectarian humanitarian relief for citizens of the besieged city and other parts of the country. An architect by profession, he is presently employed by the Center for Jewish Art of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has been a leader in the documentation of Jewish historic, religious and cultural sites in the former Yugoslavia for the Center and for the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad. A summary of his Bosnia documentation can be found at www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu
Read interview here.
Selling Jews, Judaism, Jewishness and Anne Frank (again)
by Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) Using Jews as commodities is nothing new. Depictions of Jews, usually unflattering, were a staple of the printed broadside in Early Modern Europe. Venders in Poland still sell their carved wooden figures of Hasidic rabbis and Klezmer musicians to all sorts of buyers – Jews and non-Jews alike. For some these are anti-Semitic depictions, for others part of a long folk carving tradition in which everyone is caricatured.
Remember in 1993 the Hasidic-inspired line of clothing Jean-Paul Gualtier where models wore yarmulkes and payes (sidelocks)? There are plenty of more recent – but less controversial – Jewish-inspired fashion statements (see Alana Newhouse, “Shmatte Chic: The rise—finally!—of Jewish fashion”). Today, all sorts of jewelry makers and even tattoo artists have made a mini-industry out of Jewish symbols – traditional and kabbalistic. Jews are a big part of this system, too. They make and sell all kinds of commodities linked to perceptions of Jewishness. Some are fine art, some are kitsch. Some are steeped in tradition; some are irreverent (though not always disrespectful). And, of course, Jewish buyers fuel the market in Judaica fakes.
In the last 2 generations young Jews in America and Israel – and now in places like Hungary – have developed an in-your-face Jewish aesthetic that aims to shock all viewers, including (and sometimes especially) traditionally observant Jews. It’s a new kind of Jewish assertiveness – like a cultural version of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), or at least perhaps the assertive but less belligerent Anti-Defamation League (ADL). If Jews can be “Too Jewish,” (in the terms of the 1996 Jewish Museum exhibition) perhaps they can inoculate themselves against the most the slings and agonies of everyday anti-Semitism. Sometimes it works and “too Jewish” becomes the new hip, and sometimes it backfires and is a pain embarrassment to everyone.
For embarrassment (or should it be revulsion), see the link that Ruth Ellen Gruber has posted for an Amsterdam garret apartment where “one can live like Anne Frank” (What happens to the tenant when the lease is up?). This type of branding, like the trend in European “Jewish style” cafes (which Ruth has written about) that stereotype Jews (as Africans, American Indians, and others are also still stereotyped world in advertising worldwide) is mostly disgusting and sometimes dangerous.
Its one thing when Gene Wilder plays a rabbi and dons payes in The Frisco Kid – a funny film that actually is both an affirmation of Judaism and a historic corrective – since there were plenty of Jews who helped shape the American West. And the case can be made for Barbara Streisand dressing up as Yentl. But it is quite another thing when an Ukrainian café owner encourages customers to dress up as Hasids to laugh and eat and drink on the very site the Lviv’s destroyed Beth Midrash, in the shadow of the ruined Golden Rose Synagogue, whose worshipers were rounded up an murdered. No matter what one thinks of the strictures of the Hasidim, the place of their death is no place for caricature. There is no one to answer back.
Commercializing Holocaust suffering (or stoicism or heroism) – through ignorance or malice cannot be condoned. Even when done in way that is meant to celebrate the victim (Ann Frank), such exploitation actually belittles her. Maybe the apartment owner figured if Broadway, Hollywood and publishers around the world could make money selling their version of Anne Frank “why not me, too.” After all, the Ann Frank House is a big Amsterdam tourist destination. Why shouldn’t the neighbors cash in? For the real Anne Frank apartment, click here.
Some of my (Jewish) friends do not feel quite as squeamish about this as I do. They delight in a post-modern deeply ironic (and often self/Jewish-deprecating) style that views these episodes of exploitation and misappropriation as specimens to be collected and analyzed but not criticized or eradicated. Maybe in America or Israel, where there is so much real Judaism, and so much reliable information about Jews is available. In Europe, however, we cannot be so sanguine. Ignorance about the what, who, when, where and why of Jews and Judaism is so overwhelming that even a few well placed stereotypes can win the debate.
What does all this have to do with Jewish art and monuments? Its about the way people read things Jewish - and the care that needs to be taken in presenting selected aspects of the Jewish past. Culture experts and historians do not just collect information, we must know how to present it. Good history and thoughtful presentations must compete in the marketplace not just of ideas, but of commodities.
by Samuel D. Gruber
Beth Shalom, which claims to have 250 members does not have funding for the new building, which in this uncertain economy will be more difficult than even to support. Still, there is widespread interest in Liberal Judaism in Germany, and dissatisfaction with the current system that give property resources and government assistance only to Orthodox groups – this despite the fact that the majority of Jews in Germany today, whether descendants of Holocaust survivors or more recent arrivals from the FSU, do not follow Orthodox observance, and many are hardly practicing Jews at all.
Just a few years ago
Now the announcement of the Libeskind synagogue is a clear challenge – on architectural as well as religious grounds – to the established Jewish community structure. To my knowledge, only in
At least in Germany for the most part many of the “so-called” Orthodox and “so-called” Liberal Jews have few real lifestyle differences between them, and they regularly associate outside the synagogue. After all, their common experience as Jews in Germany should outweigh any differences.
It will, of course, be interesting to see what Libeskind comes up with for a synagogue. He has never designed one before, and his signature elements of spatial disorientation and attenuation, irregular angles and spaces and a willingness to upset convention rather than refine it, certainly go against what most congregations are looking for in a worship, community and education space. However, if Libeskind can let go his more recent design bombast and recapture the emotional intensity and intimacy of his Felix Nussbaum Musuem in Osnabruck, he may succeed. But modesty in Libeskind may not be what the congregation is after - certainly not if by 2018 Germany Liberal Jews are flexing their membership muscles.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Photos: Congregation Shearith Israel Early Cemetery, New York. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber
The Lower East Side Conservancy offers a walking tour (approximately 2 and ½ hours) of a largely unknown period of Jewish history on Sunday, November 16. The tour will include a visit to the usually locked early cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel, across from Chatham Square. The cemetery is the oldest surviving Jewish burial place in New York.
The tour traces the history of the first Jewish settlement in the United States, visiting the sites (most original features do not survive) of the first Jewish institutions in New Amsterdam (later renamed New York):
• First & Second Spanish/Portuguese Rented Synagogues of Congregation Shearith Israel;
• First Mill Street Synagogue;
• Colonial Revival Houses;
• Stone Street;
• Sites of the homes of: Asser Levy,( ?-1681) New Amsterdam's first kosher butcher &
Gershom Mendes Seixas, (1745-1816), first native-born Jewish minister.
• This program concludes with a tour and presentation of the first Jewish cemetery at Chatham Square, in Chinatown.
Details: “The Jewish Community of Colonial New Amsterdam: A Walking Tour of Lower Manhattan”
Sunday, November 16, 2008 11:15 AM
Meeting at corner of Pearl and Broad Streets, across from Fraunces Tavern Museum
$18 adults; $16 seniors/students-$2 off with pre-registration
For information/reservations, contact LESJC (212) 374-4100 X 1,2 or 3,
e-mail at email@example.com / www.nycjewishtours.org
The Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving, sharing and celebrating the Jewish Heritage of the Lower East Side. Private customized tours available by appointment.
by Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) When I was recently in Warsaw I took most of a day to walk around the area of the Warsaw Ghetto which had, of course, also been among the most densely populated Jewish neighborhoods of the city before the Shoah. I made my way to many of the monuments which I already knew, and I wanted to get a sense of where the new Museum of the History of the Jews in Poland would rise - across from the Ghetto Uprising Monument by Natan Rapoport.
This part of Warsaw is a baffling one, since there are entire layers of history - streets, buildings, houses, stores, people - all lost beneath the post-war and post -Ghetto building boom that transformed this area into vast acres of wide streets and big apartment blocks. The Ghetto monuments are among the few distinctive landmarks.
Gone too, is any sense of the perimeter of the Ghetto, the infamous Wall which figured so mightily in wartime reality and post-Holocaust imagination. Together with the chimneys of the Death Camp crematoria, the Warsaw Ghetto Wall is the architectural form that has came to represent most the suffering of the Poland's Jews under German occupation. As the Ghetto was made smaller, as the wall tightened, so too did Jewish hopes diminish. But today, wandering the new Warsaw cityscape - where is the wall?
To my surprise, I came across a new monument on ulica Bielanska, not far from the site of the (destroyed) great Synagogue, that gave me a clue about the Wall. I had not heard of this monument and it is not yet included on any map or in any guide. As it happens it is but one small part of an ambitious new project by the City of Warsaw and the Ministry of Culture in cooperation with the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI) is bringing the memory of the wall back. The work is still in progress, but will be officially inaugurated at the JHI on November 19th.
This project of Ghetto memory sees the city as a palimpsest - and under the lines of the new street the old patterns can still be seen - albeit faintly. 21 bronze reliefs are being installed along the route of the Ghetto wall. 13 reliefs are placed on still-extant patches of wall used as part of the Ghetto enclosure. The rest are set onto freestanding stelae. Together they mark the ghetto border when it was at its biggest. Explanatory texts help orient the viewer. Some of these markers - the ones where no part of the wall survives - include strips of pavement labeled "Ghetto Wall" that are embedded in the surrounding pavements and give a sense of exactly where the wall once was. This method of tracing outline of lost walls is not new (a good example is the memorial for the Orphan Boys' Home in Amsterdam, where an outline of the building in whose site is mostly covered by the new Town Hall was laid out with ceramic tiles in the surrounding pavement by artist Otto Treumann), but in Warsaw it is done very well.
I'm very impressed by this project. It is one of the very best that I have seen anywhere that endeavors to reorient the viewer to an historic topography rather than the contemporary one. For Jewish sites this type of evocation of lost places is essential, since throughout Europe so much of Jewish culture is lost, destroyed and built over. The Warsaw project demonstrates that there are ways that are both aesthetically and didactically satisfactory - that these lost places and spaces can be recalled, if not actually recovered. The effort to create and install a system of distinct but related markers is important. Whether for the Ghetto Wall, or for relocating Jewish communal institutions or any other set of sites, a system indicates that recovered sites were not individual, casual or accidental creations, but they are part of a complex network of places and community now gone. This technique can work with any kind of lost heritage, not just Jewish. But for Jewish heritage - especially in cities once full of Jews where few physical remains survive - markers are a must.
I don't know who is responsible for this new marker system, but I am sure my friends Eleonora Bergman, Director of the Jewish Historical Institute and Jan Jagielski, researcher of Jewish sites par excellence are involved. Both Lena and Jan, by the way, have new books out about Jewish Warsaw before and during the Ghetto period. I'll write about them another time.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Ukraine: Zhovkva Historic Photos
(ISJM) Sergey Kravtsov of the Center for Jewish Art has sent these historic photos of the synagogue of Zhovkva. The two interior photos of the Aron-ha Kodesh wall provide a reminder of how richly sculpted and painted the interiors of the synagogue was - although much of the decoration including the musical instruments and the view of Jerusalem probably date to the late 19th or first decades of the 20th century. Such motifs were common - almost ubiquitous in Polish synagogues (and synagogues founded by Polish immigrants in America and elsewhere) of the time. The view of the Ark, however, shows it in all of its Baroque splendor.
The photo of the destruction of the synagogue raises the issue of exactly how and when the synagogue was destroyed. Was it set afire (as we see here) or was it blown up? Both fates are possible. Many synagogues went through multiple destructions during the German occupation. First they were pillaged and burned, and then later, when empty, if no other use was apparent, they were blown up. Many of the big masonry synagogues, however, were so strongly built, with walls often more than a meter thick, that even when exploded much of the original structure remained. Wooden synagogues, of course, were burned, and therefore we have few of those left.
There is disagreement over whether Germans or Ukrainians burned the Zhovkva synagogue. I don't know the details, but it is possible that some of the local population helped set the synagogue afire under the protection, and possibly the direction of the Germans, who are shown in this photo.
Ukraine: Progress (Slow but Steady) for Zhovkva Synagogue Restoration
by Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) On my recent visit to Ukraine I had the opportunity to stop briefly en route to Lviv to visit the great synagogue of Zhovkva, a site that I have returned to several times since I first urged the restoration of the building*. Work has been continuing on the historic “fortress” synagogue by the Zhovkva State Historical-Architectural Reserve and the Office for the Protection of Historical Monuments of Zhovkva, under the direction of Mr. Mychaijo Kubai. The empty and severely damaged building was listed by the World Monuments Fund on its list of 100 most endangered sites for 2000, leading to a start-up grant from WMF, and subsequent contributions for consolidation and restoration work from the Ukrainian State agencies. In 2006 (?), a partnership was established with four engineering offices in
Evening was approaching as my colleagues Sergey Kravtsov (Center for Jewish Art, Jerusalem) and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (Museum of the History for the Jews in Poland) stopped in Zhovkva unannounced, but we could see work taking place removing old plaster and mortar from an exterior wall. I later learned from Ruth Ellen Gruber (see Ruth's account) and Rudolf Klein, who visited the site a few days later, that the plan calls for two walls to be treated this year, and two next year). While to the casual visitor it may appear that little has been done to date, and that the synagogue is still a ruin, there has, in fact, been substantial stabilization of the building’s foundations and walls and repair of the roof and some other aspects pf the water handling system. Expensive repairs are still needed before full restoration and any reuse begins – as much as is possible given the state of the building – but the structural integrity of the building is now secure. Future work will be expensive (the total cost of the project will be at least $US 2 million), and unless there is a single large infusion of funds it will be long. Serious discussion about what the interior should look like and purpose it will serve is still needed. The purported purpose is to establish a Central Museum of Jewish Culture of
Founded as a Renaissance town private town before 1600, Zhovkva (Polish: Żółkiew) is an important component of Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish culture and history. The Jewish community began with the town’s founding. The Jewish center was established in the northern part, where the synagogue (1687) and other Jewish public buildings were eventually built. Zhovkva preserved its Renaissance appearance until the Second World War, during which the town suffered serious damage. At that time the town's Jewish population of approximately 4,000 was mostly murdered in a series of local executions, or deported to their deaths at Belzec and elsewhere. A sign tells the history of the synaoggue in multiple languages, but as historian Omer Bartov points out in his recent book Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present Day Ukraine (Princeton, 2007) their is no history, monument or other commemorative or educational indication of the history or fate of Zhovkva's Jews.
In 1941, the synagogue was blown up by Zhovkva’s German occupiers. The walls survived, but main hall columns, vaulting, and the annexes were ruined and/or completely destroyed. In 1955-1956, the synagogue was partially rebuilt and the entrance door and windows were recreated. The southern annex, however, and the vault of the second floor of the western annex were not restored. In 1963 the building was listed on the National Register of Architectural Monuments and Town Planning Ukraine, Protected Number 389. The synagogue facade was partially repaired in 1992-1993, and in 1994 the government listed central Zhovkva, in which the synagogue is located, as a State Historical-Architectural Reserve. Forty sites in the town are listed on the State Register of Architectural Monuments and Town Planning.
All older repairs were made using poor materials, and when I first visited the building in 2000 the roofs and other elements – old and new – were obviously rapidly deteriorating. Masonry walls and vaults and timbers set within the load-bearing walls were overly damp, causing new problems – clearly visible - due to micro-organisms, frost and a general weakening of structural elements. Accumulated debris around the synagogue allowed the accumulation of water, increasing the dampness in the structure. Brick-work at the bottom of the south wall and inside of the building was deeply corroded, or entirely lost.
Interior view of Zhovkva Synagogue (photo: Rodolf Klein, November 2008, posted with permission)
In the past five years work has moved forward on phases I and II of the project. These included a full building examination and preparation of a preservation plan with preliminary designs for the introduction of mechanical systems (installation of which must wait until after Phase III when future use of the site and user needs are fully determined), include substitution of the roof structure and covering; lowering of the exterior ground level to allow proper drainage; the drying of the load-bearing walls; the restoration of brick-work in the southern wall. Work is now proceeding to remove old plaster from exterior walls and check all masonry and mortar, and to replace external windows and doors. Only when all this work on the shell of the building – all that remains – will work on the interior begin.
This future (and to my knowledge still unfunded) work will include the continued study of historical, architectural and natural aspects of the synagogue and its site; the preparation of project-design documentation for the interior restoration and adaptation for museum purposes; restoration of the vault above the second floor of the western annex and making a roof above it; restoration of the wall and roof structures of the lost southern annex; installation of mechanical systems (i.e., electric, heat, water, sewage; communication and security); restoration of the synagogue interiors; restoration of the attic and the external plaster painting of the facades; clearing the obstructions and restoring the basements below the vestibule-lobby; and establishment of museum and/or other functions.
It remains to be seen what will happen in Zhovkva. Certainly, the town has taken more of an interest in its Jewish past than most towns and cities in Western Ukraine. But there remains a long way to go. Just as there is no memorial to the town's murdered Jews, there is also obvious disrespect - or at least ignorant neglect - of Jewish history as evidenced by the continued use of the Jewish cemetery as a marketplace. As I explained to Mr. Kubai and others on my first visit to Zhovkva many years ago, "it is good to restore the synagogue, but if you want the support of Jews for this project, you need to reclaim the cemetery, too."
* See:“Zhovkva Synagogue: