Sunday, May 31, 2009

Jamaica: History of the Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean Conference Scheduled for January 2010

Jamaica: History of the Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean Conference Scheduled for January 2010

(ISJM) Ainsley Henriques of the Jewish Heritage Center at the United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, Jamaica, has announced plans for the History of the Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean conference to be held in Kingston, Jamaica next January 11-14. The conference is co-sponsored by the United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, Jamaica, the UWI, the American Sephardic Federation, and the City University of New York.

The co-chairs of the conference are Professor Jane Gerber of City University of New York and Ainsley Cohen Henriques. Conference coordinator is Stan Mirvis.

The venue is the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. The schedule of speakers will be released shortly.

Later in the month Panama City will host the 12th annual conference on Jewish Communities of Latin American and the Caribbean (see announcement below).

Friday, May 29, 2009

London, England, New West End Synagogue. Photos: S. D. Gruber

England: English Heritage Grant for Repairs at London's New West End Synagogue

In March 3, 2009 English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund announced more than £15.5 million in grants to 150 Grade I and II (Monument) listed places of worship in the UK as part of the joint Repair Grants for Places of worship scheme.

Seven Grade buildings in London received a total of over 1 million pounds in awards, and one of these was the great Victorian New West End Synagogue, which was elevated to Grade I status in 2007, and received a grant of £108,000 for roof repairs. The Bayswater synagogue was designed by George Audsley and dedicated in 1879 is one of only two Grade I Jewish sites in the UK, the other begin Bevis Marks Synagogue, England's oldest standing synagogue, built in 1701. Audsley also built the Princes Road Synagogue in Liverpool, which shares some features with the New West End Synagogue. The Liverpool synagogue was elevated to Grade I status in 2008 when it also received a grant of £112,000 to help with desperately needed roof repairs.

Click here for some history of the New West End Synagogue.
(with a link to photo galleries and various articles)

Look at photos of the synagogue by Sarah Lee for The Guardian.
(much better photos than mine!)

London, England, New West End Synagogue.
Seats in Women's Gallery. Photo: S. D. Gruber

It is only in recent years that English Heritage has so readily recognized the historical and architectural significance of synagogue in the UK. Part of this is due to the greater development of a politics of cultural pluralism in England, but much of the credit for this progress must go to Dr. Sharman Kadish of the University of Manchester who as Director of Jewish Heritage UK has forged a productive partnership with English Heritage to document and list Jewish sites. Significantly English Heritage published Kadish's excellent architectural guide Jewish Heritage in England [ISBN 10-1 905 624 28 X] in 2006.

Kadish's success is on both sides of the issue. Not only has she gained the interest of national culture arbiter for Jewish sites, she has gradually led Jewish leaders to trust non-Jewish culture agencies more. Of course, the reality of significant grant money now demonstrates the virtue of this partnership, and the success of the program should only encourage more synagogue congregations to step forward to apply for Heritage Lottery Fund support.

England: Survey begins of Medieval Cemetery in Northampton

England: Survey begins of Medieval Cemetery in Northampton
by Samuel D. Gruber

Seventeen years after the collapse of a culvert in Midlands town of Northampton, England reveal five skeletons that were almost certainly associated with a medieval Jewish cemetery, the site is finally being surveyed. An article this month in the Northampton Chronicle and Echo reports that Marcus Roberts, Anglo-Jewish researcher and founder of JTrails, a network of Jewish heritage routes in the UK, is leading the project in conjunction with forensic archaeologists from Birmingham University. The paper quotes him as saying "This is potentially the last unexcavated known Jewish cemetery in the country and perhaps the only one accessible for study, so it is a site of huge national importance." The cemetery was situated in what is now Lawrence Court (in what is now the center of town) between 1259 and 1290.

There are no plans to excavate here. Only non-intrusive means methods will be used to glean as much information as possible about the history and plan of the site. Northampton officials must be aware of the heated controversies that surrounded the excavation of what turned out to be the medieval cemetery of York, and the ongoing debates about how to best treat long-forgotten medieval Jewish cemeteries in Spain.

According to information about the cemetery on the JTrails website, which offers virtual Jewish tour of Northampton, the cemetery site was identified found by Mr. Roberts in 1992

by profiling the typical site factors of the other known medieval Jewish cemetery locations in England, to create a typical location profile, in terms of factors such as the typical distance from the Jewry, relation to roads and access, drainage, enclosure type and size. This was then matched to the known historical facts about the cemetery, i.e. that it had been out side the north gate on St Andrew’s Priory land. The final element of the deduction was the use of a surviving highly detailed 17th century map, which accurately showed all of the former St Andrew’s land and enclosures. From this it was clear that only one location, a tiny poorly drained enclosure could be the site which was eventually developed into Temple Bar and Paradise Row. It was possible to move from the medieval enclosures to the modern street plan as virtually all of the streets ran on the former field boundaries in order to maximize developments within the individual field plots.

The confirmation of the identification came by chance months later in 1992, on the eve of the Day of Atonement, when a deep culvert collapsed revealing interments. The finds were in a hole in the roadway itself, close to the junction of Temple Bar with Maple Street. The general area of the cemetery is Temple Bar itself, and a former row of house forming Paradise Row. It is now an area of grass, and young trees immediately adjacent, to the north of the street.

The skeletons comprised of three to five individuals. The three main individuals identified consisted of a female, aged 40-44 years, and two males. Unfortunately little more could be deduced from the remains, except that one of the males suffered an arthritic condition. Later, Carbon dating revealed that dating range of the remains was almost exactly that of the period that cemetery existed and was in operation. Also archaeological research was able to eliminate the possibility it was some other cemetery and it is now identified in the archaeological record as a Jewish cemetery.

The archaeological report on the find, while recognising the relict enclosure argument, argues that the siting factor was waste land behind a medieval ribbon development of houses along the high-way, though both positions are not in reality mutually exclusive.
In its day the cemetery would have had a substantial wall, with a gate, surrounded by a deep ditch. The cemetery also had a house for funeral rites, and lodging for a watchman. The house probably lay on the highway, fronting, and concealing, the cemetery behind. There was probably a narrow entry to the gate off the side of the house. The burials would have been in neat rows, with male and female burials kept separate. Most burials would have had tombstones set facing outwards at the foot of the grave.

This spot today is admittedly unprepossessing, but one should remember that in olden days the cemetery had an essentially rural location, surrounded by fields, partly fronted by medieval suburban dwellings along the then King's Highway. .."

Mr. Roberts points out that if the site had not previously been suggested as that of the Jewish cemetery "it is likely that the site would have been declared an unofficial 17th-century non-Conformist burial ground, as had been assumed when the bones were first uncovered and not accorded any protection as an archaeological site."

Also in 1992, Roberts identified a gravestone in the collection of the Northampton Central Museum as coming from the cemetery. The matzevah remains the only medieval Jewish gravestone yet discovered in England. In form it resembles examples from the Rhineland.

A full account of the gravestone can be found in a report by Marcus Roberts in Medieval Archaeology 36 (1992), 173-178, also avaialable on-line.

The matzevah (see feature) is now a permanently on view, as part of a museum display about medieval Jewish Northampton. According to Roberts, it is made of "Barnack Stone brought all the way from the Barnack quarry near Stamford."

Photos of the cemetery site, the matzevah, the musuem exhibit and other Jewish sites in Northampton can be viewed in photo show.

The results of this survey will be very interesting, and if successfully informative will give impetus for the adoption of similar respectful methods elsewhere in Europe. Also of great interest and importance is how the site will be treated in the future.

Estonia: New Info on Jewish Sites Listed On-Line

Tallin, Estonia. Jewish cemetery. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber

Estonia: New Information on Jewish Sites Listed On-Line

(ISJM) New, extensive and up-to-date information about Jewish heritage sites in Estonia has recently been added to the website, where detailed lists and descriptions of Jewish sites in a number of little documented countries are being posted, little by little.

The Estonia section includes the most comprehensive information available about synagogues and former synagogues, cemeteries and Holocaust-related sites.

The Jewish Community in Estonia continues to move forward on several heritage documentation projects. The two most prominent are the placement of commemorative marker on the site of the Great Choral Synagogue of Tallinn at 5 Maakri Street, and the erection of more commemorative markers on sites of the approximately 20 Nazi-sounded labor and death sites throughout the country, where up to 20,000 Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania and elsewhere toiled - especially in the oil shale industry - and where many died. In the past five years the project has identified these site, some of which were never marked, and others which were marked with non-specific commemorative inscriptions dating from the Soviet period. New or additional markers were installed at five sites - Ereda, Kiviõli, Klooga, Illuka, Metsakmistu and Vaivara, in 2005
. Markers are reportedly ready for another three sites, though there have been delays over disputes about who will maintain them.

The Jewish community of Estonia dedicated a new synagogue in Tallinn (photos) in 2007 designed by local architects Kimmel and Stöör and last December (2008) they opened a museum to document the life of Estonian Jews from the second half of the 19th century to the present.

Jewish Symbols: Ten Commandments in Central New York

Jewish Symbols: Ten Commandments in Central New York

For Shavuot, readers of this blog might want to check my entry on My Central New York about representations of the Ten Commandments in my home region...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bosnia: Some Thoughts of Jewish Sarajevo and People of the Book

A picture for Shavuot: Moses Receiving the Law as represented in the Sarajevo Haggadah

Your blogger surveying Sarajevo Jewish cemetery when last in Bosnia

Some Thoughts of Jewish Sarajevo and People of the Book
by Samuel D. Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber and Bob Cohen have posted interesting accounts of Jewish Sarajevo that every reader of People of the Book will want to visit. you can read more, too, by Ruth and me about Jewish sites in Bosnia at the Jewish-Heritage-Europe website.

I mention People of the Book, the best selling account of the Sarajevo Haggadah, because author Geraldine Brooks will be speaking in (my home of) Syracuse this fall as part of the prestigious Gifford Lecture Series and I have been asked by the Sisterhood of Temple Concord to give a pre-lecture on the art and history of the story. So this week I've enjoyed reading the book. Though utterly fictional, it does provide a lot more food for thought than a Dan Brown novel, and its actually inspired me to look at a number of historical episodes in a new light.

For me the book resonates since it hits at least four of my major interest areas: medieval Spain (where I am now engaged in evaluating aspects of the recent Jewish finds in Lorca); the Venice Ghetto (the origins of which I have been researching for the past few years); Fin-de-Siecle Vienna and the origins of modern "Jewish Art;" and post-siege Sarajevo (where I spent time on the restoration of the burnt-out pre-burial house/synagogue on the Jewish cemetery site).

Pre-burial chapel / synagogue in Sarajevo Jewish Cemetery during restoration.
Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2000

Since most of what Brooks provides are emotionally challenging and cathartic (and sometimes fatal) stories about people, she really has little to say about the places where her stories unfold. Its mostly atmosphere, but I did like her account of drunken young Venetians in the Ghetto at night, and also her ability to conjure up some sense of a Juderia in oppressive 15th century Spain. Most of all, from an art historical view, she gets kudos for her descriptions and evocations of the incredible long, hard, and often painful work that was required to produce the illuminated manuscripts we cherish. Of course, much the same could be written about any pre-modern craft - and it should be. Maybe the time has come for a novel about building and decorating a synagogue...or perhaps just a Discovery Channel episode of "How Things are Made."

Ruth and Bob both write about the Old Sephardi Synagogue in Sarajevo - one of the least known but most important synagogues in Europe. I have previously described the building, first built in in 1581, : " --> The narrow, three-bay long main space of the central prayer hall has thick walls which support a series of interior domes, echoing the arrangement of many Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques, but contrasting with both: more emphatically axial than a mosque, but without the crossing that would be normal in a church. The main space is surrounded on three sides by galleries on two levels. At one end there is an apsidal space for an Aron Kodesh."

I have not been back to Sarajevo since it has been restored and rededicated as a synagogue (it is also a museum), but will be looking for an opportunity to do so. I recently met Mario Kabiljo, the educator at the Jewish Museum in Sarajevo, and its sounds like there are some exciting plans for the museum in the works. When I have a report I'll let you know.


Belarus: Help Save the (Wooden) Synagogue in Ivenetz

Top three photos: Former synagogue of Ivenetz, Belarus.
Bottom: former rabbi's house.
Photos provided by Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus

Belarus: Help Save the (Wooden) Synagogue in Ivenetz
By Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) n.b. Yuri Dorn, Coordinator of Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus has provided information the synagogue and its current situation, which I have edited into this account.

Following the destruction last month of the former synagogue of Luban, Belarus, greater attention needs to be paid to the fate of other Jewish buildings in the country – especially buildings in good enough condition to save for new use without excessive cost. One of these buildings is the century-old wooden synagogue in the town Ivenetz (photos), which is the next building threatened with a new sale and potential demolition (to contribute see information at the end of this post). The building was used as a movie theater from the 1950s to the 1980s, and then as a dance club. Ironically and tragically, given the fate of the Ivenetz Jewish community, the last tenant was a private business which produced tombstones. The municipality, which owns the building, has contacted the Belarus Jewish community about plans to sell the site at auction.

At the end of the 19th century (1897) the total population of Ivenetz was 2,670; ad 1,343 of these were Jews. There were 2 active synagogues. (Today there are only four elderly Jews in the town.). In the summer of 1898 the local Jewish community obtained another parcel of land not far from the market square, the area where most of the Jews had settled. In the spring of 1899 group of 20 Jews including a Rabbi submitted request to the Minsk Governor to allow them to build a wooden synagogue on that land. They said that two existing synagogues had been built 70 and 40 years previously, and Jewish population since that time had grown and needed more room.

Construction permission for the new synagogue was received on August 6, 1899. It is not known when construction began, but on the 1912 list of buildings of Minsk uyezd (district) this building described as following: "New wooden synagogue in town Ivenetz, capacity up to 400 people….Single story building with interior balconies for women". When the Communists took over this part of Belarus in 1940 the synagogue was closed.

In June 1941, when the Germans occupied the town they collected all local Jews in a Ghetto, which they located on land of Catholic church. The wooden synagogue building was converted into the stables. When Ivenetz was liberated from Nazis in July 1944, only about 20 Jews returned to their homes, and the synagogue was not used.

Click here for images of Jewish Ivenetz

Click here for selections of the Ivenetz Yitzchor book

The synagogue remained empty until the mid-1950s when the local administration repaired the floor, put on a new roof, disassembled the women's balcony (which had been reached by an exterior stair, destroyed ten years ago) and installed electricity. The building was a movie theater from the late 1950s through the early 1970s and then a dance club until 2006.

The overall condition of the building is not bad. It is an attractive wooden structure. Few traces of its former Jewish use are visible, but at least one interior wall has painted decorations that were recently discovered and then painted over again. In the photo one can see traces of the faux-architecture. The interior space is ample and well lit with the original windows.

The Belarus Jewish community must now decide whether to claim the building – if they do not assert ownership, they will forfeit their rights, and the building will be put up for auction and sold. Most likely a new owner would acquire the building for commercial use (such as a store or small workshop or factory, etc), or demolish it for use of the land.

In order to adapt the 100-year old building for commercial use the new owner would need to invest a lot of money, since there are demanding building codes that have to be met for income-producing buildings that accommodate a large numbers. It is probably cheaper to demolish the building and use existing foundation to construct a new building with modern amenities. The synagogue building is situated in the center of town, where land is pretty expensive (by local standards). Since the land goes with the building, it would be a very attractive investment.

The local authorities in Iventz have done everything right (unlike the recent situation in Luban). They first asked the Belarus Jewish community about interest in the property. Refusal now by the community will protect the municipality from further claims and allegations in case if the building is eventually destroyed or rebuilt.

There are other traces of the Jewish past still visible in Ivenetz. The former rabbi’s house stands, now used as a music school, as well as about 30 other pre-War “Jewish” houses.

The old Jewish cemetery survives with about 400 intact matzevot. A few years ago volunteers from the Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus catalogued and photographed all the stones. Just recently another lot with an old Jewish cemetery was discovered in the town. This cemetery may date back to the beginning of 18th century, but it is hard to tell since so far only 2 surviving gravestones have been discovered. In the woods, not far from the town there is a Holocaust memorial, erected few years ago on the place of execution of Jews from Ivenetz and surrounding villages.

The local historical museum also has a section about the history of the local Jewish community, which Research Group hopes to see expanded through cooperation with the museum. Not far from the museum in a building formerly a Jewish smithy, is a craft center that sells local pottery and weaving, and where artisans demonstrate their work, and where visitors can try their hand at different crafts under expert supervision. This center is a local attraction for school groups and tourists, and local administration is planning to open more cultural attractions like this. Creating a Jewish Heritage Center in Ivenetz would fit in with this type of development

If the Belarus Jewish community does take possession of the former synagogue, they propose to develop it as a research and educational center, to focus on the history of Jewish Ivenetz and the Jeiwsh communities in surrounding places within a radius up to 50 km (30 miles), including Rakov (1,250 Jews before the Holocasut) , Derevnoe (450), Rubezhevichy (1,600), Volozhin (3,200), Volma (200), Kamen (400), Naliboki (380), Koidanovo (2,700). The plan calls for historical and genealogical information from various Belorussian archives will be channeled into this center. The information is unique - never published before. Extracted information will be translated into English. The Center’s genealogists will do this on a voluntary basis, but the idea is also to charge for some services to maintain costs of the Center. Plans are also to involve young people in these efforts, and preliminary arrangements have been made with the youth organization “Hillel”, which will send groups to Ivenetz to collect memoirs from local old residents and help with some construction work for the building.

The admirable intention to protection and preserve the Ivenetz synagogue within a broader vision of a regional Jewish Heritage Center has been inspired by similar projects in Poland, France, Italy, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Even more than in those places, however, the Belarus has limited resources, and they are unable to leverage significant government funding. Nor are the eligible for EU support – something that this is beginning to really assist Jewish heritage projects elsewhere. On the other hand, the projected costs for this project are relatively modest.

How to Help

Documentation and research costs needed to put forward the legal to the building are less than $1,000 and the International Survey of Jewish Monuments has offered to advance this money from its Emergency Documentation Fund. Repair and adaptive reuse costs for the building over the next five years are estimated at less than $25,000 – a real bargain in these times. How the building will be sustained and how the Center will manage in the long term still needs to be addressed.

U.S. tax-deductible contributions to this project can be sent to:

International Survey of Jewish Monuments
P.O. Box 210,
120 Julian Place,
Syracuse, NY 13210.

Write “Ivenetz” on the check.

From Europe contributions can be made to
(I recommend make contact before sending or transferring money):

The Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus
220002 Minsk
13B Daumana St.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Jewish War Memorials

Venice, Italy. New Jewish Cemetery on the Lido, Memorial to Jewish soldiers killed in WW I.
Photos: Samuel D. Gruber, 2006.

Malady Boleslav, Czech Republic. Monument in Jewish cemetery to Jewish soldiers who died in WW I.
Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2009.

Gyongyos, Hungary. World War I Memorial in Jewish Cemetery.
Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2005.

Jewish War Memorials
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Today is Memorial Day in the United States. It's a holiday that began after the Civil War as Decoration Day to commemorate those who died - on both sides of the conflict - during that long and bloody confrontation. Jews, too, died for the North and South. And there were Jewish civilian casualties as well. I'm thinking of a little girl's grave I once saw in Vicksburg, Mississippi. She was a casualty of the Union shelling of the Confederate town. I have a slide of that somewhere, but it is not digitized, so its posting will have to await another time. I know there are memorials to American Jewish soldiers in synagogues and cemeteries across the country, but I have not made a point of collecting these.

I recall with sadness seeing almost 20 years ago the marble memorial plaques left behind by a congregation on Coney Island when they abandoned their old synagogue - and let it fall into ruin. At that time I couldn't find any musuem or archive interested in rescuing these heavy marble plaques. I assume they were later destroyed with the building. I'm going to keep my eyes open now for other examples, and I encourage my readers to send me examples they know.

Meanwhile, I'm posting some Jewish war memorials in Europe I have visited recently - since the advent of digital photography. Here are examples of monuments to Jewish soldiers who died in the First World War from cemeteries in just three countries - Italy, the Czech Republic and Hungary. There remains a common misconception that Jews were frequent draft-dodgers from this conflict. These monuments tell a different story. I know many more such monuments exist throughout Europe and I think it important to inventory and document these. Besides being an act of rescuing a little remembered history, and of remembering the fallen themselves, this collection is an interesting and valuable reminder of an already begun process of artistically distinctive commemorative monuments made by Jews in the years
before the Holocaust. This is a tradition that was then revived immediately after the Holocaust by survivors, and then again on a large scale in more recent decades.

Happily, all three of these monuments are in cemeteries that are now well cared for. The great one of the noble lion pierced by spears is from the Hungarian town of Gyongyos, where the cemetery was restored since this photo was taken (it was part of a reconnaissance project prior to finding a donor). There is also a large and impressive Holocaust memorial on the site.


Ruth Gruber has posted more examples of Jewish War Monuments on her blog. Click here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Conference: Association for Canadian Jewish Studies

Conference: Association for Canadian Jewish Studies

(ISJM) The annual conference of the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies will be held this week in Ottawa, from May 24th to 26th.
The preliminary program is available online here.

Two ISJM members will be giving papers of interest on Tuesday May 26th. Barbara Weiser, an independent researcher from Montreal who has been indefatigably documenting art in Canadian synagogues will speak on “The Narratives In the Stained Glass Windows at the Sephardic Kehillah Centre (Abir Yacov Congregation),” The new, lavish and monumental Spanish-inspired Centre is located on Steeles Ave. on Bathurst St. in Thornhill, within greater metropolitan Toronto. Click here for a virtual view of the facilities and sanctuary.

Dr. Barry Stiefel of the College of Charleston, who has recently joined the Board of ISJM, will speak on “Three New World Synagogues: Preserved Symbols of Toleration, Pride and Continuity.” His talk will compare historic preservation efforts of synagogues in the United States and Canada. Barry received his Ph.D. from Tulane University in 2008. His dissertation about the forty plus synagogues erected by the Spanish-Portuguese-Dutch-English-American Jewish communities of the Atlantic basin from the 17th through 19th centuries will be published as Jewish Sanctuary in the Atlantic World: A Social and Architectural History by the University of South Carolina Press.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Poland: Good and Bad Teens. Chrzanow Cemetery Vandals Apprehended, Other Teens Care for Cemetery in Dabrowa Tarnowska

Poland: Good and Bad Teens. Chrzanow Cemetery Vandals Apprehended, Other Teens Care for Cemetery in Dabrowa Tarnowska
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) According to the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, police have identified three teenagers as those who vandalized the Jewish cemetery in Chrzanow in March 2009. Three local Middle School students damaged about 60 matzevot (gravestones). The cost of repairs cost is estimated in dozens of thousands of zlotys. The vandals are now facing charges in family court.

Meanwhile, other Middle School students in Dabrowa Tarnowska have taken the local Jewish cemetery under their care. Within the framework of the Foundation sponsored 'To Bring Memory Back' program, they regularly visit the cemetery, gather litter and clean up the matzevot.

Getting residents of all ages in small towns throughout Poland (and other countries) is a key element in ensuring the long term protection and care of Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust sites. Only when people understand the history and appreciate the values - form a moral, social, political and economic view - will sites be relatively safe. Them ore people of different ages and walks of life who participate in this process, the better. When local residents - Jewish and especially non-Jewish - take a proprietary interest in a site (perhaps through have spent time cleaning it), they are more likely to look out after its safety. School groups, youth groups, Churches groups, and civic organizations can all play a part in this process. International organizations can encourage this work by partnering, sponsoring or providing "sister/brother" links for encourage international cultural exchange.

Readers interest in supporting such endeavors can contact me directly at, and I will direct them to active efforts.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Israel: Israel Museum Has Been Closed - But Very Active

Israel: The Israel Museum Has Been Closed - But Very Active

In 2008 the Israel Museum entered the international musuem renovation and expansion on-going and even-spending building boom that has kept name-architects and top musuem designers busy for more than a decade. No where is this more true than in the world of Jewish Museums. It was time for Jerusalem's Israel Museum - the flagship institution for Jewish art to get into the act. After the Moshe Safdie renewal of Yad Vashem, the Israel Museum was looking dowdy. The existing facilities could not keep up with new demands in musuem collection management, conservation, exhibition, education and (yes) entertainment.

An article this week in the Jerusalem Post begins us up to date on construction work at the Israel Museum. Remarkable given the state of the worldwide economy, the project seems to be on schedule and on budget.

Arts: On schedule and on budget

May. 14, 2009
David Stromberg , THE JERUSALEM POST

Two years after announcing its campus renewal project and a year after breaking ground, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, has proudly announced that construction is on schedule and that 90 percent of the $100 million needed for the project has already been provided.

Walking in a hard hat down wooden staircases and through giant spaces stripped down to their bare concrete walls - the occasional sawing and drilling noises competing with the voice of museum director James Snyder as he explains which museum wing each concrete box is going to become - makes the renewal very real.

Listening to the MoMA-trained director with the shock of white hair and round-rimmed glasses, one gets the sense that Snyder has the project under his thumb. He, however, gives due credit to deputy director Dor Lin and administrative deputy director Ephrat Pomerantz, who he says are on site every day making sure that the massive project involving five giant cranes is moving along at the necessary pace.

There are two main aspects to the renewal project. The first is to create a completely new approach from the entrance of the museum to the center of the museum campus. To do this, the museum has hired New York architect James Carpenter, who has worked on a variety of high-profile projects, such as the new Hearst headquarters (which involved saving the original facade of an existing building), the podium light wall of the Seven World Trade Center building in New York, a proposed multi-use sports enclosure for the Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the Madison Square Garden renovation.

For the Israel Museum, Carpenter has created an architectural language that reflects the original modular approach created by Alfred Mansfeld for the museum - a Modernist take on an Arab village set into the Jerusalem hillside - but infuses a signature style that develops his own architectural statement. He has designed a series of glass-walled pavilions at the front of the museum that will include ticketing, retail and food services. To control the heat and sunlight, the pavilions will be surrounded by glazed terra cotta shutter-like frames, which will create shade while also letting in light during the day. At night, the spaces between the shutters will let incandescent light out of the pavilions, giving the museum entrance a moonlike sheen from afar.

Carpenter has also created a two-pronged approach from his entrance pavilion to Mansfeld's gallery pavilion - one along the original outdoor pathway that includes a number of staircases, and a second subterranean climate-controlled concourse that remains nearly on the same level as the entrance (making it barrier-free and wheelchair accessible) and ends at a sunken courtyard with a staircase, an escalator and an elevator leading up to the heart of the redesigned museum.

This second main aspect of the campus renewal - the reconstruction of the original museum complex from within - has been taken up by Tel Aviv-based Zvi Efrat of Efrat-Kowalsky Architects. Efrat, who is also the head of the architecture department at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, has created a central circulation point from which all the museum's main exhibit wings - Archeology, Judaica and Jewish Ethnography, Fine Arts, and Temporary Exhibitions - are accessible on the same level.

Read the full article here

Lecture (Today): Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City (Washington, DC)

Lecture Today in Washington, DC: About Exhibition Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City

Tuesday, May 19, 2009, Noon - 1:00 p.m.

Join Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington Executive Director Laura Cohen Apelbaum and Archivist/Curator Wendy Turman as they discuss the Society's new exhibition, Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City. Free and open to the public.

Location: Library of Congress, Jefferson Building, Second Floor
African/Middle Eastern Reading Room (floorplan)
10 First Street, SE (between Independence Ave. and South Capitol St.)

Contact the Library of Congress at (202) 707-3779 for more information.

About the The Exhibition: Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City

One of the most important events in our nation's history, the Civil War forever altered American life. Washington and Alexandria were sites of intense activity. This new, original exhibition tells stories of Jewish life in Civil-War Washington and across the river in Alexandria.

Mounted as part of national celebrations of Lincoln's bicentennial in 2009, this exhibition includes images from our collections, supplemented by photographs from the Library of Congress and other local repositories.


February 13 - July 2009
Washington Hebrew Congregation
3935 Macomb Street, NW, Washington, D.C.
Call (202) 362-7100 for visiting information.

July 2009 - December 2009
Beth El Hebrew Congregation
3830 Seminary Road, Alexandria, VA

For more information contact the JHSGW

Monday, May 18, 2009

German Film on Stolen Jewish Property Acclaimed

German Film on Stolen Jewish Property Acclaimed

(ISJM) Human Error (Menschliches Versagen), by Michael Verhoevena, a documentary film about the Aryanization of Jewish property in Germany, won the top prize in German documentaries on Jewish themes at the 15th annual Berlin Jewish Film Festival.

Isn't it weird that there should be such a specified category? It suggests the huge number of documentaries on Jewish themes that must be produced each year (and I've consulted on my share!).

This film sounds important, and together with Rape of Europa should probably be required viewing for all those attending the upcoming Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in Prague.

Read the story at JTA

Conference: Governments and Jewish Groups Get Ready for June Meeting in Prague on Holocaust-Era Assets

Governments and Jewish Groups Get Ready for June Conference in Prague on Holocaust-Era Assets

(ISJM) Ten years after the international conference on Holocaust-era assets held in Washington, DC, a new conference will convene in Prague in late June to assess progress on restitution issues. The conference is sponsored by the Government of the Czech Republic, in cooperation with the Documentation Centre of Property Transfers of Cultural Assets of WW II Victims, the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, the Jewish Museum in Prague, the Terezín Memorial, the Institute of Jewish Studies at the Hussite Theological Faculty of the Charles University in Prague and the Forum 2000 Foundation.

The Prague conference scheduled for Prague on June 26-30, 2009 is intended to evaluate progress in identifying and recovering assets of Holocaust victims since the Washington Conference. Immovable property (synagogues, cemeteries, etc) is one of many categories around which the Prague conference in organized.

At present it is hard to get an accurate schedule of the conference or a list of participants. Potentially, there will be scores of delegations from countries and from NGOs. Many countries are still holding back on announcing who will be in their delegations, waiting to see what high-level dignitaries will be attending from the United States and other countries. Most likely, there will be formal and public sessions in which platitudes will be reiterated, and sound-bites recorded. There will be some lecturing by "good" countries, and some defensive posturing by "bad" countries. It will be behind the scenes that working groups of diplomats, Holocaust experts, historians, lawyers, and Holocasut victim advocates will be pressing their cases, and trying to negotiate policy.

The objectives of the conference are:

• To assess the progress made since the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets in the areas of the recovery of looted art and objects of cultural, historical and religious value (according to the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art and the Vilnius Forum Declaration 2000), and in the areas of property restitution and financial compensation schemes.

• To review current practices regarding provenance research and restitution and, where needed, define new effective instruments to improve these efforts.

• To review the impact of the Stockholm Declaration of 2000 on education, remembrance and research about the Holocaust.

• To strengthen the work of the Task Force on International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, a 26-nation body chaired by the Czech Republic in 2007-2008.

• To discuss new, innovative approaches in education, social programs and cultural initiatives related to the Holocaust and other National Socialist wrongs and to advance religious and ethnic tolerance in our societies and the world.

Herbert Block, Assistant Executive Vice President of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a co-coordinator of the recent Bratislava Seminar, and an upcoming participant in Prague, recently published a summary of the present state of property restitution in much of Central and Eastern Europe.

Ukraine: Haaretz Article About Father Patrick Desbois's Search for Holocaust Mass Graves on the Occassion of his Visit with Pope to Israel

Ukraine: Haaretz Article About Father Patrick Desbois's Search for Holocaust Mass Graves on the Occassion of his Visit with Pope to Israel

On the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Israel last week, Israeli newspaper Haaretz has run a long story about French priest Patrick Desbois, who continues to make headlines internationally about his search for Jewish mass graves in Ukraine.

Father Desbois was in Pope Benedict's entourage, whether on his own initiative or as part of the Pope's public relations campaign is unclear. In any case, the continued exposure of Father Desbois allows the Vatican to show it really cares about the Holocaust. In fact, Desbois's work is a natural extension of Pope John Paul II's initiatives - in which he challenged Catholics in Poland and elsewhere to care for Jewish cemeteries and to acknowledge what has happened to the Jews who had formerly cared for them. Pope Benedict XVI has been less forthright in his addressing Holocaust history.

For many year's I have been ambivalent about Desbois's work. After being engaged for many years supervising the work of young Jewish Ukrainians documenting cemeteries and mass graves on a shoe-string budget in the 1990s, I am pleased that any work continues to discover the locations of mass graves, and to learn about the lives and fates of the murdered victims buried their, and to make efforts to protect and preserve these places. Still, I had hoped that such an effort would be a more formal one - involving both Ukrainian government leaders and agencies in partnership with Jewish communities. I wasn't looking for an Argentinean style "truth Commission," - but I did hope for more government recognition of the legitimacy of this history, and that it is part of the national story of Ukraine. Even more so, I hoped for belated recognition that the fate of the victims was due to their being Jews, and that their memory must also include some Jewish component.

I am afraid that much of Father Desbois's work - or at least the public interest in it, tends to more about him and his story (of a Catholic priest) - than about the stories of those whose grave he seeks. For many, his search has become as much about Catholics as about Jews. He sets a good example for Catholics, but I'm reminded how the public discussion of the Holocaust in places like Latvia often seeks to balance the noble actions of few hundred "Righteous Gentiles" (who are rightly recognized) with the fate of tens of thousands of Jews who met their deaths. The singular act of heroism is usually more memorable, or more easily tellable, than tales of horrific events - especially when horror was on such a large scale. In a similar way Desbois heroism - for what he is doing is heroic - risks overshadowing what he discovers. For in truth, for those knowledgeable about the Holocaust the story Desbois is revealing is not new; only the details are. But the for press, Desbois himself is now - and therefore noteworthy.

From the Haaretz article it seems that Father Desbois's efforts have taken a new direction - and have moved into a more systematic and institutional mode. Perhaps this will no longer be one man's quest - but something a society at large can embrace and even participate in. I hope that Father Desbois will make the effort to expand his efforts to include more Ukrainians and Ukrainian Jews. Only if this is done can his expeditions lay the ground work for on-site care of these graves, with more comprehensive planning for their marking, legal protection and long-term care. If only for the press coverage - this task cannot just be about Patrick Desbois - it must be about the victims of the crimes, and the those of the coming generations who must live near their remains.

French priest interviews Hitler's willing executioners in Ukraine


By Cnaan Liphshiz

A horrific page of history unfolded last Monday in Ukraine. It concerned the gruesome and untold story of a spontaneous pogrom by local villagers against hundreds of Jews in a town south of Ternopil in 1941.

Not one, but five independent witnesses recounted the tale, recalling how they rushed to a German army camp, borrowed weapons and gunned down 500 Jews inside the town's Christian cemetery. One of them remembered decapitating bodies in front of the church.

The man heading the research that led to this discovery discussed it in Israel last week; Father Patrick Desbois was in Pope Benedict XVI's entourage.

Desbois is a French Roman Catholic priest. His team has been investigating mass executions in the former Soviet Union during the Holocaust for more than six years. In 2004, he founded Yahad-In Unum, a Paris-based organization devoted to Christian-Jewish understanding.

Oral testimonies from these events in Ukraine and Belarus are but a part of Desbois' research. Using metal detectors, his team uncovers German-made cartridges and bullets as well as victims' jewelry from killing pits. The findings are transferred to an archive in Paris, where the testimonies are translated.

Earlier this year, Desbois helped start the first Holocaust masters program at the Sorbonne, focusing on the extermination in the former Soviet Union.

To Desbois, there are two holocausts: a western one and an eastern one. The western holocaust was more organized, whereas the eastern one, "the one that happened away from Berlin," was chaotic, decentralized and undocumented.

"German officers wanted to appear efficient, so they documented one mass grave and declared the place judenfrei. In reality, the killings went on for years," he says. "The only way of documenting these [other] graves is asking the locals. Time's running out, and we're the only organization on the ground there."

Read the full story here

Romania: Jewish cemetery in Botosani, Romania Vandalized in April

Romania: Jewish cemetery in Botosani, Romania Vandalized in April

The Jewish cemetery in Botosani, Romania was vandalized on April 23 (?), 2009. According to architect Lucia Apostol of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania, (as reported to Ruth Ellen Gruber) "the desecration was reported in local and national media. In all, 24 tombstone stones were destroyed, 21 of them very badly and two of them so badly smashed that it is impossible to tell whose graves they marked. Total damage is estimated at $10,000. Police suspect four teenagers of the attack -- two of them 14 years old and two of them 16."

For more and picture see:

Romania -- Jewish cemetery in Botosani Vandalized

Ukraine: Lo Tishkach Foundation Issues Report on Jewish Cemeteries

Ukraine: Lo Tishkach Foundation Issues Report on Jewish Cemeteries

(ISJM) The Lo Tishkach Foundation has published another in its series of legislative and practice reports, that examine the situation – especially the legal situation - of Jewish burial grounds in different countries in Europe. The Preliminary Report on Legislation & Practice Relating to the Protection and Preservation of Jewish Burial Grounds was prepared by Andreas Becker for Lo Tishkach with the support of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany & the Conference of European Rabbis. It uses as its starting point the 2005 report Jewish Cemeteries, Synagogues, and Mass Grave Sites in Ukraine, published by the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. If someone is interested in obtaining a copy, they may contact Lo Tishkach at

The Lo Tishkach European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative was established in 2006 as a joint project of the Conference of European Rabbis and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. It aims to guarantee the effective and lasting preservation and protection of Jewish cemeteries and mass graves throughout the European continent. Identified by the Hebrew phrase Lo Tishkach (‘do not forget’), the Foundation is establishing a comprehensive publicly-accessible database of all Jewish burial grounds in Europe, currently featuring details on over 9,500 Jewish cemeteries and mass graves. Lo Tishkach is also producing a compendium of the different national and international laws and practices affecting these sites, to be used as a starting point to advocate for the better protection and preservation of Europe’s Jewish heritage.

The following summary text is extracted form the report:

Report Findings

• Numbers: According to surveys carried out in 1995-1996 by the Jewish Heritage Preservation Committee under the umbrella of VAAD and in co-operation with international research institutes, there are currently about 1,200 known Jewish mass graves and up to 1,000 Jewish cemeteries in Ukraine. Since the Soviet Union did not hold records on Jewish cemeteries, the Committee’s survey is currently the most comprehensive list of Jewish burial grounds in Ukraine.

• Ownership: Municipalities own the majority of cemeteries in Ukraine. The land of mass grave sites may also be privately owned. Many Jewish burial grounds, however, are abandoned, not recognised as such and receive no legal protection. Only a very small number of burial grounds are Jewish-owned.

• Maintenance: Pursuant to Ukrainian burial legislation, municipalities are required to maintain the burial grounds that they own. Typically, special municipal companies take care of this. However, since many Jewish burial grounds are not recognised as such, they receive no public maintenance whatsoever or have to rely on private initiatives.

• Legal situation: A number of provisions in different bodies of law may be used to campaign for better protection and preservation of Jewish burial grounds in Ukraine.
They include the Ukrainian constitution, legislation on the freedom of conscience and religion, burial legislation, cultural heritage legislation as well as the criminal code. However, the lack of identification and municipal and state recognition of numerous Jewish burial grounds remains the single most important obstacle to extending legal protection to these sites.

• Recommendations:

• Identification of all Jewish cemeteries and mass graves in Ukraine;

• Legal recognition of all burial grounds as such in order to protect these sites from future development and other threats;

• A negotiated solution between the Jewish community, municipalities and the national government on ownership and maintenance of currently unrecognised Jewish burial grounds;

• Demarcation and signposting of currently abandoned burial grounds, both to
afford better protection and to protect the memory of those who perished in
the Holocaust

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Poland: Commemorative Marker Installed on former Krasnik Synagogue

Krasnik, Poland. Former Synagogue Complex and new Commemorative Plaque.
Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland

Poland: Commemorative Marker Installed on former Krasnik Synagogue

(ISJM) On May 4, 2009, an inscribed memorial marker was dedicated in Krasnik, Poland (located south of Lublin). The tablet is attached to the outer wall of the former synagogue in Krasnik and commemorates the Jews of Krasnik who were victims of the Holocaust. The memorial was financed by the Friends of Krasnik Society of France. On the day of the dedication ceremony students of the local Middle School No.1 met with young Jews from England. Together, they toured former Jewish sites in Krasnik and helped to clean the local Jewish cemetery. Both events were organized by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.

For photos of the dedication ceremony click here

Since 2007, the Foundation has been developing a project of revitalization of the historic synagogue complex [click here for more photos]. The municipal government and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage are lead partners in this effort. The Foundation is the owner of both Krasnik synagogues in the complex: the larger, 17th century Baroque style building that still contains fragments of polychrome decoration inside, and a smaller synagogue, called “the Talmudic house”, probably built in the 19th century.

To read more about he Jewish history and sites of Krasnik download the brochure Krasnik: The Chassidic Route.

According to the Foundation, plans call for the smaller synagogue building to host a modern multimedia library (a library and a lecture room), joined with the multimedia Museum of Jews of Krasnik and the Krasnik Area. The larger building will perform multiple functions: it will host a center for the local culture-oriented non-governmental organizations, and a grand hall for concerts, conferences and exhibitions. One of the women’s courtyards (second floor of the larger synagogue), will serve as a workshop room for art courses.

Other partners in the project are the local authorities of Krasnik, the Town Library, the Culture and PromotionCenter and the non-governmental organizations: the Krasnik Society of Knowledge Lovers and the Center of Volunteers. These partners participated in the preparation of the functional concept of “Our Multicultural Center” and will be its co-hosts, developing its cultural offer along with the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Prague: Ruth Ellen Gruber Comments on Recent "Golem-mania"

Prague, Czech Republic Golem restaurant. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2004

Prague: Ruth Ellen Gruber Comments on Recent "Golemania":
When does cute become kitsch? When does story-telling get in the way of truth?

Its a shame when a rich and complex history is reduced to a stereotype, and even more so when the media takes a lively part. But rather than go into the details of Jewish life, history, thought, art, ritual, and science in the Jewish town of Prague, its so much easier to talk about the Golem.

When does cute become kitsch? When does story-telling get in the way of truth?

Ruth Ellen Gruber has tracking the cult of the Golem for years, and she's posted some comments and links on what appears to a return of this particularly persistent cultural virus.
Some would say that Jews always need a Superman - even a stupid one made of mud. But I say say we need understanding of history, not reiteration of myth embellished for entertainment of profit.

Maybe things will change a bit this summer, when an informative exhibtion about the real life, times and intellect of Rabbi Judah Löw ben Bezalel (reputed creator of the reputed Golem) opens on Castle Hill. Then we can appreciate the Golem story in a bigger context and better light.

Prague -- Heads Up for Summer Exhibition on Rabbi ...

My confession? On at least one of my visits to Prague I bought Golem whistles and necklaces for friends and relatives.
Way better than puppets of hook-nosed Jews.

Prague, Czech Republic "Jewish" puppets for sale near Jewish cemetery. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2004

See Ruth's most recent blogs with links to stories in the New York Times and on JTA.

Prague -- Yet More Golemania....

NYTimes Discovers the Golem