"If these walls could talk" has become a cliche in the historic preservation world, but when standing inside an old synagogue its still a irresistibly phrase and ideas. Anita Kassof, associate director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and illustrator Jonathon Scott Fuqua, have taken the idea and made an appealing children's book from it. “Long before your grandparents’ grandparents were babies, before they walked or talked or tied their own shoes, I was built with shovel and pail, hammer and nail, brick and stone.” So begins the narrative of Baltimore's Lloyd Street Synagogue, opened in 1845 as Maryland's first synagogue, the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, as told in the recently published The Synagogue Speaks [ISBN: 978-1-883312-12-1]. I wrote about the restoration of the synagogue back in 2009.
The historic building, now part of the museum, evolved from traditional to Reform observance in the mid-19th century, and then was transformed into a Catholic church in 1889. In an less common twist of fate, the building became home to an Eastern European Orthodox Jewish congregation in 1905. It was saved from the wrecking ball in 1960 and now serves as the cornerstone of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and has long been celebrated as one of the first Jewish community historic preservation successes.That's a lot of history to relate in a 48-page book, especially on with only about 100 words per double page. But the richly detailed and historically precise watercolors by Fuqua bring the story to life. While the book is recommended for children ages 4 to 10, I think adults will enjoy the illustrations - some of the construction views are in the style of the great architectural illustrator David Macaulay. The book is available at the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s shop, on its website or through book stores. You can read about the making of the book here.
For those whose appetite is whetted for more history of the building and its history effort, there are several good articles form the 1990s by former director Bernard Fishman, and the catalog from the exhibition on Maryland synagogues held at the museum a few years ago.
The exhibition tells the story of the landmark building in all its phases, and the two immigrant Jewish and on Catholic congregation that occupied it. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation occupied the building until 1889, when it became home to St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church. From 1905 to 1960, it housed the Orthodox Shomrei Mishmeres HaKodesh. The building became the property of the Jewish Historical Society in 1963 and continues to be part of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, that society's successor. I was consulted during the research for the exhibition, but I have not yet seen the installation. You can read a lengthy online review - mostly on technical aspects of the exhibition and its installation by Jeanine Kern- online at exhibitfiles.org
Children's books that tell the stories of American historic sites are quite common, but The Synagogue Speaks is only the second example of the genre that I know of that tells the story of an old American synagogue.
The Old Synagogue written and illustrated by Richard Rosenblum (1989) tells the story of the creation, decline and restoration of a small New York synagogue (like the Stanton Street Shul) - it is a mix of reportage, nostalgia, exploration and discovery. More recent is Mark Podwal's Built by Angels: The Story of the Old-New Synagogue. This children's book, also 48 pages, is more about myth, mystery and imagination. Its vivid illustrations and text of legends leans more to the fantasy genre than to history. While it does introduce young readers to a important building and history, it also reinforces misconceptions and stereotypes - not the best way to learn from the past, but perhaps a way to inspire curiosity. Other congregations and historic preservation planners will want to learn from all these examples.
For further reading about the Lloyd Street Synagogue and related Baltimore synagogues see:
Cahn, Louis F., 1973. The Restoration of the Lloyd Street Synagogue. Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, Balitmore, Maryland.
Fein, Isacc M. The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920. (Philadelphia: JPS, 1971).
Fishman, Bernard, 1989. "Lloyd Street Synagogue's Wandering Ark: Solving Architectural Mysteries in Maryland's Oldest Synagogue," Generations (Fall), 17-21.
Fishman, Bernard, 1995. "Color and Camouflage in Baltimore's Lloyd Street Synagogue, 1845-1991," in Maryland Historical Magazine, 90:3 (Fall 1995), 287-311.
Goldman, Israel M., 1978. "The Second Oldest Existing Synagogue Building in Baltimore ---The Chizuk Amuno Synagogue on Lloyd and Lombard Street," Generations, 1 (Dec. '78), 33-44.
Kaufman, David, 2000, “Cornerstones of Community: The Historic Synagogues of Maryland,” in Cornerstones of Community: The Historic Synagogues of Maryland, 1845-1945 (Baltimore, Jewish Museum of Maryland, 2000)
Leeser, Isaac, 1845. “Consecration of the Synagogue at Baltimore,” The Occident and American Jewish Advocate 3:8 (Nov 1845), 362
Pruce, Earl, 1993. Synagogues, Temples, and Congregations of Maryland: 1830-1990. Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, Baltimore.
Tabak, Israel, 1972. "The Lloyd Street Synagogue of Baltimore: A National Shrine," in American Jewish Historical Quarterly, 61, 342 352.
Zalesch, Saul E., 1984. Synagogue Building in Baltimore During the Nineteenth Century, M.A. thesis, Department of Art History, University of Delaware.