Friday, March 22, 2013

What Was Inside 19th-Century American Synagogues?

Washington, DC.  The first Adas Israel Synagogue. Top: from a 1903 newspaper article. Bottom: as it looks today: Photos: Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW)

What Was Inside 19th-Century American Synagogues?
by Samuel D. Gruber

I'm working on a project with the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW), preparing an Historic Furnishings Report to describe more closely the appearance of the original Congregation Adas Israel synagogue, inaugurated on June 10, 1876 (with President Grant and Vice President Ferry in attendance). A decade ago I participated in the preparation of the Historic Structures Report for the building. We are confident about the main structural and architectural features of the former synagogue, but can never be certain about what was inside and how it as arranged - and things changed.

This has led me back to the recognition of a broader lack of information about 19th-century American synagogue interiors.  With a few notable exceptions, most of these buildings have not been written about in much detail, and when they are described the most attention is focused on their external style (Classical, Gothic, Moorish, etc.).   The best overall account of 19th-century synagogues remains the first chapters of Rachel Wischnitzer's book Synagogue Architecture in the United States. published in 1955 - more than a half century ago.  But Wischnitzer did not focus much on issues such as the types and arrangement of benches and other seating (and  their relation to interior processional routes); the placement of functional, symbolic and ritual lighting; the decoration of windows and wall surfaces; and many more seemingly mundane but everyday arrangements that help define what the life of the synagogue (in addition to its architecture) really is.

New York, NY. Congregation Shearith Israel, 19th St. Bldg (1860), interior view showing procession with Torah scrolls at building dedication. The Sephardi seating arrangement - with a large open space between Ark and Bimah - makes processions easy. Less so, the arrangements in Ashkenazi synagogues.  The placement of benches and location of aisles usually relates to liturgical practice as well as issues of comfort, space and public presentation. Photo: from M. Angel,  Remnant of Israel, originally published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (Sept. 29, 1860).

We can do much more than that.  I'm asking for help in identifying further source material to help better describe the interiors of 19th and early 20th-century American synagogues. As you will read - these can include contemporary photos and drawings, newspaper and newsletter accounts, congregation minutes, congregant memoirs and other recollections. Over the years I have collected a lot of this material for my own use - but now I would like to be more systematic in this compilation, and to use some scholarly "crowd sourcing" to help.

In the past twenty years historic preservation efforts, including many detailed architectural and material studies and research for the preparation of National Register of Historic Places nominations have amassed a large quantity of new informaiton on 19th and early 20th-century American synagogues. Local historical and genealogical societies have expanded and organized picture collections.  But most of this material remains to be collated for comparative and historical study.

Charleston, SC. Brith Shalom Cong., interior (1874).  Installation of Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman in 1948.
From Jeffrey S. Gurock, Orthodoxy in Charleston p44

At the former Adas Israel, much remains uncertain about the furnishings (except the benches); color scheme; lighting and other fittings; as well as ritual items. We have a poor (but still very useful) newspaper photo (above) from 1903 and some non-specific descriptions in newspaper accounts of the dedication.  Surviving congregational minutes are not very helpful, and except for three original benches, original furnishings and ritual items from this first Adas Israel synagogue have not yet been identified. So we need to turn to comparative material, like some of the images shown here, that record near-contemporary synagogues of traditional/Orthodox congregations. 

Slide 28
Alliance, NJ. Eben Ha' Ezer Synagogue and Hall (demolished), Interior July 29, 1888. Yoval 1932, p18 

Slide 31
Alliance, New Jersey.  Tiphereth Israel Synagogue, 1889.  Photo: S Gruber 1987.

Alliance, New Jersey.  Tiphereth Israel Synagogue. Women's gallery, 1889.  Photo: S Gruber 1987.

Woodbine, New Jersey.  Agudas Achim Anshei Cong. (Brotherhood Synagogue). Women's gallery, 1896.  Photo: S Gruber 1987.

Woodbine, New Jersey.  Agudas Achim Anshei Cong. (Brotherhood Synagogue), 1896.  Photo: S Gruber 1987.

Overall, with the exception of a few notable buildings (such as Temple Emanuel, Shearith Israel - both demolished - and Central Synagogue in New York, Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia (demolished), and a small number of others) the specific documentary evidence for 19th-century synagogue interiors is remarkably sparse. Most synagogue interiors were never photographed - or the photos do not survive. Those shown here are the exception, not the rule.  

This was especially true of small synagogues, and those built before the 1920s.  For the synagogues of turn-of-the-century East European Jewish immigrants there are only dozens of known interior views of the hundreds of congregations and chevras that struggled or flourished, but then were gone.  Successful congregations usually moved on to newer buildings and neighborhoods. Unsuccessful congregations just closed their doors.  Sometimes richer congregations sold to poorer ones - and in these cases  when the older buildings have survived or survived longer, more information can be gleaned .

After 1920, interiors of Reform and some Conservative synagogues were photographed more than Orthodox shuls (it was customary to have photos on the bimah for graduation confirmation classes in Reform Temples) - but even these views often only include close-up views of the Ark area.

Contemporary descriptions are hard to come by and need to be pieced together from newspaper accounts in the mainstream local press (often written by non-Jews unfamiliar with specific Jewish items and usage, and often describing a formal occasion; not the everyday appearance) and some in the Jewish press. Most of these have not been indexed (or digitized) and we are lucky when they have been discovered and published by local historians.  Four major Jewish newspapers now appear to be available online through ProQuest - for those libraries that can afford the service.  Some congregations or historical societies do maintain building committee minutes, but these are often very laconic or incomprehensible, and even at best describe items by cost not by appearance.

Philadelphia, PA. B'nai Abraham, 1906. Photo: Dale Lieberman (ISJM Collection)

We rely on all these sources for comparative material as well as investigations of small number of still extant synagogues (Baltimore, Phila. Southern New Jersey, North Carolina, etc) and of synagogal ritual items now in congregational or public museums. For many of the non-liturgical or non-symbolic items we also can look at contemporary church, public building and even domestic interior furnishings and decoration for similar items (benches, lights, chairs, carpets, window shades, balcony rails, etc. etc.).

 Chelsea, Massachusetts.  Walnut Street Shul, 1909.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 1990s.

I am hardly the only one interested in synagogue interiors - and they are being investigated in many ways.  These include complete full scale restorations as at the Eldridge Street  Synagogue and Kehila Kedosha Janina in New York, both of which I have written about in the past, and digital reconstruction of past appearance as for the former Baltimore Hebrew Congregation / Lloyd Street Synagogue, now part of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.   In Indiana, for instance, check out Wendy Fergusson's blog about her efforts in Lignonier at the 1889 Ahavas Sholom Synagogue (more on this later).

Expect to see me posting more in the coming months on synagogue interiors - and some of the problems in understanding what these spaces looked like - and exactly how they were used and understood. 

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