Jewish Turkeys for (USA) Thanksgiving
To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving! This is Turkey Day, when the quintessential American bird is celebrated, cooked and then devoured. Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the turkey our national bird (he failed). So, what's Jewish about this holiday or the turkey? Or better, what connection is there to Jewish art and architecture?
The link is a well-known and oft-discussed meticulously painted representation of an American turkey, with particular attention given to its wattle, on the ceiling of the destroyed wooden synagogue of Gwozdziec, Ukraine. This ceiling, originally completed in 1729, has now been recreated in vivid colors at 85% size in Warsaw's Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
The turkey is one of just many animals represented in the ceiling. Some of these are in the context of a Zodiac representation. Others are shown in heraldic poses supporting Jewish symbols and inscriptions. The turkey, however, exists without an obvious context.
Thomas Hubka, author of Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteen-Century Polish Synagogue, writes: "At first, it is difficult to imagine how the North American turkey could have been painted in an early-eighteenth-century Polish synagogue, but books depicting the exotic flora and fauna from beyond the European world were widely available at the time."
Hubka links the presence of exotic animals in the decoration to Jewish ethical literature and writings that celebrate God's creation. According to Hubka:
"The illustrated Perek Shira (chapter of song) was a popular "exotic creature" book specifically written for a Jewish audience. The book was a collection of hymnic sayings in praise of the Creator placed in the mouths of various animals, especially exotic animals. Many animals and their sayings emphasized the wonder and incomprehensibility of God's creations. For example, written next to a drawing of a dragon: "What does the dragon say? Sing unto him, sing psalms unto Him: talk ye of all his wondrous works (Psalm 105;2). As a measure of its popularity and ethical function, Perek Shira was included in some of the earliest printed prayer books in Eastern Europe...Thus the unknown turkey was to be contemplated by pious Jews as an example of the unfathomable variety of God's creatures. As they did with the exotic ostrich and unicorn, the artists of the Gwozdziec Synagogue may have placed the turkey in a prominent central location so that the congregation would "Lift up [its] eyes...to obtain knowledge of the works of the Holy One" (II:231b).- - Hubka, Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Synagogue, p. 103.
An image of a turkey was also found on the ceiling of the now-destroyed synagogue of Hodorow, Ukraine, which has many parallels to Gwozdziec. That ceiling is replicated at Beth Hatefutsoth in Tel Aviv.
The abundant use of exotic animals in synagogue context can be noted elsewhere, too. Prof. Brancha Yaniv, in an important article from 2006, has also treated the carved figures on the ark of Olkieniki and Druja in the context of the Perek Shira. See: “Praising the Lord: Discovering a Song of Ascents on Carved Torah Arks in Eastern Europe,”Ars Judaica (2006).
But there is more to turkey than how they look and what they might say about God's creation. From at least the early 19th century, almost exactly 100 years after the painting of the Gwozdziec ceiling, we know that Jews - or at least wealthy Jews - were gobbling up turkeys at the festive table. Turkeys are mentioned several times by memoirist Pauline Wengeroff (Rememberings: The World of A Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century, various editions) when she lovingly describes in great detail the life and cultural and religious rituals of her early girlhood in 1830s Bobruisk (now Belarus). When it came to food it seems the larger household lacked for nothing.
Wengeroff mentions turkeys (which they called "Indians") prepared and eaten for Pesach and Sukkos. For Pesach she describes the process of kashering chickens and turkeys, and at a noon meal on Pesach, following the seder, "there had to be stuffed turkey neck." She also mentions eating roast turkey on Shmini Atzeres and Simches Torah (the last days of Sukkos). So it is clear by the 19th century that turkeys, along with chickens and geese (also mentioned throughout the memoir) were part of the Eastern European Jewish diet. Perhaps turkeys were still "exotic" when the Gwozdziec ceiling was finished in 1732, but a century later they were not. Do you know more about the role of turkeys in Jewish art and culture? Let me know.