Wednesday, August 9, 2017

USA: Mazal Tov, or Signs of the Time (New York's Stanton Street Shul & Its Painted Decoration, Part II)

New York, NY. Stanton Street Shul. Sign for the month of Kislev.. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.

USA: Mazal Tov, or Signs of the Time
(New York's Stanton Street Shul & Its Painted Decoration, Part II)
by Samuel D. Gruber 

[n.b. this is the second post  devoted to the Stanton Street Shul]

I recently wrote at length about the Stanton Street Shul in New York and its importance as a surviving 'tenement shul.' The Shul's rare intact wall decoration of mazoles (or mazzalot) make the  interior especially noteworthy. Mazoles are the twelve zodiac signs, well known in ancient, Jewish, and Christian art (and in the horoscope section of the daily newspaper).

When we say "Mazal Tov" to one another we are continuing a tradition that dates back millennia, to the a time when astrology was deemed an important factor affecting one's actions and experiences. Even though traditional Judaism has frowned on assigning power to heavenly bodies, almost certainly folk traditions remained strong in many Jewish societies. This is just one front in the old debate about whether there was major distinction between "rabbinic Judaism" and "normative Judaism" in the past (as there is today). The zodiac signs are, in Hebrew and Yiddish, mazoles. So to wish someone "Mazal Tov" is to wish that they - or a particular action - are under a good zodiac sign.

New York, NY. Stanton Street Shul. Mazoles painted on sanctuary walls. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017
Perhaps as a way of taming belief in astrology, the Hebrew calendar was early twinned to the Near-eastern zodiac, so that from an early date constellation signs popular in the pagan world overlapped with the Jewish sense of both cosmic and seasonal time. As the constellations revolved in the heavens, so too did the cycle of the year progress. Thus, in the synagogue the depiction of the zodiac signs did mostly likely not refer to the power of planets and stars, but to the regular order of the Jewish calendar, with its weekly and monthly rhythm punctuated by fasts and festivals. 

Over the years, artists have adapted traditional zodiac iconography dating from antiquity  to conform to Jewish law and changing traditions and preference. Notably, in synagogue mazoles in Europe and in America in the early 20th century, the human figure is almost always replaced by other devices. Of the body, only the human hand is shown (see photos of Elul/Virgo and Kislev/Sagittarius below). The water-carrier becomes a well; the twins become paired animals or birds.  But this was not always the case. From antiquity through the 18th century a wide range of human types and poses were included in traditional zodiac representations. Many examples can be seen in the catalogue of the Israel Museum exhibition Written in the Stars (The Israel Museum, 2001).

Zodiac shown around scene of blessing of the moon in Seder Shemirat Shabbat, mss, Moravia, 18th century. Photo: Written in the Stars, p72
Based on a still partial analysis of late 19th and early 20th century mazoles in a variety of media, it appears that a more conservative interpretation of the Second Commandment's restrictions on the representation of the human form was ascendant in Orthodox Judaism. Coincidentally - or perhaps in direct relation - at the same time it was increasingly common for more secular Jewish artists to explore and represent the human form in both abstract and realistic depictions.

Of what were probably many sets of painted mazoles in North American immigrant synagogues, to my knowledge, only the Stanton Street Shul set remains original, complete, and intact in New York City. Elsewhere, such as at the former Chevra Linas Hazedek in the Bronx (a Baptist church since the 1970s), a complete of mazoles inserted into stained glass windows also survives from ca. 1932.

Mazoles were painted at the former Bnai Moses Joseph Zavichost-Zosmer Shul, 317 East 8th St (known as the 8th Street Shul). That shul, however, has been converted into a luxury townhouse and as far as I know all the features of the synagogue, including the painted mazoles, were destroyed. I saw the mazoles still partially intact during the renovation process in 2001 (You can still see this shul in the 1998 movie Pi).

New York, NY. Former Bnai Moses Joseph Zavichost-Zosmer Shul, 317 East 8th S, before conversion to residential use. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2001.

As can be seen in a comparison of the sign for the months of Kislev, it does not appear that the same artist decorated the walls at the Bnai Moses Joseph Zavichost-Zosmer Shul and at Stanton Street. Though we don't know their names, we should not be surprised that there were several - and maybe many - local painters who could do this work.At this point we now next to nothing about these painters. How did they make their livings? Perhaps as sign painters? Printers or lithographers? These were common immigrant Jewish professions.

New York, NY. Former Bnai Moses Joseph Zavichost-Zosmer Shul, 317 East 8th St. Sign for the month of Kislev.. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2001.
New York, NY. Stanton Street Shul. Sign for the month of Kislev.. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
Other New York examples of mazoles have either been destroyed or “restored” by over-painting as at Linas Hazedek in Brooklyn, and sometimes substantially reinvented by mixing old and new designs as at the Bialystoker Synagogue in Manhattan. I'll write more about both these synagogues in future posts).

New York, NY. Bialystoker Synagogue. Sign for the month of Kislev.. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
Interestingly, the representation of Kislev in the stained glass windows in the women's' gallery at the former Chevra Linas Hazedek in the Bronx shows the more common - and originally pagan - representation of the archer as centaur-like half beast, half man. This image is used in many older zodiac representations - pagan and Jewish. The difference here may be that the Lower East Side murals were probably painted by locals, perhaps even congregants. They would more closely reflect the wishes the congregations religious leaders. At Chevra Linas Hazedek, however, though there are wall paintings, too; the mazoles and also representations of the Twelve Tribes are in stained glass. These would have been ordered from a studio, and there would have been less opportunity for local control over the images (I'll be writing more about the sources of synagogue stained glass in future blogposts).

The Bronx, New York. Former Chevra Linas Hazedek (1932), now Green Pastures Baptist Church. Stsined glass window in women's gallery. Sign for the month of Kislev.. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
The Stanton Street Mazoles

The mazoles at Stanton Street are set in painted panels or niches, each defined by a pair of painted columns. The panels cover the long side walls of the sanctuary beneath the women's gallery - as was also the case at Bnai Moses Joseph Zavichost-Zosmer Shul. Between each pair of painted faux-marble columns is a window-like panel, revealing the zodiac sign in a landscape setting. Each of these panels is shaped as a square set in a diamond, with an interior border that twists and turns to create a more intricate knotted pattern, more like the edge of a textile than an architectural feature. Appearing to grow from all sides of the panel are painted wispy blue-green tendrils which loosely fill much of the rest of the space within each pair of columns. The Hebrew name of the month represented by the mazol is painted on the lower part of the wall, beneath the lowest tendrils. 

The practice of using framing columns for images goes back to antiquity. It has also been regularly used in churches as an organizing framework for both 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional wall decoration. In the Jewish tradition it can be found on the title pages of hundreds of early printed religious books, and though these columns or piers often support arches to create gateways, the framing effect is essentially the same.

NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Here one can see the framing columns for the month of Tishrei. Below is faux-marble wainscotting, which has recently been repainted.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
Shulkhan Arukh mi-Tur yoreh De'ah by Joseph Caro with Glosses by Moses Isserles, Krakow, 1593-1594. An early but typical example of columns used to framed the title page of a religious book.  Photo: Jewish Museum of Prague, Path of Life p108
 
Here are the signs of the months as painted at the Stanton Street Shul: 






NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Nisan. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Iyar. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Sivan. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Sivan. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Tammuz. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Av. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Elul. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Tishrei. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Cheshvan. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Kislev. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Tevet. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Shevat. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Adar. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
NY, NY. Stanton St. Shul. Adar. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.

The International Survey of Jewish Monuments and the Center for Jewish Art Plan to Document All Synagogue Wall Paintings in North America.

1 comment:

david erlij said...

Marvelous article on Mazoles...Thank you...DE