Friday, December 21, 2018

USA: The Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea, Mass., A Synagogue Full of History and Art (Part 1)


Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
USA: The Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea, Mass., A Synagogue Full of History and Art (Part 1)

by Samuel D. Gruber

I have continued documenting American synagogue wall paintings - a project conceived in conjunction with the International Survey of Jewish Monuments and the Center for Jewish Art. This past week that meant a visit to the remarkable Congregation Agudath Sholom in Chelsea, Massachusetts; better known as the Walnut Street Shul.

I brought along two knowledgeable friends - Dick Bauer with whom I have previously explored former synagogues in Roxbury and Dorchester, and Jessica dello Russo, a native Bostonian (from the North End) who is president of the International Catacomb Society, and whose interest in the painting of Jewish sacred spaces stems in part from her knowledge of the Jewish catacombs of Rome (And yes, while there is no direct connection, both the Vigna Rondanini Catacombs in Rome and the Walnut Street Shul contain painted peacocks, and the Villa Torlonia and the Walnut Street Shul have curtains behind Torah Arks). Jessica joined me at Boston’s Vilna Shul for a visit a few years ago. The Vilna Shul, which was saved from demolition in the early 1990s, is an important painted younger "cousin" to the Walnut Street Shul, which was also founded by Litvak (Lithuanian) Jews.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Peacocks on ceiling above Ark. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
We three were given an enthusiastic welcome by congregation president Ed Medros and Board Secretary Richard Zabot, both who whom have deep knowledge of the building, the congregation, and the broader Jewish history of Chelsea. Ed, Richard, and their small but active board are working hard to maintain the building and to transition the Shul from a private congregation into a welcoming center of Jewish religion, history and culture for all of Chelsea and the larger community beyond. The building was significantly restored in 1991, and though there are some areas that need repair, especially the north stairway; overall it is in good shape. A big and expensive challenge will be to upgrade the electrical system and plumbing, parts of which are more than a century old.

There is so much history and art packed into this ample structure (it was built in 1909 with a sanctuary to seat more than 1100) and Ed and Richard have been filling it even more as they have allowed the Walnut Street Shul to become a repository of historical items small and large from the Chelsea Jewish community and from other synagogues in East Boston that have closed in recent years. What the synagogue will be in the future is not certain - and we all discussed this in some detail. There are lessons to be learned from the Eldridge Street Synagogue and Kehilla Kedosha Janina in New York, and the Vilna Shul right in Boston. The next few years will see some serious review of the facilities and planning for the future.

Meanwhile, Ed pulled out for us to view the recently received – but still in pieces – chandeliers from the  Revere Synagogue that recently closed and has been demolished. The plan is to curate this material with proper registration, conservation, and presentation, so that in time the Shul will also serve as museum of sorts of Jewish Chelsea. Qualified and enthusiast volunteers will be needs for a lot of this work.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Ed Medros shows recently acquired chandelier formerly in Revere Synagogue. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
The most impressive art, however, is the wall decoration of the sanctuary, reputed to be the work of a Mr. Spector, about whom nothing else is known. The ceiling is painted in brilliant colors as a cloudy sky lit up with light - presumably at sunrise - since the sun is seen rising over the east wall immediately above the Ark. We see the sun and its rays.  Over all the sky resembles the painted ceiling of the Sons of Jacob Synagogue in Providence, Rhode Island, and for the rising sun I'm reminded of the sun painted in the apse of the Ark wall at the former Chai Adam Synagogue in Burlington). 

On the edge of the ceiling, effectively painted in trompe l'oeil perspective, are two peacocks looking west over the congregation. There is a long history of including birds in synagogue decoration. these ones remind me of the exotic parrots perched on the edge of the ceiling of Tsoir Gilod Synagogue in L'viv, Ukraine, painted in the 1920s.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
L'viv, Ukraine. Tsori Gilod Synagogue, wall painting. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2006.
A large ornately painted circular medallion from which a chandelier descends is painted over the bimah, and a group of birds is also painted resting on the edge of this amidst flowering vegetation.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Painted medallion on ceiling. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Painted medallion on ceiling. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.


Above the west end of the women's gallery is painted a rectangular panel with a view of an ancient structure. I really wanted this to be a representation of a matriach's tomb corresponding to this exclusive women's space. The National Register of Historic Places nomination identifies the scene as Rachel's tomb, which is frequently painted, but this does not look like any such representation I am familiar with. Ed Medros thought it was Ruth's Tomb - a scene rarely represented - but definitely identified and visited in Hebron from at least the mid-19th century. After some research, however, I think it more likely that it represents the Tombs of the Kings of the House of David. The image is very close to a scene depicted in the center of a color Mizrah print, probably published in Germany ca. 1900. The Tombs of the House of David are not often represented, but they do show up in the murals of a prayer house in Krakow, about which I've posted in the past.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary, looking west and showing all three sides with women's gallery suspended from ceiling. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Ceiling painting of Holy Land scene. This has been identified as the Tomb of Rachel, but is more likely a representation of the Tomb of the Patrirachs/Matriarchs in Hebron. Or something else? Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.

Mizrah (exhibited in Trebic, Czech Rep). Probably printed in Germany, ca. 1890-1900. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.

Mizrah, detail (exhibited in Trebic, Czech Rep.). Probably printed in Germany, ca. 1890-1900. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Tombs of the Kings of the House of David. Photo: Sławomir Pastuszka 2008.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Holy land scene and ladder and hole leading to synagogue roof (sorry, no genizah here!). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
The Walnut Street Shul Ark is a magnificent structure designed by local cabinet maker Samuel Katz, born in 1885 near L’vov, who emigrated to America in 1907.  Over the next decades he made at least two dozen Arks, including the one at the Adams Street Shul in Newton, Massachusetts (1912), and probably the Ark in the Vilna Shul in Boston  Over the Ark is a large painted red curtain, similar to ones that I have already written about, such as that in the Kupa synagogue in Krakow, Poland. The practice of painting curtains over an Ark is already seen in the work of Eliezer Sussman in the painted synagogue of Horb, Germany in 1735. The curtain opens to expose the Ark, so it should be seen as a representation of sorts of the parochet of the ancient temple before the Holy of Holies. There are more Arks on the first floor in the spaces sued for daily and Sabbath services (the main sanctuary has been reserved, at least for many decades, for the holidays).

The painted curtain falls onto two painted columns, one on each side. These have different capitals than the columns painted on the sanctuary side walls, and may refer to the Joachin and Boaz columns said to be on the facade of Solomon's temple (compare these to the columns and capitals in the former Chevra Linas Hazedek synagogue in the Bronx, NY). If so, the Ark wall painting conflates the Temple's exterior and interior.  Added this composition are two large blue six-pointed stars flanking the top level of the wooden Ark, and two bowls with flowers, painted in the wall space flanking the intermediate Ark level.

The curtain motif is common in synagogues and elsewhere. It appears in Catholic art, for example over shrines of the Madonna, and in secular rt also over royal portraits. The complete history of the use of her painted curtain in Jewish hart still needs further research. 


Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. View of Ark from women's gallery. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. View of Ark from women's gallery. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Detail of painted capital flanking Ark. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.

Along the side of the sanctuary are painted columns which show their bases and columns in the men's section of the main sanctuary, but bloom like flowers with their stylized capitals visible only in the women's gallery above. These are the only columns. The women's galleries are designed to hang from the ceiling so that their are no vertical obstructions to the congregants in the main hall.


Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. View of women's gallery. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Looking up to women's gallery and painted wall column. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. women's gallery, view to Ark. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.
As already indicated, a remarkable assemblage of materials has already been collected at the synagogue. The most impressive are the many Ark curtains (parochets), as well as one extra Ark in addition to the three used at the shul for daily, sabbath and holiday services (though these days it is hard to get a minyan and the schedule of services is much curtailed). For me, in the short time we had for examination, the most fascinating items were many hand inscribed and illuminated books, certificates and wall plaques. We found the name of at least one artist - Irving Bookstein - who seems to have been active from at least the 1920s through the 1950s - and it seemed to me that much of the work we saw came from hand. We'll look for more information on this Jewish artist, and post separately about his work.

There are already several impressive on-line efforts by the congregation and affiliated organizations to collect the Jewish history of East Boston, and there are plans for a permanent exhibition to be installed in the former chapel of the Ohabai Shalom Cemetery in East Boston, the region’s oldest Jewish burial place (1844), which will open as the East Boston Immigration Center as the called the "Mystic River Jewish Exhibit Hall". The exterior was recently restored by the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, which won an award for the work.

Chelsea, MA. Congregation Agudath Sholom/Walnut Street Shul. Sanctuary. Detail of Ark, designed and built by Samuel Katz. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2018.









4 comments:

Josh Resnek said...

The Resnek Family, who arrived in Chelsea in 1885, were one of the nine families who founded the synagogue. My great-grandfather Josiah Resnek was one of the originals. The Resnek Family sat in the same oak bench by the stairs to the bimah. That exact bench on the left of the bimah when facing it, carries the inscription on the brass plaque at the center of the bench at shoulder position if seated there, "J.Resnek." My late uncle Abraham, my late father Moses, my late uncles George and David, in that order where Bah Mitzvahed at the Walnut Street Synagogue between the years 1912-1918. My grandfather Louis served as the shul's treasurer for many years, proof of which can be found in the archives of the Chelsea Record, the local community newspaper of record of which I was the editor, chief writer and owner until 2012. Louis Resnek died in 1952. By that time, all the brothers and a sister had moved from Chelsea to Newton or to Marblehead. I first walked into the synagogue when I was 23, when my father and I took a look around. At that time my father looked up to the ceiling and told me to make sure I caught the detail and the beauty of it. "Your grandfather hired the artist who did the ceiling." That bit of anecdotal information is about the only thing I have been able to retrieve from the history of the ceiling, which, as you detail so beautifully, is gorgeous and inspiring - and to think this exists in Chelsea, Massachusetts today!My grandfather was prosperous and even today everyone in the family thanks him for our good fortune. I will search a bit more in the Chelsea Record archives and see what can be found. As to the shul itself...a very dear friend Arnold Jarmak(we grew up in Mwrblehead together), have recently suggested to the leadership of the shul who we know so well, that we maybe take the lead in raising money and establishing the shul as a museum, something we could aid in doing. As for you, Mr. Gruber, the work you have done, the detail you have provided, the care you have shown in your brilliant work is an inspiration to those of us who can walk inside to the main sanctuary and see Resnek side of my family seated on that bench right at the entrance to the bimah...that bench not moving at all since the day the shul was opened in 1909. The leadership of the shul that built and opened it, who provided the money for it, all came from the Old World. My great-grandfather and entire family came from a poverty stricken simple small village about 75 miles from Minsk near to Lake Narach called Kobylnik. In 1942, whatever remained of the Jewish community of Kobylnik and our family relatives the Krivitsky's, were taken to Auschwitz and slaughtered by the Nazis.This last Yom Kippur, I was driven to the shul by the passion that overcame me as my mother had just died at 97. She was my best friend. I walked into the synagogue nearing the end of the service and sat where my father and brothers and great-grandfather and grandfather had sat exactly. I am not observant but the experience was as close as I come to something way beyond myself. That I was welcome so graciously into the synagogue by all its leaders whom I know so well...it doen't get much better than that, does it, for a 68 year old American Jew whose Jewish family roots are very early, even for Chelsea.

Samuel Gruber said...

Josh Resnek thank you for your detailed and heartfelt comments. Your memories are precious - for your self and family, but also for the history of the Shul and Jewish Chelsea. You can be sure that I will continue my interest in the synagogue and it future preservation and presentation. I will be happy to help as I am able. Certainly funds will be needed for many tasks now and in the future. there are essential and immediate needs, and good planning is essential for determining future use, repairs and upkeep, accessibility, staffing , and financial stability. There are other places that serve as good models. In most cases this is a long process, but the long process helps build a community of interest and care.

Barbara Weiser said...

When I went to visit this shul to document wall murals one of the elders noted that the painter of the ceiling murals slept on the pews and found living in America so difficult that he returned to Europe. There is another ark in the basement of the synagogue which is another wonderful example of handmade cabinetry in the early part of the century. Thanks for the touching personal moments. Makes researching that much more poignant

Samuel Gruber said...

Barbara Weiser, thank you for adding to the story. Yes, there are actually two other "original" Arks on the first floor - one used for daily service and one for Shabbat - at least in more recent years. and there is now one more Ark brought from the form "Russian" shul (I need more dtls on this). I will post about all of these together. They are indeed splendid examples of early 20th century American arks.