Thursday, January 17, 2019

USA: Wall Paintings at Sons of Jacob in Providence, Rhode Island

 Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Exterior. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

 Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Painted curtain, sky, lions and Decalogue over the Ark. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Elul / Betulah (Virgo).Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
USA: Wall Paintings at Congregation Sons of Jacob in Providence, Rhode Island
by Samuel D. Gruber 

Even since I got involved with the rescue and restoration of Lost Shul Mural in Burlington, Vermont several years ago I've had my antennae up for other unknown or too-little known examples of American synagogue wall painting. I recently wrote about the Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea, Massachusetts as an excellent and well-preserved example of an early 20th-century painted American immigrant synagogue. I documented the wall paintings there as part of an ongoing project of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments to identify and record the decoration of American synagogues.

A remarkable comparable example is the Congregation Sons of Jacob in Providence, Rhode Island, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which shares architectural and artistic elements with the Chelsea Shul, including well preserved wall paintings on the Ark wall and ceiling. The Providence synagogue is now part of the Rhode Island Jewish Museum, a new effort founded in 2016 to tell the Jewish immigrant story of Rhode Island. Presently, the Museum is more concept and website than actuality, but the organizers have ambitious plans to restore the synagogue as a centerpiece. While there  have been some events at the synagogue connected to the Museum, at present there are no exhibitions or other forms of information available beyond what is online. I was very fortunate to have Harold Silverman, president of the congregation, give me a top to bottom tour of the building. It is due to the efforts of Mr. Silverman and a few others that the place still stands and the lights still shine. Much work is needed to preserve the synagogue for the future, but the small congregation has steadfastly kept the building - and its Jewish use and identity -  intact (I'll report more on the progress of the museum in future posts).

Founded in 1896 on Shawmut Street and now located on Douglas Avenue, Sons of Jacob is the oldest Orthodox Jewish congregation in Providence, and the only synagogue still in use in the historic Smith Hill neighborhood. The ground floor was built in 1906 and the sanctuary was designed in 1922 by Harry Marshak. From 1923 through 1936 Congregation president Sam Shore oversaw the decoration of the sanctuary, apparently painting some of the work himself, such as the Zodiac signs which surround the large central field of the ceiling – a open cloud-streaked sky. A history of the congregation can be read here.

These Orthodox shuls in Chelsea and Providence just barely survived the widespread demolition of Jewish neighborhoods for the construction of highways in the 1960s and 1970s. Both buildings officially house active congregations. But these are tiny groups and each must struggle to maintain a minyan for services and to fund the ever-mounting expenses of maintaining a large old building. Champions of these synagogues are looking at ways to preserve them for another century, in not as active synagogues, then at least as museums or historical sites following the model of New York City's Eldridge Street Synagogue and a few other successful examples. Ideally religious services will continue alongside other activities, but how this can happen and who will fund the restoration and maintenance of the buildings remains to be seen.

Chelsea, MA. Walnut Street Shul. Aerial view showing proximity to I-95. Photo:Google.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Aerial view showing proximity to I-95. Photo:Google.
Congregation Sons of Jacob in Providence is a two-story brick structure that now sits precariously close to the Interstate 95 (I-95) highway that slices through the city. It now faces I-95, and significantly for an Orthodox Synagogue (but not unusual in American cities) the Ark is placed against the west wall. The outside of the synagogue is dignified, and shows its stained glass windows along its northern flank on Douglas Avenue. But it is the inside the really counts.

The ground floor Beth Midrash and other facilities are well preserved, and this is where most daily and weekly worship takes place. I hope that whatever necessary repairs and changes are made in the future, that this space remains little changed. It is a now-rare example of the combination of religious and social space of the immigrant shul, that allowed these institutions to serve as places of worship, but also as places of social gathering for Yiddish-speaking immigrants still adapting to the pressures and uncertainties of the New World. There may be a temptation to modernize this space, or to clear parts of it entirely to for exhibition or events...but any changes should be careful and modest.

Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ground floor Beit Midrash. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
The most striking feature of the sanctuary is its many murals. Above the ark is a mural depicting two lions supporting a tablet bearing the Commandments. The painting is framed by a wooden arch made to look like marble, beyond which and surmounting the ark is painted to resemble blue sky framed by red curtains tied with gold cord to columns at the sides.Such curtains are common elements in painted synagogues in Europe and America and recall of the Parochet of the Jerusalem Temple, but also serve as theatrical curtains often opening to reveal celestial or paradisaical landscapes.

Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. View to Ark wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
There are four paintings of animals above the windows of the upper part of the Ark wall; depicted are the deer, the lion, the eagle, and the tiger. These animals refer, of course, to the passage in the Pirkei Avot / Wisdom of the Fathers  (5:23):
Judah ben Teima used to say: Be strong as the leopard, swift as the eagle, fleet as the gazelle, and brave as the lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven. He also used to say: The impudent are for Gehenna and the affable for Paradise. (He used to pray): May it be thy will, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, and grant our portion in your Torah.
 Each of the animals is shown in an active pose set in an appropriate landscape setting.

Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Tiger ("Be strong as a leopard"). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Deer ("fleet as the gazelle"). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Lion ("brave as a lion"). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Eagle ("swift as an eagle").Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
More expressive as art are two landscape paintings that flank the Ark near its base, just above some enclosed boxes that carry electrical equipment. These are paradisaical landscapes, or might represent the Holy Land, in which case the lakes might be the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. These are no polished works, but seem to be more than mere copies of known works or photos. The loose brushwork suggests that the painter thought of himself as an artist, more than a mere copiest. Unfortunately, we still know nothing about the process of choosing and making these images. There are some landscapes paintings on the sides of an Ark in the Beth Midrash downstairs which recall the ark paintings, but these are done in a finer hand, perhaps the same artist who painted the clouded skies on the Ark wall and ceiling.

Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. See landscapes immediately beneath the memorial plaques..Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Landscapesflanking Ark immediately beneath the memorial plaques..Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Landscape flanking Ark immediately beneath the memorial plaques..Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Landscape flanking Ark immediately beneath the memorial plaques and electrical equipment..Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ark wall. Ground floor Beit Midrash. Landscape flanking Ark ..Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Looking up again, there is a painted border around the central ceiling section with twelve images set in cartouche-like frames representing the months of the year embellished with the signs of the zodiac. Within the continuous border, the ceiling is covered with painted clouds. Several examples of trompe-l'oeil painting are evident throughout the large room.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Ceiling, sanctuary and women's gallery seen from near the Ark. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
The area from which the chandelier hangs is painted to approximate an elaborate medallion, similar to what we saw at the Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea, but also a common element in ceiling painting in theaters, ballrooms and all sorts of elaborate interiors of this period. The fronts of the women's gallery are painted to suggest inlaid marble panels, while the posts supporting the gallery are painted to resemble marble columns

Sam Shore, congregation president from 1923 to 1936, who was "artistically inclined," supervised the painting of the sanctuary and is said to have painted the mazoles (symbols of the twelve Jewish months) himself. No one now remembers who painted the rest of the murals.It is worth noting that unlike at some other American Orthodox shuls, only the traditional figure if the water carrier designating Aquarius has been replaced by a non-figurative image--the well. Elsewhere, humans mingle with animals, and in the case of Sagittarius, the half-man half-horse centaur is used as the symbol. The figure of Gemini - two children on a see-saw--is especially endearing and American.

Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Nisan / Ṭaleh (Aries).  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Iyar / Shor (Taurus). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Sivan / Teomim (Gemini). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Tammuz / Sarton (Cancer). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Av / Ari (Leo). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Elul / Betulah (Virgo). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Tishrei / Moznayim (Scales). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Cheshvan / 'Aḳrab (Scorpio). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Kislev / Ḳesshet (Sagittarius)
Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Tevet / Gedi (Capricorn). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month o Sevat / D'li (Aquarius). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Providence, Rhode Island. Congregation Sons of Jacob. Month of Adar / Dagim (Pisces).Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

For more of my posts about synagogue wall paintings see:  


USA: Winter Can't Stop Preparations for Burlington, Vermont Mural Move

1910 Synagogue Mural Revealed in Burlington; Conservation Efforts to Begin

Century-Old Jewish Mural’s Hidden History in VermontThe Forward (1/17/14)

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

USA: Green Pastures Baptist Church in the Bronx Protects its Synagogue Decorations 

USA: Revisiting LA's Breed Street Shul with Eye on Murals

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

USA: New York's Stanton Street Shul & Its Painted Decoration, Part I

USA: A Visit to Boston's Vilna Shul

USA: New Haven's Orchard Street Shul (1925)

USA: Cincinnati's Alhambra (Plum Street Temple's Dazzling Interior)