Tuesday, September 24, 2019

A New "Lost" Mural from North Adams Masschusetts

North Adams,  MA. Mural in former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
North Adams,  MA. Mural in former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
North Adams,  MA. Mural in former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
North Adams,  MA. Mural in former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
North Adams,  MA. Mural in former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019

A New "Lost" Mural from North Adams Massachusetts
by Samuel D. Gruber

As part of the ongoing project of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments to identify and document synagogue wall paintings, especially in North America, I was able to gain access to a remarkable mural in the attic of an apartment house in North Adams, Massachusetts, that was once a synagogue founded by Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century. I've known about this mural since 2014 and a small photo of it has been posted on the website of Congregation Beth Israel. I had no idea, however, of the size or quality of some of the detail, which seems to merge Jewish traditional art and New England folk art.

Similar to the mural of the former Chai Adam Synagogue in Burlington, Vermont, this is a large and important surviving fragment of the visual culture of turn-of-the-20th-century immigrant Jews, and its relatively early date (1898) makes it of special interest, and expands our corpus of American synagogue wall painting of the period of Eastern European immigration. Other examples in New England are Sons of Jacob, Providence, Rhode Island; Vilna Shul, Boston; and the Walnut Street Shul, Chelsea, MA.

My thanks go to champion Jewish genealogist Carol Clingan (who has also compiled the impressive index of over 500 Massachusetts congregations). Carol, who has wanted to save this mural for several years, arranged access from the building owner. It is hoped that from our visit, to which we invited some other experts, that these efforts will move forward.

The mural presents the Tablets of the Law flanked by two large colorful lions, which hold American flags in their front paws. The patriotic theme is continued higher up, where a seemingly American eagle with wings spread sits atop a tower of Jewish symbols: Decalogue, Star of David, priestly blessing hands, a wreath, and the Crown of Torah; all culminating in the eagle. The lions are entwined in tendrils. They spring forward from a stylized landscape that evoke Eretz Yisrael in its palm and cypress trees. 

The modest wood-frame building was the first permanent home of Congregation House of Israel, or Beth Israel. It is built on the hill overlooking the former active industrial town of North Adams, today most-widely known as the home of MassMOCA, the contemporary art museum founded in the 26 buildings of the former Sprague Electric Company factory, where once so many of the townspeople were employed. 

Based on newspaper and other accounts we surmise that in 1894 the congregation purchased a house for use as a synagogue and by 1898 the congregation enlarged and modified the building, which it then occupied until 1920. Since then, the building has seen many more changes. The sanctuary was turned into apartments and porches have been added.

Thanks to local newspaper articles, we know that part-time artist, Noah Levin, an immigrant from the Vilna gubernia, painted the mural. Carol Clingan has determined that the Levin family came from Traby, which is now in Belarus. The family name was changed in later generations to "Lavine".

The Decoration
North Adams,  MA. Mural in former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
Above the various motifs, is written in Hebrew over the right-side lion, “Da Lifnei Mi Attah Omed, (Know Before Whom You Stand). This passage is the most common applied to  synagogue Arks or to the space above an Ark in a synagogue. There are several versions of this passage. In the plural it is found in the Talmud (B’rachot 28b).

Less common is the paired inscription above the left-hand lion. It is also written in Hebrew, and is the answer to the question on the right side. It quotes a well-known line from the Aleinu, the closing prayer of every synagogue service: Lifnei melech, malchei ham'lachim (Before the Ruler, the Ruler of Rulers).

Underneath the Decalogue and lions is written in Hebrew “Havurah Beit Yisrael.,” the name of the congregation.

North Adams,  MA. Mural in former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
Above the Tablets,  is an abbreviation in Hebrew: הקכה
which is probably an abbreviation for the Hebrew phrase Ha - Kadosh Baruch hoo (the Holy One, blessed be He). Thank you, Elizabeth Berman, for pointing this out. 

The patriotic aspect of the mural--lions waving American flags, also suggests an 1898 date, since American Jews were strongly in favor of the American war against Spain. An article in The North Adams Transcript (30 Apr 1898) about the expansion of the synagogue even mentions this: 

"Among the Jewish population of the city are some 50 naturalized citizens who are hot for the war with Spain, as they have a bitter grudge of 400 years standing against that nation, growing out of the atrocities to which their people were subjected at the time of the inquisition. The terrible wrongs they suffered then have been remembered from generation, and today there is no love for Spain in the Jewish heart."
North Adams,  MA. Mural in former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
There were certainly other instances of Jews using American flags to indicate allegiance to and support of American ideals, but the ones I can think of are from the period of World War I and later. When we think of Jews waving banners and flags at this time it is more common to find Jewish or Zionist banners, derived from the traditions of civic parades and Simchat Torah celebrations. In the early 1900s, New Years' cards depicted men and women with flags with Jewish Stars - proto-flags of the still-distant State of Israel.

Jewish New Year cards, ca. 1910.
The presence of three Jewish stars and the Holy Land landscape hints at a religious Zionism, in keeping with popular sentiment among recent immigrants reacting to pogroms. This was certainly the case at the Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea, Mass (which I visited the day after North Adams). Built in 1909 to replace an earlier shul destroyed by fire, the new Ark wall presents two large and prominent Stars of David - perhaps the largest I have seen in any synagogue of this period. Chelsea was a center of Zionist organization.  The magnificent Ark in Chelsea was built be another immigrant artist--Sam Katz (about whom I will write an another time).

Chelsea, MA. Walnut Street Shul, 1909, Art Wall. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2019
The painted lions of the mural are mishpocheh to the lions found carved on many contemporary synagogue Arks and represented on various Judaica objects. We can assume from fragments known in Eastern Europe, where probably less than one percent of synagogue walls paintings have survived, and from also from America where  few immigrant "shuls"  survive, that there were also plenty of painted examples.

Ark lions from Scranton, Pennsylvania, ca. 1920. From Murray Zimiles, Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses, p. 130
The Bronx, NY. Green Pastures Baptist Church (former Chevra Linas Hazedek), Paul Lubroth, architect. 1928-32s. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Catskills, New York. Painting in abandoned synagogue (location not given to protect the painting). 1920s?  Photo: ISJM 2017

The Artist

According to an article from two decades later in the The North Adams Transcript (06 Jun 1927), Levin worked as a vegetable salesman, with “a work-worn horse and a rickety wagon,”but he also was a traditional artist with paint and the art of paper cutting.
“Noah was not regarded as a brilliant business man but he did have a spark of genius with the brush and canvas, with scissors and paper. When his day’s work was done, he would bring out his paints and work on canvasses which, if they lacked technical merit, were at least pleasing to the eye. And with plain paper and shears be fashioned silhouettes that were sometimes humorous, sometimes quite serious with fine religious motifs. One of these symbolic of the giving of the Ten Commandments, is preserved under glass on the altar of the Hebrew Community building on Center street, with old Noah Levine’s name still inscribed upon it. In the old synagogue building off State street where the family worshiped here, there was, for many years, a striking mural painting, done by Noah, in clear bright colors, also descriptive of the Commandments, with tawny lions supporting the painting at eight side. It was preserved for many years until the old synagogue was given up, comparatively recently, and the larger building on Center street was taken.”

Noah and family apparently left North Adams for Brooklyn, New York, in 1899, soon after the completion of the mural. He had a famous grandson--Charles A. Levin--who in the 1920s was a millionaire industrialist and aviation pioneer. Because of Charles's fame, we learn more about the family history in the North Adams Transcript (June 6, 1927) article. In an interview, his son Isaac reports that before he came to America, Noah "was interested in handicrafts, having constructed, some forty years ago, a wooden model of Solomon’s Temple. At that time he traveled in various towns in Russia showing the model."

The Building and Its Expansion

North Adams,  MA. Former Beth Israel Synagogue. Historic photo, ca. 1900. 
North Adams,  MA. Former Beth Israel Synagogue. Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM 2019.

The congregation first acquired their synagogue building in 1894 and then 1898 expanded the space. An article of May 1898 in the North Adams Advocate describes the situation and provides some valuable information about the state of the congregation.
"Enlarged Synagogue / Hebrews of North Adams /Will Begin at Once on/Improvements /Will Ask Business Men to Help / Think They Are Deserving of Help Now/ Since They Never Ask Charity/ Rapid Growth of the Church
Plans are being drawn by A. G. Lindley of Williamstown for a material enlargement and improvement of the Jewish synagogue in this city near State street. The buildings is 40 feet long and 35 feet wide and it is proposed to build an addition of 24 feet on the east end, which will be when the work is done the front instead of the rear of the synagogue. Inside alterations will be made and the building maybe graced by a handsome tower,  this has not yet been fully decided upon.
The society, which is known as the Congregation of the House of Israel, has in its treasury $600 with which to begin and $300 more has been pledged. The work will cost about $1,500 and the business men of the city will be asked to aid. The members say their people never have to receive charity from the city and it is very seldom one is arrested.  They therefore feel that they are entitled to some consideration and worthy of aid in their efforts to provide suitable accommodation for their growing membership.
The synagogue was build [sic] five years ago, when the membership of the congregation was only 16. Now there are connected with the congregation 50 heads of families, and there are 35 more in the city who, the members feel, out to be so connected and probably will be in due time, so it is expected that at no  distant day the enlarged synagogue will have none too much room. The mortgage on the building is only $2,000, and with the means already on hand for the enlargement and the congregation growing steadily the society feels warranted in going ahead with the work, which will be begun about May 10 and be done by the day.
Among the Jewish population of the city are some 50 naturalized citizens who are hot for the war with Spain, as they have a bitter grudge of 400 years standing against that nation, growing out of the atrocities to which their people were subjected at the time of the inquisition. The terrible wrongs they suffered then have been remembered from generation, and today there is no love for Spain in the Jewish heart.
The president of the congregation of the House of Israel is J. H. Levin, who is working earnestly for the upbuilding of the synagogue and the welfare of the Jewish people in this city, and it is quite likely that aid will be given by the business men whose liberality in furthering every deserving cause is proverbial."
A North Adams Evening Transcript article from later in the year (September 2, 1898) describes the opening of the synagogue. Not much is said about the building, but the article implies the congregation renovated an existing building and that the new synagogue was "prettily decorated." Nothing is said of the mural, and an examination of the building and the style of the mural itself suggests that is of slightly later date.
Hebrew Dedication. New Synagogue Consecrated to Services of Worship. Prominent Speakers Present.Perpetual Light Lighted by President Levin and Eloquent Dedication. Sermon. Mayor Cady and Others Make Addresses
The perpetual light of the new Hebrew synagogue on Furnace street was lighted by President J. H. Levin last evening, and the house or worship was dedicated with impressive Hebrew ceremonies. There was a large audience present, and the enlarged building with its prettily decorated interior had a most attractive look. The Congregation House of Israel has reason to be proud of its growth and success as in the practically new building.
Mayor Cady and many of the leading men of the city were present, and some of the best Hebrew speakers of the country took part. The services were in charge of A, moss of Boston as master of ceremonies. The orchestra opened with a prelude, and Rev. Samuel Ratner, the rabbi chanted the opening invocation, with responses from the choir. A procession including Rabbi Ratner, Rev. David Blaustein of Providence and N. S. Roseneau of New York city. President J. H. Levin, M. L. Levin, Mayor Cady, City Solicitor Ashe, Commissioner Einigh, Tracey Potter and J. H. Mack then entered and took places
The key was delivered to President Levin by H. Kronick with a few words on the work, and Rev. Dr. Blaustein made the opening prayer. President Levin lighted the perpetual light and the new synagogue was formally dedicated.
After reading of the Tore [sic], there was an interesting program of music and addresses. Rev. Dr. Blaustein preached the consecration sermon, which was an eloquent statement of the Hebrew religion and an appeal for consecrated activity. Mayor H. t. Cady spoke, congratulating the congregation, saying that the only mistake they had made was in apparently not enlarging the house enough to accommodate the growth that seemed sure.
Congressman Lawrence was to have been present, but was unable to do so, and sent a letter of regret. In his place City solicitor Ashe spoke. Other addresses were by Mr. Roseneau and Mr. Mose, and the service closed with the benediction by Rabbi Blaustein.
The building committee consisted of J.H. Levin, I. Kropnick, M. L. Levin and L. Rudman; the reception committee was M. L. Levin, M. Prossin, H. H. Kronick and L. Silverman. The ushers were W. Phillipps, Jacob Cohen and Charles Kronick."
We do not know if the Levins mentioned in this article were related to Noah Levin, the mural painter. 


North Adams,  MA. Mural in former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
North Adams,  MA. Mural in former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
An interior examination of the attic shows that the two building side walls are not equal, and the wall to the right of the mural is built on an angle. At the end of the main building mass a polygonal apse projects beyond the angled wall, and the mural is painted on a flat lathe and plaster surface just above this. The angled wall extension is not visible on the only known early photo of the building, which suggests it is part of the 1898 expansion. The interior wall decoration, of which very little survives, would then date from the expansion period, or soon after since the same stenciled decoration continuities around the top of the former sanctuary walls of the entire interior - both the original section, the expansion and the apse. Similarly, traces of three painted decorative roundels in the ceiling seem to indicate from where lighting fixtures must have hung.


North Adams,  MA. Mural in former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
North Adams,  MA. Former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. This photo clearly shows the addition at the lower part of the slope, at the right of the picture.  Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
North Adams,  MA. Former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. This photo clearly shows the polygonal apse behind the mural added in 1898.  Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019

North Adams,  MA. Former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Painted ceiling roundel.  Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
North Adams,  MA. Former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Painted ceiling roundel.  Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
North Adams,  MA. Former Beth Israel Synagogue, now apartment house. Painted ceiling roundel.  Photo: Samuel Gruber/ISJM  2019
 

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