Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Webwatch: Extensive information on Jewish sites in Bosnia-Herzegovina

The website has added extensive information about Jewish heritage sites in: Bosnia-Herzegovina. has been gradually adding substantive information on hundreds of little-known Jewish sites in more than forty European countries. The Bosnia report, which has information about more than 50 sites in 27 localities relies heavily on information in two reports supported by the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad based on research by Ruth Ellen Gruber and Ivan Čerešnješ. Čerešnješ, a researcher at the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University is former president of the Jewish Community of Sarajevo. The United States Commission was active in Bosnia as a major funder of the restoration of the ceremonial hall/synagogue at the Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo.

Romania: Photos of Transylvania Synagogues

Romania: Photos of Transylvania Synagogues Now On-Line

I recently wrote of an exhibition at the "Proetnica" interethnic festival in Sighisoara, Romania that featured an exhibit of photographs of synagogues in southern Transylvania, taken by Christian Binder and organized by Julie Dawson. Ms. Dawson and Mr. Binder have now posted many of these fine and evocative photographs at The two hope this documentation project will continue. ISJM is helping to organize advisors, sponsors and partners for the project.

If readers are interested in providing financial, logistical or informational support contact me at

Sunday, August 24, 2008

France: Chagall window in French Cathedral broken by vandals

France: Chagall window in French Cathedral broken by vandals

(ISJM) Part of a stained glass window designed by Marc Chagall (1887-1985) in the cathedral of Metz, was damaged by vandals on August 13, 2008.

The French Ministry of Culture announced that a 24 by 16 inch (60-by-40-centimeter) hole was smashed into the lower left corner of one of Chagall's 1963 windows, which depicts Adam and Eve. The damage was apparently part of a robbery in which some items were stolen from the church. Shards of glass from the broken window were collected and authorities believe it can be repaired.

In all, there are 19 Chagall stained glass windows in the cathedral, created and installed between 1958 and 1968.

A law passed earlier this summer in France makes the intentional damage to a historic building or cultural treasure a crime subject to as much as seven years in prison and a €100,000 ($150,000) fine.

Chagall came to the art of stained glass late in life, but his colorful Biblical scenes became instantly popular among Jewish and Christian religious leaders and congregations. In the 1950s and 1960s he received many commissions for stained glass windows. His best known stained glass work, however, is probably his Tribes of Israel windows created in 1960-62 for the synagogue at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem (his only such synagogue commission). For a listing of other places around the world – mostly churches - with Chagall’s stained glass, click here.

Most of Chagall's stained glass imagery derives from the hundreds of drawings, etching, watercolors and paintings he did of Biblical scenes beginning in the 1930s, when he began work on etching for an illustrated Bible to be produced by famed Parisian artist dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard (A large selection of these works can be viewed on line at the website of the Spaightwood Galleries of Upton Massachusetts). Chagall also donated a collection of work of biblical themes to the French nation, which form the core of the museum, Le Message Biblique de Marc Chagall to France in Nice.

Increasingly, in his later years, biblical imagery replaced the descriptive, fantastic, nostalgic, evocative and symbolic imagery that marked so much of Chagall’s great painting of the early decades of the 20th century. Still, for Chagall his part life in Vitebsk and the images, stories, symbols and colors it evoked was not divorced from his Biblically-inspired works. On the occasion of the dedication of the Jerusalem windows, Chagall made these remarks:

How is it that the air and earth of Vitebsk, my birthplace, and of thousands of years of exile, find themselves mingled in the air and earth of Jerusalem.

How could I have thought that not only my hands with their colors would direct me in their work, but that the poor hands of my parents and of others and still others with their mute lips and their closed eyes, who gathered and whispered behind me, would direct me as if they also wished to take part in my life?

I feel too, as though the tragic and heroic resistance movements, in the ghettos, and your war here in this country, are blended in my flowers and beasts and my fiery colors. . . .

The more our age refuses to see the full face of the universe and restricts itself to the sight of a tiny fraction of its skin, the more anxious I become when I consider the universe in its eternal rhythm, and the more I wish to oppose the general current.

Do I speak this because with the advance of life, the outlines surrounding us becomes clearer and the horizon appears in a more tragic glow?

I feel as if colors and lines flow like tears from my eyes, though I do not weep. And do not think that I speak like this from weakness—on the contrary, as I advance in years the more certain I am of what I want, and the more certain I am of what I say.

I know that the path of our life is eternal and short, and while still in my mother’s womb I learned to travel this path with love rather than with hate.

These thoughts occurred to me many years ago when I first stepped on biblical ground preparing to create etchings for the Bible [1931]. And they emboldened me to bring my modest gift to the Jewish people which always dreamed of biblical love, of friendship and peace among all peoples; to that people which lived here thousands of years ago, among other Semitic peoples.

My hope is that I hereby extend my hand to seekers of culture, to poets and to artists among the neighboring peoples. . . .

I saw the hills of
Sodom and the Negev, out of whose defiles appear the shadows of our prophets in their yellowish garments, the color of dry bread. I heard their ancient words. . . . Have they not truly and justly shown in their words how to behave on this earth and by what ideal to live?

-- Marc Chagall, "Remarks at the dedication of the Jerusalem Windows" (1962)

Click here to access a complete catalogue raisonne of Chagall’s graphic work (access fee required).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Jenna Joselit Essay on 19th-century Depiction of Ten Commandments Draws Attention to Life of Symbols

On-Line Essay by Jenna Weissman Joselit on 19th-century Depiction of Ten Commandments is an important contribution (and an easy read)

I recommend a recent essay "History: The Symbol the Split the Synagogue," in the summer issue of Reform Judaism magazine by Princeton historian Jenna Weissman Joselit about the reception and dispute over the stained glass depiction of the Ten Commandments in the 1850 Gothic-style Congregation Anshi Chesed on Norfolk street in New York City.

Joselit's remembrance of this episode reminds us to consider the life of symbols - how their meaning can change, or be shaded, depending on time and place and expectations. This is especially true of the major Jewish symbols - Menorah, Magen David, Decalogue...and we see it happening in the contemporary world with the popularity of traditionally esoteric mystical and Kabbalistic amulet symbols (now ubiquitous as jewelry & tattoos), and the transference of traditional ritual objects (such as the mezuzah) into similar portable symbols.

Historically, debates over symbols have been most-often sparked by synagogue decorations. The stained glass dispute at Anshi Chesed is part of a continuum of debate that goes back at least to the responsa of Rabbis Elyakim ben Joseph of Mainz and Rabbi Isaac ben Moses of Vienna in the 13th century. In this century there have been all sorts of controversies over the inclusion of figural art, narrative art and modern abstract art into synagogues.

I'd like to hear from my readers of disputes over synagogue art that they are aware of (or perhaps have even participated in). But please, no need to repeat episodes already documented in Vivian Mann's essential Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts (Cambridge Univ Press, 2000).

My favorite reaction to novelty in stained glass decoration is the responsum - or at least the verbal retort - of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise when asked whether figural memorial windows installed in the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation in 1899 were appropriate for a synagogue. According to memoir of Rabbi Morris Feuerlicht, Wise said "he could see no present danger of such a window tempting even the most indifferent of Reform Jews to idolatry." Wise dedicated the new synagogue in 1900, his last such act before his death.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ukraine: Cernivtsi Conference Aug 18-22

Ukraine: Cernivtsi Conference This Week (aug 18-22, 2008)

There will be a major conference in Cernivtsi, Ukraine next week to celebrate the
100th anniversary of the landmark First Yiddish Language Conference in Czernowitz (now Cernivtsi, Ukraine), held Aug. 30-Sept. 3, 1908, at which it was recognized that Yiddish was a Jewish language.

Click here for the program.

Ruth Ellen Gruber reports on her blog that "the [1908] conference focused on the role of Yiddish in Jewish life. The meeting drew 70 delegates representing many political and religious factions. They included the authors I.L. Peretz and Sholem Asch, along with other prominent scholars, writers and activists. The most heated debates centered on whether Hebrew, which was then being revived and modernized after centuries of disuse, or Yiddish, which was spoken by millions of Jews, could, or should, be considered the Jewish national language. In the end, delegates adopted a resolution declaring Yiddish "a" national language of the Jewish people -- along with Hebrew.

One of the major events is an conference in Cernivtsi next week. The conference is mainly academic, but it will also feature guided tours of Cernivtsi and unspecified Jewish heritage sites in Bucovina and Galicia." See photos of some such sites on Ruth's web site.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Exhibit: Synagogues in Southern Transylvania (Romania) & Updates on Romanian Jewish Heritage Preservation Projects

Exhibit: Synagogues in Southern Transylvania (Romania) & Updates on Romanian Jewish Heritage Preservation Projects

by Samuel D. Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber reports that on the weekend of Aug. 22-23, the "Proetnica" interethnic festival in Sighisoara, Romania will feature a exhibit of photographs of synagogues in southern Transylvania, taken by Christian Binder. The exhibit will beheld in the synagogue in Sighisoara, at Str. Tache Ionescu 13.

According to the press release, the exhibit "attempts to capture the interesting transitional stage in which Romania now finds itself – with the entrance of outside, foreign investors and NGOs, some synagogues have been or are being restored and turned into cultural centres or finding other alternative uses. Others remain abandoned, often assuming a central location in the town's centre, an evocative, stubborn reminder of recent past – and of today's reluctance to address Romania's troubled relationship with this history. The questions are numerous – what will become of these buildings now that they can be used again? Will their respective towns take responsibility for their upkeep, how can they be integrated into a long-term plan for urban or rural renewal? And how can the countless still decrepit synagogues, many of significant historical and architectural value, be incorporated into a systematic and far-reaching plan for commemorating and celebrating a culture formerly a vibrant part of Romania's multi-cultural existence?"

I have recently reviewed the status of Jewish monuments in a draft report for the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. As the report is further edited, I welcome more news about developments concerning Jewish Heritage sites in Romania, especially updates about on-going projects. I also especially refer readers to the latest edition of Ruth’s Jewish Heritage Travel – still the best guidebook to Jewish sites in Romania (and elsewhere).

From the report, here is information about recent care for synagogues:

“For the most part those Romanian synagogues that survived World War II, have subsequently survived in relatively good condition. Since 1990, however, several synagogues have been sold by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania since the buildings were no longer needed for worship, and they were too costly to maintain. Long years of use during the Ceacescu regime also were years of deferred maintenance. Now many of the synagogue buildings, especially those large structures built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cost tens of thousands of dollars annually to maintain, and millions of dollars to fully restore.

The Government of Romania and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania (FedRom) developed the “Action Plan for the Protection of the Jewish Heritage,” which was adopted by the Romanian Government. Through this initiative, there will be some government involvement in the protection and restoration of Jewish historic sites, particularly those that have been listed as national historic monuments. Several synagogues fall into this category.

In Cluj, the Moshe Carmilly Institute for Hebrew and Jewish History, a department of Babes-Bolyai University, is housed in the former ‘Shas-Hevrah’ Synagogue. The building, erected in 1922, was in use as a synagogue into the early 1990s. It then closed, was used as a furniture warehouse, and now houses the Institute.

In a few cases in the 1990s, before the adoption of the “Action Plan,” synagogues were purchased and then demolished by the buyers. The synagogue in Reghin was bought and demolished, and in Bucharest, the "Vointa" Temple on Dacia Avenue was also demolished, even though it was a listed national monument.[1]

The most visible projects for synagogue restoration include the initiative of the Jewish Architectural Heritage Foundation, founded by American Adam Wapniak, which has joined with local organizations in Simleu Silvaniei in Transylvania to restore the former synagogue and to create a permanent museum and educational center.[2] The Northern Transylvania Holocaust Memorial Museum, housed in the former synagogue, was opened in July 2006.

In Arad, there a project has been presented by the Jewish Community of Arad and building conservator Matuz Andrei to restore the 1834 synagogue in that city. Other projects have been sponsored by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Oradea and Piatra Neamt.

According to FedRom, unused synagogues can be rented or sold under certain conditions, and approximately half the countries synagogue buildings are now in this category. An essential condition of all rental or sale agreements is that the new owner does not use the synagogue for worship by another religion. Icons, crosses or Bibles cannot be sold or manufactured in a Jewish place of cult. This policy sets Romania apart from the situation in other countries where synagogue buildings survived the Holocaust, but Jewish communities did not, and where former synagogues now serve as churches or mosques. According to FedRom, “a synagogue can be demolished, but a Christian church cannot be erected in its place."

"A synagogue is compatible with a furniture warehouse as long as it is not turned into a Christian church or into a brothel", says Aristide Streja, custodian at the Great Synagogue in Bucharest. "First of all, the Christians wouldn't accept it; second of all, the Jews wouldn't agree. Even with furniture inside the synagogue, the religious signs are kept. The Christians would take the place, but they would not keep it the way it is", claims Aristide Streja. Quoted in “Synagogues for Sale: The Romanian Jewish Community has found a new use for the places of prayer,”.

The Jewish Community also enters into contracts where the beneficiary does not pay rent, but is committed to renovate the building. This is the situation in Tarnaveni where the synagogue has been rented to the "Tarnava Mica" Cultural Foundation, and in Timisoara where since 2005 the synagogue has been rented to the Philharmonic Society. The Society has received some funding for the restoration of the building, including an initial grant from the World Monuments Fund to develop the restoration plan.

According to FedRom: “In Oradea, all three synagogues are rented: one serves as a carpentry workshop and the other two - as warehouses. In Bucharest, one synagogue out of six functions as a liquor and bread warehouse for the Jewish community. Some places of cult reach the final solution: they are sold or demolished.”

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Greece: Correction & More Details on Subway Under Thessaloniki Cemetery

Greece: Correction & More Details on Subway Under Thessaloniki Cemetery

Last month I wrote about concerns in Thessaloniki, Greece, about subway excavations under the Jewish Cemetery, now occupied in large part by the Aristotle University. The U.S. State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues has provided the following details about the situation in Thessaloniki. I thank Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy for this information.

The visit of Ambassador Kennedy demonstrates the importance of outside interest in the treatment of Jewish sites in Greece and elsewhere. Sometimes, it is only under the cover of international interest that the concerns of local communities can be fully expressed. In the case of Thessaloniki, it is important that in addition to Jewish leaders and diplomats, that international academics express their concern. This is especially true for cultural heritage specialists, ancient historians, Byzantinists, and archaeologists who work in Greece or with Greeks, and any other academics with dealings with the Aristotle University. There is a better chance that the University will do the "right thing" when its community knows that people (outside the local Jewish community) care, and that the world is watching.

"Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, visited Athens and Thessaloniki during the June 25-28 period to discuss the impact of metro construction on the old Jewish cemetery at Thessaloniki.

In Athens, Ambassador Kennedy met with Aristides Agathocles, Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry; two members of the Greek Parliament; the deputy head of the European Commission Liaison Office; and the head of the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece.

In Thessaloniki, Ambassador Kennedy visited the metro construction site, accompanied by the manager of the contracting company responsible for the metro project, representatives of the Greek Archaeological Service, and members of the Jewish community. The construction site includes three proposed entrances to the subterranean University metro station to be located below the intersection of Egnatia and Third of September Streets.

The tunnel for the metro trains, now being bored, is at least fifty feet below the archaeological zone, the stratum with evidence of all human habitation going back to Neolithic times. The tunnel boring does not, therefore, pose a threat to any of the interments. Ambassador Kennedy has briefed rabbinical communities on this aspect of metro construction and none has interposed an objection to the tunnel boring method. The construction of the University metro station has, however, raised some concerns.

Two of the proposed three entrances to University metro station, are close to the boundaries of the cemetery. Detailed maps provided by the construction company show the entrances to be just outside the cemetery boundary. Excavation work on the entrances has not yet commenced, but cement channels for utilities and other facilities have already been dug in areas that appear to be just inside the cemetery, along Third of September Street.

Ambassador Kennedy was told that this work has not resulted in disturbing any graves. He urged the Archaeological Service to continue working closely with the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, particularly if further excavations should uncover any remains.

As he did in an earlier conversation with the University Rector, Ambassador Kennedy urged during his visit that the University create on the campus an appropriate memorial to the cemetery.

State Department officials will continue to monitor the construction and to coordinate with the Jewish community, the contractor and the government in Athens. We will also continue to brief interested rabbinical communities as events unfold."

Also, Prof Steven Bowman sent in the following correction to my Thessaloniki "history.":

"The Jewish community [of Thessaloniki] 'sold' the graveyard to the city as a result of negotiations to bring back the men in forced labor. The negotiations were in Fall 1942. There are today less than 1000 Jews in Thessaloniki."

Tom Freudenheim Remembers Tzali Narkiss

Tom Freundenheim Remembers Tzali Narkiss

Last month I wrote about the death of Bezalel Narkiss, founder of the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

Here, I post the words or remembrance by my friend Tom Freudenheim, long active in the world of Jewish art amd museums, and member of the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Jewish Culture:


The recent passing, on June 29, 2008, of Professor Bezalel Narkiss in Jerusalem reminds us of how the world of Jewish art has expanded in past decades. When I was working at the Jewish Museum (NYC) in the early 1960's, the field of Jewish art scholarship was relatively small, populated by European scholars who had moved to greener pastures (e.g., Richard Krautheimer) or Jewish scholars limited in the scope of their understanding of art history (e.g. Cecil Roth). The fingers of two hands would have more than sufficed for taking the census in this field. Tzali Narkiss is emblematic of how much changed in the intervening years. If ever there were yiches in this field, he carried them. His father, Mordecai Narkiss, was the first director of the Bezalel Museum, which ultimately became the extraordinary Israel Museum. And he carried the name of the eponymous first "Jewish artist" Bezalel (we read about him in Exodus), who was appointed by God to manage the building of the Tabernacle and its implements.

After studying at the
Hebrew University, Narkiss earned his doctorate at the University of London's Warburg Institute. In the early 1960's he helped found the Department of Art History at the Hebrew University, where he served as a professor for many years. training several generations of art historians -- many of them now working in museums and universities in Israel and throughout the world. He founded the Index of Jewish Art, the Journal of Jewish Art, and the Center for Jewish Art -- each of which now maintain a central position in the world of Jewish scholarship. Among his many important appointments, he was a Senior Fellow at Harvard University's Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Study in Washington, D.C., at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and the CNRS in Paris. He was also a guest professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and at Brown University, Samuel H. Kress Professor in the Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and a visiting professor at Princeton University.

Narkiss' many publications added immeasurably to the field of Jewish art studies, especially in the area of his special expertise, medieval and Renaissance Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. In 1999 he was awarded the Israel Prize. I last visited with him in
Jerusalem in April 2006, and thinking back on that day I realize all of the above doesn't really describe Tzali Narkiss. He was a friend of "everyone" in the field, warm and affable, with a sparkling sense of humor, generous in discussing art historical issues, and certainly one of the people who has helped secure Israel's world-wide scholarly prominence.
--Tom L. Freudenheim, Foundation for Jewish Culture, Board of Directors

Friday, August 8, 2008

USA: Wrecking Ball Closer for NYC’s Congregation Meseritz Synagogue Documented by ISJM

USA: Wrecking Ball Closer for Century-Old Congregation Meseritz Synagogue in NYC, Documented by ISJM

Facade photos by Samuel D. Gruber / ISJM

(ISJM) The on-again and off-again plans to demolish the tiny and lovely Congregation Meseritz Synagogue (Adas Yisroel Ansche Meseritz) at 415 East 6th Street on New York’s Lower East Side seem to be moving ahead again. An article in The Villager this week details the small congregation’s plan to demolish the 1908 building in order to develop the narrow site for a 6-story residential building. It seems for the developer some members of the congregation, one hundred years of this charming little building are quite enough.

The developer is 23-year-old Joshua Kushner, whose family owns the New York Observer newspaper. Kushner will pay the congregation $725,000 to create ten apartments on the top four floors of an entirely new building, and will cede space for a new synagogue on the lowest levels. Critics of the plan have said that a similar (but more costly) arrangement could be done made which would save the shul’s Neo-classical façade, renovate the basement level beth-midrash (which is used daily for prayer) and restore the sanctuary, while allowing new apartments to built above, and slight set back form the façade. Because the building is not listed as a NYC Landmark, there will be few opportunities for project review. Some local residents who pray at the synagogue have claimed that membership has been denied to newcomers, allowing a small group of older members to determine the fate of the building. Though proponents argue that the building must be sacrificed to save the congregation, critics say without the old building the small congregration may done dwindle away.
Local preservationists hope that broader support from the New York Jewish community might be found to help the struggling congregation so they will not have to sacrifice their building. If there is ever to be such financial support, now is surely the time it is needed. This building should be saved.

As early as 1978 the small shul was singled out as a “gem” by Gerald R. Wolfe in his now-classic book The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side. Wolfe wrote “Another small shul with a most attractive interior is the little-used Adas Yisroel Ansche Meseritch synagogue (Community of Israel of the People of Meseritch) on East 6th Street. The unusually narrow building has balconies which extend almost to the middle of the sanctuary, and through the intervening space, broad rays of light from two overhead skylights seem to focus on the Ark and on a large stained glass panel above it. The soft-yellow-colored panes of the two-story-high window are crowned by an enormous Mogen David [Star of David] of red glass which seems to dominate the entire room.

Sanctuary photos by Vincent Giordano /ISJM 

 In the thirty years since, many Lower East Side Congregations, especially those in small synagogues like this, have closed their doors. Congregation Meseritz hung on, led by its rabbi, Pesach Ackerman. But these days with something of a Jewish cultural resurgence on the Lower East Side, a few synagogues are showing new life. The small Stanton Street Shul’s congregation is looking to the future and has embarked on a restoration program. Other congregations, like the small Romaniote Kahilla Kedosha Janina, have faced the likelihood of loosing their historic religious identity, and have organized to preserve it in the form of a museum and a restored sanctuary – even if that may not serve future generations of Greek Jews. On Clinton Street, the actively Orthodox Hasan Sofer synagogue has been entirely refurbished – with much of its historic fabric left intact. The Orthodox Bialystoker Synagogue, restored in the 1990s, is a dynamic center of Jewish life. And of course, the 20-year restoration of the Elbridge Street Synagogue – where a tiny minyan still meets – has been completed.

 Fearing demolition of Congregation Meseritz in 2006, ISJM commissioned photographer Vincent Giordano to photograph the interior. Rabbi Ackerman cooperated with this documentation project. 

According to New York researcher (and celebrated tour guide) Justin Ferante: 
 “Adas Yisroel Ansche Meseritz is named for the town of Meseritz, Prussia (now Poland) – a well-known center of Jewish learning in Eastern Europe. Meseritz was the home to Dov Ber of Meseritz, who was known as the “Meseritzer Maggid.” (A maggid is a wandering Jewish preacher.) Dov Ber was the primary disciple of Israel ben Eliezer (known as the Baal Shem Tov), the founder of Chassidic Judaism. This Orthodox Jewish congregation was established in 1888 as Eduth Ados L'Israel Anshei Meserich – “Witness to Israel – Meseritz” (Anglicized spellings and translations vary somewhat.) Built by a poor but aspiring Jewish congregation, the building is located on a narrow mid-block New York City lot – a style often known as a “tenement synagogue” or “tenement shul.” Even with these restrictions, the congregation created an impressive structure.

As a neoclassical “tenement synagogue” the Meseritz Synagogue is an extremely rare (but excellent) survivor of its type. Today, it is probably the only operative neoclassical “tenement synagogue” in the Lower East Side. Nearly all of the others have been demolished. The architect of record for the Meseritz Synagogue was Herman Horenburger. An architectural/spiritual “mate” of Congregation Meseritz was Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Anshe Ungarn at 242 East 7th Street (Between Avenues C and D), survives today as an apartment house, converted in 1986. Likewise, certain details of the recently demolished B’nai Rappaport Anshe Rembrava Synagogue at 207 East 7th Street resembled Congregation Meseritz. B’nai Rappaport Anshe Rembrava is where the new East 7th Street Baptist Church was recently constructed).

The historic interior of the Meseritz Synagogue is remarkably intact. Inside, the construction materials are typical of working-class buildings of the era: plaster walls, pressed tin ceilings, and polychrome “nickel” tile floors. Two skylights provide natural light, which is enhanced by several simple, but handsome stained glass windows. The original women’s gallery remains intact.

The sanctuary is dominated by the original two-story Ark, with High Victorian Gothic details mingled with neo-classical forms – plus a few Eastern European features such as miniature onion domes…Similar details are reflected in other sanctuary furnishings such as the pews.

There are a few other examples of Gothic style having been intentionally used in synagogue design. The most noted perhaps was the original Anshe Chesed at 172 Norfolk Street. The noted architect, Alexander Saeltzer, was strongly influenced by Germany’s Cologne Cathedral. Today, the former Anshe Chesed houses the Angel Orensanz Foundation – an artist’s studio, gallery, and performance space.

In the case of Congregation Meseritz, a major reason for Gothic accouterments in the main sanctuary probably lies in something more practical. Most of the local woodworkers were German Christians and using standard church furnishings was probably less expensive. Likewise, since so many of the earlier synagogues have the Lower East Side had formerly been Christian churches, the use of Gothic-styled furnishings in synagogues had become relatively acceptable.”

Beth Midrash photos by Vincent Giordano / ISJM

In the half-basement level is the Beth Midrash (study house), also used as a daily synagogue. It is in this space the prayers of the congregation are heard on a regular basis, and it is also where the Rabbi and members of the congregation are often likely to be found.

Canada: Former Prairie Synagogue on the Move in Alberta

Canada: Former Prairie Synagogue on the Move in Alberta

by Samuel D. Gruber

A few weeks ago we reported about an abandoned wooden synagogue in western Latvia, and suggested that this might be a good candidate to removal to one of Latvia’s “village museums,” (known in Eastern Europe as scansens). Little did we know that just such a move was being planned for a wooden synagogue in Western Canada. Ruth Ellen Gruber reported the move this week in her blog that the former Montefiore Institute (Synagogue) in Sibbald, Alberta (Canada) is being moved to the Heritage Park in Calgary.

The small wooden synagogue, built on the Canadian prairie in 1913 was on the move in June, as a flatbed truck carried the small structure to Calgary’s Heritage Park where it will be installed and restored as a relic of now lost part of Canada’s past, and as a talisman for Calgary’s modern Jewish community.

Click here for a picture of the synagogue being moved

The synagogue was built as part of the Montefiore Agricultural Colony near the town of Sibbald in 1913 and was in use for thirteen years. Later it was used as a residence, and then abandoned. Its rediscovery, recovery and restoration is a project of the “Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project.”

Jewish life on the Canadian prairie was documented by Harry Gutkin in his 1980 book Journey into Our Heritage: The story of the Jewish People in the Canadian West, as well as in several articles by Cyril Edel Leonoff. Most of the agricultural colonies were located in Saskatchewan. Now city Jews (and non-Jews) won’t have to travel far to get a taste of that past. The total cost of the move and restoration is estimated at $1 million dollars Canadian.

There are many precedents for moving historic buildings, and several small synagogues similar in size and materials to this one have been moved in the United States, notably in San Diego and San Leandro (California). Masonry synagogues have been moved in Madison (Wisconsin) and Washington, DC. Of course, parts of many synagogues from around the world have been brought to Israel – some adapted for new use, and some restored in museum settings.

By the way, there are still places where synagogues associated with agricultural colonies survive intact, and even in use. In Southern New Jersey there are several of these. In fact, I gave my first conference paper ever about synagogue architecture about the synagogues in these rural Jewish settlements. It was a session for ISJM in 1988. I'll try to blog about these another time.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Ukraine: Lest We Forget Lviv’s Krakovsky Jewish Cemetery – Now a Bustling Marketplace

Ukraine: Lest We Forget Lviv’s Krakovsky Jewish Cemetery – Now a Bustling Marketplace
by Samuel D. Gruber

Visitors to L’viv (formerly Lvov, Lemberg) for the Urban Jewish Heritage and History in East Central Europe, Lviv (Ukraine), October 29-31, 2008, will have a hard time finding the old Jewish Cemetery of that legendary city of Jewish life and culture. That’s because the famous Krakovsky Cemetery (probably founded no later than the 15th century) has been hidden under an expanding marketplace (known as the Krakivsky Market) since early 1990s (I took these photos in 2006).

The cemetery was devastated during the German occupation of then-Polish Lvov during the Second World War when the Jewish population of the city was killed, and the thousands of gravestones of the cemetery were removed, presumably for building and paving materials. After the war, when Lvov (now Ukrainian L’viv) became part of Soviet Ukraine, the cemetery area was used as an open marketplace. After the fall of Communism and independence of Ukraine in 1991, free-market and black-market commercialism increased on the cemetery site. Very quickly what had been an open space for casual display of fruits, vegetables, and flea market items became a bustling market area of movable stalls, booths and semi-permanent structures.

The small Jewish community of L’viv protested, and asked for the cemetery to be returned to the community, and respected as a burial ground. In 1995 the city cited costs for moving the market at between $1 million and $2 million US dollars. Continued negotiations led to the recognition of the historic character of the site, and the signing of a protocol in 1996 stating the intent that the market should be moved and the cemetery restored in some way, to reflect its religious and historic significance. Several important political figures in the US and Ukraine (including now-New York Senator Charles Schumer) weighed in on the issue, calling for the restoration of the cemetery.

In 1997 US AID prepared a detailed review of the situation, reporting local estimates for the cost of removal of the market to another location, creation of the new market, and some form of restoration of the cemetery at between $4 and 12 million. Part of this was economic realism, but part was probably an attempt at political extortion. The municipality could say they wanted to do the right thing, but could not afford it.

In any case, no agency – private or public - was willing to put up that kind of money. And after a few years without moving, the market began to expand. What was once temporary has taken on a more and more permanent appearance. Part of that has been due to the erection of more and more market buildings, many of which have required some disturbance of the below-ground burials to allow their construction.

Now, a number of circumstances have people looking at the situation again. Some successfully negotiated projects removing structures from cemeteries in Poland have encouraged cemetery preservation groups. Renewed disputes about built-over cemeteries in Thessaloniki (Greece) and Vilnius (Lithuania) have brought the situation in L’viv back in mind to diplomats still pressing for property restitution laws and settlements (there is a big conference on this in Prague in June 2009). There is talk of a new international committee being formed to press to the issue, which some rabbinic leaders and governmental officials have been studying.

For now, the bustling market is more successful than ever, and more an essential, and seemingly traditional, part of L’viv’s urban life. There are absolutely no indications anyway - signs, symbols, memorial – about the history of this site and guide books and on-line tourist sites rarely mention anything more than the colorful produce and handcrafts for sale.

Readers who have information or questions about the cemetery are encouraged to contact ISJM.

Noteworthy Publication: article “Kabbalah and Architecture,” by Alexander Gorlin

New Publication: “Kabbalah and Architecture,” by Alexander Gorlin, in the new issue of Faith and Form (Vol. XLI: 2, pp 6-11), the journal of the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art & Architecture.

by Samuel D. Gruber

The author has designed several highly acclaimed synagogues, including North Shore Hebrew Academy on Long Island, NY (see my American Synagogues, 2003), where he interprets in form and light the Kabbalah’s account of the breaking of the vessels (Shevurat Hakelim). In this article he finds traces of Kabbalah in many strains of modern mysticism and occultism manifest in modern art and architecture. The widespread and continuing popularity of the studies of Gershon Scholem (who in the interwar period associated with many leading expressionist poets and artists), brought aspects of Kabbalah to architects in Europe and America.

Still to be determined, of course, is how deep an understanding these architects had, or when simple terms and general concepts sufficed to inspire architects, or to allow them to gloss their work. Or often, a single artist inspired by Kabbalah produced forms that in turn influenced others. Gorlin’s short essay, following Thomas Hubka’s recent writings of architecture and the Zohar (Resplendent Synagogue, Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community, Brandeis Univ. Press, 2003) offers new ways to consider the work of several Jewish artists and architects, and many others who defied the strictures of modern architecture as defined by the International Style. Gorlin mentions among others architect Louis Kahn and Daniel Liebskind and painter and sculptor Barnett Newman. Gorlin is no stranger to the work of Kahn and Liebskind. He is presently designing an addition to one of only two built synagogues by Kahn - Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, New York. and in 2004 he designed Daniel Leibskind's apartment.The Newman-Kabbalah connected has been explored by Matthew Baigell and others (see, for example, Baigell’s “Barnett Newman’s Stripe Paintings and Kaballah: A Jewish Take,” in Ellen Landau, ed. Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique (New Haven: Tale, 2005).

But Gorlin isn’t just looking at that past, he hopes to point the way to his fellow designers to of where they find new inspiration.

For more on the work Alexander Gorlin go to his firm's website at:

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Holland: Liberal Congregation of Gelderland to Occupy Synagogue Empty of Jews Since 1943

Holland: Liberal Congregation of Gelderland to Occupy Synagogue Empty of Jews Since 1943

by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) In the Dutch province of Gelderland a Liberal Jewish community is restoring an old synagogue as its new home. The Jewish Dutch population in the area was decimated during World War II with almost 90% of this group being deported to Nazi camps. A small number of survivors reestablished communities in a few towns in the province. In 1965 survivors and newcomers established a Liberal congregation - eventually named the Liberal Jewish Congregation of Gelderland (LJG) that now comprises 70 families and continues to grow. Since 2005, LJG has been negotiating to reuse the former synagogue of Dieren, built in 1884, as its home. The building has not seen Jewish use since 1943, and was sold in 1952, and most recently has been a church.

A group of Jewish community members started a foundation (Friends of the Dieren Synagogue) with membership drawn from the LJG, descendants of Jewish families from Dieren, and representatives of the town with the purpose of restoring the synagogue as a center for Progressive Jewish religious life and for general cultural activities. With support of the municipal, provincial and national governments and with private funding, the foundation acquired the synagogue building in 2007. A national Dutch fund and the province of Gelderland
have each committed significant funding for the needed renovations. Additional funding of about $400,000 needs to be raised to complete the first restoration phase.

The Dieren synagogue is one of the few surviving synagogues in Gelderland – a province in east-central Holland. The Winterswijk synagogue was officially rededicated in 1951 and restored between 1982 and 1984. There is a small synagogue in Aalten that was rededicated in 1986. The former Dieserstraat synagogue in Zutphen was restored in 1985. The Arnhem Synagogue was restored for the community there and rededicated in 2003. A former synagogue is now a private house in Bredenvoort.

For history of the Jews of Dieren see:

Dieren was also the site of a slave labor camp in 1942, until the Jewish prisoners were sent to Westerbork, and then to Nazi death camps in 1943. A monument was erected to the memory of the victim in 1998.

The World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) in New York will accept contributions for the project and to transmit them to the Netherlands. If you wish to donate, your check should be made out to WUPJ and sent to their office at 633 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017-6778. On the memo line of your check, include the words "Friends of the Dieren Synagogue." Contributions by US taxpayers are tax-deductible. The WUPJ is a charitable non-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code.

From Europe, contributions can be made directly to the Foundation, whose web site is: The website also has photos, a pre-war architectural plan of the synagogue, and other materials.

I thank Amy Ollendorf of Minneapolis, MN for informing me about this project.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Quick Visit to Former Mishkan Israel in New Haven, Connecticut: Once Grand Reform Synagogue by Brunner & Tryon (1895-1897)

Quick Visit to Former Mishkan Israel in New Haven, Connecticut: Once Grand Reform Synagogue by Brunner & Tryon (1895-1897) Now an Arts School
by Samuel D. Gruber

Last week on a drive up I-95 from New Jersey to Rhode Island I did a quick detour in New Haven to visit the former Temple Mishkan Israel Synagogue, once New Haven’s grandest Jewish building, now serving as an arts magnet school. Located just 2 blocks east of Yale University, Mishkan Israel opened in 1897, and served the until 1960 when the venerable congregation moved to a new suburban building in Hamden (designed by important modernist and German refugee Fritz Nathan). The big building is worth a visit. It is one of a small number of late 19th-century grand American Reform synagogues that survive in urban America.

The downtown building was designed by Arnold W. Brunner and Thomas Tryon just at the time they were building Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City. Both buildings are large and imposing, but otherwise quite distinct. Temple Mishkan Israel was one of four large synagogues the firm built in the 1890s, and the last before Arnold Brunner fully committed to Neo-classical style. Temple Mishkan Israel combines the popular European 2- tower design for synagogues with an eclectic mix of Italianate and Colonial elements, which show Brunner using Classicism, but still filtering it through other historical styles.

Mishkan Israel was founded as a Reform congregation in 1843, the same year that the Connecticut General Assembly permitted public Jewish worship. The congregation bought it first building in 1856 – the former Third Congregation Church, an Ionic hexastyle Greek-temple style building on Court Street between State and Orange Streets. When that building was sold for $20,000, funds were used to buy the property at 380 Orange Street at the corner of Audubon Street in a prosperous residential neighborhood. Construction began in 1895. The congregation took out a $60,000 mortgage, and laid the cornerstone on January 30, 1896. At the time, the congregation was no longer sole face of New Haven Judaism, as several East European Orthodox congregations were founded about this time. Therefore, it was most important that architecturally the congregation present an imposing, impressive and acceptable face

Brunner’s building (for according to the building committee minutes, Brunner was the lead architect on this project) is noteworthy for its large size, and the tall and massive towers that flank a symmetrical façade dominated by three large arched windows. This is the east end of the building, but this being a Reform synagogue, orientation was not important, and Brunner did not have to place an interior Ark against the main façade wall as he would do at Shearith Israel in New York, which also faces east. Below the arched façade windows are three entrance openings created by square piers, reach by a flight of wide steps. The piers support a wide, decorated brownstone frieze. Above the frieze is a continuous balustrade atop of which sit the large windows. Inside, this theme was picked up at the west end, where a combination of arches and a balustrade emphasized the Ark wall and surmounting choir loft. Brunner filled the interior with classical elements – arches, pilasters, Corinthian Columns. Unfortunately, the interior was gutted after the building was sold in 1960, and there are few known photos of the inside. Some of the abundant stained glass windows remain in situ, but these are not visible from the interior – now a theater – or from Audubon Street. Each flank of the building was divided into three bays by heavy buttress piers which break the cornice line and are surmounted with stepped caps. Pairs of tall arched windows fill each bay, totally twelve windows on both sides. The building terminates on the west end in a cross gable resembling a transept on the outside, which would have corresponded to the bimah area of the sanctuary, just before the Ark Wall.

The adaptive reuse of this historic and impressive building demonstrates some of the pros and cons of historic preservation of religious buildings. Unfortunately, the original interior is lost – and that was the space that most defined and reflected Reform Jewish practice and Jewish community in New Haven for more than a half century. On the other hand, the massing of the building and most of its exterior survives. This was the public face of Reform Judaism and its effect can still be felt – even though there are no Jewish symbols or inscriptions on the building. Importantly, too, as a piece of urban design, the former synagogue acts as an effective transition from the historic 19th century architect of Orange Street to the modern (and not very distinguished) architecture and urban plaza of Audubon and adjacent streets. Since the building dominates it corner site, it is able to withstand the pressures of size of new structures. Its brick exterior, with a lot of flat wall surface, also is compatible with newer buildings behind it. Unfortunately, the grand south flank has been girded by a unsympathetic one-story addition of brick, glass and broad concrete arches that while practical, undermines the building’s base.

N.B. For more on this building and other historic synagogues in Connecticut consult the essential guide by David F. Ransom, "One Hundred Years of Jewish Congregations in Connecticut, An Architectural Survey: 1843-1943," Connecticut Jewish History, Vol. 2:1 (1991), 7-147.