Tuesday, October 7, 2008

USA: Mazalos: Kabbalistic Astrology in New York Synagogues

USA: Zodiac (Mazalos): Oct 19 Program on Kabbalistic Astrology in New York Synagogues by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) On Sunday, October 19th (Chol Hamoed Succot) at 11:30 am, The Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy and The New York Landmarks
Conservancy will present Mazalos: Kabbalistic Astrology in New York Synagogues. This unique presentation, taking place at the Orenstein Center, (15-17 Willet Street), explores Mazalos, a sacred Jewish art form featuring zodiac symbols. A panel of experts including scholar Miriam Aranoff, conservator Beth Edelstein and urban historian Elyssa Sampson will discuss the history and preservation of Mazalos, followed by an optional tour of the zodiac paintings on the Lower East Side. While few examples of Mazalos remain, two prime examples can be found on the sites of the Bialystoker Synagogue and Congregation B’nei Jacob & Anshei Brzezan, (a.k.a. The Stanton Street Shul).

The Zodiac has been one the most persistent motifs in Jewish art, and its use and meaning remain fascinating to scholars, worshipers and increasingly a lay audience. Jewish interest in the movement and meaning of the constellations (Mazalos) no doubt grew out of the highly developed Near Eastern and Egyptian discipline of astronomical observation and calendar calculations. Certainly for Jews, the constellations also were a constant reminder of the heavenly realm, of which they were an obviously active part. Most scholars find that the Jewish use of the Zodiac - that is the collection of symbols representing both specific constellations and months and seasons of the year- is meant in one way or another (no overall agreement on specifics) to invoke awareness, contemplation and even worship of God's realm, and how it in inextricably linked - controlling or controlled by - the tides of time. Such issues that combine the unknowables of infinite space and unending time early found their way into the core of mystical writing in many religions, including Judaism. By the Middle Ages this developed into a "Jewish astrology," linked to esoteric Kabbala and more mundane magical pursuits. The representation of the zodiac, or at least of zodiacal symbols, appeared in the mosaics of many ancient synagogues and in medieval manuscripts. At the very least, it appeared on synagogue ceilings in 18th-century Greater Poland, and in the 19th and early 20th century could be found from Romania (where splendid examples still survive) to immigrant synagogues in America and Canada. The motifs also appeared as wall paintings and in stained glass designs in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

To my knowledge no full list of such representations has even been collated, and many examples have been destroyed. But others remain and are attracting the attention of art historians and students of Jewish worship, folk beliefs and mysticism.

Examples of zodiac wall designs from the Bnai Moses Joseph Zavichost Zosmer Shul at 317 East 8th Street in New York Photos by Samuel D. Gruber (June 2001).

Of course, without documentation, it is difficult for us to know what was in the minds of those who proposed and those who painted these decorations. Probably, like most synagogue ornaments, they spoke to a diverse audience on different levels. Symbols especially could be seen as decoration, or as emblems of stories or specific passages from scripture. Taken together, the zodiac symbols could be read literally as a calender, reminding the viewer of the liturgical calendar, and the passage of the seasons throughout the year. But for others, deeper meanings could be found based Talmud, Nachmanides, and mystical writings.

This October 19 program aims to trace the history of this endangered 2,000 year old synagogue art tradition, which finds its roots in the floor mosaics of second to sixth century Roman synagogues in ancient Palestine, and which made its way to the Lower East Side via immigrants from Galicia (the former Austrian region on the borders of modern-day Poland and Ukraine).

WHEN: October 19, 2008 11:30 AM

WHERE: Orenstein Center- 15-17 Willett/Bialystoker Place.
Refreshments will be served in the Orenstein Succah

FEE: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $8 students. A $2.00 discount is available with pre-registration
For further information, contact LESJ Conservancy: (212) 374-4100 X 1,2 or 3 or e-mail at lesconservancy@aol.com

The Lower East Side Conservancy is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving, sharing and celebrating the Jewish Heritage of the Lower East Side. Private customized tours available by appointment.

Currently an intern in the Sacred Sites Program of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Miriam Aranoff pursued Middle Eastern studies at Columbia University and wrote her Master’s thesis on Hammurabi’s Code from Ancient Mesopotamia. M Edelstein, Objects Conservator at The Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art., received her degree in Art Conservation from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. Urban historian, Lower East Side community activist and Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy tour leader Elyssa Sampson will discuss the significance of the mazalos and the way in which they made their way to the Lower East Side via Galicia.

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