Friday, December 12, 2008

Obama's Chicago Jewish Neighborhood

Obama's Chicago Jewish Neighborhood
by Samuel D. Gruber

On election day I wrote about presidents and synagogues, but at the time I didn't realize that then candidate and now president-elect lives in a former Jewish Day School, and lives immediately across the street from one of my favorite synagogues, Temple Isaiah - K.A.M. in Chicago, the quintessential Byzantine Revival synagogue designed by Chicago Jewish architect Alfred Alschuler in 1924. I featured this synagogue in my 2003 book (American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community), but I never realized when I stood facing and photographing the facade that I had my back to the Obama home. I'm thinking that since the synagogue has a chimney disguised as a minaret, maybe that's where the story of Barack being a Muslim started. But its not the Muslim call to prayer one hears on Greenwood Ave., and certainly now not "Barack Who?," but rather the Baruch hu.

Charles B. Bernstein and Stuart L. Cohen have researched the history of the Hyde Park house which could become the Chicago White House (unless they sell when they move to DC, as many speculate they will), and presented their findings in the Chicago Jewish News. They write that " Indeed, the title history of the Obama house shows it has a rich Jewish history, one that encompasses both of Chicago's rival communities, the Reform Hyde Park German Jews and the Orthodox West Side Russian Jews." The house was built around 1908, and was bought by the Hungary-born Max Goldstine, its first Jewish owner in 1919. By the 1940s, a small but active group of Orthodox Jews were living in Hyde Park in 1947 they established the Hebrew Theological College (a yeshiva) in the former Goldstine House. In the late 1940s, the house was also the home of the South Side Jewish Day School. When Hyde Park's Orthodox population dwindled, the Yeshiva sold the property to the Hyde Park Lutheran Church in 1954.

Click here for the full and highly detailed story

Another story ran in the Forward about the affect of the Obama election congregation KAM-Isaiah Israel, which has found itself in the middle of a high-security zone. Marissa Brostoff writes that the congregation seems to be taking it all in stride - they have long been familiar with the Obamas for many years. Most congregants find that the excitement of Obama's victory far outweigh the security hassles.
The following account of Temple Isaiah is adapted from American Synagogues:
Temple Isaiah dedicated in 1924 was inspired by the 6th-century Byzantine churches of San Vitale in Ravenna and Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. The octagonal plan synagogue is topped by a low tile dome. According to the architect, “We have not designed a Byzantine building but have endeavored to produce in concrete, stone, brick and steel, the mental picture developed by the study of this style modified by its contemporary influences and co-ordinated with the proper spirit and functioning of modern Jewish synagogues.”

Alschuler maintained, in much the manner of Arnold Brunner, that his style was more truthful to early synagogue architecture than other forms. There is some basis for this claim, as there were synagogues throughout the Byzantine Empire. Alschuler wrote of how he incorporated motifs of “fragments form an ancient Hebrew Temple recently unearth in Palestine.”

Alschuler was somewhat disingenuous, however, as no known central plan synagogues like Temple Isaiah had ever been found. The inclusion of a tall thin minaret-like tower next to the main sanctuary to mask the facility’s tall chimney is a particularly unusual, albeit picturesque, addition. One critic, obviously unfamiliar with Jewish tradition, but full of love for the exotic, wrote:

"It is a beauty and a joy, surrounded by a spacious lawn, trees and a dwelling house environment. Its low, flat dome and horizontal lines are delightfully accentuated by the tall slender chimney, reminiscent of a minaret from which the faint, intoned voice of the musessin would complete the picture of beauty. It is one of those structures that we return to, always eager to get our feel of its beauty of form and color."

Others found the mosque analogy puzzling, and even offensive. But preoccupation with the mosque detracts from the real elegance Alschuler’s geometric solution – an octagonal space surmounted by a high dome supported on vaults that spring from eight massive free standing piers. There is a semicircular balcony included to increase seating in close proximity to the bimah and Ark. The supporting piers are close to the walls to keep the sanctuary space uncluttered. The dome was made of Guastavino tile, like that of Rodeph Shalom in Pittsburgh. The tile was both structural, but also covered wall areas to improve acoustics. The use of Guastavino tiles allows other attractive details, such as the sinuous stairs the twist up to the balcony from either side of the vestibule.

Overall, the building maintains two levels of decoration. The first derives solely from the careful mix of materials and combination of soft earthy colors in the tile and brick. The seconds is an extensive overlay of explicit Jewish symbols, which crescendo as one progresses through the building. The stylized Decalogue is set over the main entrance, and a more traditional Decalogue sits within the arch above the Ark, designed as a large Syrian arch – a motif known from Byzantine Palestine. In the ornate vestibule there are Emblems of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Star of David of prominently depicted in inlaid brick in each of the four great pendentives of the interior vault and in a large roundel at the apex of the dome. The six-pointed star also stands out in a roundel at the apex of the architectural composition of the Ark wall. Stars are embedded throughout the building, including on the impost blocks set above ornate capitals in the Byzantine manner. Large freestanding menorahs flank the Ark.

Perhaps the most remarkable decorative element in Temple Isaiah is not architectural. It is a large figurative stained glass window representing Moses. This tall image of the Prophet holding the tablets of the law is set in the balcony level, and is not easily visible form the sanctuary below. The depiction of figures, even of Moses, was still unusual in synagogue art, but by the 1920s not entirely uncommon in Reform Temple.

For those visitors to the Chicago’s south Side who cannot pass the congregation KAM – Isaiah Israel security cordon, there are still other opportunities to visit historic and architectural distinctive synagogues. I’ll be writing about two of these soon – one designed by Dankmar Adler and the other by Alschuler. Both are now churches, and are well-maintained and welcoming to visitors.

Photos: Congregation KAM - Isaiah Israel, Samuel D. Gruber

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