Thursday, April 30, 2009

Belarus: More on Demolition of Luban Synagogue

Former Synagogue Building in Luban, Belarus c. 2005.
Photos courtesy of Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus

Belarus: More on Demolition of Luban Synagogue

by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Yuri Dorn, Coordinator of Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus, has provided more information about the on-going demolition of the former synagogue in Luban, Belarus and has provided pictures of the impressive vernacular building, and of the memorial plaque.
Demolition began last week, and as of yesterday the roof and its supporting system had been entirely removed. A vice-Mayor of Luban had informed the Research Group only a few days before of the demolition, and that "all legal procedures has been followed and all necessary permissions have been obtained." The former synagogue building will be replaced by a new large commercial structure - some sort of store.

According to Dorn, the Luban authorities did not inform Belarus Jewish community about planned demolition. He did not speculate why, but presumably they were either ignorant of the need to do so, or of any likely interest in the fate of the building, or they suspected that if word got out that their would be complaint. Based on my long experience in historic preservation I would assume the worst, and that is the reason for the rush to demolish, so that any protest will be too late.
In 2004, the Jewish Community of Belarus tried unsuccessfully to include the Luban Synagogue building on the official registry of landmarks, but was unable to do so because of insufficient archival documentation about the building's history. Presumably it was not deemed eligible on architectural grounds alone.

Mr. Dorn warns of a similar situation is beginning to develop in Ivenets (Minsk district), where one of the three last wooden synagogue buildings in Belarus is under threat. ISJM will provide more information about that situation as soon as we learn more.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Belarus: Former Synagogue Demolished in Luban

Belarus: Former Synagogue Demolished in Luban
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Associate Press writer Yuras Karmanau reports on the demolition of a former synagogue in Luban, Belarus. It is worth noting the history of the building had previously been recognized with a plaque. Local musuem officials are reporting that the building was not of value since it did not look like a synagogue - implying that there is a specific way that synagogues should look (not so!). I do not know this building, but I do know that historic and architectural preservation requires attention to a full range of building types - architecturally distinctive structures and typical vernacular ones - in order to present a balanced view of the past. There was time not long ago that 19th century buildings and modern-style buildings weren't deemed historic and worth protecting. Given the extensive destruction and loss of Jewish cultural, religious and other heritage sites in Belarus, every surviving site is a surrogate for those lost. Demolition should only be an extreme and last resort.

I hope this building was fully documented (I am trying to find photos now).

Belarus destroys synagogue of renowned rabbi

By YURAS KARMANAU, Associated Press

Fri Apr 24, 4:27 pm ET

LUBAN, Belarus – The roof has been removed and the windows stripped of their frames and glass. Piece by piece, workers are tearing down the former synagogue where a renowned rabbi served before fleeing the Soviet Union for New York in 1936.

Moshe Feinstein, considered one of the most influential Orthodox rabbis in the United States until his death in 1986, was the last rabbi to serve at the synagogue in this once predominantly Jewish town.

After his departure, the synagogue in Luban was taken over by Young Pioneers for the training of future communists. Within five years, most of the Jews were gone too, as almost the entire Jewish population was rounded up and shot by the invading Nazis in World War II.

Read the full story here.

Australia: Jewish Museum Offers Tours of Jewish Sites in Downtown Melbourne

Melbourne Hebrew Congregation (1930). Photo: Bentley Kassel/ISJM 1999

Australia: Jewish Museum Offers Tours of Jewish Sites in Downtown Melbourne

This is my first blog about Australia. I’ve been receiving the magazine and email newsletters form the Jewish Museum of Australia for some time, and I think its time to report on what’s happening down under. I have never been to Australia, but here’s hoping.

On May 17th the Jewish Museum of Australia Gandel Centre of Judaica will offer a walking tour of Jewish sites in the Melbourne City Centre, histories including Flinders Street Station; Port Phillip Hotel; Cheapside House; the first mikvah; Kozminsky's and the Block Arcade.


Melbourne City Centre
Sunday 17th May, 10.15am
Meet under the clocks at Flinders Street Station Cost: $15
Bookings essential: 8534 3600
Bring hat, umbrella, sunscreen, water. Wear comfortable shoes.

While in Melbourne, be sure to visit the historic Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, built in 1930 in South Yarra, replacing a 19th-century Bourke Street synagogue erected in 1855.

The classical style building is often referred to as the “Cathedral Synagogue” of Melbourne. Images of the 1300-seat sanctuary, with its high dome and sweeping balcony, can be seen here. The synagogue runs regular services on Thursday mornings in addition to all other Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and Festival services.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Jamaica: Hunt’s Bay and Orange Street Cemeteries – March 2009

CVE Volunteers at work documenting Jamaica cemeteries, March 2009

Jamaica: Hunt’s Bay and Orange Street Cemeteries – March 2009
By Shai Fierst and Sam Petuchowski

For several years ISJM has been co-sponsor of a project to document the cemeteries of Jamaica. Last month a small team of volunteers spent time on the island revisiting the Jewish cemetery at Hunt's Bay, and beginning work documenting the cemetery on Orange Street in Kingston. Team members Shai Fierst and Sam Petuchowski contributed the following report for the newsletter of CVE (Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions), one of ISJM's partners in the project.

Jamaica’s Jewish community is one of the oldest and storied communities in the Americas with impressive contributions to art, literature, politics, and more in the non-Jewish and Jewish spheres in and outside of Jamaica. A request by Ainsley Henriques’ of the Jamaican Jewish community for inventorying of Jamaica’s Jewish cemeteries was a catalyst for a partnership between CVE (Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions) and the community that began a decade ago and continued in March 2009 with Rachel Frankel leading a team to continue inventorying the Hunt’s Bay Cemetery and begin inventorying the Jewish Cemetery on Orange Street in Kingston. The International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM) is a co-sponsor of this project. The goal of the work beyond collecting data is to post the information on the World Wide Web thereby making Jamaica’s historic and difficult to access sites available to a worldwide public.

The Hunt’s Bay Cemetery is Jamaica’s oldest cemetery and was the burying ground for the Jews of Port Royal who lived across the harbor where the high water table of the peninsula prevented burial. Hunt’s Bay Cemetery is located to the west of Kingston having been established before the founding of Kingston. Hunt’s Bay’s earliest grave stone dates to 1672 and its latest dates to the mid 19th century. 360 grave markers remain at Hunt’s Bay. Many markers have been destroyed or looted for construction over time.

The Jewish Cemetery on Orange Street, located near the beautiful and century-old Shaarei Shalom Synagogue, contains stones from the early 19th century and is still in use. The cemetery is located in the newer, northern end of Kingston. Previous to the Orange Street Cemetery, Kingston's Sephardim buried their dead in the no longer extant Old Kingston Jewish Cemetery in the older, southern part of Kingston's downtown. 18th century grave stones from the Old Kingston Jewish Cemetery were transposed to the Orange Street cemetery when the former was closed likely due to new sanitation laws of the growing city. The grave stones are found along the north and east cemetery walls, often partially covered under earth excavated by burials.

The Hunt's Bay Cemetery contains bluestone, limestone and marble grave markers with epitaphs largely in Portuguese and Hebrew. The horizontal markers rest upon brick bases varying in height. The older section of the Orange Street Cemetery contains horizontal grave markers mostly of marble elevated almost three feet above ground on red brick bases, with epitaphs written, for the vast majority, in English, with less and less Portuguese and Hebrew.

The inventory work discovered that many of the grave markers in the Orange Street Cemetery are not in their authentic locations likely due to destruction by looters and then further destruction by well-intentioned restoration. Natural disasters, such as an earthquake in 1907, likely also impacted the cemetery. The Jewish community employs persons to care for the grounds, but there is still an incredible amount of work that needs to be done in order to maintain the site. There is also much work that needs to be continued with regard to inventorying, as the March 2009 work achieved documentation of only a small portion of the cemetery.

Building relationships with Jamaican Jews such as Michael Cohen and Michael Nunes added to the experience of the CVE volunteers and hopefully our Jamaican Jewish counterparts will continue to work with CVE groups in the future. The work week also included a visit from the Archaeological Society of Jamaica along with Professor James Robertson from the University of The West Indies.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett to lecture in NYC about Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett to lecture in NYC on May 6th about Museum of the History of Polish Jews
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) New York University Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett will speak at Temple Emanuel in New York City at 6:30 pm on May 6th about "Creating the Museum of the History of Polish Jews: A Work in Progress " Barbara is head of the international core exhibition planning team the long-awaited Warsaw Museum, where groundbreaking took place in 2007 and which is expected to open in 2011. She will discuss the challenges and methods for creating a narrative for this important museum.

I had the opportunity to hear Barbara speak twice about the new museum at conferences last fall, and to share a seven-hour car ride with her (and Sergey Kravtsov) from Poland to Ukraine. I was impressed with the vision for the new museum’s presentation, and with the apparent competence with which it is being implemented. Barbara is a great story teller, and I am sure in her New York lecture she will inform and entertain.

The museum site is in the area of the former Warsaw Ghetto, immediately across from the Warsaw Uprising Monument, designed by Natan Rapoport. Currently, there is a large blue tent – the OHEL – on the spot, as a site of small exhibitions and educational programming.

Amazingly, that grand, simple and now iconic monument continues to be the most visible and expressive source of information and misrepresentation about Jewish history in Poland’s capital (I say this in no way to denigrate the position and thoughtful efforts of the Jewish Historical Institute, but only to recognize that public role of the Uprising Monument).

The stated purpose of the museum is to preserve "the lasting legacy of Jewish life in Poland and of the civilization created by Polish Jews in the course of a millennium." In short, the museum must convey everything (well, at least some of) the rich and complex and long and contradictory material the Monument avoid. This is to be done in a number of innovative ways. Many of the exhibitions have to be composites, synopses or surrogates – since the Jewish history of Poland is so vast and deep. The Museum must balance the documentary and the material, and the stories of a culture and civilization’s building, and its destruction.

One of the intended installations in which I am most interested is the plan for one gallery to be surmounted by an 80% scaled replica – or recollection – of the panted wooden ceiling of Gwodziec (Ukraine), now well know from Thomas Hubka's book Resplendent Synagogue. This ceiling is to be hand-built in eight sections, each to be crafted and assembled in a different region of Poland, each in a former (alas, only masonry) synagogue space. According to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, it is the process of collectively remaking, and of learning the skills that were lost, that will literally raise the rebuilding effort to a new level. The craft work will be overseen by the talented Handshouse Studio of Massachusetts, in partnership with Polish woodworkers. The methods will be taught to new apprentices, the project will be filmed. As performance, it will be as much a part of the resurrection of the Jewish past in Poland as any permanent museum exhibition in the country – past or future (For more on the persistence of memory through Wooden Synagogues see my previous blog and article on

Most difficult, The Museum must combat the combination of still profound ignorance and misconception about Polish-Jewish history within Poland, and in the Jewish community worldwide. I continue to be amazed as I lecture and teach at the extraordinary historical ignorance I encounter. The public (Jewish and non-Jewish) prefers being comforted by repeated stereotypes and myths (good and bad) than to be challenged to confront and absorb new information. I am sure that no matter what the content of the final exhibitions that Prof. Kischenblatt-Gimblett and her colleagues will be the subject of both praise and verbal brickbats for their efforts.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is professor of performance studies at the Tisch School
of the Arts (NYU) and an affiliated professor of Hebrew and Judaica Studies.

The program is free. Temple Emanu-El is located at 1 East 65th St, New York City

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Retrieving Stolen Matzevot: Plan Announced to Retrieve Scattered Gravestone Fragments from Inowroclaw (Poland) Jewish Cemetery

Retrieving Stolen Matzevot: Plan Announced to Retrieve Scattered Gravestone Fragments from Inowroclaw (Poland) Jewish Cemetery

(ISJM) In recent years there has been an apparent increase in the number of efforts to identify and recover Jewish gravestones (matzevot) that were previously removed from cemeteries for use as building materials. In the former Soviet Union, stones were removed as early as the 1920s and sometimes used to construct the base of monuments to Lenin, or for other commemorative structures. More stones were removed during the Holocaust and used by Germans for paving roads (Radom, Poland) and courtyards (Kazimierz Dolny, Poland; Kremenets, Ukraine). Others were apparently taken by private individuals and used for farm buildings and others types of construction.

Toppled Communist monument built using Jewish gravestone fragment, recovered from the town dump in Samorin, Slovakia (photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2009)

The reasons for recent recoveries are mixed. From the Jewish perspective, there is more awareness and interest in the fate of these stones, and better local and national Jewish organization to respond when they are discovered, and to demand their return. On the public side, there is now a greater awareness among local governments and national monument authorities about the significance of these stones, and also a greater willingness to cooperate with Jewish groups when stones are uncovered. Most important, greater investment and activity in renewing infrastructure - particularly the repair and replacement of old roads - has led to a increase in the discovery of these stolen gravestones. Fro the most part, local authorities have been willing to contribute to the cost of the removal, repair and replacement of these stones when they are found in the course of municipal work or other government sponsored works. Unfortunately, private property owners have been less cooperative when gravestones have been identified in their buildings or on their properties. Though the situations vary, private owners are very likely to negotiate - essentially hold stones for ransom - demanding outright payment for the stones, or requesting payment for "removal and replacement" costs (such as the repaving of a courtyard or the rebuilding of a stairway). When these costs have been modest, many Jewish groups have paid these costs - finding payment cheaper and easier than a protracted and possibly litigated dispute.

It is time, however, for more consistent and transparent policies to be put in force to assist in the identification, recovery and care of these stolen stones. ISJM will soon put forth proposals and guidelines addressing this topic. As a sign of progress in this area, the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland announced that on April 7, 2009:

a meeting took place in Inowroclaw (kujawsko-pomorskie province) between the representatives of the Foundation… local authorities and the regional Monument Conservator. The parties discussed the matter of the matzevot used in the past to reinforce the pavements in Inowroclaw. A commission was created to inventarize the locations of the tombstones, then to remove and secure them. In near future they will be transported back to the 'new' Jewish cemetery in the town (located between the communal and Catholic cemeteries). They probably will become part of the lapidarium.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

France: Holocaust Monument at Drancy (Paris) Vandalized

France: Holocaust Monument at Drancy (Paris) Vandalized

by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Various news reports describe the vandalism of the Holocaust Monument at Drancy (now a northern suburb of Paris, midway between the city center and Charles De Gaulle airport), France, on April 11, 2009. A video surveillance camera filmed the act and the perpetrators.

Drancy was the primary point of collection and deportation of over 67,000 (some estimates cite 77,000) French Jews (and some others) to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor, from where few returned. Approximately 3,000 prisoners died at Drancy from malnutrition and mistreatment.

Today, a memorial consisting a large sculpture by Shlomo Selinger and a small exhibition located in a former transport boxcar was established in 1976.

A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust describes the monument as follows (with extensive photos):

Sculpture: The two blocks to the side of the central sculpture symbolize the doors of death. Drancy was considered to be the anteroom of death. The central sculpture is composed of 10 people, representing the number of people necessary for collective prayer (Minyan). On the front of the central sculpture a man and a woman embody suffering and dignity. In the center, the head of a man wearing the ritual cube (Tefilin) symbolizes prayer. Below, two inverted heads symbolize death. The Hebrew letters "LAMED" and "VAV" are formed by the hair, arms and beard of the two people at the top of the sculpture. These two letters have the value of 36, which is the number of righteous men in the world according to Jewish tradition

The interior of the boxcar is used as a museum about the camp. It includes a display of photographs, documents, and texts depicting the horrible living conditions and events that took place at Drancy.

The existence of the camp, established by the French Vichy government in 1941 as an internment camp was not officially acknowledged by the French government until 1995. According to the website of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Until July 1, 1943, French police staffed the camp under the overall control of the German Security Police. In July 1943 the Germans took direct control of the Drancy camp and SS officer Alois Brunner became camp commandant."

The camp was a multistory U-shaped building that had served as a police barracks before the war. Barbed wire surrounded the building and its courtyard. The capacity of the camp was 5,000 prisoners. Five subcamps, used primarily as warehouses for personal property confiscated from Jews, were located throughout Paris: at the Austerlitz train station, the Hotel Cahen d'Anvers, the Levitan furniture warehouse, the wharf in Bercy, and the Rue de Faubourg. Approximately 70,000 prisoners passed through Drancy between August 1941 and August 1944. Except for a small number of prisoners (mostly members of the French resistance), the overwhelming majority were Jews. A few thousand prisoners managed to obtain release during the first year of the camp's existence.

According to reports, Raphael Chemouni, responsible for maintaining the memorial, said it was the first time that it had been a target. "Until now there has been a very great respect for this monument," he said. There was some previous vandalism reported in 2005.

According to the JTA the train car" and a stone pillar, were daubed with swastikas. Shopfronts in the towns of Drancy and Bobigny were also attacked, according to the police." Lucien Tismander, from the Auschwitz Memorial Association, said this weekend's vandalism was particularly hurtful because of Drancy's symbolic importance in the history of France. "This monument is in a sense the tomb of the 76,000 French deportees and it has been sullied," he said.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

ISJM Receives Koret Foundation Funding for Indian Synagogue

Synagogue at Parur (Kerala), India. Photos: Jay Waronker

ISJM Receives Koret Foundation Funding for Indian Synagogue

by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) The International Survey of Jewish Monuments is pleased to announce the receipt of a grant from the Koret Foundation to assist in planning efforts to protect and preserve the historic synagogue of Parur, Kerala, India.

ISJM member Jay A. Waronker, an architect from Atlanta and Ithaca, NY, is working on behalf of the Association of Kerala Jews in India to initiate a formal effort to restore the very derelict synagogue of Parur, located an hour away from Kochi (Cochin). According to the building's inscription, the synagogue was built in 1616, and for many years it served the local Jewish community before all immigrated mostly to Israel beginning in the 1950s.

According to Waronker, “The now-closed synagogue complex consists of a series of parts linked axially by a gatehouse, walled outdoor spaces, covered passageways, and a succession of rooms. The result is a highly dramatic and memorable spatial experience. The synagogue of Parur was built in the traditional style of Kerala that combines whitewashed chunam (polished lime) over laterite (a soft reddish-brown local stone) walls, timber framing, deep-eaved roofs covered with terra-cotta tiles, wooden latticed screens, and large shuttered windows. Drawing from the vernacular design of the region, the influences of the Portuguese and Dutch imperialists, Hindu and other religious building practices, (and perhaps even descriptions of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem), the Parur synagogue then combines Jewish liturgical elements resulting in a distinct approach to synagogue architecture.”

Waronker has spent several years documenting the thirty-four synagogues throughout India, including the seven found in various states of preservation and function in Kerala, and his work and watercolor renderings of the buildings have been well published and exhibited. An essay detailing the architecture of the synagogue in Parur can be found in the 2009 Indo-Judaic Studies Journal.

A preservation plan for the building was drawn two years ago by Indian conservation firm Thampy and Thampy. This same firm beautifully restored the nearby synagogue of Chennamangalam for Kerala office of the Indian Department of Archeology a few years ago. But until issues concerning project management, subsequent ownership, and long-term care and access to the building are resolved, it is premature to initiate work. Still, in anticipation of a successful outcome to Waronker’s work in India this summer, ISJM and the Association of Kerala Jews welcome pledges of funding support for restoration work.

For those interested in the project, including how they can assist, please contact Waronker at or ISJM.

Monday, April 6, 2009

This Passover Spend Time with Two 15th Century Haggadot Online

This Passover Spend Time with Two 15th Century Haggadot Online

(ISJM) The National Library of Israel, David and Fela Shapell Family Digitization Project, has produced a digitized version of the Library's "Rothschild Haggadah" for public access. The Haggadah, also known as the "Murphy Haggadah," was until 1939 owned by the Rothschild family, but during World War II it was looted by the Nazis. Later, it was acquired by a Yale alumnus Dr. Fred Towsley Murphy who bequeathed it to the Yale University Library in 1948. In 1980 it was identified as a Rothschild manuscript and returned to its former owners who donated it to the Jewish National and University Library (now the National Library of Israel). The manuscript was written in Northern Italy ca. 1450, copied and illuminated by (or in the workshop of) the famous scribe-illuminator Joel ben Simeon.

According to Elhanan Adler of the National Library "The manuscript was missing three leaves, probably detached before it was acquired by the Rothschilds. Recently two of the missing illuminated leaves were offered for sale and were purchased for the Library through the generosity of two anonymous donors." The digitized version includes the two recently acquired leaves.

The Rothschild Haggadah can be accessed here

For a description in Hebrew click here.

The Rothschild Haggadah joins another 15th century Hagaddah form South Germany available in digitized form from the National Library website. The "Second Nuremberg Haggadah" is an illuminated manuscript haggadah, apparently from the mid-15th century, and now owned by Mr. David Sofer of London.
According to the Library: "It's name derives from its being held by the Stadtbibliothek Of Nuremberg from the mid-19th century until 1957. Its previous provenance is not known. In 1957 the Haggadah was acquired by the Schocken Collection in Jerusalem and in 2004 was purchased by Mr. David Sofer of London. It is known as the "Second Nuremberg Haggadah" to distinguish it from another illuminated haggadah "the "First Nuremberg Haggada" currently found at the Israel Museum.

The Haggadah contains beautiful illustrations on Passover motifs as well as three cycles of Biblical illustrations related to the story of the Exodus, the lives of the patriarchs, and various later Biblical figures. Many of these illustrations are based on Midrashic stories. The illustrator of this haggada is not known but researchers identify him as identical with the illustrator of another anonymous haggada known as the "Yahuda Haggada" which is found today in the Israel Museum."

For a full description of the manuscript illuminations and the themes they represent prepared by the Center for Jewish art (Hebrew University), together with a bibliography click here.

Happy Pesach!

Czech Republic: US First Lady Michelle Obama in Prague's Jewish Quarter

Michelle Obama, Leo Pavlat and Micheala Sidenberg at Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague; Michelle Obama at Tomb of Rabbi Loew; Michelle Obama and Prague Jewish leaders at Altneushul. Photos: Prague Jewish Museum

Michelle Obama in Prague's Old Jewish Quarter

By Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) We know that US First Lady Michelle Obama has a cousin who is a rabbi in Chicago, and is no stranger at Chicago's Temple Isaiah-KAM, located right across the street from the Obama's Hyde Park House. But now Mrs. Obama has added some history to her Jewish Studies curriculum by visiting Prague's Jewish quarter, and spending time at the Pinkas Synagogue and Altneushul, and at the Old Jewish Cemetery. Read the Prague Jewish Museum press release here.

I am a big fan of Michelle Obama, and not just because we are both Princeton alumni. I just think she smart, cool, elegant, beautiful and seems to know how to have fun, too. My admiration grew this week as Michelle took the time on the presidential European tour to visit some of the landmarks of Prague’s Jewish quarter. Her interest was probably a politically smart move, but I think her interest is real, and her understanding is deep enough to know that these sites – though very old – resonate with meaning and still carry great relevance today. Indeed, every generation can retell the story of Prague Jewish monuments and their history and learn new lessons. For the most part the Prague Jewish Museum and the Czech Jewish community have done a good job doing this. But in this recession, visitorship to the Museum has been down. I hope Mrs. Obama’s visit stirs new interest.

Congratulations to my colleagues in Prague - especially Prague Jewish Museum Director Leo Pavlat who was Michelle's guide, -but also to Chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic Jiří Daníček, and Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic Tomáš Kraus, whose hard work and dedication for almost 20 years laid the foundation for the "Czech Jewish Miracle," that has seen the revival of Jewish life, and also an amazing organizational commitment to the protection and preservation of Jewish sites throughout all of the Czech Republic (I had the pleasure of being in the Czech Republic a few weeks ago and seeing some of the newest achievements, and I will be writing about them soon).

Mrs. Obama visited the 16th-century Pinkus Synagogue built up against the old cemetery. It is an important example of the mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles, but today is mostly celebrated as an extremely effective and moving memorial to the approximately 78,000 Czech Jews sent to their deaths in the Holocaust. This monument – with the inscribed names and dates of birth and death of the victims, was first created in the 1950s as one of the earliest Holocaust memorials. Its form – the long lists of names - has been copied in many subsequent memorial monuments (including Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC), not far from the Obama’s new residence. But the names were destroyed and the memorial was closed from 1968 until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. One of the first acts of new President and former dissident Vaclav Havel was to promise the memorial’s renewal – a task carried out between 1992 and 1995. I don’t know if Mrs. Obama was told all this, but the Pinkas is now a monument to Jewish life in the Prague Ghetto, a Memorial to the Holocaust and a monument to contemporary democratic ideals. The building was damaged again in the floods that hit Prague in 2003. It was quickly restored with help of local and international donors (including the Jewish heritage Program of the World Monuments Fund).

Mrs Obama spent time in the upstairs exhibitions at the Pinkas Synagogue, where copies of artworks of the child victims of Terezin and Auschwitz are on view. I am sure that she will with her many lessons – though no doubt she is already intensely aware of them – about the preciousness of children, the madness of bigotry, and power of art.

Mrs. Obama then visited the Old Jewish cemetery. She stopped at the grave of Rabbi Loew, the MaHaRaL, the most famous gravestone in the cemetery. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the Rabbi Loew, and a major exhibition about his life, work and times will open in Prague this coming August (more on this later).

I hope that Mrs. Obama was also shown the elaborate gravestone of Hendl, the wife of Jewish financier (and first Jew raised to the nobility) Jacob Bashevi, from 1628. This is the only elaborate sarcophagus style tombstone for a woman in the entire Old Jewish Cemetery. Hendl was honored (as was Michele) for being the wife of a famous leader (but she may have been honored in her own right for her learning and charitable deeds). The epitaph states in part:

“…The gracious Hendl, daughter of Ebrl Gerorim, may the memory of the just be blessed, wife of the head and noble leader of his generation, k’m’r’ Jacob, son of k’m’r Abrahamb(at)’ Sche(eba), may the memory of the just be blessed. And Jacob set up this memorial I sorrow / and all the people cried and lamented / over this noble lady, our leader / buried and hidden here / gone is her glory, gone her magnificence / as the voice of the crowds in the city of the faithful / we all follow her paths / Alas! for the pious, the model of humility / virtue, chastity and purity / she left this world as pure as when she entered it / hastening to fulfill the commandments, the lesser and the greater / and ever stood in the front rank / hastening morning and evening to prayers / and her heart was turned towards God in faith / in awe, in pious modesty, with clear speech / in the order and according to the commands of Rabbi Hemenun / commandments for a light and learning for a torch / her hand stretched out, her right hand grasping firmly / …(translation from Milada Vilimjova, The Prague Ghetto (Prague: Aventinum, 1990), English edition translated by Iris Urwin, 1993), p. 178.

Perhaps Mrs. Obama was also shown the grave of Rivka, daughter of Meir Tikotin, who died in the early 1600s. She is known as the first Jewish woman author in Prague. Her works (known only in fragments) on infant and child care, and her handbook for midwives and young mothers, might resonate with Michelle in her role as “First Mom”

Mrs Obama ended her visit to the Jewish Quarter with a visit and presentation ceremony at the Altneushul, the Jewish treasure of Prague. Needless to say, the group photo was taken in the main sanctuary, with Czech Jewish leaders lined up along the north wall. As this was a visit, it was OK for Mrs. Obama to view the space, though of course no woman can enter here for prayers. I wonder if Michelle was shown the little “listening window” visible in the photo to the upper left.. It’s the window from the women’s annex.

There are many inscriptions on the walls of the Altneushul, mostly abbreviations of well known passage from scripture. I hope Mrs. Obama was also shown the abbreviation recalling Psalm 34:15: “Shun evil and do good.” This may already be the Obamas’ motto. If not, it should be.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Exhibition: Tel Aviv Bauhaus Architecture on View in Munich

Exhibition: Tel Aviv Bauhaus Architecture on View in Munich

(ISJM) In conjunction with the year-long exhibition City without Jews: The Dark Side of Munich’s History (September 24, 2008 through August 30, 2009), curated by Bernhard Purin at the Jewish Museum of Munich, the Museum is also mounting several exhibits under the rubric "Places of Exile."

The second of these exhibits, a photo-essay by Israeli photographer Yigal Gawze,
Minchen ve'Tel Aviv opened on March 25, 2009 and runs through June 7, 2009. ‘Fragments of a Style’ looks at the Bauhaus architecture of Tel Aviv, celebrating its 100th anniversary in April 2009. The photos emphasis the "White City," the largest concentration of Bauhaus-inspired and other modern pre-World War II architecture in the world. According to the organizers, "At the same time ‘Minchen ve’Tel Aviv’ traces the life histories of four Jewish artists who lived and worked in Munich for many years and for whom Tel Aviv did not just became a place of exile after 1933 but also a new home."

You can download the catalog here:

Gawze's photo-essay will later be shown in Prague and Berlin.

City without Jews: The Dark Side of Munich’s History

The following rationale and description of
City Without Jews comes from the Museum website:

Throughout 2008 Munich celebrated its 850th anniversary. Such jubilees are often seen as occasions to look back on a city’s history with pride, to identify with it, and to awaken the residents’ awareness of its history. But how is a museum—whose task is to promote the history and culture of a certain section of the community—supposed to react to such a festival year, when for more than 400 years in the city’s 850-year history, it was involuntarily and often forcefully excluded from taking part?

In its contribution to the city’s anniversary, the Jewish Museum Munich has chosen to trace precisely those times during the last 850 years when Jews were not allowed to live there, when Munich was a City without Jews. At the same time, the reasons for their expulsion, persecution, and settlement prohibitions have been highlighted and the issue of the Dark Side of Munich's History broached.

The twelve exhibits, which render predominantly negative events in the city’s history visible, are complemented by video boards in the exhibition. Students at the University for Television and Film in Munich have collated statements by historians and experts in the fields of literature, politics, and cultural affairs, related to Munich’s topography and which refer to events of exclusion, persecution, and annihilation that actually happened. This allows visitors to the exhibition "City without Jews: The Dark Side of Munich’s History" to see the objects in a broader historical context while at the same time linking them to specific sites in Munich.

Curator: Bernhard Purin
Assistance: Tatjana Neef

Friday, April 3, 2009

USA: Philadelphia Prison Synagogue Restored

USA: Philadelphia Prison Synagogue Restored

The 1920s Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue at Eastern State Penitentiary Has Been Rediscovered and Restored

by Smuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) A small synagogue built behind the walls of Philadelphia's historic Eastern State Penitentiary has been rediscovered, researched and restored as part of the ongoing restoration of the famous prison, now a National Historic Landmark and historic site. Historic Preservation student Laura Mass first brought the room to the attention of historians and conservators and she subsequently wrote her Masters Thesis (2004) about the history, architecture and conservation needs of the space. Now, after a successful fund-raising and restoration campaign the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue (its original name) is open to the public. According to the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site websitte: "The synagogue is named for Alfred W. Fleisher, President of the Board of Trustees of Eastern State Penitentiary from 1924-1928, who was an active prison reformer and helped found the synagogue. Upon his sudden death in 1928 at age 50, the Jewish inmates were so moved by their loss, that they placed a bronze tablet in the synagogue, dedicating the room to his memory."

Over $345,000 was raised for the project with lead funding from The Suzanne F. and Ralph J. Roberts Foundation and the Aileen K. and Brian L. Roberts Foundation.

You can read about the opening in a New York Times article of March 27, 2009.

For a more detailed history of Jews at Eastern state and the founding of the synagogue, you can read excepts form Maas' MA, Thesis, “The Synagogue at Eastern State Penitentiary: History and Interpretation: A Thesis in Historic Preservation,"

Congratulations to Laura and the conservation team led by led by Andrew Fearon of Milner and Carr Conservation
for this project. You read a detailed account of the restoration here.

Laura had called me when she first started work for some advice - I'm not sure I was able to tell her much that was useful. But I was excited by her work and the project for several reasons. First, in the 1950s and 1960s my father Jacob W. Gruber and his colleague and mentor Negley Teeters were deeply involved in the history and sociology of the prison. My father, in fact, discovered numerous documents pertaining to the prison history, which were donated to the American Philosophical Society. He was intrigued by the obvious long history of Jewish prisoners - and I think he wrote a short article about this. I remember how the Jewish establishment of the time did not think that the history of Jewish criminals was worthy of attention (that was before all the interest in Meyer Lansky and other Jewish gangsters).

Second, I thought that this discovery would make a nice "bookend" to the already restored Landmark Frank Memorial Synagogue at the Albert Einstein Medical Center (formerly The Jewish Hospital), built in 1901 by Arnold W. Brunner. These two very different institutional prayer halls expand the idea of what an American synagogue is. The Eastern State Synagogue is thought to be the first synagogue in any prison in the United States (Of course, synagogues and prisons have a long joined history, since in Europe synagogues were often used as prisons. A good example is the synagogue in Tykocin, Poland, where Jewish criminals were apparently kept in the tower).

The Synagogue Restoration Committee was led by Cindy Wanerman, who led an energetic and innovative group of volunteers, donors and professionals in this effort.

Israel: Byzantine Period Ma'on-Nirim Synagogue Mosaic Restored and Returned to Original Site in Negev

Israel: Byzantine Period Ma'on-Nirim Synagogue Mosaic Restored and Returned to Original Site in Negev

(ISJM) reports on the inauguration of the newly restored Byzantine-period synagogue mosaic of Ma'on-Nirim, in the Western Negev, discovered in 1957 near Kibbutz Nir Oz. The mosaic features a seven-branched menorah and and animal images.

After suffering from neglect and damage for many years, the mosaic was removed in 2006 and taken for conservation at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. It has been conserved and returned to its original location which is now open to the general public.

This mosaic originally measured 3.70 x 7.80 m but was damaged when the road to Kibbutz Nir Oz was paved in 1957. The mosaic floor and the remains of the synagogue were discovered during salvage excavations that were undertaken on behalf of the Department of Antiquities in 1957. The mosaic’s state of preservation has deteriorated in recent years as a result of the unsuitable conditions in which the mosaic was kept and a lack of maintenance.

Read the entire article here

Thursday, April 2, 2009 May Be the Best Synagogue Website Ever! May Be the Best Synagogue Website Ever!

I've just stumbled across what may be the best synagogue website ever. Why didn't I know about this? Well, there are so many people out there doing good work that it just isn't possible to keep track of them all - and all their projects. Fortunately, when looking for some on-line photos of synagogues in Piedmont for my Syracuse University class, I hit, an amazing collection of high quality panoramic images of more than forty synagogues around the world, taken by Louis A. Davidson of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Louis and his wife Ronnie have prepared this project, which is now housed at Beth Hatfusoth (Museum of the Diaspora) in Tel Aviv, but is available online to everyone, everywhere.

Davidson's panorama includes well-known buildings like the Spanish Synagogue in Prague and (Frank Lylod Wright's) Congregation Beth Shalom in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, but also many lesser known but well preserved buildings, with a good number in Central Europe and Italy. Several of these are restored synagogues that I have had some connection with in past years (Pfaffenhoffen, Boskovice), so it is terrific to be able to link to the site to show off these achievements.

Looking at these panoramic images allows one to fully appreciate the architecture of these spaces, and their scale, aswell as their decoration - sometimes simple (Pfaffenhoofen) and sometimes over the top (Casale Monferrrato). As much as I like - and depend upon - the information in texts such as Carol Herselle Krinsky's now classic and still-essential Synagogues of Europe (1985) it is hard to convey the interest and real beauty of many synagogues from those dreary pictures Carol was forced to work with in 1970s and 80s when she prepared that book. Many new synagogue books use selected color photos and Paul Rocheleau and I tried to do better when we did our 20th century American Synagogue book, where our attempt through still photography was to try to recreate the spatial and visual experience of each synagogue through multiple color photographs. The idea was not to create a single iconic view - that actually might not reflect the way a user saw the building (very few people ever experience synagogues directly on axis). I think we did a pretty good job, but aesthetically Paul's photos can stand alone, and they are designed to please the viewer and also the architectural publisher who wanted (rightly so) to show of the building designs. But nothing that I know of short of visiting each building (still the best thing to do) informs the viewer about synagogue spaces like these panoramas by Louis A. Davidson.

Now, if we could only start documenting these buildings - or at least those that still function as active synagogues - in use, too. (ISJM has sponsored just such documentation by Vincent Giordano of the surviving Romaniote Synagogues in New York and Ioannina, Greece). Because the architecture only really comes alive where one sees people interacting, and one hears prayer and synagogal chant and music. Synagogues are not abstractions - religious, social or historic. They're built for a function, and even when they are elaborate in their "adornment of the commandments," they are best appreciated in use.

Congratulations Louis and Ronnie Davidson on your good work!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Slovakia: Grand 9-Bay Plan Stupava Synagogue gets a Facelift

Slovakia: Stupava Synagogue Gets a Facelift (and More)
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Participants in the recent Bratislava Seminar on Care, Conservation and Maintenance of Historic Jewish Properties were treated to a visit to the grand early 19th century synagogue of Stupava (German: Stampfen; Hungarian: Stomfa), which after decades of neglect and ruin has receive a facelift thanks to the efforts of preservationist Tomas Stern, a member of the Board of the nearby-Bratislava Jewish Community (who is also a plastic surgeon).

According to Maros Borsky, Director of the
Slovak Jewish Heritage Center, who organized the visit: "The synagogue was built in 1803 by a prominent Jewish Community of the pre-emancipation period that resided in a serf-town belonging to the Counts Palffy, of Stupava. From the architectural standpoint, the synagogue belongs to the most precious Jewish heritage sites in Slovakia, one of two last extant nine-bay synagogues. There has been no Jewish community in Stupava since the Second World War and the synagogue passed through various private ownerships, an eventually was in total disrepair. In the early 2000s, the synagogue was acquired by the NGO Jewrope, associated with Dr. Tomas Stern, a Bratislava-based businessman and board member of the Bratislava Jewish Community. Jewrope and Dr. Stern have managed to save the building from collapse by stabilizing the structure, replacing the roof and complete restoration of exteriors. The next planned restoration stage includes interior works, planned to be completed within next three years. The synagogue will serve then as a central archive and book storage of the Slovak Jewish community. A small exhibition of the local Jewish history is foreseen."

As an aside, I am happy to say that
ISJM recognized Dr. Stern's dedication many years ago when he was still a medical student - whose weekend passion was the search for abandoned synagogues in Slovakia, which he photographed. Jewrope plans to create in the main space of the synagogue a permanent exhibition about the Jewish history of Stupava, as well as cultural and social space to serve the needs of the general public and the Jewish community.

So far, the project has received support from Jewrope, the Culture Ministry of Slovakia, The Slovak Gas Industry grant scheme, and the World Monuments Fund. Dr. Borsky and Dr. Stern arranged for the building to be included on the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route.

As the attached photos indicate, not much of the original decor of the synagogue remains, but the spas are all intact. Discussions are ongoing about what level of conservation and restoration to apply to the interior walls. Traces of at least two phases of painting can be seen - but the most plentiful and visible decorative patters probably date from the late 19th or early twentieth century. The photos also show numerous examples of old and new temporary patching used to consolidate plasterwork. These will obviously be replaced or improved upon in the final project.

The most ambitious part of the plan is to create a Jewish archive in the upper story of the building, above the vaults but under the capacious roof. This would depend on the creation of a self-supporting structure and the addition of an exterior entrance way for access and safety. Jewrope is working with architects and engineers on these plans which, in the end, will be dependent on technological feasibility (likely) and cost (still unknown).

Meanwhile, the Jewish Community of Bratislava and the town of Stupava are negotiating trying to resolve property ownership claims. The building was sold to a private individual before the restitution process began. Jewrope now owns and building, but not the land on which it sits. Resolution of land ownership needs to be completed before any large investment in infrastructure can begin for the synagogue - no matter what its future use.
Dr. Stern, who rose from a sickbed to greet the seminar participants, is committed to getting the project done, and the Bratislava Community supports the effort. In time, Stupava may become again an important Jewish culture center.

Contributions can be sent to Jewrope, at Karpatská 8, 811 05 Bratislava, tel.: 02/52 45 11 12, 0905 600 873, or by contacting ISJM.