Monday, December 23, 2013

Mikva'ot Discovered in Connecticut and Venezuela

Santa Ane de  Coro, Venezuela.  Mikveh unearthed beneath house of 19th-century Jewish merchant David Abraham Senior. Photo: Venezuelan Ministry of Culture

More New World Mikva'ot Discovered in Venezuela and Connecticut (Following Other Excavations in the Caribbean, Baltimore and New York

The list of re-discovered mikva'ot (also: mikvehs, Jewish ritual baths) keeps growing.  On the same day last week that I heard scholars discuss recent discoveries of ancient and modern mikva'ot at the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), as well as new research into the ritual and design associated with such structures, came the announcement of new find in Venezuela - an 18th-century mikveh beneath a formerly Jewish house in the town of Santa Ana de Coro, in the state of Falcon.

This news follows several other discoveries of mikva'ot in the Americas over the past few decades including Curaçao (1970s), Recife (2000), St. Eustachius (2004), and Barbados (2008).  

The discoveries - and the details of the types of mikva'ot found - as well as other discoveries of related mikva'ot in Amsterdam, have been reviewed by Laura Arnold Liebman, who spoke aboutt Dutch mikva'ot at the AJS session, in her articleEarly American Mikvaot: Ritual Baths as the Hope of Israel.” Religion in the Age of Enlightenment 1: 109-145. To be reprinted in American Jewry: Transcending the European Experience, ed. Christian Wiese and Cornelia Wilhelm. London: Continuum, 2013.  Liebman also frequently writes about mikva'ot on her blog.

Archeology of mikva'ot is important to better understand the changing role of purity rituals in Amerasian immigrant communities, and also the adaptation to new materials and technologies in the construction and countenance of mikva'ot, especially in settlements where there was little or no rabbinic supervision, and also where different customs - Ashkenazi and Sephardi, for instance - might need to co-exist.  Most of the information that is readily available comes from newspaper accounts of excavations - and the information is sometimes vague and/or contradictory.   One wants know more about the physical and social context in which there mikva'ot were built and used; the size, shape and materials employed in their design ad construction; and how local water sources were used and perhaps developed to serve mikva'ot.  Were other non-ritual water features also included nearby - for hygiene or recreation?

The AJS session was a fascinating one, and I hope the organizers and presenters can work on publishing a volume with detailed and reliable information about the excavations and related topics.

Santa Ana de Coro, Venezuela

According to the Prensa Latina news agency, the Venezuela find was made during the remodeling of the building which now serves as the Art Museum Alberto Henriquez located in the Senior House, built in 1774 and bought by David Abraham Senior, a Jewish merchant from Curaçao in 1847, who turned one room into a synagogue.   The building later became known as the Coro Synagogue  (photos here) .  The house was bought by the government in 1986 and opened in 1997 as the "Casa de Oración Hebrea" (Hebrew Prayer House).  The synagogue/museum  belongs to Universidad Francisco de Miranda. 

Archaeologists from the School of Anthropology at the Central University of Venezuela are excavating the mikveh site under the auspices of the Venezuelan Ministry of Culture and coordinated by the Office of Planning and Design for Heritage Areas at Coro and La Vela, or OPEDAD.

Read more: 

Old Chesterfield, Connecticut

At the AJS session, titled "Ritual Bathing Practices between Town and Country: The Emergence of the Modern Miqveh." a presentation was made about the recent discovery of a late 19th-century mikveh at the agricultural community of Chesterfield, Connecticut, by Prof. Stuart Miller of the University of Connecticut. The mikveh was found at the now abandoned Jewish agricultural settlement of Chesterfield, one of several in the area founded by the Baron de Hirsch foundation in the late 19th century to siphon off Eastern European Jewish immigrants from the tenement slums of the city to a new life on the land.  Many of these settlements were founded in Connecticut and New Jersey, and a few survive in altered form with extant synagogues (in New Jersey these can be found at alliance, Rosehayne, Norma and elsewhere).  This is the first time, however, that a mikveh has been found at one of the agricultural colonies, and it alters somewhat our conception of the level of ritual observance in these communities.  The mikveh, which is made on concrete but included wood stairs, was excavated last summer by Prof.  Miller, who is Academic Director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at UConn and an expert on ritual baths in ancient Israel.  State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni was the co-leader of the project. 

You can read about the Chestefield mikveh here

Allen Street, New York City

Another paper was given Celia Bergoffen about the discovery and excavation the 20th-century mikveh excavated in 2001 on Allen Street on an urban lot adjacent to the Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York's Lower East Side, that was subsequently destroyed when a new building was erected on the site.  That mikveh, which may date to 1887, when the bathhouse opened, provide important information about the urban mikva'ot which served the growing Eartern European Jewish immigrant population, including the hydraulic technology and the attention to halachic requirements for mikva'ot construction and maintenance. 

You read more about New York's  Allen Street mikveh excavation here.


Both of these papers referenced the discovery of a mikva'ot beneath the Lloyd Street Synagogue (former Baltimore Hebrew Congregation) in Baltimore, the earliest of which dates to ca. 1845 and was excavated in 2011.  The 1845 mikveh seems to have been in the basement of a house adjacent to where the congregation built their synagogue in 1845.  When the synagogue expanded in 1860 they demolished the house and filled in the mikveh.  It is not known what - if anything - local Jews used for a mikveh after that date.  Later tile-wall mikveh basins, were added in 1905, when the synagogue was purchased and remodeled by the orthodox Shomrei Misheres Congregation. 

Read more about the Baltimore mikveh excavation here.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Discovery and Sale of Moritz Daniel Oppenheim's Painting The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim.  The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (1862)Photo: Sotheby's.
Discovery and Sale of Moritz Daniel Oppenheim's Painting The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara
by Samuel D. Gruber

A very important art historical discovery - the lost 1862 painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim of the Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (If I had known it, it would have been in my just-ended Jewish Art course).  This event was - until the Dreyfus Affair later in the century - probably the most internationally followed and most opposed state legal action against Jews in the 19th century. As historian David Kertzer points out in this article - interview, it has far-reaching consequences. Read the article - but then go read David's page-turner of a book - The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. I'm looking forward to his new book - previewed here - about Pope Pius XI and Mussolini.

Read the article by Maya Benton in Tablet:

USA: Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington - a Fine Modern Synagogue (and the First Ever Designed by a Woman?)

Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, street view.  Freeman French Freeman, architects, 1952.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013)

Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Main entrance.  Freeman French Freeman, architects, 1952.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013)
Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Parking lot entrance to classroom building. Freeman French Freeman, architects, 1952.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013)

USA: Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington - a Fine Modern Synagogue (and the First Ever Designed by a Woman?)
by Samuel D. Gruber

[revised 22 Dec 2013]

(ISJM) I recently posted my lectures from Ohavi Zedek in Burlington, Vermont, where I spoke about the "Lost Shul Mural" by Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant painter Ben Zion Black. What I didn't report is what a fine modern synagogue the present-day Ohavi Zedek is. 

I attended Shabbat services in the sanctuary where I later lectured, so I got to see and feel the space used both for its primary purpose - communal worship - and for my more educational and entertaining lectures.   In every way I was impressed by the simplicity and intimacy of the space and its natural materials finely worked in clear and efficient design.  The morning light warmed the congregants, and the service was a bright and joyful gathering, enhanced by the closely contained boxlike space.

The synagogue, designed by Freeman French Freeman (FFF) and dedicated in 1952, exemplifies many of the best characteristics of what I consider the second phase of post-war American modernism.   Ohavi Zedek exhibits a fusion of European rationalism and American vernacular form and feeling. For one thing, unlike so many modern synagogues, this one has traditional roofs with sloping sides - very sensible for Vermont's snowy weather (a perhaps a nod to the gable feront of the congregation's previous home).  The gable fronted entrance that faces the street fits in size and style with much of the residential architecture on the street.  The synagogue is one of only a handful of synagogues in the United States and in the world - designed by a woman.  Ruth Reynolds Freeman, was a prominent modernist in charge of design at FFF.  The synagogue resembles some schools of the period and this is not surprising since Ruth Freeman was also in charge of the FFFs work at the University of Vermont and she oversaw the firm's design of many Vermont public schools (on the firm, see more below).

Ohavi Zedek Synagogue has an open suburban feel to it, but unlike so many of its contemporaries, this building was erected within walking distance of its predecessor, a 1885 red brick vernacular building with Gothic details - notably pointed windows.  That synagogue, one of the best preserved Eastern European immigrant synagogues, is still in use as an Orthodox shul, serving the small Ahavath Gerim congregation.  The old synagogue is in the heart of Burlington's Little Jerusalem, while the new building is only a short distance away.  The new sanctuary is entirely different in style, but still captures some of the haimish feel of the older shul.

Burlington, Vermont.  Former Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, (built 1885), now home to congregation Ahavath Gerim. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013)

Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Sanctuary.  Freeman French Freeman, architects, 1952.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013)

Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Sanctuary, view from bimah to entrance (on left). Freeman French Freeman, architects, 1952.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013)

Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Sanctuary.  Freeman French Freeman, architects, 1952.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013)

The wood-walled sanctuary seats about 250.  It is entered from from the vestibule, to the side and rear of the space, so that one see the bimah and ark at and angle, in the manner of well known medieval synagogue such as Worms and Prague.  Whether this was the architects intent, or simply done of necessity to have the Ark on the wall on a lot that is wider than it is deep, I do not know.  The effect, anyway, if a good one, and allows one  to scan the entire space before finding a seat.

The bimah is a raised platform set in a recessed niche.   At the rear of the sanctuary is a raised choir loft, screened by an open work front of vertical wood slats.  The space is now used for storage of part of the synagogue archives.  The wall under the loft can open into the adjacent social hall to provided extra space for overflow crowds, though ti seems like the view form the rear would be like looking under a bridge.  The sanctuary gets good bright daylight from high clerestory windows of glass etched with the symbols representing the twelve tribes of Israel.  These were made expressly for the build by artist Ben Stein. More striking is to look up and see the tops of trees almost brushing the building (unfortunately my pictures of the sanctuary were taken a night, so the trees are not visible).  A similar effect was recently achieved in the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Illinois (also designed by a woman) though there the sanctuary is set on the building's third floor - close to the treetops. 

Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Bimah (stained glass panels are a more recent addition).  Freeman French Freeman, architects, 1952.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013)

Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Sanctuary, etched glass clerestory windows with symbols of twelve tribes.   Freeman French Freeman, architects, 1952.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013)

The congregation has a strong sense of its history, and the history of Jews in Burlington.  It maintains an archive, has a permanent history exhibition outside its social hall, and, of course, has initiated the Lost Shul Mural  project.  Archivists Aaron Goldberg and Jeff Potash were also important partners in the production of the recent Vermont Public Television documentary Little Jerusalem.

Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, history exhibit.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013)

Burlington, Vermont. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Outdoor Holocaust Memorial   Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013)

Outdoors, on a patch of open yard to the right of the main entrance to the synagogue, a path leads to a Holocaust monument designed by Chaim Suchman dedicated in 2001, consisting of a sculpted metal figure of fiddler with a broken violin, facing a more didactic matzevah (gravstone) type monument with the word ZACHOR in Hebrew inscribed within a off-kilter Magen David, under which is an inscribed map with the names of killing sites.

According to the website of the University of Vermont Libraries, Freeman French Freeman was founded in Burlington in 1937 as the first architectural firm in Vermont by Ruth (Reynolds) and Bill Freeman and John French.  Ruth Freeman (1913-1969), a graduate of Cornell, was the first female architect in the state and a leader modernism.  William ran the business; Ruth oversaw design; and John supervised project specifications. Much of the modern architecture in Vermont was designed by the firm, which remains active today, with a new generation of architects. A list of the firm's buildings through the early 1960s can be found here.   FFF's St. Mark's Church, built in 1941, was one of the first modern style religious buildings erected in America, and its configuration presages many of the design innovations in post-Vatican II Catholic churches of the 1960 ( I regret that I only learned of this building after my visit.  I will surely see it when I return to Burlington).  For more on the role of the firm in Vermont's architectural history, and on the work of Ruth Freeman see the Survey of International Style Architecture in Vermont 1937 - ca. 1975.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sam Gruber Burlington "Lost Shul Mural" Lectures now Online

My Burlington "Lost Shul Mural" Lectures now Online
by Samuel D. Gruber

After writing on this blog in August about the recently uncovered mural from the former Chai Adam Synagogue in Burlington, Vermont, I was invited to visit Burlington for a weekend in November and give a few talks about how I viewed the mural, and what I thought of its meaning and significance.   My two talks at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue were filmed, and with my permission the congregation has put them on youtube,and will incorporate them into their fund raising efforts to save this precious traditional Jewish artistic survivor. (Nov 9, 2013) (Nov 10, 2013)

I feel I packed in a lot in a lot about the mural and its artistic, religious and historical context in these talks, but there is much more that could be said, and I'll try to add some important points in the future.  Meanwhile - pull out the popcorn or fold the laundry - you can watch the talks here.  The first also recognizes Kristallnacht, and the awful events of 75 years ago.  It is more about the European context for the work, and the symbolism of the mural.  The second lecture includes much more contemporary American immigrant material.

As the calendar year comes to an end I urge you all to join me in making a tax-exempt donation to this project online via Paypal or by mail.   You can donate any amount with a few clicks here.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Association of European Jewish Museums conference report

 Warsaw, Poland.  Museum of the History of Polish Jews - site of next year's AEJM meeting.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2013

Association of European Jewish Museums (AEJM) Conference Report

by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) It has been several years since I attended the annual meeting of the Association of European Jewish Museums (AEJM) - the scheduling comes right in the middle of the fall academic semester - that (and a lack of travel money!) make it hard trip. But I am especially sorry I missed this year's gathering, which appears to have been a exceptionally good one - with sessions and trips spread over three countries!  Next year the group meets in Warsaw to celebrate the soon-to-opn Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

AEJM has grown tremendously in recent years.  It membership tends to favor the more establish and professional museums, and also many that receive generous state support, but increasinglyu these museums host training programs open to a wider community of Judaica and Jewish history curators, conservators and public moderators.   It is a valuable forum and network for institutions to share resources, experience, and to tackle difficult topics and issues together.  This year, five new institutions have become members including museums in Russia, Latvia and Germany.  

Jewish Heritage Europe has posted a summary report of the recent annual meeting here, supplied by AEJM president Hanno Loewy, director of the Jewish museum in Hohenems, Austria.  the report includes a summary of some of the organization's most successful programs.

AEJM membership is primarily for museums and related institutions, but there are membership and participation categories for individuals.  Check the AEJM website for details.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Lecture: American Synagogues & Jewish Identity at Temple Adath, Syracuse (NY)

 Syracuse, NY.  Temple Adath Yeshurun, sanctuary.  Percival Goodman, architect (1971), Dorothy Reister, sculptor.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013).

For readers in the Central New York area, this Sunday morning, December 8th,  I'll be giving an illustrated talk at Temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse at 10:00 a,m,  Admission is free.  Come a little early for coffee and chitchat.

Arise and Build: American Synagogues & Jewish Identity

In the last hundred years, American Jews have built synagogues at a rate never seen in the world before, and in the process they have integrated the synagogue into the American landscape, and Judaism into the American cultural mainstream. This illustrated lecture explores the evolving form and meaning of American synagogue in the 20th century, shaped by architects and their congregational patrons. Through synagogue design, we trace changes in the organization of the American Jewish community and its relationship to American culture as a whole. The location, size, shape, and stylistic language adopted for synagogue designs throughout the century is a reflection of the changing needs and values of American Jews.

The venue is special.  Temple Adath is one of the last synagogues designed by modern master Percival Goodman, and it is also one of the very best- and certainly most striking - of modern buildings in Central New York.  You don't have to be Jewish to be interested in synagogue architecture, and you don't need to be Jewish to want to visit this building.  It has interest inside and out, and the entire plan - combining myriad practical and utilitarian functions with large worship, social and educational spaces - is worth study.  Goodman is often noted - and I have recently done so myself (see recent post about Herbert Ferber and Ibram Lassaw) - for his signature design elements such as sharp angles, natural materials (especial brick and wood) and the abundant incorporation of modern art in his designs - but he also excelled as a site and facilities planner.  He had a good sense of building siting, the relationship of parts for function and aesthetic and emotional effect, and how to develop interesting spatial progressions.

Syracuse, NY.  Congregation Adas Yeshurun (Neustadter Shul), Mulberry St (now State St). founded 1870, built 1878 (demolished). Photo: Rudolph, From a Minyan to a Community)

The evolution of Temple Adath Yeshurun as a congregation, and as a series of buildings, is a good illustration of the development of American synagogues common throughout the country (I develop this theme further in an essay titled The Continuing Exodus written for an exhibition about urban synagogues a few yeas back).  Temple Adath was an offshoot in 1870 from an existing congregation (New Beth Israel, commonly known as The Grape Street Shul).  Congregation Adas Yeshurun received a New York State charter in 1872, and the members then bought a house o Mulberry Street to use as a place of worship.  They erected a new building on the site in 1878.  This building remained in use until the congregation moved in 1922 to an imposing classical structure (designed by Gordon Wright) slightly further east  on South Crouse Avenue and Harrison Street (now the Hotel Skyler).  At that time the name was changed to Temple Adath Yeshurun.

Syracuse, NY.  Former Temple Adath Yeshurun, sanctuary.  Gordon Wright, architect (1922)

Fifty years later, in 1971, the congregation dedicated its present home on Kimber Road at the eastern edge of the City of Syracuse.  Design by Percival Goodman, it includes impressive ritual and decorative artwork by Dorothy Reister.  Some of the stained glass window panels from the 1922 building were moved and installed at Kimber Road.

Syracuse, NY.  Temple Adath Yeshurun, chapel.  Percival Goodman, architect (1971).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2013).

For more information, call the Temple Adath office at (315) 445 – 0002, email, or visit

Report on Krakow Conference on Managing Jewish Immovable Heritage Posted

Publication: Report on Krakow Conference on Managing Jewish Immovable Heritage Posted

(ISJM) Organizers of the Conference on Managing Jewish Immovable Heritage held in Krakow last April have released a beautifully illustrated summary report of the three-day event.  The complete proceedings have been available on-line since April.  It was remarkable gathering, and the positive consequences continue to develop through renewed interest and support for old programs and new projects, initiatives and partnerships developed in Krakow.

To follow many of these developments I suggest subscribing through email or Facebook to 

You can access the report online or download it as a pdf here.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

USA: Urgent Effort to Designate Lower East Side Good Samaritan/Eastern District Dispensary a NYC Landmark

New York, NY. Former Good Samaritan/Eastern District Dispensary. Rose & Stone, architects (1890). Photo courtesy Friends of the Lower East Side.

USA: Urgent Effort to Designate Lower East Side Good Samaritan/Eastern District Dispensary a NYC Landmark   
by Samuel D. Gruber

In New York City,  Lower East Side historians, neighborhood activists and preservationists are pushing the urgent landmark designation of the former Good Samaritan/Eastern District Dispensary on Essex Street.  The elegant Italianate structure is a work of  architectural note, but also an important landmark of social and cultural history - and especially early 20th century efforts to bring adequate health care to the urban immigrant and often indigent populations.   The landmark effort follows recent successful drives to designate and protect the Bialystoker Home and the Seward Park Branch of the New York Public library, both buildings with architectural and historical significance to the neighborhood and city.  The rapidly changing demographics and skyrocketing real estate prices in the Lower East Side leae many old buildings such as this one unprotected from serious exterior alteration, or outright demolition.

The Eastern District Dispensary was first established on Grand Street in 1832, during a major cholera epidemic, and functioned for about 120 years in various downtown locations, providing free or low-cost care to those particularly vulnerable to life threatening contagious diseases.   According to the Friends of the Lower East Side:
 When Eastern District and Good Samaritan Dispensaries consolidated and erected the building at 75 Essex Street in 1890, there were close to a dozen of these publicly financed neighborhood dispensaries operating in Manhattan. Funding for the land and building – a total of $112,000 – was raised through contributions; annual operating expenses were funded by the city. The ground level and first floor held physicians’ offices, quarantine rooms and an apothecary dispensing medicine for a cost of ten cents. Upper floors were used for waiting areas and examination rooms. After a law was passed in 1899 that only the indigent could be treated at city-operated dispensaries, visits became a source of shame and the number of patients declined. Dispensaries gradually phased out as hospitals opened outpatient clinics.
 New York, NY.  Seward Park Branch, NYPL.  Babb, Cook & Welch, architect (1909). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2010).  The library was designated at NYC landmark in June, 2013.

 New York, NY. Educational Alliance. Brunner & Tryon, architects (1891). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2010)

In the same manner of libraries, bathhouses and educational buildings - also often designed with impressive (and thought to be culturally uplifting) Renaissance details - the new dispensary stood as an example of municipal responsibility and philanthropic involvement in a neighborhood composed mostly of crowded tenements.   Since closing  in the 1950s, the building has been used for commercial, office and storage space.  It is now owned and occupied by Eisner Brothers, a sportswear retailer, but they have put the building up for sale.   

The still remarkably intact four-story building was designed in the style of a freestanding Italianate palazzo in 1890 by architects Rose & Stone.  The orange and tan brick and brownstone trim structure has five round-arched openings in the first story of the eastern façade along Essex Street, that provide the building - and the street - with an elegant rhythm. It bears some general resemblance to the near-contemporary Educational Alliance Building designed by Arnold W. Brunner and Thomas Tryon nearby at 197 East Broadway (corner of Jefferson Street), and erected in 1891.
The architects Charles Frederick Rose and Howard Colton Stone are well known for their design of the Isaac Vail Brokaw Mansion, erected 1887-1890 and demolished in 1965.  It was an enormous urban chateau across from Central Park on the northeast corner of East 79th Street on a stretch of Fifth Avenue known as “millionaire’s row.”  The Brokaw Mansion  demolition  began in February, 1965 and prompted a sharp editorial in the New York Times by Ada Louise Huxtable, an important salvo in the fight to stop the unprecedented demolition of historic buildings in the 1960s.  The demolition was one of the "outrages" that sparked landmarks legislation for New York City, adopted on April 19, 1965.  Rose & Stone also  designed a lovely row of neo-Renaissance  houses at 14-20 East 72nd Street and 22 East 72nd Street(1892-1894), which still stand and are part of the Upper East Side Historic District.

According to the Friends of the Lower East Side, the former dispensary
 "is already listed as eligible in the Lower East Side Historic District placed on the National Register in 2001.  In addition, it is noted in the Environmental Impact Statement for the development of the Essex Crossing/Seward Park Mixed-Use Development.  Adjacent to the planned new construction, this unique Lower East Side building is threatened by damage from work conducted around it and, since it is currently advertised for sale, is vulnerable to demolition or inappropriate alterations by new owners."
To Contact the New York Landmarks Preservation Board  in support of the designation of the former dispensary, click here.

You can read some more history of the building from a 2010 blog by Allison Siegel from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Happy Birthday William Gropper

William Gropper.  Your brother's blood cries out (1943).

Happy Birthday William Gropper
by Samuel D. Gruber

Today is the birthday of William Gropper, born in New York to immigrant parents on December 3, 1897, and one of the most prolific, hard-hitting and influential American radical artists in the interwar period.  Though as a committed Communist he disavowed religious Judaism, during World War II and after the Holocaust he acknowledged his Jewish heritage by producing suites of drawings including Your brother's blood cries out (1943) and, in 1970, the series of twenty-four color lithographs on Jewish village life called The Shtetl.  Gropper died in 1977.

William Gropper. The Shtetl (1970). From Syracuse University Special Collections Research Center.

Syracuse University has a large collection of Gropper works in the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) and I often take my students to see these. Gropper's work is part of the University's large holding on radicalism, including American Communism.  In the 1920s, Gropper began work as a staff cartoonist for the Yiddish Morning Freiheit.  His many scathing cartoon attacks on capitalism in the Freiheit often included variants of typical anti-Semitic stereotypes.  He also was a regular contributor English language left-wing publications such as the Daily Worker and the World.  He was a founder New Masses,  to which he contributed some of his best political work, including, after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, attacks on Hitler and Nazi aggression. 

Your brother's blood cries out (named for Genesis 4:10) was probably published in 1943, after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  It was one of the more explicit works of art during the Holocaust by an American artist.  Gropper was not a witness to the ongoing atrocities, but unlike other artists of the time who preferred to reference Nazi brutality obliquely through metaphor and mythological themes (Lipchitz), or through powerful but abstract imagery (Picasso), Gropper used his skills as a cartoonist to depict immediately recognizable scenes of oppression, humiliation, suffering, and finally resistance.  He drew on a long tradition including classical art and Goya's Horrors of War prints, but most notably on the many photos, prints and paintings by Jewish artists of Jewish suffering in the pogroms of the early 20th century and during World War I.  

Matthew Baigell has pointed out in his essay in Absence/presence: Essays and Reflections on the Artistic Memory of the Holocaust (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2005) that the scene of the burned synagogue, where plundering German soldiers carry off a menorah  recalls of the Arch of Titus relief from Rome.  The pile of corpses, however, comes from Goya, and perhaps from well known photos of the Kishinev and other pogroms.  Between 1953 and 1956 Gropper produced a series of 50 lithographs he titled The Capriccios, which are direct homage to Goya's works of the same name. 

Here are photos of the eight prints of Your brother's blood cries out, taken from the set in the Syracuse University Special Collections Research Center.  They are important works for the study of Holocaust Art, but are rarely illustrated in their entirety (for those who want their own set, I notice that there is a portfolio for sale on  In addition to his prominent role as a political artist, we can remember William Gropper as an artistic "witness" to the Holocaust.





Sunday, November 24, 2013

Shuls on Fire? (Synagogue Fire and Smoke Real and Abstract)

Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El, first building (1953) with "Pillar of Fire," Ibram Lassaw, sculptor. 

Shuls on Fire? (Synagogue Fire and Smoke Real and Abstract): 
Ibram Lassaw and Temple Beth El, Springfield, Massachusetts
by Samuel D. Gruber

A few weeks ago I participated in a symposium about synagogue art and architecture at Temple Beth El in Springfield, Massachusetts, a building designed by noted modernist Percival Goodman and decorated with many artworks by Ibram Lassaw, one of the best abstract artists to provide artwork for American synagogues in the 1950s and 1960s.  The symposium was mostly about the career and work of Goodman, but on my this visit to Beth El, I was particularly drawn to the sculptural work of Lassaw, whose metalwork marks the building exterior, and can also be found throughout the synagogue in functional and ritual roles.

 Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El.  ""Pillar of Fire" by Ibram Lassaw. Photo: Samuel Gruber (2012)

Based on his success at the recently completed Congregation B'nai Israel synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey, Goodman had assembled a team of artists to design art for the newly planned Springfield synagogue.  For both projects, all the artists came from New York's Kootz Gallery, but for Springfield the still little known Lassaw was chosen to replace sculptor Herbert Ferber who has created the outdoor relief "The Bush Was Not Consumed" in Millburn.  Other artists Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell worked on both projects.  From Lassaw's account of the project, it seems that he did not get specific instruction from Goodman, nor any instruction about or instruction about subjects from the congregation's rabbi. 

According to art historian Nancy Gale Heller, Lassaw produced sixteen pieces for the Temple Beth El (Springfield)  in all, including “two menorahs, an eternal light, a lamp-lighter, [and] many decorative forms for various parts of the buildings."   Fire destroyed the Beth El sanctuary in 1965, but fortunately most of Lassaw's work survived and was reinstalled in the new building, also designed by Percival Goodman.

Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El. 1965 fire. Photo from Springfield Union (Oct. 18, 1965) courtesy Temple Beth El.

Lassaw's most notable work at the synagogue, and the one that garnered most  attention for the artist, is a twenty-eight foot tall bronze form placed on the building's facade which Lassaw titled "Pillar of Fire." Like Millburn, Goodman adorned the facade with abstract yet symbolic sculpture for which the architecture serves as setting.  "Pillar of Fire" is set in a shallow niche like a gemstone in a bracelet.  Even more than in Millburn, Goodman was able to integrate art throughout the building.

Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El, second building (1968) with "Pillar of Fire," Ibram Lassaw, sculptor. Photo: Samuel Gruber (2012)

The sculptor says: “I stood in front of the building and began visualizing different shapes in that particular niche, and when I had the sculpture pretty well made in the small maquette, I cast about for a title and 'The Pillar of Fire' came to me as appropriate.  But I already had the sculpture pretty well established before I got the title – so this isn't representing an idea.”[1] 

“Pillar of Fire” provides a visual accent to the exterior; replacing traditional synagogue symbols (menorah, tablets, Magen David) as Jewish “branding;” and offers a foretaste of what's to come – modern art inside.  Along with Ferber's “And the Bush Was Not Consumed” in Millburn, this piece is probably the very best combination of quality art and perfect architectural placement of any synagogue art in America.  It is not “just decoration,” but art and architecture are in supportive and complete harmony.  Each serves the other.  Goodman and few others could (and can) do this sort of design.

In the 1960s Avram Kampf wrote I his influential book, Contemporary Synagogue Art:
 “…The work reveals a submission to the material, to its properties and possibilities. The artist is not representing reality, but creating it. The viewer senses a heightened participation in the act of creation akin to the intensity with which the mystic worships God….Lassaw combines a commitment to modern technology in all its various forms—electronic, space physics atomic science—with an intensely mystic conception of the universe which has led him to search the popular philosophies of Zen Buddhism, as expounded by Suzuki, and Chasidism, familiar to him through the writings of Martin Buber. All of these influences find their symbolic expression in his art. He allows them to determine the choice of his material, the process of his work, and the outcome. Lassaw also brings spontaneous enthusiasm to his work. In the “Pillar of Fire” he has transformed his intellectual and physical environment into a non-static, ethereal sculpture.” 
After more than a half century, the piece remains a powerful one, and in retrospect, one of Lassaw’s most effective works.  Art and architecture complement each other.  For many people, it was their first substantial encounter with abstract art – there were very few pieces of public modern art of any kind visible in American – let alone Western Massachusetts.  In 1953, the work was a revelation.  

We know that Lassaw was familiar with Ferber's work, and that this work in form and name  was a response of some kind.  Perhaps Goodman (or the congregation) made it explicit that they wanted something like Millburn.  As far as art goes, the two works are quite different.   Ferber's relief  boldly protrudes from the wall while Lassaw's is recessed in a niche.  One looks like sharp shards and blades of metal suggesting perhaps tongues of flame; the other is a dense interlace of thinner, more organic forms - more smoke than fire.

 Milburn, NJ. Cong. B'nai Israel.  "And the Bush was Not Consumed," Herbert Ferber, sculptor. Photo from Kampf, Contemporary Synagogue Art (1966).

Still - in the world of synagogue art - these two works of the early 1950s stand out as related, since no other similar outdoor or abstract sculpture for synagogues was known at the time. Each inevitably calls the other to mind - in part since there were so few publicly visible  similar abstract metal relief works to be seen anywhere else.   

Milburn, NJ. Cong. B'nai Israel.  "And the Bush was Not Consumed," Herbert Ferber, sculptor. Photo: Samuel Gruber (2008)

The subject of Herbert Ferber’s exterior relief, And the bush was not consumed... was proposed by Congregation B’nai Israel’s rabbi, Max Grünewald. The rabbi, who had himself fled Nazi Germany, stated, “The Burning Bush burned but was never consumed, which reflects the fate of our people.”

Ferber created an abstract work that simultaneously evokes the traditional biblical motif of the branches of the Burning Bush, from which God first reveals himself to Moses, and the Tree of Life, symbolizing God as the source of all things. As with his contemporaries working in both two and three dimensions, Ferber’s concerns evolved from an interest in the unconscious into an abstract expressionism in which forms emanated from the mind and body without becoming representational. The imagery of his sculptures was conceived, as he stated, in a “knowing but nonrational way.”

The Millburn project occupied Ferber for over a year. He began with small pen-and-ink sketches before creating two copper models, each a foot tall, which he submitted to the architect and the rabbi for approval. The original commission was for a six-foot-tall piece, but Ferber thought this would be too small for the synagogue’s façade and volunteered to double its size. To create the final sculpture, Ferber bent cut-out sheets of copper into long hollow forms, which were then covered with lead to achieve a uniform color.

At the request of the Museum of Modern Art, the synagogue delayed its art dedication ceremony by several months so that Ferber’s new sculpture could be included in the museum’s Fifteen Americans exhibition of 1952. Once installed on the synagogue’s façade, the work’s stark, abstract appearance proved shocking to many, and was even reported to have distracted drivers on busy Millburn Avenue. Even the rabbi took a while to become accustomed to its aggressive spikes and rough texture, ultimately finding sustenance in its forceful forms. Ferber’s additional synagogue work included a sculpture commissioned by Goodman for the Fairmount Temple in Beechwood Village, Ohio. - See more at:
Ferber’s exterior relief at Millburn is titled "And the Bush was not Consumed..." This was no arbitrary title added to an abstract work after the fact.  The subject was proposed by B’nai Israel’s rabbi, Max Grünewald, who had been instrumental in encouraging the inclusion of contemporary art in the new building.  Grunewald had fled Nazi Germany after Kristallnacht when his own synagogue in Mannheim was destroyed.  He stated, “The Burning Bush burned but was never consumed, which reflects the fate of our people,” but when he saw Ferber's sculpture in place he must have had strong memories of the burning synagogues in Germany on Kristallnacht.  In specific recognition of the destruction of the Mannheim synagogue Goodman and Rabbi Grunewald created a memorial niche in the Millburn synagogue sanctuary; to my knowledge the first Holocaust memorial designed for a new synagogue after the war. 
Baden-Baden, Germany. Synagogue burning on Kristallnacht (Nov, 9-10, 1938). Photo: Yad Vashem    

Mannheim, Germany. Synagogue in undated photo after the destruction of Kristallnacht.  Photo: 

Shortly after completing the Springfield work, Lassaw came back to the Pillar of Fire theme and produced two metal free standing openwork towers - titled "Pillar of Fire" and "Pillar of Smoke" that were installed flanking the ark of Temple Beth El in Providence, Rhode Island.  These works - not reliefs - were more in keeping with the bulk of Lassaw's work.

Providence, RI.  Temple Beth El. Ark, flanked by "Pillar of Fire" and "Pillar of Smoke" by Ibram Lassaw.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005)

Back inside Temple Beth El in Springfield, Lassaw’s best work was his Ner Tamid, or Eternal Light, and his work in the chapel.  The Ner Tamid, hung like some heavenly galaxy in front of the Ark.  This openwork metal sculpture was  destroyed in the unsolved 1965 fire.  Lassaw made a similar, but more compact one to replace it.  

 Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El. Newspaper report of 1965 fire. Photo courtesy Temple Beth El.

Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El.  Original Sanctuary Ner Tamid.  Ibram Lassaw, Sculptor, 1953 (destroyed 1965).  Photo from Kampf, Contemporary Synagogue Art (1966).

Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El.  Replacement Sanctuary Ner Tamid.  Ibram Lassaw, Sculptor, 1968.  Photo courtesy of Temple Beth El.

At the rededication ceremony of Temple Beth El, on May 12, 1968, Goodman linked the devastation of the fire to past Jewish disasters, giving added weight to rumors that the fire was the result of arson.  it also seemed he remember Rabbi Grunewald's admonition that "the bush was not consumed."
 "The real mortar which holds this building together is not found in the architect's specification - it is in the hearts of the congregation.  The truth of this has again been borne out. Fire raged through the building, the walls cracked, the mortar fell out, the physical work was destroyed. Time and time again this has happened to our history and each time, and whether in Jerusalem, Spain, Russia, or Germany, we found the real mortar intact -the fortress of our faith has remained solid though all was in ruins around it." [2]

Fortunately, the chapel of the original building and all its artwork survived the fire - and this simple space is one Goodman's best early designs.  It has the simplicity, austerity, and integrity of a medieval Carthusian Chapel or a work by Brunelleschi.  But most of all it is in the style of Millbrun that combines a modern functionalism and rustic simplicity - best seen in its wood roof (as a modern space, to me this chapel is the equal of Louis Kahn's Trenton Bathhouse which opened in 1955, two years after the Beth El Chapel.). 

      Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El Chapel. Percival Goodman, architect, 1953. Photo courtesy Temple Beth El.

 Part of the effect of the chapel is due to Lassaw's art, which he has toned down to match the muted architecture.  Lassaw decorated the portable wooden Ark with solitary star or sun bursts – suggesting perhaps the light emanating the Torah, or at least intimating a link to the idea of creation – more of these can be found around the building.  He also made a small Ner Tamid and a menorah for the chapel that survived the fire, and which you have probably already seen.  The Ner Tamid would have have been - and still should be seen - against the brightly colored Robert Motherwell-designed tapestry that hung behind the Ark.   The wall carpet was removed from the chapel many years ago.  It now hangs in the Temple Social Hall, but plans are being made to restore it return it to its original location. 

Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El Chapel. Ark decoration by Ibram Lassaw and Robert Motherwell. This photo suggesst the sunburst decorations on the ark were added later by Lassaw.  Photo courtesy Temple Beth El.

Lassaw also made a small metal screen that serves as a valence above the Motherwell piece.  The work foreshadows  Lassaw’s great screen that signaled the ordering of chaos into Creation for the bimah of Congregation  Kneses Tifereth Israel Synagogue, Port Chester, NY, a synagogue  designed by Philip Johnson.  Lassaw’s work there has recently been acquired by and moved to the Jewish Museum in New York, after an ill-considered synagogue “renovation.”  

 Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El Chapel. Art decoration by Ibram Lassaw, 1953.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2012)

 Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El Chapel. Percival Goodman, architect; Ibram Lassaw, sculptor, 1953. Photo courtesy Temple Beth El.

Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El Chapel. Percival Goodman, architect;  Ibram Lassaw, sculptor, 1953.  The relief seems to presage Lassaw's much larger and more dramatic ark relief designed by Cong. Kneses Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, New York (now in the Jewish Museum, New York).  Photo courtesy Temple Beth El.

 Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El Chapel. Menorah. Ibram lassaw, sculptor.  1953. Photo courtesy Temple Beth El.

  Springfield, MA. Temple Beth El Chapel. Ner Tamid. Ibram lassaw, sculptor.  1953. Photo courtesy Temple Beth El.

Fifteen years after the Beth El project, Lassaw, when asked about the collaboration of painters and sculptors with architects, "asserted that there IS none. Lassaw claimed that he had never truly collaborated with an architect; instead the architect had simply assigned him a niche within which to design his sculpture, adding that he had “no way of influencing the environment beyond the scope of the sculpture.” [3]

[1] Ibram Lassaw, interview with Dorothy Secklet, East Hampton, New York, Nov. 1, 1964; transcript at Archives of American Art quoted in Nancy Gale Heller, The Sculpture of Ibram Lassaw, Ph.D. thesis Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NY, 1982. (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 1982).

[2] Quoted in Temple Beth El 1913-2013 (Springfield, MA: Temple Beth El, 2013), 62.

[3] Nancy Gale Heller, The Sculpture of Ibram Lassaw, Ph.D. thesis Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NY, 1982.  (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 1982), p. 198-199]