Friday, August 22, 2014

Happy Birthday Jacques Lipchitz

Jacques Lipchitz, David and Goliath (1933)

Happy Birthday Jacques Lipchitz (born Aug. 22, 1891)
by Samuel D. Gruber

Since I'm getting ready to begin teaching my "Jewish Art: From Sinai to Superman" class next week, I thought I'd resume my birthday shout outs for prominent and interesting Jewish artists and architects. Given the name of the course, posthumous felicitations to Lithuanian-born Jacques Lipchitz, born on this day in 1891 in Druskieniki, Lithuania, seem appropriate since a  common theme in his later work was that heroic struggle - often involving a Biblical character.  

Though not quite Superman, David is a superhero as he struggles with Goliath in Lipchitz's 1933 allegorical piece - an important early artistic statement about the Jewish struggles in Europe at the beginning of the Nazi era.  Similarly, a heroic Jacob wrestles with an angel.  Both are allegories for the individual and collective struggles of the time.

Jacob and the Angel: Maquette No. 1 (1931) Bronze. Israel Museum

To my mind, however, Lipchitz's best works include his early cubist sculpture which are carefully studied and balanced pieces, but often playful and even whimsical, too.   These are probably the least "Jewish" of his work.  His identity and emotions are kept in check under Paris's modern influences.  Still, he hung out with a small but ever growing number of Jewish artists in what would come to be known as Jewish School of Paris.  The best relic of this artistic circle is Modigliani's 1916 double portrait of Lipchitz and his wife Berthe now in the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Amedeo Modigliani. Jacques and Berthe Lipchitz (1916).  Art Institute of Chicago.

Two typical, but excellent pieces are in these, still in France. 

 Jacques Lipchitz, Girl with braid (1914). Plaster, Museum of Fine Arts, Cambrai, France

Jacques Lipchitz, The man with the mandolin (!917). National Museum of Modern Art - Georges Pompidou Center, Paris

From the 1930s on Lipchitz increasingly incorporated Jewish themes in his work, though these were interspersed with references to ancient Egypt and Greece.  These themes coincided with his rejection of Cubism and his turn to a more dramatic style - sometimes labeled Baroque.  Indeed one can find easy comparison in some of Lipchitz's work in this style and the early mythological works of Bernini. 

One of his most explicit Jewish sculptures is The Prayer (also called Kapporot), which represents an old man swinging a rooster over his head in the kapparot ritual.  This was done shortly after the artist fled Europe in 1941, and the sacrifice of the rooster is usually taken as symbolic of the sacrifice of European Jews.

Jacques Lipchitz. The Prayer (1943). Philadelphia Museum of Art

Already in the 1930s, Lipchitz had turned to biblical episodes to interpret contemporary events.   In this, he shared a common predicament with many artists who struggled to find an appropriate language to represent the recurring and escalating violence of the time.  Painters seemed to have an easier time representing apocalyptic scenes.  Lipchitz chose allegory: "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" and "David and Goliath."  Later, his work The Miracle was inspired by the creation of the state of Israel.   A figure with raised arms faces the Tablets of the Law, form  which grows a menorah, which also resembles a budding tree. His last work, The Tree of Life, is a six-meter-high bronze outside the Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus that consists of the interwoven figures of Noah, Abraham and Isaac at the Akedah, and Moses before the Burning Bush from which rises a phoenix supporting the Two Tablets.  Overall the size of work turns it into bronze bombast, but the smaller plaster sketch expresses the great energy still on tap from the octogenarian.

Jacques Lipchitz,The Tree of Life, unveiled posthumously on Sept. 21, 1978, outside the Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus.

I grew up in Philadelphia which has one of the world's largest collections of Lipchitz sculpture at the Philadelphia Art Museum, but also installed as public art.  When still in junior high school I used to enjoy the bold and I thought overripe Spirit of Enterprise  then on the North Terrace of the Sculpture Court in Fairmount Park, but since moved to a more prominent spot on the Central Terrace.

 Jacques Lipchitz, The Spirit of Enterprise (1950-1960). Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.

The work was begun in 1950, not too long after Lipchitz arrived in the United States after fleeing Europe in 1941.  It represents his optimism, though I think that escaped me at the time.  What I saw here, and also in his Prometheus Statue at the Art Museum - was a bulging bronze of force and struggle.

This fierce tension is in almost all of Lipchitz works after about 1930, even in seemingly softer themes such as Song of the Vowels, an abstraction of a harp player (which I saw everyday for four years at college, as I entered and exited Firestone Library at Princeton).

I also remember the dispute about placing Lipchitz's  massive Government of the People in front of the Municipal Service Building, commissioned as part of the city's Percent for Art program.  Then Mayor Frank Rizzo - the city's tough cop - hated the piece and blocked its funding and placement for many years.   I remember when he opined that it looked  "like a plasterer dropped a load of plaster."  It is assumed that Rizzo's actual phrasing was more pungent - and for some prophetic - since the work changed color once it was cast in bronze and finally installed three years after after Lipchitz's death in 1973, in time for the National Bicentennial. For good presentation on the work see this video.

Maybe sometime soon I'll return to Philadelphia to tour the Lipchitz works, and also more of the city's rich sculptural collection.  Until then, Happy Birthday Jacques!

Jacques Lipchitz. Government of the People (1965-1976)

USA: San Leandro's "Little Shul": California's Oldest Extant Synagogue

San Leandro, CA. First Hebrew Congregation with Sunday School class (undated, 1st half of 20th cent.). Note the fanciful towers (chimneys?).  Photo: Temple Beth Sholom, San Leandro

San Leandro, CA. First Hebrew Congregation interior. Photo:One Hundred Years of Service 1886-1986 (San Leandro: Temple  Beth Sholom, 1986).

USA: San Leandro's "Little Shul": California's Oldest Extant Synagogue
by Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) I recently wrote about San Diego's former Temple Israel, built in 1889, then sold in 1926, and later moved and restored as an historic monument in 1978.  A similar story can be told further north in San Leandro in the Bay area, where the small synagogue, also built in 1889-1890, was also rescued in the 1970s.  A difference though is that the former First Hebrew Congregation of San Leandro is now located on an existing synagogue premises and is regularly used for worship and educational purposes.  The building is preserved and so, for the most part, is it original function as a house of worship and Jewish community.  A third solution found in the West (and elsewhere) is restoring an old synagogue in situ for cultural and/or religious use, such as carried out for the 1884 synagogue in Leadville, Colorado, which opened as a Museum in 2008.

San Leandro, CA. First Hebrew Congregation (Little Shul) in 1952. Photo:
San Leandro Historical Photograph and Document Collection, courtesy of the San Leandro Public Library.

San Leandro, CA.  The Little Shul.  Photo: P. Epstein (c. 1990), courtesy of International Survey of Jewish Monuments.

The first Jews settled in San Leandro in the 1850s and 1860s, and the  San Leandro Hebrew Congregation organized in 1886 and incorporated in 1888. Trustees of the incorporation included J. Herrscher, Adolph Wimmer, A. Levy, David Ury, and D. Herrscher, prominent men of early San Leandro. The congregation built a synagogue, now called the Little Shul, on Chumalia Street in 1889.  It was small - only 20 feet wide and 48 feet deep.  It remained that way until 1921 when a social hall and kitchen were added.  I have not seen the building - nor any architectural study - but a look at the pictures suggest that the classical style vestibule was also a later addition.  It covers an eclectic late Victorian stick style facade that include Italianate brackets and stick style gable decoration.  The classical style corner pilasters of the vestibule were common features on American synagogues after 1900. 

According to Cindy Simons, president of the San Leandro Historical Society:
For more than half a century, Sunday school classes and religious services were held in the Little Shul, which attracted Jewish families from throughout the East Bay.  In 1947 and 1948, the now expanded congregation hired a full-time rabbi, adopted its present name Temple Beth Sholom (House of Peace), purchased a new site on Dolores Street, and constructed a new and larger synagogue.  In 1952, the Little Shul was purchased by the First Baptist Church and then was sold again in the late 1950s to the Judah Magnes Museum of Berkeley.  It was never used for museum purposes, but was rented out as a church meeting place and later a dwelling. [Cindy Simons  “San Leandro's 'Little Shul' East Bay's Oldest Surviving Synagogue?”  San Leandro Patch (April 7, 2013)]
San Leandro, CA. First Hebrew Congregation (Little Shul) during the move, c/ 1970. Photo:
San Leandro Historical Photograph and Document Collection, courtesy of the San Leandro Public Library.

San Leandro, CA.  The Little Shul.  Post-move changes to the building can be seen in the addition of a side door, and the change in size and location of the vestibule window.  Photo: P. Epstein (c. 1990), courtesy of International Survey of Jewish Monuments.

San Leandro, CA.  The Little Shul.    The wall besides the Ark was originally articulated with cabinets 9or doors?).  The present paneling is presumably new.  Photo: P. Epstein (c. 1990), courtesy of International Survey of Jewish Monuments.

The Magnes Museum purchase was what might term "passive preservation." The new ownership protected the building from change or demolition without review but did not actively promote it restoration or its Jewish identity.  The Magnes Museum bought the building, and bought time for its long term protection.  In 1970 the Museum found a solution - and sold the building to Temple Beth Sholom, for successor congregation, for $1.  Beth Sholom arranged to move the building, now called the "Little Shul," to its own synagogue site where it was restored and located behind the main synagogue on Dolores Street. Unlike the more expensive San Diego project, this move and restoration led by Coleman Herts, cost the congregation $23,000, raised from private donations (Temple Beth Sholom Bulletin, Dec, 1970). 

The lessons of both San Diego and San Leandro need to be taken to heart as architects and a Jewish community gets ready to move another 19th-century wood frame synagogue - that of Brenham, Texas. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

USA: Revisiting San Diego's First Beth Israel Building

San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

 San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel, c. 1893.  Photo: San Diego History Center's Title Insurance and Trust Collection.
USA: Revisiting San Diego's First Beth Israel Building
by Samuel D. Gruber

[n.b. this entry was corrected and expanded on May 27, 2020]

I was recently in San Diego, California for a wedding and got to sneak out (with my sister Ruth Ellen Gruber) for a quick visit to the former Beth Israel Synagogue at Heritage Park.  Not only is it the second oldest extant synagogue building in California (the slightly earlier one is in San Leandro), its survival also is due to one of the earliest synagogue preservation efforts in the country (again, San Leandro is another example). The modest Romanesque-style wood synagogue was moved to its present location in 1978 to save it from demolition. I first visited the building more than twenty years ago. The building was first restored from 1978 to 1982, but in 2010 it was entirely refurbished as part of a multi-million dollar transformation of Heritage Park.  

I am particularly interested in the building's saga since the Jewish Community of Austin, Texas, is now preparing for a similar move of the B'nai Abraham Synagogue in Brenham, Texas (of which my great-grandfather was a founder). That 1893 Texas synagogue will be moved a further distance - all the way to the Dell Campus in Austin, where it will serve an Orthodox minyan, but also be available for community events. I'll be speaking about the pros and cons of such moves (including San Diego)  and other preservation strategies  in my keynote lecture at the upcoming annual meeting of the Southern Jewish Historical Society in Austin this October. 

The San Diego synagogue was built in 1889 at Second Avenue and Beech Street and served the congregation until 1926, when a larger structure was built at Third and Laurel (now Ohr Shalom Synagogue). The old building was sold and used as a bank and for other purposes until the Fraternal Spiritualist Church bought it in 1938. By the 1970s, with skyscrapers closing in on its location, old Beth Israel was scheduled for demolition. At the urging of local preservationists, the building was listed as San Diego Historic Site No. 82 on June 1, 1973, and this new status helped delay a demolition permit.  

Five years later (May 22, 1978), the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of the first American synagogues so designated. Ironically, though the designation helped lead to the building's survival, it was revoked, after the building was moved (local and state designation were unaffected). This is a conundrum that rescuers of buildings frequently face. The Secretary of the Interior's standards for building integrity are specific and can seem strict. Writing about the (lack of) designation from the National Park Service in 1983, Carol D. Shull, Chief of Registration at the National Register stated: 
"Although the building meets the special requirements of significance specified for moved buildings in the National Register criteria, it does not meet the standards of integrity that the National Register applied to moved buildings...We believe that locating the building in an artificial environment, such as a museum of theme park like Heritage Park, destroys a building's integrity of location and setting and creates a false sense of historic development and associations, one that may be more illustrative of contemporary perceptions of the past than the realities of the historic period associated with the property." [copy of letter in files of International Survey of Jewish Monuments].
More history of the building and congregation can be found here

In 1981, Henry Schwartz, historian of the San Diego Jewish community, was instrumental in saving the building and researched and wrote its history (read the entire article and notes here)  He wrote:
Their planners envisaged a large temple to accommodate expected future growth; on September 1, 1887, the San Diego Union noted that congregants were talking of a synagogue to cost $20,000. But the darkening clouds of a slump appeared in early 1888; property prices began to skid; hotels emptied; the population shrank to 16,000. Fund-raising became difficult. Some congregants thought prudence dictated postponing construction.
Others urged building. After all, San Diego was now a city, with many buildings and street cars. The Jews that remained were convinced of San Diego's bright future. Rabbi Freuder urged going ahead. In a High Holy Days sermon in 1888 he "strongly urged his hearers to renew their allegiance to the sacred faith by endeavoring to establish a permanent place of worship in San Diego." The hard decision was made: build.
The site and finance committees busied themselves. Two adjacent lots at the northwest corner of Second and Beech Street were purchased for $5,000. Samuel Fox recalled the congregation raised $3,500 and some $2,500 came from borrowing. The Beth Israel ladies put on an outstanding "Jewish Fair" that raised $1,500. Additional funds were raised by selling seats in the new temple.
Realism, however, forced a drastic paring down. Instead of a $20,000 synagogue, one was built that cost between $3,500 and $4,500. A Weekly Sun reporter found that most congregants preferred an edifice like the Keener Chapel of the Unitarian Church, a small, unpretentious structure, which they had previously rented for services. Bids were received in mid-July 1889, and construction commenced shortly thereafter.  No evidence has been found of an architect.
Carpenters erected a redwood synagogue. Similar to gabled Christian churches, it, however, had a rather unique squarish front facade. Double wooden tablets, symbolic of the Ten Commandments, stood at the pinnacle. Craftsmen made seven stained-glass windows embellished with the six-pointed Star of David. Painters covered the exterior with light brown paint and gave it a contrasting "chocolate" brown trim.
Inside the front entrance were two anterooms, with steps up to an organ loft. Inside the sanctuary four wooden arched trusses supported a ceiling painted sky blue. The side walls were painted French gray, with three round-arch windows painted yellow, blue and rose. A chandelier hung from the ceiling. At the front was a small, raised pulpit area. In the rear wall was the Ark of the Covenant, a wall insert that housed the torah (the five books of Moses). Above it hung an eternal light.
While the builders may have been looking at local church models, it is also likely that leading Jews were aware of the large square-fronted Romanesque style synagogue from Germany, illustrations of many of many of which were published. The synagogues of Kassel and Gleiwitz (now Gliwice, Poland) are the best known, but not the only examples.
Kassel, Germany. Synagogue (1826-1839, destroyed). Steel engraving by I. Robbock from Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe, p 315.

Gleiwitz, Germany (now Gliwice, Poland), Synagogue (1859-61, destroyed)  Photo courtesy of Virtual Shtetl.

The good times did not last. As Schwartz reports, by 1900 the congregation had dwindled to only fourteen families, not recovering from the economic collapse of 1886-88, and soon renting the building to other (non-Jewish) congregations to meet expenses. "The First Universalists rented the sanctuary for parts of 1893 and 1894. After the Universalists, the board rented the building to the Christian Scientists for ten dollars a month; from February 3, 1895 to December 27, 1905, the temple was also known as the First Church of Christ, Scientist."  Jewish life then picked up with an influx of Eastern European Jews after 1905.

After its relocation in the 1920s, Congregation Beth Israel didn't look back, and had little to do with the building until the early 1970s, when the congregation, led by history-buff Rabbi Joel Goor and congregant Jim Milch, decided to rescue it. Congregation Beth Israel repurchased the building for $10,000 and arranged to have it moved to Heritage Park in 1977, and then donated the building to the county. Restoration architect Robert Ferris oversaw the deconstruction - cutting the building in two, separating it from its foundation, and moving it to the Park. 

It sat untended for several years as funds were raised for the restoration, completed in 1988. It took nine years to raise the $450,000 to restore the building (San Diego Union, March 5, 1988), due in part to the passing of Proposition 13 which limited the availability of anticipated tax dollars for the project. Since then, it has served as a non-sectarian meeting space for all kinds of events, especially weddings and including Jewish b'nai mitzvot. More history of the move and renovation is given in a San Diego Jewish Journal article by Jessica Hanewinckel.

San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel. View from early 1900s showing changes including the addition of a front portico.
Photo: San Diego History Center's Title Insurance and Trust Collection.
San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel showing new ramp access to side entrance. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel, new sign. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel., interior. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014
San Diego, CA. former Beth Israel, view to Ark. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

The building is owned by the County of San Diego and is still known as Temple Beth Israel, but in 2009 the Heritage Park leasehold was taken over by Pacific Hospitality Group, which initiated a $4 million dollar renovation of the park, including the synagogue building, and the renovation of the various 19th century buildings in the park, which were to be used a "premium hotel rooms," though this plan does not seem to have gone into effect.  A new identifying sign was added to the synagogue, which prominently announces the building's history. It is open to the public every and remains popular for weddings.
For Further Reading: 

Gillmon, Rita, 1988.  "Area's first synagogue will be restored," San Diego Union (March 5, 1988)

Hanewinckel, Jessica, 2010. “A Stained Glass Window into the Past,” San Diego Jewish Journal (July 2010). 

Harrison, Donald. "San Diego's Historic Places: The Original Temple Beth Israel," San Diego Jewish World (May 14, 2010).

Magid, Sally. "Moving the Structure Saves the Synagogue," Inspired, 9:1, 4 ff. [describes moving of four landmark synagogues: Adas Israel, Washington, D.C,; Shaare Shomain, Madison, Wisconsin; Temple Beth Israel, San Diego, Ca.; and Beth Shalom, San Leandro, Ca.]

O'Neil, Barbara, 1985. "First Jewish temple will flourish again," San Diego Union (Feb 4., 1985) 

Olten, Carol, 1989. "Temple restoration underway," San Diego Union (June 25, 1989)
Schwartz, Henry, 1981. Temple Beth Israel. Journal of San Diego History. 27 (4): 227-237.