Thursday, March 10, 2022

USA: Historic Synagogues Have Lost Two Good Friends: Ilias Hadiis and Richard Zabot

Elias Hadiis at KKJ. Photo: Mariela Lombard.

Richard Zabot at the Walnut Street Shul, photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.

Historic Synagogues Have Lost Two Good Friends: Ilias Hadiis and Richard Zabot 

May Their Memories by a Blessing

by Samuel D. Gruber

Last month we learned of the deaths of two men who played a big role in keeping Jewish life and Jewish history alive in two historic American immigrant-founded synagogues.

In New York, if you’ve visited Kahila Kedosha Janina on Broome Street either for a service, or on a Sunday when the museum is open, it is likely you met Ilias Hadjis, a longtime congregant of Kehila Kedosha Janina, and original member of our Board of Trustees. Ilias died in mid-February, He was a cherished docent of the museum, telling his own story, and the story of the Jews of Greece.  Ilias was born in 1937 and lived, as a young child, through the Occupation. His family was from Volos and Chalkis. He was the son of Mayer Hadjis and Emilia Cohen; he is survived by his wife, Cookie, his daughter, Emily, his grandson, Michael, his brother, Ephraim and sister, Nina Tapia. Ilias's big open smile and his welcoming ways were one of the many reasons that KKJ has survived a turbulent time and emerged as a vibrant religious and community space. He will be missed.

Elias Hadiis at Purim service, KKJ. Photo: 2019.

Elias Hadiis at Purim service, KKJ. Photo: 2019.

In Chelsea, Massachusetts – just across the Mystic River from Boston – the same could be said for Richard Zabot, who died on February 9th. Richard was one of the mainstays of the history Congregation Agudath Shalom, perhaps better known as the Walnut Street Shul, which has in recent years emerged as an important history and culture center as well as continuing Orthodox congregation. Richard devoted a lot of his time and energy into sustaining the Walnut Street Shul, and collecting history and artifacts of the once-expansive Chelsea Jewish community, Of more than 20 immigrant-founded congregation that filled this small urban enclave in the early 20th century, only the Walnut Street Shul continues in the 21st.

Richard Zabot at the Walnut Street Shul, photo: Samuel Gruber 2018
Richard Zabot at the Walnut Street Shul, photo: Samuel Gruber 2018

Richard was a follower of this blog, but my lack of proof-reading really annoyed him. During the pandemic he graciously proof-read many of my more recent posts. My last communication with Richard, however, was some months ago about his idea to create a mural at the Walnut Street Shul - perhaps a birds-eye view or a map - showing where all the Chelsea shuls once were, with painted images of the different synagogues popping out. He wrote: “What I am envisioning is a wall mural depicting all the shuls we have photographs of, the Kosher butchers and bakeries, the Jewish-owned businesses on Broadway. The mural would be on a wall in the larger of the 2 sanctuaries downstairs.  The purpose would be to increase the exhibit space of what is becoming a museum of early twentieth-century Jewish Chelsea.” 

Maybe we can still do something like this in his memory.

Donations in the memory of both these men can be sent to their respective synagogues.


Happy Birthday Architect Leopold Eidlitz (1823-1908)


Happy Birthday Architect Leopold Eidlitz (1823-1908)

Today is the 199th birthday of Leopold Eidlitz, the first known Jewish-born architect to practice in the United States.

New York architect Leopold Eidlitz (1823-1908), was America's first Jewish architect and a founding member of the American Institute of Architects. He was one of the titans of 19th-century American architecture. Though his work was much admired in his time it is mostly forgotten today. Most of his works are destroyed, but his is still storngly felt. His organic approach to architecture laid the foundation for H.H. Richardson and his followers and his style innovations for synagogues transformed American Jewish architectural identity.

In 2008, Kathryn E. Holliday published the excellent study of the architect’s life and work:  Leopold Eidlitz: Architecture and Idealism in the Gilded Age. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008)

Eidlitz was born in Prague, and then moved to Vienna where he trained at the Vienna Polytechnic (probably in engineering), before arriving in America at age 20 in 1843. Eidlitz came from a Jewish family, though in America he neither confirmed nor denied his Jewish upbringing. He worked briefly for Richard Upjohn and then formed a partnership by 1847 with German architect Otto Blesch. The two were soon workong on both church and synagogue commissions, using the Romanesque and Gothic styles.

Eidlitz married Harriet Amanda Warner, the (non-Jewish) daughter of architect Cyrus Warner, for whom he'd worked at one time (and who is the architect of record for Charleston's KKBE synagogue). The young architect obviously maintained relations with New York's Jewish community and undertook several important synagogue commissions. These include the fine Romanesque style Wooster Street Synagogue for Congregation Shaary Teffila of 1847 that he designed with Blesch. This building may be the introduction of the Romanesque style to American synagogue design. 

New York, NY.  Shaaray Tefila (The Wooster Street Synagogue). Otto Blesch and Leopold Eidlitz, architects, 1847.

About this same time Eidlitz also  designed his first building in what would be later known as the Moorish style. This was his fantasy mansion for impresario P. T' Barnum. Called "Iranistan," and it was obviously inspired by the Brighton Pavilion in England. This was an exotic, and therefore recreational style, not yet associated with synagogue architecture. Twenty years later (1866-68), however, Eidlitz's design (with Henry Fernbach) for the grand Temple Emanu-El, helped establish the Moorish style in American Jewish life. Today, though demolished, that building is probably Eidlitz's best known.

Bridgeport, CT. P. T. Barnum House Iranistan, Leopold Eidlitz, architect, 1848. Engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Jan. 2, 1858.

New York, NY.  Temple Emanuel. Eidlitz and Fernbach, architects, 1868. Exterior from Harper's Weekly, November 14 1868. Courtesy of The College of Charleston.
New York, NY.  Temple Emanuel. Eidlitz and Fernbach, architects, 1868. Interior from Harper's Weekly, October 3, 1868. Courtesy of The College of Charleston.

Holliday writes that "It is ironic that Eidlitz, with his professional focus on Christian churches and his own desire to leave his Jewishness in the past, became most identified with a synagogue." (p 78). Fortunately, Prof. Holliday places her discussion of the synagogues in the context of his church designs, which make them seem both more common, and at the same time exceedingly original and even exotic.

There are too few Eidlitz buildings surviving.  In New York City, the most impressive are St. George's Episcopal Church at Stuyvesant Square (1846-49) and the New York County (Tweed) Courthouse (1861-81).

New York, NY. St. George's Episcopal Church, Blesch & Eidlitz, architects, 1846-49. from Architectural Record, September 1908

NY, NY. Broadway Tabernacle, 34th & 6th Ave., decorated for Christmas. Leopold Eidlitz, architect, 1858.  And why is a Magen David part of the decorations? Photo from Holliday, Leopold Eidlitz (2008), p.94.