Monday, September 29, 2008

Germany: 5 Millionth Visitor to Berlin Jewish Museum

Germany: 5 Millionth Visitor to Berlin Jewish Museum

by Samuel D. Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber writes on her blog that the Jewish Museum in Berlin has received its 5 millionth visitor since the museum opened in September 2001. Ruth writes “even before its formal opening, the empty building was a tourist draw because of its distinctive design by Daniel Libeskind."

"According to the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel, the museum is the fifth most popular museum in Berlin, with 733,000 visitors in 2007 -- including 140,000 under the age of 18. (The Pergamon Museum holds the top spot with 1.3 million visitors). About two-thirds of visitors to the Jewish Museum come from outside of Germany.

The Museum is many things to many people. For some, it remains the most compelling Holocaust monument in Germany, and there remain many (sometimes I can be counted among them) who wish the building had remained empty as a memorial and that the Peter Eisenman-designed monument had not been built. Indeed, a good number of those 5 million visitors came to the building even before the museum was installed. Most of the time I wish, as do many visitors and staff, that the Libeskind design could have been more accommodating to the musuem exhibits. I have not visited the Museum for several years, but my overall impression was of a permanent exhibit that was contorted and disjointed, in large part because of the difficult spaces in which it was forced. But that too was the result of an unclear and uncertain story line. Whose Jews to commemorate. Berlin's or Germany's or Europe's? What history? Big cities or small towns? Rabbis or cafe raconteurs? What was important - history or art? Originals or replicas? I know that the staff has been trying hard for years to work all of this out. I hope on my next visit to Germany to have time to revisit and reconsider. As for the Libeskind space, in the end the staff's best efforts will have be confined to the more traditional exhibition spaces of the old History Museum, rather than the expressive and haunting spaces of the Zigzag.

Libeskind's type of space worked well in Osnabruck, where a small number of works by Felix Nussbaum are given lots of space, and the architecture is part of the narrative. To me, this small space remains Libeskind's most successful work. It is appropriately disconcerting and disorienting, but somehow remains humane. Like Berlin, Libeskind's Imperial War Museum in Manchester, England is difficult to navigate, but the disorientation there is in part due to murky lighting and unnecessary special effects, that for me undermined both architecture and exhibitions. At Manchester, the best experience was actually the liberating one of climbing on the outside of the building. I look forward to a trip to San Francisco, to see what musuem curators have to confront with there.

photos of the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Samuel D. Gruber (2003).

Los Angeles's Famed Wilshire Boulevard Temple to be Restored

Los Angeles's Famed Wilshire Boulevard Temple to be Restored
by Samuel D. Gruber

The Wilshire Boulevard Temple (the third home of Congregation B’nai B’rith of Los Angeles), is about to undergo a massive multi-million dollar restoration. The project, which will probably cost more the $30 million is part of an ambitious program of the congregation to renew its historic sanctuary and campus, and to build a new facility that will flourish in the 21st century. In doing this, Wilshire is following a new trend in American synagogues – one that we might call back-to-roots, or at least back-to-the-city. After decades of expanding further and further into the suburbs and exurbs, American Reform and Conservative Jews are coming back in large numbers to urban areas. A t the very least, widely dispersed Jewish communities are finding that the historic locations of many synagogues in downtowns and early suburbs, are conveniently located at points central to the largest numbers of their congregants. Wilshire Boulevard already has expanded into in the exurbs, with two active campuses. The new project, for which the congregation is raising $100 million, will re-establish the site of the 1920s sanctuary as the heart and soul of the congregation.

To read more about the restoration plans, see recent stories in The Forward Newspaper, and a lengthy piece in The Los Angeles Times.

I have written at length in my book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community, about the architecture of the building and its place in the inter-war synagogue building boom that seemed to transform American Judaism, until the trend was overcome and overwhelmed by the Great Depression and World War II. Many large synagogue centers of the 1920s never recovered and were forced to close their doors (at least for Jewish use) by the 1950s. Wilshire Boulevard Temple has managed to survive. Its triumphant and sometimes overwhelming sanctuayr inteiror is intact, though decades of LA pollution have dulled and darkened the once brilliant colors of the murals and rich gilding.

The restoration plans follow the successful c. $25 million restoration of the near-contemporary Temple Emanuel in New York, which has been returned that enormous synaoggue to glory. Simple cleaning now makes the richly decorated ceiling visible from belo, and the whole interior The Wilshire work also follows the completion of recent restoration of the Burbank City Hall and the Griffith Obervatory in the LA area, both of which house mural programs by Jewish artist and filmmaker Hugo Ballin (1879-1956), who created the tremendous narrative wall painting program for Wilshire Temple. Ballin was an admired artist who had painted the decorations in the State Capitol building in Madison Wisconsin in 1912, and had moved to Hollywood where he became a prolific and accomplished film artist, designer and silent film director. After the Wilshire Boulevard Temple commission he returned to painting and created the murals in the Griffith Park observatory and the Los Angeles Times Building (1934), and other works. Brenda Levin, the architect overseeing the Wilshire Temple project, is a longtime temple member who also headed the restoration of the Griffith Observatory, the Autry National Center and the Bradbury Building.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple was designed by Abram M. Edelman, S. Tilden Norton (honorary president of the Temple), and David C. Allison. Edelman was the son of the congregation’s first rabbi, and had designed the congregation’s previous building. Norton was a member of the congregation, and had built the first and second homes of Temple Sinai. The new Wilshire Temple (completed in 1929) was the dream of Rabbi Edgar Magnin who over a career of several decades, managed to meld a Jewish identity for Los Angeles that joined pioneers and Hollywood moguls. Magnin came to B’nai B’rith as assistant rabbi in 1915 and from that time on he championed a new synagogue building. It was the involvement of the Hollywood movie makers after World War I, the same time Magnin became senior rabbi (1919), that allowed the building to be erected and decorated. Mostly displaced New Yorkers with marginal religious interest, the Hollywood producers were attracted to the media-savvy Magnin’s image of a popular modern Judaism. Even his use of Ballin to create a representaiton narrative of Jewish history - which the Warner Brothers funded - domonstated his savvy. The mural, which encircles the sanctuary, can be seen as either an updated an illustrated history scroll, or as a unwinding "film" of the Jewish past.

Rabbi Magnin also foresaw the movement of the city, and especially its Jewish population, westward. In this, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple was both typical and precocious in anticipating the increased suburbanization of the American Jewish life. Because the new synagogue “was beyond the car line” it anticipated the soon near-total Los Angeles dependence on the automobile over the street-car, an urban-suburban transformation that would not affect most Jewish communities until after World War II. It remains to be seen if Rabbi Magin’s CEO-style successor Rabbi Steve Leder is as prescient a planner. If he is, then Los Angeles will have (again) a major and spectacular downtown Jewish center.

Lithuania: Pakruojis Wooden Synagogue Continues to Deteriorate. How Much Time is Left?

Lithuania: Pakruojis Wooden Synagogue Continues to Deteriorate. How Much Time is Left?

The former synagogue of Pakruojis, Lithuania, was perhaps the most impressive of that country’s surviving wooden synagogues. What remains of the early 19th century building continues to suffer from neglect and vandalism. Dora Boom of the Netherlands recently informed me that wooden planking from one side of the synagogue was being removed (see photos) – presumably to be reused or burned as firewood. Photos by Ruth Ellen Gruber show the damage in 2006.

I contacted Sergey Kravtsov of the Center for Jewish Art, who has documented the synagogue and prepared a graphic restoration of its former interior design. The “good news” from Sergey is that the wood that has been removed is not original, but was added in 1954, when the synagogue was reconstructed as a cinema. Initially, there was no siding (see photo by Chackelis Lemchenas, 1938). Sergey writes. “there are other severe problems, mainly the danger of fire, since the structure is abandoned, and is being frequently visited by homeless.”

Several projects for the restoration of the synagogue have been floated, but none have been funded. With all the worldwide interest in wooden synagogues, I hope there are donors who might be interested in saving at least this one – probably most important architecturally of those preserved, and one still intact enough to save. But intact for how long? The other wooden synagogues are also in perilous condition. Each Lithuanian winter threatens them with collapse.

Photos of what the interior of Pakruojis looked like before the Holocaust

I thank Dora, Sergey and Ruth for monitoring the condition of this important building, and for supplying photos.

Sergey’s virtual reconstruction of the synagogue can be seen by entering the CJA website at (be patient).

Judaic Auction: Greenstein & Co. Offers Judaica in New York Nov 10, 2008

Judaic Auction: Greenstein & Co. Offers Judaica Auction in New York November 10, 2008
By Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) On Monday, November 10th, J. Greenstein & Co.’s auction house will host an extensive auction devoted to Judaica at New York’s Radisson Martinique Hotel at 5:30pm. The auction features more than 100 ceremonial objects, mostly from Europe, including menorahs, Kiddush cups, silver torah ornaments, spice boxes, paintings and much more. For those unable to attend the auction, pre-sale bidding and phone bidding will be offered. All items are illustrated in small photos in the on-line catalog.

When I see an array of beautiful and rare Judaica objects such as those assembled for this auction, I cannot help but wonder about the provenance of these pieces, and their rich and diverse histories. How many hands have they passed through over the centuries? What Jewish individuals, households, synagogues, cities and societies did they adorn? That this auction should come on the heels of the Kristallnacht anniversary only adds poignancy to this event. Still, that anything of beauty and value survived the wreckage of European Jewish society 70 years ago is miraculous. The remarkable task of re-assembling the beauty and holiness of Jewish history and culture is one of the great achievements of Judaism in our time. And the tradition of Judaica collections is an old one, as the history of collectors donating valuable pieces for public use [I'm thinking, for example, of the case of Alexander David of Braunschweig (1687-1765), as described by Ralf Busch in V. Mann & R. Cohen, eds, From Court Jews to the Rothschilds (Prestel, 1996)]

The auction also features many fine objects from North Africa and the Middle East , as well as Bezalel School pieces and several American Arts and Crafts works.

According to Jonathan Greenstein, who has organized the auction, highlights include an important silver Torah shield made in Brunn in 1814 (est. $30,000-50,000); a rare silver and large silver filigree spice holder from 18th century Lemberg (Est. $22,000 – 30,000) and a magnificent set of three silver Kiddush cups made by J. Rimonim in Fuerth, Germany, c. 1760. Also included is one of the most exceptional silver menorahs to appear at auction in years, the famed 18th century silver Jewish Maker menorah (photo above), featured in Jay Weinstein’s book. Other items include various handmade silver Kiddush cups (starting at $3,500), Sabbath Candlesticks and Candelabras (starting at $3,000), sterling silver menorahs (starting at $3,000), Works featured in the auction date back to the 18th century and have been gathered from various long time collectors in New York, London, Chicago and Belgium.

The selections should excite the large and active community of Judaica collectors and will also attract the attention of the many Jewish museums in America and abroad that have proliferated in recent years – often with buildings more impressive than their collections. With the weak US dollar I suspect that many of these pieces will be repatriated to their countries of origin. Unfortunately, when many of these items are purchased they will disappear from public view for many years. So, this is a chance to see some fine pieces, mostly little known. Fortunately, Greenstein & Co. has published a well illustrated catalogue.

J. Greenstein & Co.,, auction house was founded by Jonathan Greenstein in 2004. The Company’s biannual auctions feature rare Jewish ritual objects, works of art, books and manuscripts. The auction is not limited only to those in attendance; it is open for phone bidding and purchase beforehand. For more information check the website.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sam Gruber to lecture about Synagogue Architecture in America at the Museum at Eldridge Street (Eldridge Street Synagogue) on Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sam Gruber to lecture about Synagogue Architecture in America at the Museum at Eldridge Street (Eldridge Street Synagogue) on Sunday, October 5, 2008

I will be in New York City to speak about Synagogue Architecture in America at the Museum at Eldridge Street (Eldridge Street Synagogue) on Sunday, October 5, 2008. The lectures is part of the NEH-funded series “Academic Angles” created to help the Museum place the story of the Eldridge Street Synagogue and its 20-year restoration into a broader cultural, religious and architectural context. My topic will combine two subjects - synagogue art & architecture and historic preservation. My subtitle is The Choices We Make: The Historic Preservation of American Synagogues. within the confines of a 50-minute lecture, I will describe the major trends of American synagogue architecture from the 18th through the early 20th centuries, comparing those buildings which survive with the historical record of what has been lost. I'll address the issues of how the often selective (and even accidental) nature of historic preservation in America shapes the popular narrative of American Jewish History just as much as history itself determines our decisions about what to save, and how to save it.

Many of these ideas have been refined in the past year as part of a project funded in part by a research grant from the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation in memory of the late Richard Blinder. I am grateful to the foundation for its support.

Regardless of what I will say and how I say it, I encourage you to come if you have not seen the Eldridge Street Synagogue in its restored glory. The lecture will be in the sanctuary. I will also be showing many projected images. Come early to tour the building, which is open all day (Warning: during the lecture a screen will obscure a full view of the opulent Ark wall).

For a full schedule of events of the go the Museum website.

Jamaica: The United Congregation of Israelites (Synagogue “Shaare Shalom”) Jewish Heritage Center in Kingston expands digitalization program.

Jamaica: The United Congregation of Israelites (Synagogue “Shaare Shalom”) Jewish Heritage Center in Kingston Expands Digitalization program.

(ISJM) Ainsley Henriques reports to ISJM that the Jewish Heritage Center at the Uniited Congregation of Israelites has begun digitizing its collection of historic photographs from the Ernest de Souza Collection. The Center’s reference library is also being cataloged. The next task in the Center’s program is be to catalog the Kritzler collection of historic materials, papers, pamphlets, magazines and books. The Center looks forward to a significant increase in school tours to the museum, which has been rated by a visiting Educational expert in religious education to the Ministry of Education as “one of the best that she has ever seen”

ISJM has partnered with the Center on the documentation of the 18th century Jewish cemetery at Hunt's Bay, outside of Kingston.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) Digital Archive Project

Webwatch: Explore the Jewish communities of the Deep South with the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) Digital Archive Project

The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) Digital Archive Project is designed to present a history of every congregation and significant Jewish community in the South. Currently, the Project team, led by Dr. Stuart Rockoff, has completed profiles for almost 100 Jewish communities in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee- and will add other states in the future. The archive has posted on-line a detailed, yet succinct history of each community. For most, there is information and photographic documentation of the synagogues and cemeteries. The History Department also houses a major oral history project that seeks to capture the stories of Southern Jews before they disappear. The ISJL Oral History Archive already houses over 500 interviews. The ISJL is committed to making its oral history collection a nationally recognized resource for scholars and students.

The Digital Archive is designed to be a continual work-in-progress. If you have additional information about any of the communities or congregations, please contact the archive at:

The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) is a private, not-for-profit corporation dedicated to providing educational and rabbinic services to isolated Jewish communities, documenting and preserving the rich history of the Southern Jewish experience, and promoting a Jewish cultural presence throughout a thirteen state region. The Institute began as the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in 1986. The Museum, now a subsidiary of the ISJL, helps to define southern Jewish culture through traveling and permanent exhibits, and in recent years, the Institute has dramatically expanded cultural offerings in both small towns and big cities throughout the South.

Friday, September 19, 2008

New Book by Rudolf Klein on Dohany Synagogue in Budapest

New Book by Rudolf Klein on Dohany Synagogue in Budapest
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) I have received a copy of recently published The Great Synagogue of Budapest by architectural historian Rudolf Klein (Budapest: TERC, ISBN 978 963 9535 82 4). To my knowledge, this is the first monograph about the Dohany Street Synagogue, Europe's largest active synagogue building. Klein presents the Dohany, designed by Ludwig von Forster, as an exciting building in its style and technology, not just as an architectural dinosaur famous for its size and nothing else. His excellent photos support his claims.

Much of the book is a social or cultural history of the sophisticated but competitive Jewish world of 19th century Austria-Hungary. The commissioning, planning and presenting of the Dohany Street Synagogue was a grand cultural gesture (much more than a religious one) by Budapest's Jews in their uneasy relationship with Vienna. In this climate, and in the 19th-century world of arhcitecture andd the decorative arts, Klein explores the role and meaning of the Dohany's applied decoration of exotic orientalism. He sees the Dohany as the forerunner to the innovative and offbeat Hungarian architecture of the earler 20th century practitioners of Sezession and Jugundstil design, culminating in the work of Bela Lajta. Anyone interested in 19th century and Hungarian synagogues will want to read this book.

Knowing Rudi Klein, and having enjoyed lively discussions with him about the restoration of historic synagogues, I wish he had also included a final chapter or two on the meaning of the Dohany Synagogue in Budapest today for Jews - and non-Jews - and also something about the process - political, economic, practical and aesthetic about the restoration of the great building. The Dohany today is one of Europe's "flagship" synagogues because of it size, elegance, continued use, and because of the attention lavished on its refurbishment. That is a story the remains to be told.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Europe: World Monuments Fund Announces Jewish Heritage Grants

Europe: World Monuments Fund Announces Jewish Heritage Grants

The New York-based World Monuments Fund has announced four grants totaling $235,000 to European Jewish preservation projects as part of its Jewish Heritage Grant Program. Funds will be allocated to on-going projects at three historic synagogues and for conservation planning for the former Volozhin Yeshiva Building in Belarus.

The projects include the important 17th-century synagogue in Zamosc, Poland that in recent decades served as a municipal library, but is now restituted to the Jewish Community of Warsaw which is overseeing a needed conservation and repair program; the Jugenstil synagogue of Subotica, Serbia, which has been a focus of WMF concern for more than a decade; and the 1903 Choral Synagogue of Vilnius, Lithuania, the only surviving intact synagogue in the city, and now the focal point of it religious life.

I'll be posting more about all of these projects in the future.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Unknown Michael Fingesten: Paintings, Prints and Ex Libris from the Ernst Deeken Collection

Publications: The Unknown Michael Fingesten: Paintings, Prints and Ex Libris from the Ernst Deeken Collection by Arno Parik

Jewish Museum of Prague, 2008 (ISBN 978-80-86889-71-9)

(ISJM) The Jewish Museum of Prague has published a catalog in conjunction with the exhibition of work of Michel Fingesten (1884–1943), which recently closed after several months at the Robert Guttmann Gallery. Fingesten was one of the best known graphic artists in pre-war Berlin, but until this exhibition and catalog, has been almost forgotten. He was born in Northern Moravia, began his art studies in Vienna in 1900, and then left for America where he traveled and made a living by drawing illustrations for newspapers. Fingesten returned to Europe in 1907 and studied with Franz Stuck in Munich. He then went to Asia, where he spent four years. In 1911 he was briefly in Paris, and later settled in Berlin, where achieved success. The Nazi’s labeled his work ‘degenerate art’ in 1933, and Fingesten left the country, moving to Milan, from where he was sent to the Civitella del Tronto internment camp in 1940, and was later interned in Ferramonti di Tarsia. Fingesten died of an infection in Cosenza on the 8th of October 1943, a few days after it was liberated by the British Army.

Exhibition curator Arno Pařík wrote the 36 page catalog, which features 100 color illustrations. The catalog, in Czech and English, can be ordered from the Museum website.

UK: New Czech Scrolls Museum To Open in London, September 17th, 2008

UK: New Czech Scrolls Museum To Open in London, September 17th, 2008

The Memorial Scrolls Trust has entirely redesigned and reinstalled is facilities at Kent House in London to create a new Czech Scroll Museum, to open to the public with a reception on the evening of September 17th. The previous exhibition has been in place since 1988. I have written about the story of the scrolls before but it is a story that merits retelling.

In 1964, 1,564 Torah Scrolls arrived at Kent House in London, the home of London's Westminster Synagogue. After intense negotiations, they were brought from a dilapidated synagogue in Prague where they had moldered since they were collected from the Jewish congregations of Moravia and Bohemia at the time of their destruction. In London, during the next four decades, in a suite of rooms above the synagogue at Kent House, many of the scrolls were restored for synagogue service while others made suitable for use a memorials. Almost all the scrolls have sent out to communities across the world, where their use and exhibition is a constant reminder of the Holocaust.

The existence of the Torah scrolls is a constant reminder of the murder of Czech Jews and the destruction of Czech Jewish communities and synagogues in the Holocaust. The survival of the Torah scrolls and their rescue and repair and subsequent distribution to Jewish communities throughout the world, is in its simplest terms, testimony to the resilience of Judaism and the Jewish people. The new museum, which is the product of the energy and commitment of Evelyn Friedlander, Chair and Curator of the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust, and German designer Fritz Armbruster, tells these stories, and more. The Jewish Museum in Prague has provided support, information and contributed exhibition objects on loan.

In addition to commemorating those tens of thousands of Czech Jews killed in the Holocaust, Evelyn Friedlander writers in the Trust’s newsletter that “The Museum is also a memorial to two groups of people; the Jews of the Prague Jewish community who worked at the Central Jewish Museum and who proposed the plan that enabled so many ritual objects to be saved. The second group to be honored in our new exhibition is those founder members of Westminster Synagogue, who, under the leadership of Rabbi Harold Reinhart, enabled these Scrolls to be brought to London. Here, they were returned to life and distributed to communities all over the world.”
The new museum shows the various stages of the story of the rescue of the Scrolls, from the tragedy of the Czech Jewish community under the Nazis, to the arrival of the Scrolls in London, the subsequent work done by professional scribes, the sending out of the scrolls to their new Jewish (and non-Jewish homes) and the present-day research undertaken by those recipients to explore the background of their Scroll.

Among the exhibits are the remaining scrolls lying on the original wooden racks where they were placed when they arrived, and an display of some of the Torah binders which were tied around the scrolls. The exhibition also show’s the scribe’s table where he worked meticulously upon the scrolls, together with his ink, pens and other equipment.

The Museum will open on 17th September and thereafter will be open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am to 4 pm.? Groups are asked to contact the Trust to arrange party visits.

Address: Westminster Synagogue, Rutland Gardens, Knightsbridge, London SW7 1BX

Tel: 020 7584 3741 , e-mail:

Poland: Brzeziny Jewish Cemetery Monument Defaced

Poland: Brzeziny Jewish Cemetery Monument Defaced (Again)

(ISJM) The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage reported on September 8, 2008 that the Holocaust monument at the Jewish cemetery in Brzeziny (Lodzkie province) has been vandalized (again). Anti-Semitic graffiti was painted on the memorial tablet.

According to the report from the Foundation:

"The Jewish cemetery in Brzeziny, located at current Reymonta St., was established probably in 16th century and was in use until the Nazi devastation during the Holocaust. During communist regime in Poland a sand mine was built on the cemetery grounds. Witnesses report that sand mixed with human bones was used to make prefabricates destined to be used in constructing large condominiums. Many tombstones were stolen and used for construction works, among others, to reinforce the fishing ponds. In 1992, on the initiative of the descendants of the Jews from Brzeziny, the cemetery grounds were fenced."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Conference of Poles Who Preserve Jewish Heritage, September 15-16, 2008

photo: Jan Jagielski in Warsaw Jewish Cemetery
photo: Samuel D. Gruber 1993

Conference of Poles Who Preserve Jewish Heritage, September 15-16, 2008

by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) The first national conference of (non-Jewish) Poles who care for Jewish heritage sites in Poland is scheduled for next week (Sept. 15-16) in the town of Zdunska Wola, near Lodz in central Poland. The government-supported conference is the brain-child of local activist Kamila Klauzinska, graduate student in Jewish studies at Krakow's Jagiellonian University, one of many non-Jewish Poles who volunteer to protect and preserve Jewish heritage in Poland. To read more and to see the schedule go to Ruth Ellen Gruber’s Jewish-Heritage-Travel blog. Ruth has been covering many of these efforts as a journalist and travel writer for more than 20 years.

This conference is a welcome development and similar events are being encouraged in other countries where Jews are often “caretaker” communities, and cannot provide alone the protection and maintenance that so many of the Jewish sites for which they are responsible require. Only with the help of local people can this be done, and locals are most often willing to help when the better understand the sanctity of sites, and their history and cultural significance. I am pleased to see that Jan Jagielski of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw will be addressing the conference. Long before the fall of Communism, Jan and a small group of colleagues began to document forgotten Jewish sites, and to encourage and train local people in their care.

No one knows more about the location and condition of Jewish sites in Poland, especially cemeteries, than Jan. I had the privilege of collaborating with Jan and Eleonora Bergman (now director of the Institute) in the early 1990s as we prepared the first comprehensive inventory of Jewish cemeteries in Poland.

That work, which was a project of the Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund on behalf of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, was in a small way the foundation on which almost all subsequent planning, preservation and legal actions were built. Lena and Jan directed that survey which included sites visits to close 1200 sites over forty participants.

Today, Lena, Jan and many of those first survey field workers still lead the way in the care of Poland’s Jewish heritage. Others, like Adam Penkalla of Radom have sadly passed away. Fortunately, however, a new general of younger volunteers and trained professionals has come forward, inspired by the work of the "pioneers." As the documentary and conservation work of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland demonstrates, much has been accomplished in Poland. Much, of course, remains to be done.

We must remember, too, that volunteerism is only one part of what is required to protect and preserve Jewish heritage sites in Poland and elsewhere. There must be government recognition and support of these activites, and they must be fully integrated into broader cultural heritage, education and economic development policies. Lastly, more Jewish communities must be educated and empowered to participate more fully in this role. Sometimes small communities are too overwhelmed with the needs of the present to look back at the remains from the past. Sometimes Jewish leadership is scared (often with good reason) to take on local vested interests of government and business to insist on return of religious and cultural heritage sites. In the 1990s Central and Eastern European governments had incentives - EU and NATO membership among them - to cooperate in this effort. Now, with other global problems looming, it is difficult to gain (often new) governments' interest and commitment.

ISJM applauds the efforts of the volunteers of Poland and encourages others to learn from their example.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

First Congress of Jewish Art in Poland: Jewish Artists and Central-Eastern Europe, 19TH Century to WWII

Conferences: First Congress of Jewish Art in Poland: Jewish Artists and Central-Eastern Europe, 19TH Century to WWII (Kazimierz on the Vistula River (Poland), 27-29 October 2008).

The First Congress of Jewish Art in Poland, organized by the Polish
Society of Oriental Art - Section of Jewish and Israeli Art on the
occasion of the 100th anniversary of the conference in Czernowiz
(Cernivci), will be devoted to Jewish artists (painters, sculptors,
graphic artists, architects) who from the period of the Haskalah until
WWII created art centers in Central-Eastern Europe or were connected
with these centers, active in Western Europe, Russia, America and the
Palestine. The schedule of speakers has not yet been posted, but a
preliminary program lists prominent scholars and activists from many
countries. For more information see:

This is a mega-conference with dozens of speakers from Poland and around the world. I will be there, speaking about the influence of Polish synagogue architecture on American synagogues in the the 19th and 20th centuries.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Exhibition: Looting and Restitution: Jewish-Owned Cultural Artifacts from 1933 to the Present at the Jewish Museum Berlin

Exhibition: Looting and Restitution: Jewish-Owned Cultural Artifacts from 1933 to the Present at the Jewish Museum Berlin

(ISJM) Sixty years after the end of the war, looting and restitution of Jewish cultural artifacts remains a topic of intense interest and relevance. The Jewish Museum Berlin will open an exhibition later the month that addresses numerous open questions and unsolved cases. The exhibition Looting and Restitution. Jewish-Owned Cultural Artifacts from 1933 to the Present narrates the historical events, context, and consequences of the looting carried out by the Nazis throughout Europe.

According to the Museum, "the exhibition tracks what happened to individual cultural artifacts confiscated by the Nazis - from paintings and libraries through porcelain to silverware and private photos - and the fates of their rightful Jewish owners. Alongside well-known names such as the Rothschild family or the art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, long-forgotten collections such as Sigmund Nauheim's Judaica collection and the pianist Wanda Landowska's collection of historical musical instruments will also be shown. The exhibition also looks at those who profited from and played an active role in the looting. It highlights Nazi organizations such as "Sonderauftrag Linz" and "Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg" and the disreputable role played by museums, libraries, and art dealers. Not least, the exhibition looks at the shortfalls and inadequacies of the politics of restitution following the war, and the claims that were not settled at the time which shape the current debate."

Exhibition previews begin 18 September 2008

For more information:

Bosnia: Former Synagogue in Travnik (1860) Demolished

Bosnia: Former Synagogue in Travnik (1860) Demolished
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Ruth Ellen Gruber has reported on her blog the destruction of the building that formerly housed the synagogue of Travnik, Bosnia. Reports are that a shopping center will be built on the site. Built in 1860, the synagogue has been used as a metal workshop since after World War II. No recognizable signs of its earlier use as a synagogue were visible, The building had not served Jewish use since 1941, and there was no obvious indication of its original function. Neither the local government nor the Jewish Community of Bosnia has a use for the building. A Photograph shows the 1860 synagogue.

According to Ruth Gruber, calls were made to halt the demolition. A citizens' group called "Front" asked Bosnian authorities to step in. A brief report by Bosnia's FENA news agency quotes a member of the Sarajevo Jewish community, Eli Tauber, as saying that the Community can do nothing to stop the process as the building had been sold off after World War II.

Ivan Ceresnjes of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem, provided the following background report about the history and fate of the synagogue building and other aspects of the material culture of the Jewish community of Travnik:

"A Jewish community has existed in Travnik, Muslim Croat Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, since 1768, and the first synagogue was built in 1769. During the period of the Ottoman Empire, Travnik was the seat of the Pasha, making Travnik the most important city in the Ottoman province of Bosnia and its Jewish community the second in importance, after Sarajevo. The number of Jews increased constantly, and reached a peak in 1940 of 375 Jews. After WWII only a few Jewish families resettled in Travnik and the recent war delivered the final deathblow to the Jewish community.

I was not able to enter the [surviving] synagogue, built in 1860 on the foundations of the previous synagogue and therefore the building is only partially documented. The communal chronicles say that the synagogue was built entirely by voluntary work of members of the community between Pesach and Rosh Hashana.

Travnik is in a way strange City when Jews are in question: during the WW II Jews were killed, synagogue was damaged (but not destroyed) and all ritual objects were taken by the local Croatian and Moslem Nazi-collaborators to the nearby Jesuit monastery. After the war only a handful of survivors returned, and since the synagogue was not suitable for prayers Jesuits returned everything to the Jewish community in Sarajevo.

In the spring of 1941, local fascists partially burned and looted the building, took the ritual objects (Torah scrolls, silver items from synagogue, books, tefillim, tallitot) from the synagogue and gave them to the local Jesuits. After the war, the Jesuits returned the Torah and ritual objects to the Jewish community in Sarajevo which in turn donated part of the collection to the Jewish museum in Belgrade.

The synagogue was stripped of everything that would indicate its former use. The hall has been divided horizontally on the level of the former women's gallery, whose entrance was from the outside. Behind the synagogue is a building which housed a Jewish school and the Rabbi's apartment.

So, truth is that the building has been sold by the Federation in early '50, (there were good reasons for that and I can elaborate on that), used for some time as a kind of metal workshop and was abandoned before the last war so the Jewish Community had no legal rights on the building but the truth is also that Municipality of Travnik and local City Museum asked more than once if Jews are interested to find together with them some solution for the survival of the only Jewish prayer-house in the city for any kind of cultural use.

In the City Museum are four recently discovered silver artifacts, thought to be from the house of one of the oldest Jewish families of Travnik. Researchers documented two silver Esther Scroll cases, a silver book cover belonging to the family of Yaacov Yeruham Konforti, and a silver belt. The cache was found while digging the foundations of a new house in 1989. It was presumably hidden and buried at the site of Konforti's house.

One of the Esther Scrolls is engraved with Konforti's name and the date 5650 (1890). There is also an engraved floral decoration and a hallmark indicating that this was made by the same artisan who made the prayer book cover.

The second Esther Scroll is silver, machine stamped and chased. A cartouche decorating the scroll has a decorative monogram with the letters JK, probably Jacob or Jeruham Konforti.

The silver book cover is engraved with an open work interlaced foliage motif. On the front cover there is an oval medallion inscribed with the family name and the date 5650. The back cover is identical to the front including the oval, but without the inscription. Both the engraving and the cutting for the open work are done by machine.

The fourth item that was found in the cache is a silver belt made with a floral motif.

The Jewish cemetery in Travnik, founded in 1762, is outside of the town on the slope of one of the surrounding hills, bordering the Catholic cemetery. It is large, quite overgrown with vegetation, but in decent condition. In the center of the plot is a monument to those who perished in WWII. It is a concrete pedestal on which are positioned three tombstones, possibly among the oldest ones from the cemetery."

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Romania: Discussions Begin to Save Synagogue in Gherla

Romania: Discussions Begin to Save Synagogue in Gherla
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) The almost century-old synagogue in Gherla (built 1911?), Romania is empty and at great risk. Discussions have begun, however, between descendants of Jews from Gherla, local authorities, and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania (FedRom) to preserve the synagogue, possibly as a town library. As there is only one Jew left in Gherla, some new use needs to found for the building if it is to escape eventual collapse or demolition. The nearest active Jewish community is in Dej.

According to Washington, DC, resident Mike Klein, there is a loosely organized group of about 40 families that originated from Gherla who now live in Israel, USA, Canada and Australia and are coordinating an effort to save the building. The best hope for the former synagogue is that it be transformed into a municipal library. Gherla needs a local library and the impressive synagogue, if properly modified, could provide adequate space, as well as meeting, conference and exhibition space. At the urging of Mr. Klein and his group, municipal authorities have begun discussion with FedRom, which owns the building. The two sides seem to agree in principal about a transfer of the building based on a formula previously employed by FedRom for other redundant but architectural distinctive synagogues.

As in all such cases, initial success will depend money. Neither the municipality nor FedRom claim to have the minimum of $US 200,000 needed to conserve and adapt the building. Until a plan for preservation and adaptive reuse is prepared, the exact work needed (and costs) will be unknown. As I recently wrote, there have been some other projects in Romania where synagogues have been put to different use where synagogues have been put to different use. If you would like to learn more about this project, or to assist in conception and funding, please contact ISJM (

Any adaptive reuse at Gherla should also include a memorial to the Holocaust victims from the city. 1,600 people were sent to Auschwitz from the Gherla ghetto and most did not return. In the words of Mr. Klein, “All four of my grandparents, many aunts, uncles and cousins were sent to the gas chambers from here. I think that we have a duty to preserve the place where they prayed. When I visited the city with my sons they were very impressed to see the synagogue where both myself and my father had our Bar-Mitzvah ceremonies. I hope that I will be able to take my grand-children and they can take their grand children to our place of origin.”

Gherla itself is an interesting place. It appears to be the first city in Romania built based on an orthogonal grid-plan when Gherla was rebuilt by Armenians allowed to settle there in the 17th century. Jews were given rights to settle in the early part of the 19th century. By the early 20th century when the present building was erected, Jews represented about 12-15% of the city population. The street where the synagogue is located is part of a historical heritage district, but according to Mr. Klein the synagogue itself has not been designated a historic site.

Ibram Lassaw (1913-2003) Sculpture and Drawings on View in Matera, Italy until October 18th

Not Jewish Art, but a Major Jewish Artist: Retrospective Exhibition of Ibram Lassaw (1913-2003) Sculpture and Drawings on View in Matera, Italy until October 18th
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) One of the major retrospective exhibitions of an American and Jewish artist this year has gone virtually unnoticed in the US press. But in Italy, where the major exhibition of sculptor Ibram Lassaw’s work has been dramatically mounted in the Sassi (caves & cliffs) of the southern Italian town of Matera, Lassaw’s work has received extensive coverage, with over 80 newspapers articles heralding his work.

"The Great Exhibition in the Sassi" 2008 opened June 14, 2008 and will be on view until October 18 2008. The exhibition features approximately 80 sculptures and 50 drawings made from 1929 to 1996, loaned from the Ibram Lassaw Foundation in East Hampton, NY and from private American collections and museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art; Heckscher Museum of Art - Huntington; Guild Hall Museum - East Hampton; New Jersey State Museum - Trenton; Neuberger Museum- Purchase and from the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. The exhibition is co-curators Giuseppe Appella and Ellen Russotto, illustrate in depth Lassaw's artistic life.

Lassaw was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1913. He moved to New York in 1921 and died in East Hampton in 2003. He began to make abstract sculpture in the 1930s, and over the new two decades he strove to create a formal balance between geometric and organic form. He was one of the most important American artists of the "New York School". His can also currently be seen in the exhibition Action / Abstraction at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Lassaw also was part of the first generation of abstract artists who made work for synagogues. One his greatest works was the sculpture designed for the bimah and Ark wall at Port Chester’s Congregation Knesseth Tifereth Israel designed by Philip Johnson. The work was recently removed from the synagogue in a redesign and is now part of the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum, New York (for more on this work and its context see my book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community (Rizzoli, 2003). An Eternal Light from the synagogue appeared like a metallic sunburst. Atypically, it hung off center, to the left of the Ark. A large screen of welded copper, bronze and aluminum wire formed a backdrop to the bimah and Ark. The intricate wire pattern appears as graffiti-like drawing against a white painted backing. This work, entitled “Creation” measures 12 by 34 feet and projects one foot out from the wall plane. Lassaw, in a letter of 1986, described the work this way; “I think of it as a symphony structured in space rather than sound. It is an offering in praise and wonder of the living universe, without intending to portray the universe. One might say it is inspired by the starry fields, the galaxies and galactic clusters of which we are a part. These are not symbols but only what is there before you.” As I wrote in 2003, “One can view Lassaw’s ethereal ordered disorder as an antidote to the inspired, but still stolid geometry of Johnson’s modernism, or one can view it as the chaos of creation out of which God created the order of man’s thought and action, described by the laws and traditions of Judaism, and embodied in the purpose and form of this synagogue.”

Lassaw also created synagogue art for Temple Beth El in Springfield, Massachusetts designed by Percival Goodman. There his menorah and eternal light were much less assertive. They were essentially wire sculptures made of welded metal rods, similar to some of the pieces on view in Matera. They are transparent and appear to float in a sanctuary that is warmer and more engaging than the Congegration Kneses Tifereth Israel.

I asked Lassaw’s daughter Denise how her father’s work came to be in Matera, and why now? She told me that Lassaw was in a group exhibition Sculptura in America installed in Matera in 1990 by the Museo della Scultura Contemporanea Matera (MUSMA), which opened that same year in the Sassi, the extensive cliffs of cave dwelling (natural and man made) in which residents of Matera have lived for millennia. The museum is in two places in the Sassi: a dedicated museum that is part cave and part building; and lower down the gorge, a series of interconnected Sassi, old churches with frescoes and Neolithic storage pits; that all open to the gorge and the river below, amid the tangle of small bushes and trees, goats with bells. The Lassaw exhibition is in both places.

MUSMA is dedicated to sculpture and alternates between featuring an American or an Italian work each year. It was founded by men who grew up in Matera and played in the caves (Sassi) as kids. When in 1990 MUSMA flew all the sculptors and their families to Matera for the show, Ibram fell in love with the Sassi and loved the way his work looked in the caves. Denise feels her father would have been very pleased with the installation. She says, “These Italians really know how to do things nicely!”

For those who do not know Matera, its unique mix of landscape and architecture create one of the most unworldly and evocative environments in Europe. Though in antiquity and the Early Middle Ages there were hundreds of Jewish communities scattered across Southern Italy (remains can be seen not far form Matera in Venosa and Trani), there are no Jewish monuments known in Matera . But because to many, the landscape evokes ancient Judea, the Sassi have been a backdrop for many Biblical films ranging from Pasolini’s Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964) to Bruce Beresford’s visually stunning King David starring Richard Gere (1985). In the post-World War II period “optimistic modernism” the Sassi were deemed unhealthy slums, and beginning in the 1950s the Italian government began a program of forced relocation of Sassi residents. The museum is part of more recent program and to reclaim and preserve the Sassi, and today, they are a major part of the tourist and artisan economy of the region.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Historian Lee Shai Weissbach to Speak in Chicago About Small Town Jewish Communities

Historian Lee Shai Weissbach will Speak in Chicago About Small Town Jewish Communities

Professor Lee Shai Weissbach of the University of Louisville (Kentucky) will speak on September 21, 2008 about small town Jewish communities in a lecture at the Spertus Institute in Chicago. Dr. Weissbach is author of Jewish Life in Small Town America (Yale University Press, 2005). He also wrote the excellent (but poorly titled) The Synagogues of Kentucky (University Press of Kentucky, 1995). I say "poorly titled"since the book is about so much more - it presents the history of American synagogue architecture in the context of community building - illustrated with a detailed cataloging of the synagogues in one relatively small state. It's one of my favorite "unknown" books to pass on to others.

His more recent book addresses some of the same issues, but from a national perspective. It is a required antidote for those whose ideas about American Jewish history have been shaped by reading only Irving Howe's The World of Our Fathers. Weissbach writes that by the 1920s, at there were around 500 small U.S. cities and towns with Jewish populations of 100 to 1,000, and that the history of these communities is an important component of the American Jewish experience. These communities were not miniature versions of big city Jewish life. They offered an alternative version and vision of Jewish America in part drawn from small town Jewish life in Central Europe, and in part based on American traditions of individuality, entrepreneurship and social responsibility.

Tickets are $20 | $15 for Spertus members | $10 for students Call 312.322.1773.

The lecture is at 2 pm. There will be a book signing following Dr. Weissbach's lecture.

Association of European Jewish Museums 2008 Annual Conference scheduled for 22 to 25 November in Amsterdam

Association of European Jewish Museums (AEJM) 2008 Annual Conference
22 to 25 November in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The Association of European Jewish Museums (AEJM) has announced its 2008 Annual Conference to be held 22-25 November in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The conference, which is the first and best opportunity for European Jewish museum professionals to gather to discuss issues and projects of mutual concern, is open to members of AEJM and invited guests.

This year's conference is hosted by the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, which will present its completed program of expansion and redesign, including the restoration of the former Ashkenazi Great Synagogue and the re-installation of the exhibition within its space.
Other themes to be addressed at the conference workshops are:

  1. Collection Management issues: Database / Digitization.
  2. Education / Children’s Programs.
  3. Object identification: case-study Mediene (provincial Jewry) Project.

To learn more about the AEJM and AEJM membership go to their website. AEJM welcomes representatives of Jewish Museums and Judaica collections from throughout Europe. Representatives from other museums and related institutions are also welcome to participate on a limited basis. To find out more about the conference program and eligibility to attend and participate, contact Sara Tas at

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

European Day of Jewish Culture

European Day of Jewish Culture, Sunday September 7th, 2008

This coming Sunday, September 7, is the 9th edition of the European Day of Jewish Culture. This year the theme is Music, "inviting the public to discover the place of song and music in Judaism, as well as the cultural diversity characteristic of Jewish music, or the Jewish contribution to the world of music." In the United Kingdom the event is called "European Days of Jewish Culture and Heritage", because events and activities are scheduled over a period of three weeks.

As I wrote in an earlier posting: "The day is a celebration of Jewish heritage sites and culture across Europe and is now observed in 30 countries. Developed following a program in Alsace that arranged for dozens of usually inaccessible synagogues, former synagogues and cemeteries to be open to the public, the Day of Jewish Culture now includes almost every conceivable type of cultural event including lectures, concerts, tours, and seminars. But access to Jewish sties for a wide (and mostly local public) and instruction about them remains at the heart of the celebration."

Ruth Ellen Gruber writes in this month's Hadassah Magazine (go to current issue) an introduction to and reflection upon The European Day of Jewish Culture

Ckick here to see the schedules of events in different countries. When you arrive at the page click the different countries on the map, or click here for each of the 19 countries whic has posted its schedule on-line: