Monday, November 30, 2009

Belarus: Israeli Ambassador Urges Government to Assist in Restoration of Synagogues

Grodno (Hrodna), Belarus. Great Synagogue (1902-05). Photos: Wikipedia Commons

Belarus: Israeli Ambassador Urges Government to Assist in Restoration of Synagogues

(ISJM) Belarus News reported on November 11, 2009 that the Israeli ambassador to Belarus has urged the government to restore synagogues amid a “disastrous” shortage of prayer houses for Jewish communities in the country.

According to the article:

The Belarusian government should pay attention to deteriorating synagogues, which were built with contributions by the faithful, Ambassador Edward (Eddie) Shapira said at an international conference in Minsk.

“I do understand that there is no restitution law in the country, but there is a wave of religious revival and the state does not only return churches that once belonged to Orthodox Christian communities but also helps renovate them,” the ambassador said.

Mr. Shapira expressed concern about the condition of the “unique” three-story synagogue in Hrodna [Grodno]. Many tourists, including Jews, visit the city, but it is impossible to invite them to the synagogue hit by “devastation,” he said.

The ambassador also voiced alarm over what he called the unwillingness of law-enforcers to probe attempts to incite national hate “even when they are visible by the naked eye.”

He said that a swastika and an anti-Semitic text were sprayed on the building of the Jewish community in Slutsk, Minsk region, earlier this year, condemning the act as a vivid example of racism.

The ambassador called on the authorities to draw up regulations that would prevent immoderate construction work at old Jewish cemeteries and the sites of the WWII mass execution of Jews, and ensure that human remains discovered at such sites be reburied with proper rituals.

You can view this article online at

Copyright © 1999 - 2008 - All rights reserved.

Of course, the ambassador's plea raises a host of sticky political and moral questions about government involvement in religion. On the one hand, Jewish and other groups are usually eager to see government support for synagogues and other Jewish religious and communal institutions - and such is a normal throughout much of Europe where the tradition of separation of church and state are not ingrained as part of the social and political cultures. On the other hand, these same groups fret about undo influence by government upon their activities, and on other forms of freedom of expression. How should be strike a balance?

On way, of course, is to look at the buildings that need to be restored. In Europe (but less so in America) governments are regularly involved in the protection, preservation and promotion of the historic buildings and other resources. When synagogues and other Jewish historic and architecturally significant buildings fall into this category, help should be provided to promote culture and history. I would never - however - support the government construction of synagogues (or churches or mosques for that matter). But in fact, in Belarus, as the ambassador points out the government does assist in the promotion of the Orthodox (Christian) church. But I would plea for the protection of historic synagogues based on their past - not on their future use. That issue is for Jews to decide (and to fund).

The Grodno synagogue is one of the most impressive in Belarus, and is situated in a major urban area. Just as the City of Warsaw has funded recent restoration of the Nosyk Synagogue, and the Hungarian government funded most of the expensive restoration of the Dohany Synagogue in Budapest, so too, can public funds assist in Grodno - which was returned to the Jewish Community of that city in 1991. The synagogue, however, was the site of intense communal rivalries in the years after its restitution. Disagreements over who would control the site and who would define the Jewish religious identity of Grodno were also factors that deterred international donors from embracing the project - as exactly the time when international attention was turning to places like Warsaw, Prague and Budapest. The Grodno Synagogue is now the Center of the city's Chabad movement, which is organizing its restoration. Today, Belarus is home to three main Jewish religious groups - the tradition Orthodox, the Chabad-Lubavich Orthodox, and a congregation of Progressive Jews. This confuses all requests for government support. Chabad has been more active (and successful) - especially in nearby Russia - in looking to government for recognition and active support. In neighboring Ukraine, which also lacks a restitution law, Chabad has also been the most organized and effective nationwide Jewish network - but there Chabad has mostly relied on private donors and the activism of local rabbis.

The lack of a proper restitution law in Belarus makes any general demand on the government for care of synagogues problematic. It would be better to fix the system and create a proper mechanism for the return and support of properties, than to bungle by on an ad hoc and reactive basis, and to beg for government largess. The problem in Belarus (and in other countries, too) is that governments are willing to "give back" older ruined and non-productive properties to Jewish communities, but they are reluctant - and even obdurate - to return useful income-producing properties. Thus, Jewish communities are after saddled with expensive historic properties, but no financial resource - and little or no government assistance - to maintain and restore them. This is like asking someone to make soup and giving them the ingredients, but no pot or fire.

What needs to be done is the proper and legal return of historic properties with the recognition that these properties are derelict due to more than a half century of neglect and or misuse by state or other non-Jewish users (appropriators). It is not enough to return a property, but the means also have to be attached to the property to make it whole again.

If an apple is stolen from a grocer, it does the grocer no good if only the apple core is returned.

I know that this is an expensive proposition - and its get more expensive all the time. But this is the system that we must lobby for. It is the only practical - and moral - solution. Governments add injury to insult when they return a ruined (historically designated) property to a Jewish community, and then within a short time threaten to penalize the community for not having maintained or restored the building - this after the government (or some predecessor government) neglecting the structure for decades. It is also wrong for governments to assume that just because a community will not or cannot maintain a property now, that it is forfeiting all claim on the building for all time. If such a scenario were carried out to its logical conclusion, than many governments themselves would find that they must forfeit many of their own buildings - since they are not maintained.

In places like Belarus is essential that a complete list of sites be compiled (this has already been done to a large degree), and that the conditions of the building, and its restoration needs be itemized, and that these be compared to potential uses for the building. This list then needs to be prioritized, and a small selection of sites be chosen for annual repair and restoration - sometimes by the Jewish community, sometimes by the government, sometimes by private entities - but mostly in the form of creative financing, use and lease or ownership arrangements involving all these parties. This can be done in many ways as examples from the Czech Republic and Poland demonstrate.

I will write more about the unusual architecture of the Grodno Synagogue in a future post.

USA: Exhibition by New Haven's Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project

USA: Exhibition by New Haven's Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project

Last week I wrote about the 1925 Orthodox Beth Israel synagogue in New Haven, Connecticut, popularly known as the Orchard Street Shul. I mentioned the upcoming exhibition at the John slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art in New Haven organized by the artists' group known as the Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project. The exhibition opens next week and continues through January, with a rich program of associated events.

The Public is Invited to the Opening Reception for the Participating Artists, on Sunday, December 6, from 12:00 Noon to 5:00 pm. To set the mood for the launch of “The Orchard Street Shul Artists Cultural Heritage Project”, the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale for Jewish Life at Yale will host a Jazz jam session on December 5 at 7:30, celebrating the swing dance music of 1924 and beyond, when the cornerstone of this Synagogue was put in place in a ceremony attended by Mayor Fitzgerald and much of the entire New Haven community.

The John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art is open W-F, 11:00 am to 4:00 pm, and weekends 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Schools and other organizations who would like to arrange a group visit outside of regular hours may do so by sending an email to:

Below is more information about the synagogue, the project and the exhibition provided to ISJM by Cynthia Rubin, one of the Project and exhibition organizers. Cynthia explained to me that the Project overall was inspired by the many instances of contemporary art installed within or inspired by historic synagogues in Europe. In the case of the Orchard Street Shul, the group wanted to draw attention to the historic, architecture and preservation needs of the congregation while still respecting the fact the building remains as dedicated house of worship. Thus, the exhibition is being help elsewhere (also to save on the winter heating bills for the near-destitute congregation) , and certain parameters were placed on the art created for the event. The art pieces must be somehow relevant to the specific location, history, art and architecture of the Orchard Street Shul and its location, and it must be respectful of the congregation.

"Respect" of course is a subjective I have previously written in my accounts of archaeology of cemeteries in Spain and in other contexts. Still, I believe that for art as for all types of public discourse and behavior, context is everything. When context is understood, than respect should be a natural result - and when it is not, it is usually the result of deliberate and often provocative disrespect. In art, there is often a place - and an important place - for intentional disrespect and shock value. In community building (and that is what is part of the goal in New Haven) the same disrespect and shock can be counter productive.

My preliminary review of the art in this exhibition - through photos and description only- shows that much of its interesting, much is innovative and clever. I appreciate the organizers' decision to encourage thought, but not to shock.

Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project

During the months of December 2009 and January 2010, The John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art in New Haven, Connecticut will come alive with memories, recollections, and recreations of an important community heritage site, in an innovative group installation designed to both stimulate reflection on the legacies of past generations and engage the public in dreams for the future.

The Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project is an art exhibition, a history lesson, a point of cultural exchange, and meeting place for dreamers, both nostalgic and visionary. Artists, researchers, and scholars have joined together to celebrate an important historic New Haven landmark which was once central to the life of a large Jewish immigrant population in the Oak Street neighborhood.

Urban changes in the last 50 years have all but erased evidence illustrating the importance of the Oak Street neighborhood in the lives of the newly arrived immigrants and migrants who populated much of the area now known as the "Oak Street Connector", Route 34. Where some see open space, or a new hospital, or a school, or a parking lot, others with longer memories see shops bustling with activity, voices shouting in Yiddish and Italian, sprinkled with a variety of accents from elsewhere, including near and distant regions within the USA.

Contributions to the installation offer a range of approaches. Some artists researched the history of the Orchard Street Shul and its neighborhood, uncovering multiple stories of this community: stories of women working together to aid refugees, stories of hard-working fathers and mothers who dedicated themselves to making a better life for their children, and stories of teenagers who giggled and mingled on the steps of the Shul. Others built on their own experiences, reaching into their hearts to create depictions of the Shul that are evocative of deeper connections with history and community. Still others focused on the issues of urban renewal, making real the shifts in our urban landscape that are difficult to imagine as we visit the site today.

Included in the Project are presentations by researchers from Yale University who developed innovative ways to document the building, including virtual reconstructions exploring new digital methods, ground-breaking research by computer scientists that promises to change the ways that cultural heritage sites will be documented in the future. Some contributing artists used this digital data in their creative work.

The Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Project is organized by Cynthia Beth Rubin, a New Haven based artist, in collaboration with participating artists and researchers: Nancy Austin. Meg Bloom, Donnamarie Bruton, Jeanne Criscola, Roz Croog, Linda Drazen, Paul Duda, Gonzalo Escobar, Maya Escobar, Alan Falk, Greg Garvey, Shalom Gorewitz, Jaime Kriksciun, Leslie J. Klein, Beth Krensky, Seth Lamberton, Mary Lesser, Lisa Link, David Ottenstein, Bruce Oren, Robert Rattner, Cynthia Beth Rubin, Holly Rushmeier, Janet Shafner, Frank Shifreen, Suzan Shutan, Sharon Siskin, Christina Spiesel, Yona Verwer, Julian Voloj, Laurie Wohl, Chen Xu, and Howard el-Yasin. The group includes artists from California, Florida, Utah, Missouri, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York, who traveled to New Haven to contribute to the project alongside artists from the region.

A Project Book is being published in conjunction with the exhibition, including essays by Hasia Diner, the eminent scholar of Jewish immigration history, Walter Cahn, renowned historian of art and and architecture, and Hana Iverson, known for her remarkable multi-media installation "View from the Balcony" that was instrumental in helping attract attention to the renovation project of the Eldridge Street Shul. The book will also feature photographs of the works in the exhibition and memories of the Orchard Street Shul, with commentary by Karen Schiff. The innovative book design is by Criscola Design.

An exciting series of public events includes:
Saturday, December 5, 7:30
Music from the 1920s-1930s jam session
Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale

Sunday, December 6, noon - 5:00
Opening Reception with the Artists
The John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art

Wednesday, December 9, noon
Lunch and Learn, in Partnership with the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven
The John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art

Sunday, December 20, 2:00 pm
Panel Discussion
Memoirs and Remembrances
The John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art

Sunday, January 10, 2:00 pm
Panel Discussion: Documentations: Photography, Recordings and Recreations
The John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art

Sunday, January 17, 2:00 pm
Informal Community Conversations
The John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art

Thursday, January 21, 4:00 pm
Presentation by Yale Computer Science Graphics Group on
The Orchard Street Shul: Case Study in Three - Dimensional Digital Representations of Culture Heritage Sites.
The John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art

Sunday, January 24, 2:00 pm
Panel Discussion: Art and the Echoes of Spirituality
The John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art

Sunday, January 31, 2010
Open Forum:
Artists Reflect on Cultural Heritage Project as Process
Closing Party
The John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art

The John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art:
Wednesday - Friday, 11am - 4pm
Saturday & Sunday, 2pm - 5pm
(203) 624-8055

For directions and information on the John Slade Ely House visit:
For information on the Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Project visit:
Cynthia Beth Rubin, Project Director
Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project
Paul Clabby, Curator
The John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Slovakia: Refurbished Chapel in Bratislava New Orthodox Cemetery; An Important Modernist Work by Interwar Jewish Architects

Slovakia: Refurbished Chapel in Bratislava New Orthodox Cemetery; An Important Modernist Work by Interwar Jewish Architects

(ISJM) Dr. Maros Borsky, of the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center, sends the following information:

The Jewish Community of Bratislava completed another stage of the New Orthodox cemetery chapel restoration. The precious building of the cemetery chapel constructed in 1929 has now fully refurbished interiors in the original coloring. Designed by two Jewish architects who perished in the Holocaust, Fridrich Weinwurm and Ignac Vecsei, the building is an important milestone in the modern Slovak architecture. The site is still used for the original purpose. The site owner expects the major restoration stage, when the exterior and surroundings will be refurbished, to be carried out in 2010. The Slovak Jewish Heritage Center will be happy to match any interested donor to the project with the Jewish Community office.

To see a photo go to:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hungary: Continuing Struggle to Save Budapest's Seventh District

Budapest, Hungary. Kazinczy Street in the 7th District, with Orthodox synagogue. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2000.

Budapest: Continuing Struggle to Save the 7th District
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Ben Harris of the Jewish Telegraphic agency brings us up to date with a new story on the struggle to preserve some historic and community character in Budapest's Seventh District- the traditional home of much of the city's Jewish population, and the site of much Jewish history and culture. Ever since the fall of Communism 20 years ago, the District has been the target of development - much of it badly planned and short sighted. The destruction of the historic character of the District is estimated as high as 40%. The area is prized by office and condo developers especially because of its immediacy to the center of Budapest.

While many of the well-known synagogues in the areas have been restored, much of the urban fabric - including great apartment blocks - has been altered, or entirely replaced be new construction. Apart from its Jewish past, the area's urban and cultural role in Budapest has been much like that of New York's Upper West Side, and similar to the Upper West Side, change has come quickly after decades of relative architectural and social stability.

You can read the article here:

Coalition fights real estate development in Budapest’s Jewish quarter by Ben Harris • November 24, 2009

Ruth Ellen Gruber has followed the changes in the District over two decades. She comments on her blog about Ben Harris' article, and on some of the changes. You can read a JTA story by Ruth about the topic from 2004 here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Conference: Jews of Spain: Past and Present

Conference: Jews of Spain: Past and Present

(ISJM) On December 5-7, 2009, the American Sephardi Federation will host a symposium about the Jews of Spain: Past and Present. The complete schedule can be consulted here.

Of special interest to blog readers will be Dr. Vivian Mann's presentation on the "Unknown Jewish Artists of Spain." Dr. Mann is curator emeritus of Judaica at the The Jewish Museum (New York) and has curated many important exhibitions about Sephardi Jewish art and culture. She is now director in the Master degree program in Jewish art at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Monday, November 23, 2009

USA: New Haven's Orchard Street Shul (1925)

New Haven, CT, Orchard Street Shul (1925). Facade and Interior.
Photos: Samuel D. Gruber, 2009

USA: New Haven's Orchard Street Shul (1925)
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) In a previous blogpost I described the former Temple Mishkan Israel building in New Haven, Connecticut, designed by Brunner & Tryon in 1896, and now used as a performing arts center. On a visit last week to New Haven, I had the opportunity of spending the morning at The Orchard Street Shul (Congregation Beth Israel) another important New Haven Jewish landmark and the region’s oldest intact and in use purpose built Orthodox synagogue. While all of Beth Israel’s physical features are intact, its congregation has dwindled. Today, there is only a small occasional minyan, and all those who still profess membership also belong to other synagogues in the areas. The future of the building is in question (for more photos click here).

Congregation president Sam Teitelman remains active at age 87 – but he knows that hard decisions about the fate of the building need to be made soon. He doesn’t want the building, which in the past few years has received some assistance for window repairs and other limited restoration work, to fall victim to a “last one out the door turn off the light” scenario that has been common for older congregations. Teitelman and others in the congregation are reaching out to others in the Jewish and non-Jewish community for ideas and support about how to save the building and its history, even if the future use is different from that the building now (just barely) enjoys.

New Haven, CT, Orchard Street Shul, Interior details.
Photos: Samuel D. Gruber, 2009

Teitelman has been looking at what’s been done at Boston’s Vilna Shul and New York Eldridge Street Synagogue to see if aspects of those solutions would be applicable – and affordable – at Orchard Street. He and other congregation members have also been supportive of a effort by local and national artists - the Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project - to use the synagogue and its history for inspiration for art projects – some of which will be exhibited for the first time in a group exhibition opening at New Haven’s John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art on December 6th. While the art doesn’t directly impact the future preservation of either the building or its congregation, it is aimed in part to raise awareness of the synagogue’s existence as an historic and cultural site in New Haven. According to New Haven-based digital artist Cynthia Rubin, one of the prime organizers of the exhibition, “included in the Project are presentations by researchers from Yale University who have developed innovative ways to document the building, including virtual reconstructions exploring new digital methods, ground-breaking research by computer scientists that promises to change the ways that cultural heritage sites will be documented in the future.”

Cynthia Rubin and Sam Teitelman at Orchard Street Shul, New Haven.
Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2009

Beth Israel Synagogue was erected in 1925 at 232 Orchard Street, on designs by local Jewish architect Jacob Weinstein, who had offices on State Street (more information is needed on this architect). The area was then heavily Jewish, though other immigrant groups lived there, too. Much of what was once Jewish housing, as well as several important Jewish buildings, was demolished in the 1960s. Beth Israel draws architectural inspiration from both Temple Mishkan Israel, but also from the impressive Beth Jacob synagogue on George Street, built in 1912 (and demolished in 1962). Like Mishkan Israel, the Orchard Street Shul is brick, has two (small) tower features flanking the façade, and is articulated with Colonial revival details. The exterior is noteworthy for its two rows of windows, indicating the men’s sanctuary and the raised women’s gallery. The windows are large and filled with clear glass, and the upper windows are round arched. Both Mishkan Israel and Beth Jacob had tall, narrow double height windows serving main floor and gallery together, and both those congregation used stained glass.

Yale University art historian Walter Cahn, who has written a short essay about the synagogue for the catalogue of the upcoming exhibition, suggests a link with Amsterdam’s Esnoga (Portuguese Synagogue), especially since that building was so known in the early 20th century from graphic representations.

The interior arrangement of ark, bimah and seating follows the traditional Eastern European Orthodox arrangement, very common in American immigrant synagogues from the 1880s through the 1920s, but Orchard Street is a late example. It is noteworthy that there are two aisles dividing the seats in to three sections, with the bimah and the projecting Ark platform (duhan) occupying much of the space of the central section. The marvelous Ark with its carved lions and a eagle recall the the Ark carved by craftsmen such as Samuel Katz, represented by Murray Zimilas in his Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses exhibition last year. The ark is adorned with light bulbs in a manner similar to the arks at Chevra T’helim in Portsmouth and at Eldridge Street (among others).

New Haven, CT, Orchard Street Shul. Windows have been repaired and the roof no longer leaks, but restoration of the wall finishes, as well of many or other parts of the building, is still needed. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber, 2009

For more information about pre-World War II synagogues in Connecticut see the excellent and still essential survey by David F. Ransom, "One Hundred Years of Jewish Congregations in Connecticut: An Architectural Survey," Connecticut Jewish History, Vol 2: 1 (Fall 1991). 1-147 (entire issue).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Austria: Bomberg Bible Stolen in 1938 Returned to Vienna Jewish Community

Copy of a page from the First Rabbinic Bible (1517) published by David Bomberg
from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Austria: Bomberg Bible Stolen in 1938 Returned to Vienna Jewish Community

by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) The following story comes – of all places – from the US Immigration and Customs Service (ICS). It’s about the return of a copy of the first Rabbinic Bible printed by David Bomberg in Venice to the Jewish Community of Vienna, from which it was apparently looted during in 1938. Appropriately, the return of the recovered book – which was offered at auction in June and its origins then recognized – took place on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night and day when most of Vienna’s synagogues were burned and destroyed.

Of course, Bomberg’s works have known fire and destruction before. He was the first to print a complete Talmud, which besides one of the great masterpieces of printing, also established the pagination and many other editorial devices that have been used in Talmud publication ever since. As far I can tell, only two complete sets of Bomberg’s Talmud survive (both of which were rediscovered in recent years). This is in part because they were so used by every Jewish community that could afford to obtain one, but also, no doubt, because many have been destroyed over the years. In 1553, Pope Julius III was convinced that the Talmud attacks Christianity, and ordered thousands of volumes burned in Rome, Bologna, Ferrara, Venice and Mantua. No doubt many of these burned books were printed by Bomberg. One complete set was in the collection of Union Theological Seminary in New York and was sold for $2 million in 2002. Another copy – order by King Henry VIII – was in the collection of the Westminster Abbey – and was obtained by collector Jack Lunzer when he was able to purchase the Abbey’s original charter and worked out a deal (see: Treasure Trove: How is it that one of the greatest collections of Hebraica ever assembled can’t find a home?)

Bomberg's Rabbinic Bibles are a little more common, in part because there were various editions, and they were not publicly burned. The first version - of which the Vienna copy is an example - was edited by Felix Pratenis, a Jew who had converted to Christianity, and the publication was supported by the Pope (Jewish converts frequently found work in the book trades - and later as text revisers for the Inquisition - because of their knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish liturgy) . A second version in 1525 was edited by an observant Jew Jacob ben Hayim and was more popular with Jewish scholars. A pristine copy of the Second Biblia Rabbinica - that was preferred by Jewish scholars - was recently obtained by the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

Here is the article from the ICE about the book return to Vienna. The author of the press release obviously was never taught the difference between a manuscript (hand written) and a printed book - thus missing a critical point of the importance of printed bibles - that more copies could be made and more people has access to them).

ICE returns 16th century Hebrew Bible looted by Nazis
The 2-volume manuscript was stolen from Vienna, Austria, in 1938

NEW YORK - A 16th century two-volume Bomberg/Pratensis Rabbinic Bible is back in the hands of its rightful owners 71 years after it was stolen by the Nazis. Today, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York returned the Bible to Vienna's Jewish community, known as Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (IKG). This repatriation marks the third time this year that ICE and the U.S. Attorney's Office have repatriated artwork or property stolen during the Holocaust.

During the annexation of Austria in 1938, Nazi soldiers confiscated the rare Bible from the IKG library. On Nov. 9, 1938, known to history as "Kristallnacht," or "Crystal Night," the Gestapo seized and sealed the IKG library. Custody of the IKG library was transferred to the "Reichssicherheitshauptamt" (RSHA) in Berlin between 1939 and 1941. When Berlin was evacuated in 1943, main sections of the IKG library were transferred to other Nazi-occupied territories in Lower Silesia, a province of Poland, and North Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic.

The Rabbinic Bible, published between 1516 and1517, is a manuscript that includes an Aramaic summary and a series of commentaries by key medieval rabbinic figures including 11th century French scholar Rashi, late 12th/early 13th century Provencal scholar David Kimche, 13th century Spanish scholar Nachmanides and 14th century French scholar Gersonides.

The New York City auction house Kestenbaum & Company had offered for sale in its June 25, 2009, auction catalogue, an item described as a "Bible: Venice. Bomberg, 1516-1517." An ICE investigation determined that the ancient Bible described in the catalog was actually part of the library and property of IKG. The Bible was illegally imported into the United States on March 19, 2009. Once agents provided Kestenbaum proof of the Bible's provenance and prior ownership, the auction house immediately agreed to withdraw the Bible from auction and return it to its owners.

"The Bible returned today is a priceless inheritance of the people of Vienna," said James T. Hayes, Jr., special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in New York. "ICE and the U.S. Attorney's office are grateful for the cooperation of Kestenbaum and Company auction house in the recovery of the Bible, and hope that Kestenbaum's leadership will encourage their peers in the industry to take a good look at their own works."

"It is important to understand that this Bible is being returned without litigation," said Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy of the U.S. State Department Office of Holocaust Issues. "To facilitate the return to rightful owners of cultural items displaced during World War II, the United States is considering the establishment of a commission to review and make recommendations on cases for which the parties are unable to reach a mutually satisfactory settlement. This would bring a measure of justice to Holocaust survivors, heirs and communities."

"Seventy-one years ago today, on 'Kristallnacht,' the Nazis carried out a violent and coordinated attack on Jewish people, ransacking the places they lived, worked and gathered," said Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. "The passage of time does not diminish our remembrance, or the duty to return all surviving works of art and precious symbols stolen by the Nazis. Returning this Bible to the IKG today is a step toward that worthy goal."

ICE and the U. S. Attorney's Office have been at the forefront of investigating and recovering looted Holocaust-related artwork on behalf of rightful owners. Within the last six months, ICE and the U.S. Attorney's Office have recovered two paintings stolen by the Nazis that belonged to the late Jewish art dealer Max Stern. The 17th-century Dutch painting "Portrait of a Musician Playing a Bagpipe" and "St. Jerome." a painting by famed Italian artist Ludovico Carracci (1555 - 1619), were returned to the collector's estate.

ICE is a participant of the Department of State's Holocaust Art Recovery Working Group. If anyone has any information about the Holocaust-related theft or trafficking of artifacts or artwork please contact the ICE Deputy Special Agent in Charge Office at John F. Kennedy Airport at (718) 553-1824 or call (866) DHS-2ICE.

ICE, the largest investigative agency of the Department of Homeland Security, handles investigations into stolen or illegally exported cultural artifacts that show up on the world market.

For more about ICE's cultural heritage investigations, please go to:

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Conference: Lviv Meeting for Museum Workers with Judaica Collections

Lviv, Ukraine. Judaica items in the collection of the Ethnographic Museum. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber, 2000.

Conference: Lviv Meeting for Museum Workers with Judaica Collections
by Samuel D. Gruber

The Faina Petriakova Center in Lviv (UKraine) will host a one-day conference on November 23rd dedicated to the methodology of the display of Judaica,Jewish history, culture and religion in the museums of Ukraine. The organizers tell me the 45 museum workers
from different cities will participate, and probably 10-15 local professionals from L'viv.

The conference comes at at time when there is growing talk, though still few resources, of establishing Jewish exhibitions and museums in several cities. At present, however, most Judaica collections in Ukraine remain in storage or in exhibitions hardly changed since the fall of Communism.

This conference is an important step in the development of the professional network of Judaica curators in Ukraine, and also an important opportunity to develop standards for information, conservation, interpretation and exhibition of Jewish history and art. It will also be important for this group to establish ongoing relations with Jewish museum professional groups elsewhere in Europe, Israel and the United States.

The language of the conference is Ukrainian, though special arrangement can be made for foreign museum professionals interested in participating. For more information contact Meylach Sheychet at

The scheduling of the conference is at the same time as the annual meeting of the Association of European Jewish Museums. While at present there is no overlap between the participants in these event, though I hope in the future there will be an opportunity for the two conferences and their sponsors to connect.

The Faina Petrakova Center is named after art historian Faina Petriakova, former Lviv curator, who made known to the world the Judaica collection at the Ethnographic Museum in Lviv. I remember well Faina's tenacity in arranging my viewing of the collection at the Museum, against the wishes of the then-director, during my first visit to Lviv.

In 2004, as part of the discussion about founding the Center, I wrote "Faina’s efforts were recognized internationally, but her efforts and expertise were largely thwarted locally within the local museum system. This situation was just beginning to change at the time of her death. It is important to build upon Faina’s achievements, and the establishment of the Research Center as a central coordinating point for activity in the realm of Jewish heritage in the L’viv area is a crucial step. Similar efforts have taken place in other countries where established museums, university departments or Jewish communities themselves, have taken the lead. Unfortunately, this had not been the case in Ukraine in general, and certainly not in L’viv or elsewhere in Western Ukraine, once a thriving center of Jewish Europe."

The Center's organization of this conference continues Faina's legacy. I can foresee several immediately results of this meeting - including the establishment of a network connected by email, and a compilation of a (at least briefly) descriptive list Judaica collections and exhibitions in Ukraine.

Call for Papers: 'The Image and the Prohibition of the Image in Judaism',

Call for Papers: 'The Image and the Prohibition of the Image in Judaism'

(ISJM) Scholars of Jewish art and visual communication will want to note what may prove to be an important gathering in Southampton, England next September.

Call for Papers:
The Image and the Prohibition of the Image in Judaism,
British Association for Jewish Studies (BAJS), Southampton,
5-7 September, 2010

Call for Papers:
The theme of 2010 BAJS Conference (Sunday 5th - Tuesday 7th September 2010) is 'The Image and the Prohibition of the Image in Judaism'. Topics may cover any time period from antiquity to the contemporary, and any place or cultural context relevant for Jewish Studies. The 'image' may be interpreted broadly to include the non-visual (e.g. literary representations and conceptual images) as well as the visual. The expectation is that papers will explore different aspects of the acceptance and the rejection of images in Jewish thought and practice from the Bible to the modern world. Topics may include the secular as well as the religious sphere.

Proposals for papers (and panels) in the following areas are especially welcome:

* biblical traditions and their interpretation
* notions of 'the image of God'
* Jewish art and Jewish symbols
* idolatry and iconoclasm
* the prohibition and acceptance of images in Holocaust representation
* representing Jewishness in film and television
* Jewish/non-Jewish relations and the second commandment

Practical details:
Single paper proposals should be no longer than 250 words and panel proposals need not exceed one page. Please email proposals to Dr Sarah Pearce ( with 'BAJS 2010' in the subject line. The deadline for paper abstracts and proposed panels is 31 May 2010. Registration details will be circulated soon.

Please note the September date for this meeting instead of the usual July date. This change was made for 2010 in order to avoid clashes with the July 2010 conferences of the European Association of Jewish Studies (Ravenna) and the UK Society for Old Testament Studies (Sheffield).

Please note that though the conference is open to all (see details below), anyone wishing to present a paper who is not a member of BAJS must join by the time of the conference. Membership is open to anyone interested in an academic approach to Jewish studies. For membership enquiries and applications, please write to: Dr James K. Aitken, Lecturer in Hebrew, Old Testament and Second Temple Studies, Faculty of Divinity | West Road | Cambridge CB3 9BS | UK. Email: BAJS Website :

There are three categories of membership of BAJS:

1. Ordinary Members
Ordinary membership is open to scholars concerned with the academic pursuit of Jewish Studies.

2. Student Members
Student membership is open to graduate students working for a higher degree in the field of Jewish Studies.

3. Associate Members
Associate membership is open to (a) those outside the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland who have a serious academic interest in Jewish Studies, and (b) those within the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland with a serious academic interest in Jewish Studies but who are not professionally involved in the subject. Members of all categories are welcome to attend the annual conference and to present papers at it (subject to acceptance via the Call for Papers process).

Ukraine: Jewish Foundation of Ukraine and Lo Tishkach Plans Cemetery Survey by Young People

Ukraine: Jewish Foundation of Ukraine d Lo Tishkach Plan Cemetery Survey by Young People
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM)The Jewish Foundation of Ukraine (JFU) and the "Lo Tishkach" Foundation will begin a joint research project on Jewish cemeteries and mass graves of Holocaust victims of the Chernihiv region of Ukraine. Similar surveys backed by historical research, local interviews and education projects are also to be launched at hundreds of sites across the Zhytomyr, Zakarpattia and Dnipropetrovsk regions of Ukraine with a national teacher-training program on the subject across the country.

According to the JFU, a key objective of the project is to draw the attention of young people to Jewish history and values and “to build cross-cultural communication, to foster tolerance in society and help [Jewish] young people connect to their past.” Project participants will explore all the Jewish cemeteries and known places of execution of Jews in the area. In this, the groups will follow in the footsteps of the young people of the Jewish Preservation Committee of Ukraine, which was active in the 1990s, and first identified many of these sites, including 44 cemeteries in the Chernihiv Region.

The project will begin this month (November 2009) and continue until August 2010. One-day seminars will provide training in research, and also instruction about the history of Jewish life of the region, Jewish traditions, and the history of the Holocaust.

At the conclusion of the project there will be a seminar for all participants, which will present the results of the research, and plan for the future of memorial sites in the region.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Publication: New Book on Ancient Synagogues

Publication: New Book on Ancient Synagogue

(ISJM) ISJM has been notified about a new book published about the art and architecture of the ancient synagogue at Khirbet Gikke (c. 460 CE), located near the Jordan River, on the east Golan Side. The book includes comparative material from other sites in the Golan area and from Chorazin.

Khirbet Dikke and the Synagogues in and around Bethsaida Valley (Archaostyle Scientific Series 7), Qazrin 2009: Archaostyle (191 pp; 58 illustrations; 1 map).

For orders contact the Golan Archaeological Museum (Qazrin) Tel: 972-6961350; Fax 9724694665.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Publication and Video: Laszlo Regos Photographed Dohany Synagogue in Budapest

Budapest, Hungary. Dohany Street Synagogue, ceiling detail. Photo: Courtesy of Laszlo Regos.

Publication and Video: Laszlo Regos Photographed Dohany Synagogue in Budapest
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Anniversaries are the occasion for celebration, commemoration and publications. The 150th anniversary of the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest is no exception, and following last months celebrations, there is a new publication of ravishing photographs of the building by Hungarian-born American photographer Laszlo Regos.

The book, published by the Hungarian publisher Alexandra, was just presented in Hungary and I have not yet seen a copy, but Laszlo has posted a beautiful video presentation of many of the images, accompanied by a sound track of Kol Nidre sung by the late Sandor Kovacs, the chief cantor of the Dohany Street Synagogue. Regos is an accomplished commercial and architectural photographer based in Detroit, Michigan. His previous book The Opera House (Pecs: Alexandra, 2006) documented the Budapest Opera House, designed by Miklos Ybl, and opened in 1884. Regos also contributed many superb photographs of American synagogues to Synagogue Architecture in America by Henry Stolzman (Images Publishing, 2006)

Laslzo has been working on the Dohany book for as long as I have known him. He told me about his commitment to photographing the building, "I gave my soul. It took me eight years to do it." Because of his emotional attachment to the building he did not approach it "just as an architectural photographer," though his skill is evident in the photographs.

For more about Regos and his work you can see my review of his 2004 New York exhibition.

This is the second recent book about the Dohany Synagogue. Rudolph Klein published a book last year. For those interested in a deeper history of the Jewish and Budapest context in which the synagogue project was conceived and realized, and the vicissitudes of the building over its 150 years, I also recommend the essential work Jewish Budapest: Monuments, Rites, History, edited by Geza Komorockzy (Budapest: Central European University, 1999)