Friday, February 19, 2010

Spain: Roof Collapse at Former Synagogue of Híjar

Híjar, Spain. Convent church of San Anton, formerly a synagogue. Photo:

Híjar, Spain. Convent church of San Anton, formerly a synagogue. Inteiro, view toward gallery.

Spain: Roof Collapse at Former Synagogue of Híjar (Aragon)
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) According to on-line reports, last month a part of the roof of the 15th-century church of San Antón in Híjar (Aragon), Spain collapsed, injuring two people and putting the fate of the building in jeopardy. San Antón has been identified as the former synagogue of Hijar Jewish community (which numbered 32 families as late 1481) by researcher Miguel Ángel Motis Dolader. As such, it is one of the best preserved former synagogues in the Iberian peninsula, after Toledo, Cordova and Tomar.

Though to my knowledge no study of the building has been yet published, the documentary evidence as well a several still-visible features in the church indicate its origins as a synagogue. These include a niche (now housing a statue of Saint Anthony) that was likely once part of the Aron ha-Kodesh, and a well preserved raised gallery, presumably used by women. Recent excavations beneath the sanctuary floor have revealed the masonry foundation for a tevah. Overall, the building is designed as a simple almost cubic space surmounted by three large diaphragm arches that support the wooden roof.

In late January 2010 there was a meeting of cultural heritage officials in Híjar to consider what to do with the building, and the projected short-term and long-term restoration costs. It is estimated that repairing the roof would cost 90,000 euro, and the complete restoration of the building 370,000 euro. Local discussion of care of the building has continued for six years. No doubt earlier intervention would have saved injury and also would required less funds.

Híjar, with its Jewish Quarter, was declared a site of cultural significance by the Government of Aragon in 2002. The 15th-century Jewish community itself had achieved considerable renown in the decade just before the expulsion of 1492 when its Jewish craftsmen specialized in the trades of preparing parchment and in bookbinding, and Híjar was also an early center for Hebrew printing.

Recently several articles by Victor Aguilar Guiu in the local publication La Comarca have highlighted the lack of organization and planning regarding the care of historic resources by the town of Hijar in Aragon. Aguilar Guiu draws especial attention to the fate of San Anton, which had been identified as the former synagogue in need to care prior to roof collapse.

He writes that the “The destruction [over the past three decades] has been brutal: an eighteenth-century hospital, the remains of the castle-fortress destroyed by the government itself, several Aragonese Renaissance and Baroque palaces, a nineteenth-century church, the medieval rabbi’s house, dozens of houses of traditional architecture, mills.” Aquilar Guiu believes that attention to the former Jewish history and the towns surviving Jewish sites might be a way to spur more widespread attention to historic preservation in Híjar.

He and the organization regional cultural heritage advocacy group APUDEPA have especially called for greater protection and a care of the former synagogue building.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Robin Cembalest on Uneasy Communion Exhibition

Robin Cembalest on Uneasy Communion Exhibition

Just a few hours after posting my notice about the opening of Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain at MOBIA, I saw Robin Cembalist's piece in Tablet Magazine, which provides more insight into the exhibition. When Robin is not writing for Tablet, she is engaged in her full time work as editor of ARTNews (she was also my first editor at The Forward). Robin mentions Vivian Mann's links between the painting Christ Among the Doctors and the recently excavated synagogue in Lorca, Spain of which I have previously written.

The Torah in the Altarpiece

A new exhibition explores the overlapping worlds of Christian and Jewish art in medieval Spain

An on-line slide show from the exhibition accompanies the article.

Exhibition: MOBIA in NYC Will Open Exhibit on Representations of Jews on Medieval Spanish Altarpieces

Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain to Open at MOBIA (Museum of Biblical Art) in New York
by Samuel D. Gruber

New exhibitions of medieval art are increasing rare in the United States, so it has been a pleasure to see view the series of exhibitions developed over the past five years at MOBIA, the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City, many of which have included medieval works, sometimes important and sometimes obscure, but usually chosen for a particular reason and often elucidated from a new point of view.

MOBIA seems about to continue and perhaps expand this tendency with a new exhibition, Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain that opens to the public this February 19th and runs through May 30. The exhibition is curated by Dr. Vivian B. Mann, curator emeritus at the Jewish Museum and now director of the graduate program in Jewish Art at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Almost twenty years ago Dr. Mann collaborated to present artistic aspects of Jewish, Christian and Muslim co-existence in medieval Spain in the ground-breaking Convivencia organized by the Jewish Museum. This new exhibition promises to present Christian-Jewish relations is a somewhat different light, and through the religious lens of altarpieces that reference and represent Jews in both Biblical and contemporary guise.

According to the publicity from MOBIA:
This exhibition discusses the last two centuries of medieval Spanish history in the Crown of Aragon (the Kingdom of Aragon, the Kingdom of Valencia, and the region of Catalonia) from the vantage point of religious art, and demonstrates the documented cooperative relationship that existed between Christians and Jews who worked either independently or together to create art both for the Church and the Jewish community. Religious art was not created solely by members of the faith community it was intended to serve, but its production in the multi-cultural society of late medieval Spain was more complicated. Jewish and Christian artists worked together in ateliers producing both retablos (large multi-paneled altarpieces) as well as Latin and Hebrew manuscripts. Jews and conversos (Jews who had converted to Christianity) were painters and framers of retablos, while Christians illuminated the pages of Hebrew manuscripts.

The exhibition tells not only the story of this fascinating moment of artistic collaboration, it also provides a glimpse into the lives of these communities which lived side by side. Images in some retablos reflect the hardships of Jewish life in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: conversions, forced sermons, disputations, the Inquisition, and charges of host desecration and blood libel. Other extraordinary paintings project a messianic view of a future in which Jews would join with Christians in one faith.

I'm looking forward to this exhibition and expecting some surprises. One work that will be on view and is being used for publicity for the exhibition is an anonymous altarpiece of Christ Among the Doctors (click here for photo) from the early 15th century in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting, which has been cleaned and restored for this exhibition, represents the Jerusalem Temple as a contemporary Spanish synagogue. The "Doctors" include an assortment of Jews seated at their wooden prayer benches reading from (manuscript) prayer books.

A catalog is published to accompany the exhibition.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

USA: Jewish Museum Cleans and Conserves Adolph Gottlieb Designed Parochet for Upcoming Exhibition

Cleaning the Adolph Gottlieb designed parochet. Photo from The Jewish Museum on Flikr.
More photos here.

Millburn, New Jersey. Congregation B'nai Israel, original sanctuary configuration showing parochet hanging on ark.

USA: Jewish Museum Cleans and Conserves Adolph Gottlieb Designed Parochet for Upcoming Exhibition

(ISJM) As the Jewish Museum gears for an exhibition of the modern art created for the Percival Goodman-designed B'nai Israel synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey (1951), its been cleaning and conserving art from the congregation (notably the large Robert Motherwell painted panel) and its own collection. It has been several years since the Adolph Gottlieb designed parochet, donated to the museum by the congregation (which has a replica in its place) in 1987, has been on view. In January museum conservators were cleaning and repairing the large fabric collage.

For more on Gottleib's synagogue art see my Tablet Magazine article about his stained glass windows in the Kingsway Jewish Center.

The following is from the Jewish Museum blog (Jan. 7, 2010):

Created for the Congregation B’nai Israel synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey, Adolph Gottlieb’s Torah Ark Curtain is decorated with symbols in a compartmentalized form, a scheme that the artist also used in his Pictograph paintings at the time. Gottlieb was inspired by forms and expressions associated with non-Western art as well as Jungian philosophy of the unconscious. In this curtain, he abstracts elements of Jewish religious belief such as the Tablets of the Law, the twelve tribes of Israel, the Temple, and the Ark of the Covenant. He also includes stylizations of objects developed for synagogue use (Torah mantles and Torah shields) and emblems that have become synonymous with Judaism (the Lion of Judah and the Star of David). The curtain was designed by Gottlieb and sewn by the women of the congregation.

Abstract Expressionist works–including Gottlieb’s curtain, a mural by Robert Motherwell and a monumental relief sculpture by Herbert Ferber–will be included in the upcoming exhibition Modern Art, Sacred Space: Motherwell, Ferber, and Gottlieb, on view March 14 - August 1, 2010.

In preparation for the exhibition, the Museum has begun cleaning the work. In the below photos, textile conservators Shelly Greenspan and Judith Eisenberg are doing surface cleaning and stabilizing appliques.

Symposium: "Jewish Art and Worship: America in the Post-World War II Era"

Millburn, New Jersey (USA). Congregation B'nai Israel, Percival Goodman, arch.
Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

Millburn, New Jersey (USA). B'nai Israel entrance vestibule, original appearance. Robert Motherwell panel will be on display at the Jewish Museum.

Seminar: "Jewish Art and Worship: America in the Post-World War II Era"

The Friedman Society of the Jewish Museum sponsors its annual S. Moldovan Memorial Symposium on sunday March 14
. This year's topic, "Jewish Art and Worship: America in the Post-World War II Era" is scheduled in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition Modern Art, Sacred Space: Motherwell, Ferber and Gottlieb.

"Jewish Art and Worship: America in the Post-World War II Era"

The Jewish Museum (NY) from 9:30am-3:00pm.
Advance reservations required (Fee: $50, $10 student).

I am honored to be invited as one four speakers at the symposium. The schedule is:

Samuel Gruber, Managing Director, Gruber Heritage Global & Rothman Lecturer in Judaic Studies, Syracuse University, on "Post-World War II Synagogue Architecture: An Escape from Tradition?"

Karen Levitov, Associate Curator, The Jewish Museum, on "Modern Art for the Modern Synagogue".

Daniel Belasco, Henry J. Leir Assistant Curator, The Jewish Museum, on "The Tradition of the New: Modernism in American Judaica 1956-1967".

Matthew Baigell, Professor Emeritus of Art History, Rutgers University, on "Under the Radar: Jewish Religious Imagery in the Post-War Years".

From Crete to Minnesota we Read Psalm 118: 20 “This is the Gate of the Lord into Which the Righteous Shall Enter”

Virginia, Minnesota. B'nai Abraham Synagogue. Inscription on Entrance Stained Glass:
זֶה-הַשַּׁעַר לַיהוָה; צַדִּיקִים, יָבֹאוּ בוֹ.

Psalm 118: 20 “This is gate of the Lord into which the righteous shall enter”

Recently ISJM member Marilyn Chiat wrote to report continuing progress on the restoration of small but elegant Iron Range synagogue of B'nai Abraham in Virginia, Minnesota, which will celebrate its centennial this year (there will be major event in July 2010), and which has been saved from destruction after its closure in the 1990s by a band of dedicated volunteers in the town and statewide. The synagogue is the last intact Jewish house of worship in this part of Minnesota – where once there were several small and hardy Jewish communities serving the intense Iron Ore industry and its related services. The Friends of B'nai Abraham have recently received about $50,000 in new grants which will go a long way toward completing the project which has been in progress for many years.

(See earlier blogpost about this building)

Perhaps the most notable feature of the B’nai Abraham is its remarkable set of stained glass windows. Gradually these windows have been cleaned and are being restored. The process is now more than halfway complete. As cleaning progresses, more window details are revealed, as well their original vibrant colors.

Marilyn wrote to say that cleaning window panels in the entrance doors has shown the original Hebrew inscription in glass: זֶה-הַשַּׁעַר לַיהוָה; צַדִּיקִים, יָבֹאוּ בוֹ (see photo above) – a well known passage from Psalm 118 sung during the Hallel service. Marilyn was familiar with the Verse 20 "This is God's gate into which the righteous shall enter," but asked how frequently it is used to adorn synagogue.

In fact, Psalm 118:20 is one of the most common passages found on synagogues, and it has adorned synagogues for centuries, and can be found from Iran to Greece to Poland to Minnesota. There is no compendium that I know of the tracks the use of particular scriptural passages and other texts in synagogues – but a quick look through my notes and a Google search turned up many diverse examples of Psalm 118:20 (I’ll soon post of a list of these).

Hania, Crete (Greece). Entrance gate to Etz Hayyim Synagogue courtyard (after restoration).
Photo courtesy of Nikos Stavroulakis

Coincidentally, the instance with which I am most familiar is on the gateway into the synagogue enclosure of Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Crete, the very building that was attacked twice by arsonists last month, and for which this ISJM and this blog are helping by raising sums for repair. The before and after photos of this gateway are emblematic of the success of the 1990s synagogue restoration project. Thinking of these two synagogues thousands of miles apart, but each greeting the worshipper and visitor with the same words, made me consider their different historic circumstances (on the inscriptions of Etz Hayyim click here).

Etz Hayyim was built as a (Saint Catherine's) church, but centuries ago it was given to Hania’s Jews for a synagogue, when Venetian (Christian) rule of the island ended. Much later, it‘s congregation perished when they were deported by the Nazis, and their transport ship was subsequently sunk – all lives lost. The building fell into ruin and by the 1990s was home only to chickens and trash. The hard work and devotion of Nikos Stavoulakis and scores of local and international supporters brought life – Jewish life – to this ruin once again, but Etz Hayyim has also served since it restoration as a center of religious and philosophical contact and discussion for people of many faiths. Nikos has choosen to interpret “righteousness” broadly – something the arsonists clearly could not tolerate or understand.

B’nai Abraham’s history and its transformations are less dramatic, and it is witness mostly to stories of tolerance and success. Its demise as a synagogue was due to voluntary migration of Jews to bigger and generally more prosperous centers, not forced deportation. Still, as a place of memory and history it plays similar role on Iron Range to Etz Hayyim in Hania. In Virginia, Minnesota, the righteous will also be broadly defined and I think those many Jews and Christians who have labored to save this place can enter through the newly restored doors with pride and confidence.

Unfortunately, in America, too, they must be vigilant and learn from Hania’s experience. Every restoration budget needs to include stained glass window restoration – but sadly – also an up-to-date security system.

Conference Call for Papers: ”Reform Judaism and Its Architecture“

Call for Papers: "Reform Judaism and Its Architecture"

The Bet Tfila Research Unit for Jewish Architecture in Europe at the Technische Universität Braunschweig (Germany) is organizing a second international conference on synagogue architecture, especially focused on issues of history, design, use, interpretation and influence of Reform synagogues, or "Temple," - this on the 200th anniversary of the designation of the first synagogue-temple in Seesen.

In 2007 the same organizers produced the successful conference "Jewish Architecture in Europe" - the proceedings of which are forthcoming later this year.

Here is the call for papers:

"Reform Judaism and Its Architecture"
International Conference at the Technische Universität Braunschweig
10 – 14 October 2010
(for call for papers in German click here)

In 2010, Reform Judaism all over the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of its "mother synagogue", the Jacobstempel in Seesen/Harz, consecrated in 1810 and the first reform synagogue to be built. This anniversary serves as an impetus for Bet Tfila – the Research Unit for Jewish Architecture in Europe – to research the beginnings and expansion of reform synagogue architecture from Lower Saxony in Germany to locations all over the world.

Bet Tfila Research Unit, in cooperation with the Institute for the History of German Jews in Hamburg, therefore invites scientists from various disciplines to discuss the complex subject of Reform Judaism and its architecture at a conference in Braunschweig this fall. The discussion will revolve around 19th century building projects of reform congregations, but will not concentrate exclusively on these topics. Possible subjects could relate to the following questions:
- Was there a single type of a reform synagogue?
- What were the mutual relations between liturgical reforms, on the one hand, and the architecture, or inner space design, on the other hand?
- Viewed from a comparative perspective, what can be deduced from the architectural development of Jewish houses of worship?
- What differences and similarities can be drawn from national, European and international comparisons?
- Are there any specific regional elements which characterize Jewish prayer houses?

In addition to considering purely architectural features, interdisciplinary approaches should also be taken into consideration. Scholars of Judaism, musicologists, historians, and liturgy experts are invited to reflect on the differences and similarities between the Jewish communities (Orthodox, Liberal, and Conservative), and to also draw comparisons to the Christian environment (Protestant, Catholic, etc.).

The conference will be conducted in English. Please send a brief abstract (in German or English – max. one A4 page), as well as a short biography, including a list of publications, by 29 March 2010, to:

Prof. Dr. Harmen H. Thies
Bet Tfila – Forschungsstelle für jüdische Architektur in Europa
Technische Universität Braunschweig
Pockelsstraße 4
38106 Braunschweig
Fax +49 (0)531/391-2530

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Greece: ISJM Continues to Collect Funds to Repair Hania's Etz Hayyim Synagogue

Greece: ISJM Continues to Collect Funds to Repair Hania's Etz Hayyim Synagogue
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Work continues in Hania, Crete with clean-up and repair efforts at the historic Etz Hayyim Synagogue, which was attacked twice by arsonists in January. Current estimates put the cost of structural and material repair and replacement at about $100,000. This does not include the costs of time and donated labor, and the replacement cost for approximately 1,000 books that were damaged or destroyed in the synagogue library.

Since the second attack - which was more destructive than the first - ISJM has been collecting funds from individuals - mostly in the United States - to assist with repairs. So far about 75 donors have contributed over $13,000 which puts us more than halfway to our first goal of a $25,000 contribution. Our hope and plan is that this show of support will leverage additional donations form foundation, Jewish organizations and government agencies. If that doesn't happen ISJM will keep raising money until all the needs for the building are met.

Please send contributions - of all sizes - to:

118 Julian Place, Box 210
Syracuse, NY 13210

Be sure to add "Hania" to the memo line of the check, and to make check out to "ISJM" or "International Survey of Jewish Monuments." ISJM is a register 501 (c) 3 charitable organization and all contributions are tax-deductible according to law.

Meanwhile, ISJM now has a list of destroyed books from Etz Hayyim and with the assistance of Prof. Steve Bowman of the University of Cincinnati; we will soon be coordinating donations. If you would like a copy of the booklist by email please contact me directly at Books are especially needed in the subject areas of Judaica, Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies, art, architecture and other fields. Cash contributions for shipping books or for related purchases are also welcome.