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Old and New: Podwal’s Altneuschul Paroches

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Podwal’s designs are brimming with symbols that anchor them in the very fabric of the Prague Jewish community. The three Torah covers are boldly emblazoned koof – lamed standing for Kodesh l’Hashem, Holy to the Lord as is surely the Torahs they cover. Central to this design is the elaboration of the lamed, known as the majestic letter, symbolic of the King of Kings, towering over all the others. He has used the grand guild banner from the Altneuschul itself as the lordly upper arm. This conflation of Prague Jewish civic pride with the Hebrew letter that connects to the Divine name reflects both the struggles and success of the community’s Jews with the city of Prague. It proclaims: Prague Jews are true to God and are here to stay!

Shulchan & Paroches (2011) by Mark Podwal Fabricated by Penn and Fletcher Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

On the Shulchan and Shtender covers Podwal employs the heraldic Lion of Judah (here with two tails) as ferocious guardians. On the Shulchan they stand at the ready flanking the Choshen haMihspat, the Breastplate of Judgment, worn by the High Priest. This represents the Crown of Priesthood, first honored whenever the Torah is read. The Shtender is similarly guarded by these very special lions, there framing an open book representing the siddur that is at the ready for the Shaliach Tzibur, the prayer leader. In both these designs Podwal has referenced the actual uses that his textiles facilitate. The Torah must be blessed before public reading, preferably first by a Kohen. His honor is paramount and is celebrated in Podwal’s design. So too the prayer leader: the open book of the siddur is his duty and glory to explicate for the congregation in his leadership of public prayer. The open book is his opportunity to lead the congregation to the Divine.

Crowning the exhibition is the paroches – a symphony of proud Czech Jewish symbols. Emblazoned at the prayer leader’s eyelevel is “Mimamakim kirosicha, From the Depths I called You” in the Hebrew font used in the famous 1526 Prague Haggadah. The traditional columns found on many Bohemian Torah curtains have been replaced by two columns of Torah pointers, each derived from actual pointers found in the Prague Jewish museum. Their twelve hands point up in a salutation and celebration of the One Above. Again we see the rampant lions with their distinctive double tails, incorporating the heraldic symbol found on the Bohemian Coat of Arms. This testifies both to the Tribe of Judah (i.e. Jewish Kingship) and the sovereign region of Bohemia. These lions are seen holding a Torah, itself laden with symbols. This little Torah’s mantle reflects subtly different aspects of Podwal’s design. We see again two lions atop two actual columns proudly framing the Ten Commandments and holding the Crown of Torah above it all.

Torah Curtain (detail) (2011) by Mark Podwal Fabricated by Penn and Fletcher Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

Most significantly the Torah depicted on the paroches is crowned with the walled Ghetto of Prague, the Altneuschul as its central and most prominent landmark. This Torah crowned with the Altneuschul is an absolutely unique image in which the source of every Jew’s faith, the Torah itself, is crowned with the place of a Prague Jew’s devotion, the Altneuschul. It is as if Podwal has embodied the phrase from the kedushah; “Blessed is the glory of Hashem from His Place” as the emblem of the Altneuschul.

At the very heart of Podwal’s Torah curtain design is a celebration of the Prague Altneuschel community and its physical presence. Every aspect of this Torah curtain fittingly refers back to the home it will soon occupy. In light of these new Torah ornaments the Prague Jewish community stands proud in its commitment to its own sacred history and its commitment to the city of Prague and its larger community. Mark Podwal’s gift to the Jews of Prague reverberates to all Jews who understand exactly how important and sacred our own synagogues are to each and every one of us.

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com A full color version of this review is at www.jewishpress.com – Magazine – Jewish Art

PHOTO CAPTION 1

PHOTO CAPTION 2 The Old New Synagogue (1980) pen and ink by Mark Podwal Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

PHOTO CAPTION 3 Torah Covers (2011) by Mark Podwal Fabricated by Penn and Fletcher Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

PHOTO CAPTION 4 Shulchan & Paroches (2011) by Mark Podwal Fabricated by Penn and Fletcher Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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