Directly underneath the massive Bialystoker panel are the next four sons. Issachar is normally represented as a “strong boned” donkey, meaning, according to Rashi, bearing the burden of Torah. Here the unknown artist has depicted him as a camel, similarly able to bear heavy loads but also alluding to a Middle Eastern sensibility. An ancient Phoenician single-masted ship aptly represents Zebulun as the industrious partner to Torah-learning Issachar. Clearly the residents of the Lower East Side recognized this time-honored paradigm. The snake of Dan evokes his role of extracting justice (dan – din) from Israel’s enemies. The quickness of a stag echoes, again according to Rashi, the prompt fertility of Naphtali’s crops, i.e. the quick success of his labors.
The multiple tents of Gad reflects his military prowess while Asher’s agricultural bounty, symbolized by a tree, reflects not only plentiful bread but also the luxury of oil. As is typical of many renderings of the 12 Tribes, Joseph is replaced by his two sons, Ephraim as a stalwart bull and Menashe as a wild ox. In this double tribe roundel, Menashe could be seen also as a unicorn, a mystical medieval creature. Finally Benjamin is symbolized as a wolf, combining cunning with a ferocious nature found in the midrash.
For Jews of the Lower East Side in the 1930’s these tribal signs reverberated with familiar meanings facilitated by the ubiquitous Yiddish spoken and understood by almost everyone. Whether observant or not, the general biblical literacy was guaranteed by the high proportion of biblical and Talmudic phrases and terms in everyday Yiddish. The creator of these panels knew he was speaking his audience’s language. These symbols effectively pushed the button that led directly to tradition and texts.
The 12 Tribes here in the Bialystoker Center may be one of the earliest expressions of the notion of “diversity” in a contemporary Jewish context. The embrace of Art Deco in this communal construction signaled this immigrant community’s clear wish to establish roots in contemporary “modern” society while affirming its Jewish identity. It was a deeply significant moment.
The banners of the 12 tribes are used in another remarkably similar Art Deco setting a bare 5 miles uptown. The cathedral-like Temple Emanuel at Fifth Avenue and 65th Street have three sets of bronze entry doors on Fifth Avenue that depict almost identical symbols of the 12 tribes, frequently utilizing the exact same image. Completed in 1930, it is considered an Art Deco masterpiece as well as the largest synagogue in the world. The curious visual link with the uptown Reform bastion of wealth and power and downtown landsmanschaften Bialystoker causes one to wonder if the Bialystoker artist was consciously trying to connect with his uptown, powerful and so very modern brethren.
The contemporary use of these symbols, first mentioned in the Torah and then formalized in midrash, is inevitably ironic. When the tribes entered the land they of course settled “under their banners.” Nonetheless, during the First Temple period the tragic division between the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel finally resulted in the destruction of the Temple and the tribes themselves. After the first Exile, the tribes effectively disappear, leaving just Jews. Over the millennia we have grown to be an extremely diverse people, and the Jews of the Lower East Side, although predominately from Eastern Europe, were likewise wildly diverse in practice, belief and custom. In the throes of change, growth and hope it is remarkable that the banners of the original 12 tribes should appear as the banner itself of the Deco Bialystoker Center, summoning all simultaneously to tradition and modernity.
We should do everything in our power to preserve this significant architectural gem. Only in appreciating our past can we gain the wisdom to shape our future. For more information go to www.friendsofthelowereastside.org.
Elissa Boyarin, an expert in urban geography, has done considerable research on the Bialystoker Center and related concerns. This review is deeply indebted to her work and the distinguished panel, including Joyce Mendelsohn, Linda Jones, Laurie Tobias Cohen, Rebecca Kobrin (author of “Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora”), Suzanne Wasserman and Mitchell Grubler, which publically discussed this preservation project on February 5, 2012.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.