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The sacred is that which is removed, eternal and ultimately untouchable, something we must always have in our lives and yet can never possess. Synagogues are certainly sacred, but they paradoxically enjoy the opposite qualities. Synagogues embody the sacred that we internalize, the holy gates to heaven that we can grasp. Jews build them, inhabit them, possess them, and if they are destroyed, mourn the loss of their houses of worship, their places of gathering.
That is precisely why this brilliant exhibition, “Longing for the Sacred” at the Yeshiva University Museum is so effective. It brings together two artists who through their mourning for the synagogues lost in the Holocaust plumb the depths of our loss and simultaneously express the sacred and communal nature of each and every house of Jewish worship.
G-d expresses His love of the Jewish people in the Torah by counting us, naming us in our travails as we entered the Wilderness. So too, a parallel naming occurs in this exhibition as each artist lovingly names the synagogue depicted. Felix Reisner has chosen to commemorate the great urban synagogues of Warsaw, Danzig, Lodz, and Frankfurt au Main in a unique format, stained glass models. A survivor of the war (he fought the Nazis in the First Polish Division of the Soviet Army) Reisner came to America and worked in the knitting business before he retired and began a second career as a self-taught stained glass artist. Inspired by
his memories of the destroyed Warsaw synagogue and subsequent first person survivor testimonies of other destroyed synagogues, he created a series of five stained glass models of major urban synagogues.
Reisner has painstakingly fashioned his models based on extensive research and photographic study of the original buildings. Nonetheless, these are not your typical architectural models. His creations are intense condensations of the buildings, most not more than 24″ high. He has summarized the salient architectural features of the synagogues and compressed them into unified images contrasting off-white with brilliantly colored stained glass.
While this is not immediately apparent, a close inspection of the scale of the buildings, comparing the size of the “bricks,” windows, other building elements and the scale of the tiny pews and interiors reveals a wonderful tension between an apparent reconstruction and the illusion of a work of art. The extensive text panels explain the history of each synagogue before its destruction, and the current use of the site. The captions also tell us how many people each could hold.
The elegant Altshtot Stara Synagogue in Lodz, contained two women’s galleries, had 1500 seats and its Aron held 36 Torah scrolls. In Reisner’s recreation, the exterior facade is massive and imposing while the interior, viewed through a magically transparent roof, is diminutive, welcoming, and intimate. This contrast, seen in each of his models, poignantly captures the fond memories, longing and loss of a beloved communal home. Reisner further emphasizes the
feeling of a warm inviting sanctuary by providing clear glass windows, lighting each interior and imaginatively decorating the shul down to inlaid floors and an open Sefer Torah ready to be read on the bima. It practically asks you to join the minyan and take a seat.
The opposite emotion dominates Greta Schreyer’s six, deeply disturbing oil paintings of the burnt synagogues of Poland. Each painting is a portrait of a conflagration or imminent destruction of what was a unique architectural expression of the Jewish people. Throughout Poland and western Russia, rural Jewish communities built wooden synagogues from the 17th century onwards. These synagogues reflected local Polish building styles, but also allowed
considerable creativity and innovation for each Jewish community. Many of the interiors were colorfully decorated with folk paintings.
We have records of their dimensions thanks to a major survey of Jewish art and synagogues done in the 1920’s and 1930’s by the Institute of Polish Architecture of the Polytechnic of Warsaw and published in 1959 as “Wooden Synagogues” by Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka. This work establishes the tragic scale of what was lost when the Nazis burned them all in the Shoah.
Each one of these recent paintings evokes a different mood for us to contemplate the very structure of loss. The Wooden Synagogue at Nasielsk is lit by a distant moon, its three sectioned pitched roofs and multiple levels shimmering in whites, grays and blues as the roaring flames surround all sides. We gasp with horror at the Piaski Shul, its massive roof shuddering under the assault of fire, its façade breaking up in a fractured asymmetry of odd shapes and displaced windows and doors. Schreyer’s expressionistic style serves her well to communicate how violent these destructions are.
As if to alleviate the suffering, the artist presents us with a vision of the Volpa Shul delicately glowing in pinks, greens and eerie yellows as if illuminated from within. Again, a full moon oversees the scene even as a violent crimson and purple sky threatens every edge of the sacred structure. The contrast between the whitish shul and the calamitous sky is deeply unnerving.
Greta Schreyer was born in Vienna, pursued a family career of gold and silversmithing and jewelry design. She was forced to flee Austria in 1939 and arrived to a new life in New York. Later in life she reclaimed her youthful interest in painting and has recently shown widely in Europe and in New York. These six paintings represent a complete series on the destruction of the wooden synagogues that revisits not the events she witnessed but the overwhelming turmoil, destruction and violence that forced her, and thousands like her, to flee their
homeland in Europe. The destruction of the world of Polish Jewry, seen in the infernos of these synagogues, was part of the massive destruction that exiled her and that continues to invade our consciousness to the present.
Burning Synagogue, Lutsk, Russia gnaws at our emotions by depicting the mostly intact façade, white with green roofs under a fiery assault from the rear, the sky blazing behind the tower and square main building. Already some of the windows are glowing red while the left side of the shul is deceptively calm with the exception of a slash of red just seen through the partially open front door. The inherent violence of the image is enhanced as the whole shul lists to the right, seemingly drawn to the inferno itself.
Curator Reba Wulkan has brilliantly combined two deeply contrasting visions of the Shoah as embodied in the potent symbol of the synagogue. Reisner invites us to revisit the solidity of the urban grand synagogues and re-experience the warmth of community while Schreyer eulogizes the terrible fragility and vulnerability of our holy structures.
Both views break our hearts until we enter the thousands and thousands of synagogues that we now call home. Enter the doors and sit down so that we can be thankful for the sacred world the Jewish people have recreated out of the ashes.
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art.
Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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