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The Stanton Street Shul And The Art Of David Friedman

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Artists have a way of calling attention to the things we really need to see. Their sensitivity and funny way of thinking shake us up, and demand that we take notice. That’s what David Friedman has done with 16 paintings on paper currently on view at the Stanton Street Shul. The diminutive paintings, each 12 inches square, were created as a whimsical decoration for the downstairs Kiddush and weekday minyan hall as part of the community Shavuos celebration. But to call them simply “whimsical” is to miss the spirit and essence of this marvelous congregation undergoing a Renaissance, a long time a-coming.

“Borsch and Coffee: Floral Abstractions,” as the series is known, utilizes raw pigment, acrylic, ink, spray paint, marker, gold powder and, yes, borsch juice and coffee grounds. The last two ingredients are a lighthearted tribute to Abe Roth, the 93-year-old regular who sets out the coffee and Kiddush on Shabbos mornings, affectionately known as the “Stanton Street Maîdre D.” Therein lies the dynamic of a congregation that recognizes that “it takes two to tango” and Stanton Street utilizes at least two or three generations of Jews to generate the warmth and friendliness of a real community. The 30-something David Friedman, a professional artist who is also showing at Artists and Fleas Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, acknowledges this in his homage to the elder statesman Abe.

David’s paintings are flights of fancy on floral forms utilizing flowers, leaves, plants and other fantastic flora in brightly inventive color and line. They exude a vibrancy of design, emphasized by stenciled patterns, Hebrew letters and sensuous line that visually bring the Shavuos holiday flowers gracing the upstairs sanctuary downstairs. It is especially the vibrating purples and reds, some actually made of beet juice, that animate the paper paintings as they seem to float on the whitewashed walls.

If you look carefully bits of coffee grounds enliven the surface in many of the paintings, while others are dominated by not only the texture but the smell of java too. The quip “Ain Torah bli kemach v’ain kemach bli Torah” quickly comes to mind reflecting on the congregation’s Shavuos meals and learning held downstairs. The paintings are simply another expression of the community spirit and determination that is found on Stanton Street.

The light and deft touch that characterize David’s paintings arises straight out of the diverse and friendly congregation that is simultaneously a 90-year-old survivor of the Jewish Lower East Side and evidence of the New Jewish revival that is transforming the surrounding neighborhood. The community bounded by East Broadway and Grand Street, only four
blocks to the south is booming with an influx of young religious couples, while the area immediately around the shul is filling with trendy restaurants, clubs, and upscale shops mixing in
with the existing Spanish businesses. It is increasingly becoming a mixed neighborhood of
artists, young professionals and working people. And in that typical New York mix there are
Jews looking for some old time religion. If they are willing to roll up their sleeves and join in,
Stanton Street Shul may be just right for them.

Originally and officially known as Congregation Bnai Jacob Anschei Brzezan, the kehilla
from Brzezen in Galicia, Poland built the current building in 1913 from two existing
structures that dated from the 1840′s. A typical “tenement style” synagogue conforming to
the standard 20′ X 100′ tenement lot size, the handsome façade graced with two round
stained glass windows leads to the well worn downstairs hall and the modest main sanctuary
above. The building, now maintained as best as they can, is badly in need of basic repairs. A
new fire escape and roof are urgently needed, as are new windows and an upgrade of the
antiquated gas fired radiator heating system. Architecturally, the Stanton Street Shul is a taste
of the modest Eastern European shuls, poor in capital but extremely rich in cultural heritage.

The main sanctuary is decorated with wall paintings of the Zodiac reflecting a motif that
was once common on the Lower East Side. Long time synagogue member and docent at the
Lower East Side Conservancy, Elissa Sampson, quips that it is ironic that now, only the richest
synagogue in the neighborhood, the Bialystoker and the poorest, Stanton Street, sport Zodiac
paintings. Folk paintings of the Tower of David and Rachel’s Tomb flank the simple but
elegant hand painted wooden Ark. Both sides of the men’s section are lined with large-scale
depictions of the Zodiac, most badly in need of restoration. Most importantly, the paintings
pose a burning question for most visitors. What is a lobster doing in an Orthodox synagogue?

Lobsters, at least the painted kind, are not unheard of in American shuls that have Zodiac decorations. Bialystoker’s lobster oversees the davening of the main sanctuary, as does its painted brother at Stanton Street depicting the mazel of Tamuz. It may be that one artist copied the other in a misguided attempt to depict Cancer the Crab, the equivalent Zodiac sign. In any event, while the origin of both sets of paintings are shrouded in mystery, their charm is clear for all to see.

The Stanton Street Shul community is equally charming, outgoing and friendly in what amounts to an uncommon partnership between the young and old, to build a growing congregation. The elders of the congregation are respected; some say venerated, and they respond with a warmth that brings alive the legacy of Polish Jewry. The congregation’s president, Benny Sauerhaft, recently had his 89th birthday celebration at a shul Kiddush. David Friedman sculpted his portrait for the occasion. It looked exactly like the 40-year veteran of the shul and tasted good too! Yes, it was sculpted out of chopped liver and vegetables and the congregation enjoyed the masterpiece up to the last morsel. That’s just the kind of creative and nourishing partnership these Jews, young and old, singles and families have down on the new and improved Jewish Lower East Side.

“Borsch and Coffee: Floral Abstractions,” by David Friedman. The Stanton Street Shul
(Congregation Bnai Jacob Anschei Brzezan), 180 Stanton Street, between Clinton and
Attorney Streets, NY, NY 212-533-4122; www.stantonstreetshul.com. David Freidman,
fryfryfry@hotmail.com.

  
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.

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


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