Catriel Sugarman, a wood and metal craftsman who lives in Jerusalem, is perhaps best known for creating a beautiful model of the Beit HaMikdash, but he also painstakingly restored a famous chair of Rav Nachman of Breslov and published a thriller centered around the Third Temple. The Jewish Press recently spoke to him about the first two topics.
The Jewish Press: What’s your background?
I grew up in Syracuse, New York. My parents belonged to the Conservative movement, and in shul we used the Silverman Prayer Book, which was an abridged version of [the standard] siddur. For example, on Shabbat, for Musaf, the korbanot were eliminated. When I asked the rabbi of the shul why, he answered that the korbanot no longer had any relevance or importance.
So I decided Conservative Judaism wasn’t serious, and I became active in NCSY. After I graduated YU in 1969, I moved to Israel, married, began to work in a bank, and did an apprenticeship in woodworking to fulfill a longtime dream.
Who commissioned you to repair the chair of Rav Nachman of Breslov?
After leaving my work at the bank, I opened a studio-workshop in downtown Jerusalem where my staff and I crafted fine Judaica from rare woods… We were approached by Breslov chassidim to repair the chair.
What do we know about its origins?
In the summer of 1808, Rav Nachman received a chair with ornately-carved and painted animal and floral decorations. Most Breslover chassidim believe this is the chair that’s presently at the Breslov Nachal Novei’a Yeshiva in Me’ah Shearim.
Rav Nosson of Nemirov mentions it in his autobiography: “In 1808, after coming [to Breslov] from Lemberg, a man brought him a wondrous chair that he had made himself, with great beauty and artistry.” Another version says the shochet of Teplik made the beautiful chair, which was painted in the color of fire.
Among the decorations of the chair are flora and fauna related to local Ukrainian folk art traditions. The wood carving resembles the carved wooden interior decoration in synagogues, including Torah arks and furniture.
Soon after receiving it, Rav Nachman dreamt that the chair was brought to him encircled by fire. In his dream, the entire world came to see the chair – men, women, and children. The forms of all the creatures of the world were carved on the chair, everyone with his and her mate. Seeing the wondrous chair, the people were paired off, and marriages were arranged between them.
Rav Nachman explained that in the verse, “His throne was fiery flames,” the first letters of the Aramaic words, “korsyey shevivim di nur” spell the word “shadchan – matchmaker.” For it was by means of the chair that the matches were made.
The Judaica art historian Dr. Goldman-Ida notes that later that year, Rav Nachman composed a New Year’s sermon, “Tik‘u Memshalah,” the first three sections of which expound on the chair that he saw in his dream. Then, during the following fall of 1809, Rav Nachman recounted “The Tale of the King’s Son and the Servant Woman’s Son Who Were Exchanged,” at the end of which he describes a fabulous chair with cut-out wooden figures of animals and birds.
How did the chair get to Israel?
A Breslov tradition relates that during the pogroms directed against the Jews in in the early 1920s, the chair was dismantled by Rav Zvi Aryeh Lippel, who brought it from the town of Chigirin to Kremenchug, a Breslov center. There it was deposited in the home of the Rosenfeld family.
In those turbulent times, they rightly believed that the dismantled chair would be safer in a private residence rather than in a beit knesset. In 1936, Rav Moshe Ber Rosenfeld succeeded in smuggling the pieces of the chair to Jerusalem and finally to the Breslov Beit Knesset in the Old City.
One of the last Jewish artifacts to be spirited out of the Jewish Quarter before its fall in the 1948 War of Independence was a wrapped bag containing the remnants of Rav Nachman’s chair. Sadly, not all of the pieces survived. In the early 1960s, with some crude additions, the pieces were banged together very unprofessionally in chair form. The result was placed to the right of the aron kodesh in the synagogue of the Breslov Nachal Novei’a Yeshiva in Me’ah Shearim.
How did you get involved in restoring the chair?
One rainy winter morning in 1985, I walked into my workshop and found a delegation of Karliner chassidim. They were remodeling their beit knesset in Me’ah She’arim, and they had this once spectacular aron kodesh that needed a lot of repair work and finish.
We succeeded in restoring it to its pristine glory, and people from all over Me’ah Shearim came to admire our work. Among them were Breslover chassidim. A couple of months later, two Breslover chassidim came into my shop and asked, “Could we possibly restore the chair of Rabbeinu, Rebbe Nachman?”
Empowered by our Karliner success, and elated by the prospect of restoring the iconic chair of the famous chassidic master, I replied, “Absolutely!” The next morning, I visited their yeshiva, spoke to some of the rabbanim, and examined the blackened, incomplete, damaged linden-wood chair, which truly was in a lamentable state.
The back panel of the chair was original, but severely damaged, necessitating many repairs and substitutions. At the front end of each of the two intact armrests lay a lion. Though the left lion was more or less intact, the right lion was two thirds eaten away. The original chair legs were missing; they had been replaced by rough sticks of pine.
Only the upper parts of the front and right skirts underneath the seat were intact. The seat itself was now a piece of broken thin plywood. Apparently, the shiny black oil paint that covered the chair was the work of a Breslover chassid by the name of Rav Yisrael Galant, who used to cover the chair with ever thickening coats of black paint every Erev Rosh Hashanah. This was his way of giving honor to Rav Nachman.
Our work was cut out for us. First step: ordering linden, a central European wood from Germany. In those days before the Internet, that was a story in itself.
Underneath the layers of black paint, we found a layer of orange buhl, generally used in preparation for gilding. And, indeed, we found many tiny specks of gold leaf – in line with the Breslov oral tradition that “the shochet of Teplik made a wondrous chair painted in the color of fire for our master.” In all likelihood, the chair of Rav Nachman had once been gilded!
Accompanied by Breslov music, I spent many long afternoons and evenings in my shop removing black paint and buhl from the cracks in the carvings with dental picks. Of course, my favorite niggun was, “If you believe that it’s possible to damage, believe it’s possible to restore.”
And you ultimately succeeded.
Yes, but the chair had to be reupholstered. Upon recommendation, I found an old Yemenite upholsterer. I went to his shop and told him that I had this unique antique chair that belonged to a great rav and that it had to be reupholstered. I gave him a sample of the color I wanted – a rich Bordeaux velvet.
Three days later, he came with his equipment and the velvet. When he saw the chair, his excitement knew no bounds. “Whose chair is this?” he asked wonderingly. I told him that I would tell him when he finished.
When he finally completed his work, I told him that it was the original chair of Rav Nachman of Breslov. He became even more excited and, though he worked meticulously for many hours, he refused to take a penny for his work. He would not even let me pay for the Bordeaux velvet! The zechus of reupholstering Rav Nachman’s chair was enough.
Is anyone allowed to sit in the chair?
The entire time that the chair was in our work studio, I laid down a rule to my staff: no one – and I mean no one – was to sit in that chair. Not even for one minute. “Al kiso, lo yeisheiv zar – On his chair, no stranger shall sit.” I think that is still the rule. The Breslovers use the Rebbe’s chair as a Kisei Eliyahu for britot. The tinok is set on the cushion, but I don’t think the sandak is allowed to sit on it….
In Rav Nachman’s Scroll of Secrets, reference is made to the chair of Mashiach, upon which he is carried aloft and lowered, and from which he will speak to the Jewish people, and to all the nations of the world. Is Mashiach himself destined to sit on Rav Nachman’s golden chair? Many Breslovers would answer in the affirmative.
You’ve also created a model of the second Beit HaMikdash. What was that experience like?
While repairing Rav Nachman’s chair was a very satisfying achievement, I felt that my work was somehow incomplete. I had a fantasy. I wanted to build an exact model of the Second Temple, which is a very time-consuming and expensive proposition.
Then one day, the long-hoped-for opportunity arrived. One of our major customers came through the door and said, “Catriel, build me the Beit HaMikdash!”
The first step included months of study and research. Once we started cutting wood and crafting the hundreds of gilded silver and bronze parts, the project took us a year and a half to complete.
As month followed month, we saw the Beit HaMikdash gradually take shape in all its detail and majestic beauty. Finally with great joy – and relief – we finished the project and gave it to the customer. Seeing the Beit HaMikdash laid out before me, I thought, “The Final Redemption is so close that I can taste it.”
When our work was finished, the collector who ordered it was in no hurry to take it. So it remained in our studio for some five months. Word spread, and the model drew a lot of media attention. Schools began to send groups of young students to our workshop and I would give lectures.
The entire time that it remained in my studio, though, I was very nervous that some student might trip and fall on it, causing a mini churban. So when the owner finally sent a crew to remove it from our studio to his home, we all felt a great deal of relief.