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Exhibition: Centennial Exhibit in NYC of Arbit Blatas, Paris School Painter Known for Venice Holocaust Monument
ISJM, October 23, 2008

An exhibition in New York at the Brookdale Center of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC – JIR) celebrates the Centennial of the birth of Lithuania-born Jewish artist Arbit Blatas (1908-1999), once a prominent member of the pre-World War II "Paris School" of painters, and in later life known for his series of bronze bas-reliefs that comprise the Holocaust memorial in Campo del Ghetto Nuovo in Venice, Italy (1980, 1993). The bas-reliefs commemorate the night of Dec. 5, 1943, when the first 200 of the city's Jews were rounded up and deported to their deaths, but also retell in a more inclusive history of Holocaust suffering.

Blatas also prepared the black and white drawings used to introduce segments of the 1978 television series "Holocaust," which changed the way the Holocaust was discussed in Europe, and also made Blatas's work known to millions.

The HUC – JIR exhibition includes one of four castings of the The Monument to the Holocaust, which has been donated by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to the permanent collection of HUC - JIR. With these, are also exhibited a series of large vividly colored and dramatically staged oil paintings mostly contemporary with the bronzes that represent similar scenes of oppression and destruction. An earlier work from 1944, an immensely powerful painting titled "Babi Yar," was done in a strongly expressionistic style and dramatically depicts the orgy of violence with a force equal to some of the medieval depictions of the Massacre of the Innocents (see photo).Besides being the strongest painting in the exhibition, it is a rare depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust made so close in time to the actual events. Most artists of the period (as has been described by Matthew Baigell and others) confronted the reported horrors with symbolic, mythological or historical language.

Blatas, worked in Paris from 1929 until he was forced to flee Europe to America in 1941. In the last decades of his life he had a studio in Venice, a city where the light and architecture encouraged his rich glowing palette. A second part of the exhibition focuses on Blatas's more exuberant work of happier themes – Venice and the Opera. Blatas was married to Regina Resnick, an opera singer and stage director. Together, in the 1970s and 1980s, they created sets and costumes for many of the world's major opera houses. Paintings based on these designs are included, as well as cityscapes of Venice and elsewhere that are pictorial essays in saturated color.

Blatas's Venice monument originated with the artist himself. As a Jew who lost his mother and many friends and relatives in the Holocaust he felt a special need to commemorate the events of suffering. As a lover of Venice, he conceived of the monument as a gift to the city. The monument is unlike most Holocaust monuments made up to that time. It is neither heroic nor symbolic. It has none of the heroic grandeur of the work of Natan Rapaport (Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument), or of the East German sculptors at Buchenwald. Instead, Blatos followed an the old tradition of a sequence of narrative bas-reliefs – a tradition rooted in the triumphal arches of ancient Rome, and in bronzes doors of medieval (S. Zeno, Verona) and Renaissance (Baptistery, Florence) Italy. One sees echoes of battles scenes from the column of Trajan and the poignant heroism of Ghiberti's Sacrifice of Isaac (Akedah). The finish is rough and battered, giving these panels a painful immediacy that links the viewer to the timeless scenes. In 1980, seven panels were placed next to the wall of the Casa di Riposo Israelitica (Jewish Old Age Home), near the spot where the Jews of Venice were collected before their deportation. A separate panel, the Last Train, was placed alone and was unveiled in the presence of the president of Italy in 1993.

Blatas made four sets of these bronze reliefs. He provided one set for the Shrine of the Unknown Jewish Martyr in the Marais, Paris (1981). Another was made for the former site of the Anti-Defamation League in New York at Dag Hammerskjold Plaza (1982). These are in the exhibition. A fourth set was installed at the Ninth Fort, outside his native Kaunas, Lithuania, in 2003.

For more views of the Venice monuments click here.

Click here for details on the opening at the ISJM calendar.

Zodiac (Mazalos): Oct 19 Program on Kabbalistic Astrology in New York Synagogues
By Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, October 12, 2008

On Sunday, October 19th (Chol Hamoed Succot) at 11:30 am, The Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy and The New York Landmarks Conservancy will present Mazalos: Kabbalistic Astrology in New York Synagogues. The event will take place at the Orenstein Center, (15-17 Willet Street, New York), and explore Mazalos, a Jewish art form featuring zodiac symbols. A panel of experts including scholar Miriam Aranoff, conservator Beth Edelstein and urban historian Elyssa Sampson will discuss the history and preservation of Mazalos, followed by an optional tour of the zodiac paintings on the Lower East Side. While few examples of Mazalos remain, two prime examples can be found on the sites of the Bialystoker Synagogue and Congregation B'nei Jacob & Anshei Brzezan, (a.k.a. The Stanton Street Shul).

The Zodiac has been one the most persistent motifs in Jewish art, and its use and meaning remain fascinating to scholars, worshipers and increasingly a lay audience. Jewish interest in the movement and meaning of the constellations no doubt grew out of the highly developed Near Eastern and Egyptian discipline of astronomical observation and calendar calculations. Certainly for Jews, the constellations also were a constant reminder of the heavenly realm, of which they were an obviously active part. Most scholars find that the Jewish use of the Zodiac - that is the collection of symbols representing both specific constellations and months and seasons of the year- is meant in one way or another (no overall agreement on specifics) to invoke awareness, contemplation and even worship of God's realm, and how it is inextricably linked - controlling or controlled by - the tides of time. Such issues that combine the unknowables of infinite space and unending time early found their way into the core of mystical writing in many religions, including Judaism. By the Middle Ages this developed into a "Jewish astrology," linked to esoteric Kabbala and more mundane magical pursuits. The representation of the zodiac, or at least of zodiacal symbols, appeared in the mosaics of many ancient synagogues and in medieval manuscripts. At the very least, it appeared on synagogue ceilings in 18th century Greater Poland, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries could be found from Romania (where splendid examples still survive) to immigrant synagogues in America and Canada. The motifs also appeared as wall paintings and in stained glass designs in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

To my knowledge no full list of such representations has even been collated, and many examples have been destroyed. But others remain and are attracting the attention of art historians and students of Jewish worship, folk beliefs and mysticism.

Of course, without documentation, it is difficult for us to know what was in the minds of those who proposed and painted these decorations. Probably, like most synagogue ornaments, they spoke to a diverse audience on different levels. Symbols especially could be seen as decoration, or as emblems of stories or specific passages from scripture. Taken together, the zodiac symbols could be read literally as a calendar, reminding the viewer of the liturgical calendar, and the passage of the seasons throughout the year. But for others, deeper meanings could be found based Talmud, Nachmanides, and mystical writings.

This October 19th program aims to trace the history of this endangered 2,000 year old synagogue art tradition, which finds its roots in the floor mosaics of second to sixth century Roman synagogues in ancient Palestine, and which made its way to the Lower East Side via immigrants from Galicia (the former Austrian region on the borders of modern-day Poland and Ukraine).

WHEN: October 19, 2008 11:30 AM
WHERE: Orenstein Center- 15-17 Willett/Bialystoker Place.
Refreshments will be served in the Orenstein Succah
FEE: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $8 students. A $2.00 discount is available with pre-registration For further information, contact LESJ Conservancy: (212) 374-4100 X 1,2 or 3 or e-mail at

The Lower East Side Conservancy is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving, sharing and celebrating the Jewish Heritage of the Lower East Side. Private customized tours available by appointment.

Currently an intern in the Sacred Sites Program of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Miriam Aranoff pursued Middle Eastern studies at Columbia University and wrote her Master's thesis on Hammurabi's Code from Ancient Mesopotamia. M. Edelstein, Objects Conservator at The Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art., received her degree in Art Conservation from NYU's Institute of Fine Arts. Elyssa Sampson is an urban historian, Lower East Side community activist and Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy tour leader.

Judaica Auction: Greenstein & Co. Offers "Lost Art" Auction in New York November 10, 2008
By Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, September 29, 2008

On Monday, November 10th, J. Greenstein & Co.'s auction house will host an extensive auction devoted to Judaica at New York's Radisson Martinique Hotel at 5:30pm. The auction features more than 100 ceremonial objects, mostly from Europe, including menorahs, Kiddush cups, silver torah ornaments, spice boxes, paintings and much more. For those unable to attend the auction, pre-sale bidding and phone bidding will be offered. All items are illustrated in small photos in the on-line catalog.

When I see an array of beautiful and rare Judaica objects such those assembled for this auction, I cannot help but wonder about the provenance of these pieces, and their rich and diverse histories. How many hands have they passed through over the centuries? What Jewish individuals, households, synagogues, cities and societies did they adorn? That this auction should come on the heels of the Kristallnacht anniversary only adds poignancy to this event. Still, that anything of beauty and value survived the wreckage of European Jewish society 70 years ago is miraculous. The remarkable task of re-assembling the beauty and holiness of Jewish history and culture is one of the great achievements of Judaism in our time. And the tradition of Judaica collections is an old one, as the history of collectors donating valuable pieces for public use [I'm thinking, for example, of the case of Alexander David of Braunschweig (1687-1765), as described by Ralf Busch in V. Mann & R. Cohen, eds, From Court Jews to the Rothschilds (Prestel, 1996)]

The auction also features many fine objects from North Africa and the Middle East , as well as Bezalel School pieces and several American Arts and Crafts works.

According to Jonathan Greenstein, who has organized the auction, highlights include an important silver Torah shield made in Brunn in 1814 (est. $30,000-50,000); a rare silver and large silver filigree spice holder from 18th century Lemberg (Est. $22,000 – 30,000) and a magnificent set of three silver Kiddush cups made by J. Rimonim in Fuerth, Germany, c. 1760. Also included is one of the most exceptional silver menorahs to appear at auction in years, the famed 18th century silver Jewish Maker menorah (photo above), featured in Jay Weinstein's book. Other items include various handmade silver Kiddush cups (starting at $3,500), Sabbath Candlesticks and Candelabras (starting at $3,000), sterling silver menorahs (starting at $3,000), Works featured in the auction date back to the 18th century and have been gathered from various long time collectors in New York, London, Chicago and Belgium.

The selections should excite the large and active community of Judaica collectors and will also attract the attention of the many Jewish museums and America and abroad that have proliferated in recent years – often with buildings more impressive than their collections. With the weak US dollar I suspect that many of these pieces will be repatriated to their countries of origin. Unfortunately, when many of these items are purchased they will disappear from public view for many years. So, this is a chance to see some fine pieces, mostly little known. Fortunately, Greenstein & Co. has published a well illustrated catalogue.

J. Greenstein & Co.,, auction house was founded by Jonathan Greenstein in 2004. The Company's biannual auctions feature rare Jewish ritual objects, works of art, books and manuscripts. The auction is not limited only to those in attendance; it is open for phone bidding and purchase beforehand. For more information check the website.

Wrecking Ball Closer for NYC's Congregation Meseritz Synagogue
Documented by ISJM
August 8, 2008

Click here for ISJM photos of Congregation Meseritz

The on-again and off-again plans to demolish the tiny and lovely Congregation Meseritz Synagogue (Adas Yisroel Ansche Meseritz) at 415 East 6th Street on New York's Lower East Side seem to be moving ahead again. An article in The Villager this week details the small congregation's plan to demolish the 1908 building in order to develop the narrow site for a 6-story residential building. It seems for the developer and some members of the congregation, one hundred years of this charming little building are quite enough.

The developer is 23-year-old Joshua Kushner, whose family owns the New York Observer newspaper. Kushner will pay the congregation $725,000 to create ten apartments on the top four floors of an entirely new building, and will cede space for a new synagogue on the lowest levels. Critics of the plan have said that a similar (but more costly) arrangement could be done made which would save the shul's Neo-classical façade, renovate the basement level beth-midrash (which is used daily for prayer) and restore the sanctuary, while allowing new apartments to built above, and slight set back form the façade. Because the building is not listed as a NYC Landmark, there will be few opportunities for project review. Some local residents who pray at the synagogue have claimed that membership has been denied to newcomers, allowing a small group of older members to determine the fate of the building. Though proponents argue that the building must be sacrificed to save the congregation, critics say without the old building the small congregation may done dwindle away.

Local preservationists hope that broader support from the New York Jewish community might be found to help the struggling congregation so they will not have to sacrifice their building. If there is ever to be such financial support, now is surely the time it is needed. This building should be saved.

As early as 1978 the small shul was singled out as a "gem" by Gerald R. Wolfe in his now-classic book The Synagogues of New York's Lower East Side. Wolfe wrote "Another small shul with a most attractive interior is the little-used Adas Yisroel Ansche Meseritch synagogue (Community of Israel of the People of Meseritch) on East 6th Street. The unusually narrow building has balconies which extend almost to the middle of the sanctuary, and through the intervening space, broad rays of light from two overhead skylights seem to focus on the Ark and on a large stained glass panel above it. The soft-yellow-colored panes of the two-story-high window are crowned by an enormous Mogen David [Star of David] of red glass which seems to dominate the entire room."

In the thirty years since, many Lower East Side Congregations, especially those in small synagogues like this, have closed their doors. Congregation Meseritz hung on, led by its rabbi, Pesach Ackerman. But these days with something of a Jewish cultural resurgence on the Lower East Side, a few synagogues are showing new life. The small Stanton Street Shul's congregation is looking to the future and has embarked on a restoration program. Other congregations, like the small Romaniote Kahilla Kedosha Janina, have faced the likelihood of loosing their historic religious identity, and have organized to preserve it in the form of a museum and a restored sanctuary – even if that may not serve future generations of Greek Jews. On Clinton Street, the actively Orthodox Hasan Sofer synagogue has been entirely refurbished – with much of its historic fabric left intact. The Orthodox Bialystoker Synagogue, restored in the 1990s, is a dynamic center of Jewish life. And of course, the 20-year restoration of the Elbridge Street Synagogue – where a tiny minyan still meets – has been completed.

Fearing demolition of Congregation Meseritz in 2006, ISJM commissioned photographer Vincent Giordano to photograph the interior. Rabbi Ackerman cooperated with this documentation project.

According to New York researcher (and celebrated tour guide) Justin Ferate:  "Adas Yisroel Ansche Meseritz is named for the town of Meseritz, Prussia (now Poland) – a well-known center of Jewish learning in Eastern Europe. Meseritz was the home to Dov Ber of Meseritz, who was known as the "Meseritzer Maggid." (A maggid is a wandering Jewish preacher.) Dov Ber was the primary disciple of Israel ben Eliezer (known as the Baal Shem Tov), the founder of Chassidic Judaism. This Orthodox Jewish congregation was established in 1888 as Eduth Ados L'Israel Anshei Meserich – "Witness to Israel – Meseritz" (Anglicized spellings and translations vary somewhat.) Built by a poor but aspiring Jewish congregation, the building is located on a narrow mid-block New York City lot – a style often known as a "tenement synagogue" or "tenement shul." Even with these restrictions, the congregation created an impressive structure.

As a neoclassical "tenement synagogue" the Meseritz Synagogue is an extremely rare (but excellent) survivor of its type. Today, it is probably the only operative neoclassical "tenement synagogue" in the Lower East Side. Nearly all of the others have been demolished. The architect of record for the Meseritz Synagogue was Herman Horenburger. An architectural/spiritual "mate" of Congregation Meseritz was Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Anshe Ungarn at 242 East 7th Street (Between Avenues C and D), survives today as an apartment house, converted in 1986. Likewise, certain details of the recently demolished B'nai Rappaport Anshe Rembrava Synagogue at 207 East 7th Street resembled Congregation Meseritz. B'nai Rappaport Anshe Rembrava is where the new East 7th Street

The historic interior of the Meseritz Synagogue is remarkably intact. Inside, the construction materials are typical of working-class buildings of the era: plaster walls, pressed tin ceilings, and polychrome "nickel" tile floors. Two skylights provide natural light, which is enhanced by several simple, but handsome stained glass windows. The original women's gallery remains intact.
Baptist Church was recently constructed).

The sanctuary is dominated by the original two-story Ark, with High Victorian Gothic details mingled with neo-classical forms – plus a few Eastern European features such as miniature onion domes…Similar details are reflected in other sanctuary furnishings such as the pews.

There are a few other examples of Gothic style having been intentionally used in synagogue design. The most noted perhaps was the original Anshe Chesed at 172 Norfolk Street.  Today, the former Anshe Chesed houses the Angel Orensanz Foundation – an artist's studio, gallery, and performance space.

In the case of Congregation Meseritz, a major reason for Gothic accouterments in the main sanctuary probably lies in something more practical. Most of the local woodworkers were German Christians and using standard church furnishings was probably less expensive. Likewise, since so many of the earlier synagogues have the Lower East Side had formerly been Christian churches, the use of Gothic-styled furnishings in synagogues had become relatively acceptable."

In the half-basement level is the Beth Midrash (study house), also used as a daily synagogue. It is in this space the prayers of the congregation are heard on a regular basis, and it is also where the Rabbi and members of the congregation are often likely to be found.

Richard Meier Luxury Apartments Completed on Brooklyn Site Once Set for Brunner's Monumental UnionTemple
by Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, July 18, 2008

Construction is complete and sales are underway of the apartments in the new luxury building "On Prospect Park" designed by architect Richard Meier at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, on the site that was once designated for the monumental Union Temple, a project scuttled by the Great Depression.

Union Temple was created in 1921 by the merger of two older Brooklyn Reform congregations: TempleIsrael and K.K. Beth Elohim.  The new congregation decided to build a new home at 17 Eastern Parkway, and commissioned Arnold Brunner Associates for the design.  Brunner had designed four important synagogues in Manhattan, and many public buildings.  The new design was in two parts.  First, there was an eleven-story community house, dedicated on the eve of Sukkot in 1929. The building closely resembles the contemporary luxury apartment buildings of Manhattan's Park Avenue. Union Temple's Community House was luxurious, too, with all the amenities demanded of a 1920s Synagogue-Center, including a swimming pool and gymnasium (now used by
an independent health club).

Work was then to begin on the grand Temple, intended to seat up to 2,000 worshippers.  The building design, which is known from only a few presentation drawings, was the last synagogue designed by Brunner, the most prominent and successful American Jewish architect of his generation, who died in February 1925, shortly after the project was announced. Work on the Community House was overseen by William Gehron, who took over most of Brunner's projects.   The design for Union Temple combines two major trends in Brunner's career; the creation of a classical vocabulary appropriate for American synagogue design, and the creation of monumental pubic buildings to create impressive public spaces in American cities.

The stock market crash of November 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression ended those plans.  Like many of congregations at the time, Union Temple had to struggle just to maintain membership, and to survive.  Worship took place within the Community House. For High Holy Days the congregation worshiped at the nearby Brooklyn Academy of Music. Only in 1942 was a theater on the lobby level of the Community House was converted into a sanctuary.  The site intended for the grand sanctuary was used as a parking lot until it was sold at a high price for the construction of "On Prospect Park."

When synagogue building revived after the Depression and World War II, Brunner's classicism was passé.  European modernism, of the very type that has inspired Richard Meier's work, was dominant.   Meier, who’s "On Prospect Park" now "replaces" the unbuilt Unity Temple, knows this history well, since forty-five years ago he organized the influential Jewish Museum exhibition "Recent American Synagogue Architecture." At that time Meier, still a recent graduate of Cornell's School of Architecture, had been working for Davis, Brody and Wisniewski (1958-59); and Marcel Breuer (1960-63), both of which firms had been engaged on synagogue projects, which were featured in the exhibition (of related interest, about this same time Meier also shared a studio with artist Frank Stella.  Later, he gave Stella a copy of Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka's Wooden Synagogues, which greatly influenced Stella's Polish Village series of the 1970s.)

What a shame that Meier himself has never (to my knowledge) designed a synagogue. He has preferred museums as his form of public architecture.  There is still time; he recently designed a church a Rome.

Click here for photos

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