The Arts: Synagogues in the Round
From roaring lions to prancing horses, an exhibit showcases the work of Jewish artisans and woodcarvers.
When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote their classic 1945 musical Carousel—set in a decidedly non-Jewish New England fishing village—the Broadway team probably did not know about the Jewish connection to that colorful, popular amusement park ride.
But that is the angle explored in “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel,” on view through March 2008 at New York’s American Folk Art Museum (212-265-2350;www.folkartmuseum.org). The exhibit traces the journey of Jewish woodworkers and folk artists in Eastern and Central Europe who immigrated to the United States. A number of them continued to apply their skills to synagogue art in their new homes. Others used traditional techniques and motifs in new ventures, including furniture, cigar store figures and, of course, carousels.
Carousel art—which in the United States reached a height not seen elsewhere in the world—is, in a sense, a secularized, Americanized extension of Jewish religious folk art forms, continuing from the Old World into the New, says guest curator Murray Zimiles.
“The show is in part about the unsung role of Jewish immigrants in American folk art,” he says.
Dazzling though the carousel animals might be, the most significant objects on display are three forms of Jewish folk art—wood- and stone-carvings and papercuts—that are connected by design and iconography. Included in the exhibition are 100 rarely seen Torah Ark decorations, photographs of synagogues and gravestones from Europe and what is perhaps the largest collection of Jewish-themed papercuts ever shown.
The exhibit begins on the museum’s third floor and works its way down; however, the lobby offers a brief overview of the entire show and is a good first stop. Dominating one wall is a black-and-white archival photograph, circa 1910-1912, from the Smithsonian Institution Collections: a glimpse inside the M.C. Illions and Sons workshop in Brooklyn, New York. Shop owner Marcus Charles Illions—who, according to most accounts, was born in Lithuania—looks at the camera as other carvers work on the bodies of horses. Visible over a door in the background are carved lions and a Decalogue.
As the only artisan whose signature appears on both Arks and carousel animals in Coney Island, New York, Illions is the embodiment of the association between Jewish immigrant artists and the carousel industry.
“That [picture] says it all,” notes Zimiles, an accomplished artist and Kempner Distinguished Professor at Purchase College, State University of New York.
To the left of the picture is a carousel figure—“Standing Horse with Jeweled Trappings,” a perfect example of Illions’s work. The majestic animal, complete with ornate saddle and blanket, is covered with beautiful garlands of flowers and glazed with aluminum leaf tinted by lacquer, a technique Illions developed. (He was also the first to use silver and gold leaf on the manes and tails of his animals.)
Among the several objects surrounding the photograph are two mizrahs, an imposing Torah Ark from the Orange Street Shaare Zion Synagogue in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and a photograph of gravestones from Siret, Romania.
Overlooking the scene from a perch above the lobby is a gilded, wooden eagle with an 11-foot wingspan from the Shaarei Eli Synagogue in Philadelphia, created by an unidentified artist, circa 1918. It once hovered over the Torah Ark, recalling the verse from Exodus 19:4, “And I shall carry you on the wings of eagles.”
Each piece connects to different aspects of the exhibit. The wood, gold leaf and metal Ark from Shaare Zion is an example of the work of one of America’s most prolific early synagogue woodcarvers—Samuel Katz. Katz arrived in New York with $5 in his pocket, yet within three years, he had earned enough with his carpentry skills to bring his wife and children to America. Twenty-three Arks, many still in use, are attributed to him. The artisan also augmented his carpentry business by carving animals and decorations for circus merry-go-rounds. His use of exposed light bulbs on some of his Arks may have been influenced by those designs.
The mizrahs and gravestones shown in the lobby are examples of folk art predominant in Eastern and Central Europe. One mizrah—the most common form of Jewish papercut—was created by an unidentified artist in the 19th century. (Mizrahs are wall hangings created by Jewish boys and men for synagogue or home. They were used to indicate east, mizrah in Hebrew, the direction of prayer.) The ink-and-paint papercut depicts intricate stags, bears and birds as well as a double-headed eagle rising over two crowned lions—typical iconography in Jewish folk art. A liberal amount of gold paint is used in the artwork, suggesting an illuminated manuscript.
The elaborately carved gravestones in the photograph from Romania also have familiar motifs—lions, Torah crowns and Decalogues. The museum’s third floor takes visitors back in time to the mid-17th century, considered the beginning of woodcarving as a Jewish art in Eastern and Central Europe. An abundance of wood in the region led to its use in the construction of houses of worship—Jewish as well as Christian. Wood was also used for Arks, bimas and synagogue decorations. Most of this rich visual heritage was destroyed by the Nazis and only survives in photographs and written descriptions.
Two striking models of synagogue are on display. One is a re-creation of the Grodno Synagogue in Poland, which was built in 1750 from stone and wood. Its ceiling dome is decorated with paintings, biblical verses and prayers. The other model—on loan from the Yeshiva University Museum in New York—is of the Zabludów Synagogue, considered one of the most beautiful in Poland. Built around 1635 and designed by an unidentified artist, its Ark was over 30 feet high.
A number of black-and-white photographs detail the magnificent woodwork typical of wooden synagogues. Bimas and Arks were decorated with elaborate interlaced floral motifs surrounding animals both fantastical and real—among them unicorns, deer, leviathans and griffins.
Similar motifs appear on gravestones. A photograph of one with an obscured date in Bobowa, Poland, shows a Lion of Judah flanked by two Hebrew letters, peh and nun, short for the Hebrew phrase “here lies.”
Along the back wall of the third floor are delicate papercuts, from mizrahs to omer calendars and yorzeit notations, ranging in date from the 18th through the early 20th century and in origin from Poland, Belarus and Galicia to Brooklyn and Shreveport, Louisiana, in the States.
Papercuts and synagogue Ark carvings, a number of which are showcased on this floor, are closely related. Both involve piercing through material, whether paper or wood, to create elaborate, symmetrical designs. They often have similar compositions with interlaced foliate, animal imagery and Jewish iconography. And many of Europe’s Jewish paper artists may have been directly inspired by Arks, which they saw every Shabbat at synagogue.
The link between the folk art forms is made obvious in two pieces by artist and woodcarver Abraham Shulkin: an Ark from Adas Yeshurun Synagogue of Sioux City, Iowa, shown in a photograph, and a shiviti, a type of religious art similar in function to a mizrah. Shivitis, however, include Psalm 16:8, which starts with the word shiviti.
Carved in 1899, Shulkin’s three-tiered, semi-hexagonal Ark is one of the best known in North America and bears a close stylistic resemblance to East European antecedents. Traditional symbols—a Decalogue flanked by rampant lions, a Torah crown, a pair of hands giving the priestly blessing and an eagle—sit atop the Ark. The shiviti, the only surviving papercut made by Shulkin, displays similar rampant lions, Decalogue and eagle and is tinted various shades of brown, underscoring the similarities.
Born in Minsk, part of Belarus, Shulkin immigrated in 1897 to Sioux City, where he supported his family as a cattle dealer. It is speculated that he may have used his papercuts as templates for his synagogue carvings.
Examples of American Ark decorations and pediments continue one floor down in a section dedicated to Jewish woodcarving in the United States.
One of the most striking aspects of this part of the exhibit is the diversity of synagogue lions on display. They vary in position and features, in the shape and direction of their tails and in their expressions. Some are whimsical, others menacing. Nearly all are gilded with manes as elaborate and heavily textured as those of carousel animals.
A pair of gilded lions, circa 1918, from the Torah Ark of Shaarei Eli in Philadelphia is attributed to Isaac Sternberg. Philadelphia was one of the centers of the amusement park industry, and the lions’ large, expressive faces bear a marked resemblance to carousel carvings—particularly the heads that adorned boards, panels and pavilions.
Illions’s lions, Decalogue and the priestly hands from his Ark decorations at Anshe Emeth Synagogue—one of four Brooklyn synagogues for which he is known to have created art—also appear in this section. The menacing lions stare forward with open, roaring mouth and folded-back tails, contributing to the composition’s intensity.
Nearby is one of Illions’s menagerie beasts. The large, painted wood “Lion” is a centerpiece of the floor and a highlight of the exhibit. The realistic musculature, deeply carved mane and mouth fixed in a roar provide an obvious link between Illions’s sacred and carousel work.
The Torah Arks may inspire awe, but the carousel animals more than hold their own. And these wonderful, colorful animals, set up as if they are on a carousel, occupy the rest of the room. Whether it is the “Armoured Horse” by Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein—complete with leather bridle and horsetail hair—or the remarkably lifelike “Self-Portrait Showcase,” a white, gessoed wood-and-glass horse by Illions, they elicit nostalgia and a sense of wonder at their beauty and realism.
Next to the horses is a painted wood “Dragon” by Charles Carmel. Jewel-studded with a fishlike tail, it evokes midrashic descriptions of the sea creature that is supposed to be fed to the righteous during Messianic times and is similar to the biblical leviathan found in European Jewish folk art. According to Zimiles, the fantastical animals seen in towering Torah Arks in Europe never appeared in American Arks and were instead reimagined by Jewish immigrant carvers for the amusement park industry.
These carvers supplied carousel animals for the entire nation. Through the development of what is known as the Coney Island style, Carmel, along with Illions, Stein and Goldstein, influenced the high level of artistry of American carousels.
Carmel emigrated in 1883 from Russia. He initially worked for Charles I.D. Looff in Brooklyn and opened his own shop in 1905. Carmel’s horses were distinguished by their grace. Perhaps the assimilation to American folk art ideals is expressed most openly in his red, white and blue “Jumper With Patriotic Trappings and American Eagle,” also on the second floor.
Stein and Goldstein were immigrants from Russia who joined the shop of William F. Mangels—a pioneer of carousel technology—in 1905. After honing their skills, the two men branched off on their own. They produced a number of the largest carousels ever made—some were 60 feet across and able to accommodate over 100 people—and created the one that is now in New York’s Central Park (it originally stood in Coney Island).
Illions’s father was a horse dealer, a fact reflected in the artist’s knowledge of the animal; a photo of Illions riding his favorite horse, Bob, is in the exhibit. The artist came to America in 1888 and was likewise employed by Looff. Within four years, Illions had opened his own shop. One of the woodworker’s most famous creations is the chariot ticket booth that once was at the entrance to Luna Park in Coney Island.
Zimiles’s interest in immigrant woodcarvers stems from his research on Eastern European wooden synagogues. The stepson of a Holocaust survivor, he made several pilgrimages to Eastern Europe in search of these shuls.
Zimiles was also inspired by a 1984 exhibit at The Jewish Museum in New York, cocurated by Gerald C. Wertkin, director emeritus of the American Folk Art Museum, and Norman Kleblatt of The Jewish Museum. Called “The Jewish Heritage in American Folk Art,” it included woodcarvings and papercuts.
After viewing that show, Zimiles stepped up his pilgrimages, partially funded by philanthropist and art collector Ronald Lauder. The travels were not easy, since the countries he visited were then under Communist rule. But one day in 1994, he had a serendipitous discovery. While looking in the dustbin of the Jewish Museum in Warsaw, he found a carving of two lions holding a Decalogue. Zimiles was cleaning off the object when he heard a man say: “You can find stuff like that in America.” The man was Samuel Gruber, at the time director of the Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund.
Gruber’s comment inspired Zimiles to write hundreds of letters to synagogues, museums and historical societies, gathering the material that led to the current show at the American Folk Art Museum. He has also written a companion book published by Brandeis University Press.
There’s more material out there,” notes Wertkin. “Even in America, much was lost because of neglect and changing patterns—some irretrievably. But other pieces have been found by active, passionate collectors. Occasionally you can find things at flea markets and antique shows. It’s a rich and vibrant field, which deserves continued study.”
Unfortunately, adds Stacy C. Hollander, senior curator of the American Folk Art Museum, there was “very little family lore” among descendants of the carousel carvers, so only part of their stories are known.
Nevertheless, the history that has been recovered as well as the magnificent carved animals resonate. “Some people wrote [in the visitors log] of taking a carousel ride again after many years,” says Hollander.
Just as important, Zimiles notes, is where the exhibit is being held. “This is the first time in history such a show is taking place in a secular environment,” he says. “The exhibit weaves together different facets of Jewish life into quite a lovely story. “Beyond that there is a myth that Jews lack a visual culture, that we are People of the Book only,” Zimiles adds. “I hope the exhibit puts the myth to rest.”