As we experience the trajectory of anti-Semitism in history and during one’s own life, it’s natural to feel hopeless. Hate will endure, but it’s still possible to celebrate and enjoy the efforts made to acknowledge the legacy of the Jewish people, as well as to take pride in the end result: contributions that improved life for all.
The city of Goerlitz in Saxony, a part of East Germany after World War II, had a Jewish population between 600 and 700 in 1888, when its B’nai B’rith Victoria Lodge first met. Fewer Jews were living there when a new synagogue opened in 1911. Adopted from the basilica plan, the structure was far from standard, boasting attractive modern additions. Contributing to its unique visual interest was a centrally located structure containing a space which congregants used. Its tiled, domed roof had been topped with a Star of David mounted on a pole. A then-cutting-edge feature of the building was the Art Nouveau and Secessionist elements applied to the exterior and places in the sanctuary. Yet, even in 1911, few of the assimilated Goerlitz Jews worshiped there.
Only 300 Jews remained in Goerlitz when the Nazis set the synagogue ablaze on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938. Thanks to the local firemen who disobeyed orders and extinguished the fire, it was the only synagogue in Saxony to survive. Farm animals roamed the damaged structure for years after the war, but eventually the East German government repurposed the space for public events. Genuine preservation efforts only began after the 1991 reunification. Now, thanks to efforts by Goerlitz’s 30-member Jewish community, its Christian groups and civic associations, the synagogue has been brought back to life. Known as the Cultural Forum Synagogue Goerlitz, it’s intended for both worship and performing arts, and its July 2021 opening was celebrated with a stellar concert, attended by German political leaders, clergy and other notables. Speakers included the prime minister of Saxony, Rabbi Akiva Weingarten of Dresden and the Mayor of Goerlitz.
Millions of euros for the 30-year project came from government grants, foundations and several anonymous philanthropists. Alex Jacobowitz, a cantor and president of the Goerlitz Jewish community, will pay to re-enforce the domed roof to support the Star of David. Parts of the synagogue, including the Exodus verse formerly inscribed on the lintel over the entryway—“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them”—intentionally remain in disrepair to evoke Kristallnacht. Jacobowitz, the historian of the Goerlitz Synagogue, has observed: “I have always found it important that the synagogue has continued to show its scars …”
As much as London was pivotal to the history of Zionism for its important Jewish leaders and as the location of the signing of the Balfour Declaration, the city of Manchester is even more connected with the genesis and the fruition of this important event. In the years before World War I, Zionist leader and German émigré Chaim Weizmann, teaching at Manchester University, served as the first president of the city’s constantly growing B’nai B’rith lodge. Its members—both emigres that had come to join him, and wealthy and influential merchants and manufacturers native to this industrial city—were all supporters of Weizman’s mission, the creation of a Jewish homeland. More than any other Jewish leader in England, it was his efforts that culminated in the signing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.
Although Manchester’s reputation as a working-class city held true for many decades, gentrification has been impacting its changing neighborhoods. Dating to 1874, its oldest synagogue, located in a warehouse enclave, served as the Manchester Jewish Museum.
Funded by a two-year Capital Development Project, the synagogue/museum was restored and the museum space was expanded into a newly constructed adjacent building, highlighted by an attractive exterior fabricated in weather resistant, patinated steel. The eight-pointed star motifs punched into the façade, intended to welcome people of all backgrounds into the museum, also serve to emanate shafts of light from the museum’s interior. Its weathered, shed-like appearance harmonizes with neighboring warehouse buildings.
In addition to revamped exhibits and innovative spaces including a kitchen for interactive cuisine demonstrations, the museum has partnered with the 2021 Manchester International Festival to commission Turner Prize-winning British artist Laure Prouvost’s “The long waited, weighted gathering,” a site-specific installation fusing video, sound, and fine and decorative arts together with found objects from the synagogue and textiles woven by Manchester’s women congregants, which can be viewed this summer in the women’s gallery. Prouvost wanted her vision to meld to “the beautiful textures and architecture, to the history of this amazing place. I was inspired by the ideas of ceremonies and rituals that we bring from histories.”
Two talented individuals from Israel channel their response to the natural world as the inspiration for their works of art. Raised on a kibbutz in Northern Israel, Zemer Peled is a maker of fine and decorative art who draws her imagery from the complex anatomies of fossils, flowers and marine life. French-born architect Ben Gitai incorporated raw materials from the Negev Desert to design and construct a shelter/observatory there intended for the contemplation of the night sky.
Dangerous, playful, brutal, sharp, soft, silky, furry, fibrous—all of these seemingly contradictory qualities can be used to describe Peled’s wildly colorful porcelain objects, plates and sculptures. In her hands, the shards, that fragment of glass or pottery unearthed at the archeological digs she often witnessed as a child, are transformed and enervated, becoming petals, leaves, tentacles, stems and thorns imbued with more than a hint of the animal or the human. From all this aliveness will eventually come decay and its aftermath, regeneration, a theme which Peled is constantly exploring.
In Peled’s temporary site-specific installations, process becomes inseparable from the environment that she envisions. For “Suspension” (2017), commissioned by the North Dakota Museum in Grand Forks, the artist built up dense tangles of tendril-like porcelain skeins and arranged them as cascading “spills” on the walls and near the ceiling of the space. The resulting effect of lightness and delicacy was an illusion that deceptively masked the precarious nature of the resulting constructions, all of which were in danger of toppling from their own weight. That the experience of “Suspension” was as ephemeral as music was demonstrated during a concert by Peled’s brother and collaborative partner, cello virtuoso Amit Peled, profiled in October 2018 during his concert “Journey with My Jewishness,” which was performed in the same space.
Peled studied at the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem and obtained a degree from London’s Royal College of Art. She is now based in the United States.
Words conveying the essence of Gitai’s work might include “transformative,” “elemental” and “pure.” He heads a team of architects and designers in Haifa and Paris who assume an interdisciplinary approach to the inside and outside of a space, conceived as a total aesthetic entity, and which is also mindful of the heritage and work of local artisans. These projects, according to Gitai, invite “us to think beyond the traditional frames of architecture, landscape and building models. This supposes us to be open to new perceptions of know-how and technologies that rely on life models, that is to say on exchanges between materials and their elements…”
Just large enough to hold two occupants, Landroom, commissioned by the municipality of Mitzpe Ramon, is the name of his 20-square-foot shelter/observatory in the Negev. Distinguished by an austerity, almost a naturalness, which seamlessly blends the structure with its environment, the building seems to have emerged organically from desert sand and rocky terrain at its location to the west of the Mitzpe Ramon Crater. It is made from “rammed earth,” a moistened mixture of sand, stone and other elements—which were taken from the Mitzpe Ramon Crater—that is forced into a mold.
Landroom has been situated to provide shade throughout the day, while its circular interior and roof opening offers an optimal view of the sky. Aside from the built-in bench, the only embellishment is a stone bell suspended from the top of the window, whose ring functions as an accompaniment to the sound and sensation of the blowing wind.
In recognition of the still-innovative thinking of Frank Lloyd Wright and other leaders of the early 20th century Prairie School, the Jaffa Roof House, completed by Gitai and his associates in 2020, envisions the surrounding land and sea views of the ancient port city as integral components of the apartment’s interior. Strategically placed glass windows and multiple balconies “create an in & out spatial experience, where the outdoor merges with the indoor to create a unique flow based on light and nature.” Both the exterior and interior of the apartment are constructed with soil, straw and lime plaster—building materials which were “sourced from the local area” and which continue to be associated with Jaffa’s history.
The pages of the Winter 2020 issue of IMPACT contained a From the Vault column focusing on the cleaning, repair and rededication of the 19th century Moorish-style synagogue in Verdun, France by American soldiers during World War II, who were the first to revive Friday night worship services there. The building had been destroyed by the Nazis before the American troops arrived.
The story of the events in Verdun had originally been published as a first-hand account by Army officer, surgeon and B’nai B’rith member Col. Joseph Haas in a 1945 issue of B’nai B’rith’s American Jewish Monthly.
With funds raised by France’s heritage organization, Fondation du Patrimoine, the synagogue has now undergone a major restoration by the architectural firm Grégoire André. A short film on the foundation’s website details many aspects of this project and includes footage of the restoration process, as well as visuals of the building’s exterior and sanctuary.
Designated as an historic landmark, the Verdun synagogue is owned by Verdun’s Jewish community. Many dangerous leaks from the roof and elsewhere had forced the synagogue to close to the public.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
Like Alice in Wonderland, New York photographer Vincent Giordano discovered a very special place right in his own backyard.
During one of his strolls through the Lower East Side in 1999, he was invited into Kehila Kedosha Janina, a little synagogue on Broome Street that had been home to the city’s Greek Romaniote Jewish congregation for over 72 years. From that moment, Giordano was compelled to capture with his camera the rituals, traditions and spirit of the people who worshipped there.
Set apart from Sephardi Jews, the founders of Kehila Kedosha Janina spoke Judeo-Greek, an ancient dialect that incorporates Greek, Hebrew and Turkish words and expressions. While Romaniote religious ritual was carried out in Hebrew, many special prayers, poems and songs were composed and recited in Romaniote. Jews from Ioannina, Greece who immigrated to the United States formed their own congregation in 1906. One of scores of small synagogues that dotted the streets of the Lower East Side in the early decades of the 20th century, their house of worship, built in 1927, still conducts services.
Giordano had studied comparative religion in college, but he did not know any Jews of Greek descent before his visit to the synagogue. The photographer, who had literally found his labor of love, embarked on an odyssey that would take him from Broome Street all the way to the original Romaniote synagogue of the congregation founders, located in the city of Ioannina (Janina), in northwestern Greece. Eventually, his choice and depiction of this subject matter was determined by guidance from scholars in religion, history, anthropology and language. He amassed a body of work that would encompass not just photography, but many hours of audio and video, including interviews conducted with synagogue members. When Giordano tragically died at the age of 58 in 2010, his multimedia legacy was left behind.
The next chapter begins in 2019, when Giordano’s widow donated his work to the Hellenic American Project (HAP), and the Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library’s Special Collections and Archives at Queens College. In January 2021, the Project mounted its first online exhibit of Giordano’s photos, in partnership with the College’s Center for Jewish Studies and the Rosenthal Library, “Romaniote Memories, a Jewish Journey from Ioannina, Greece, to Manhattan: Photographs by Vincent Giordano.” The show was curated by Dr. Samuel Gruber, whose own organization, the International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM), sponsored Giordano’s work while he was engaged with the Romaniote community.
Integral to the exhibits are the educational texts that introduce each part of the show, which comprises over 100 photographs organized by theme and includes pictures of Kehila Kedosha’s own Judaica collection, as well as architecture, religious rites and celebrations such as those shot during the High Holidays in Ioannina, Greece in 2006.
There is much to see and to learn from the show, which many will find helpful for its content on Romaniote Jewish history, synagogue architecture, and the nature and symbolism of Jewish life cycle rites and holidays.
Far from elegiac, the photos reveal the vivacity of the people of all ages whose identities are tied to their religion and traditions. Their personalities are revealed in both photographic portraits and a series of group shots that illustrate the spiritual and familial love marking the celebratory and communal elements of their faith. Channeling Giordano’s own sensibility, the viewer is never detached, but conversely is physically propelled into the center of the action, sharing in its transformative experience.
Even as it exists today, Giordano’s unfinished film, “Before the Flame Goes Out,” is still critical to preserving and studying Romaniote culture. Over 80% of Greece’s Jewish population perished in the Holocaust, which decimated the country’s historic Romaniote communities. Of the 1,960 Jews who were deported to Auschwitz from Ioannina, 110 survived. A small population of Greek Jews live in the country today; a fraction of these people read and speak Romaniote. As the late photographer himself wrote, his unplanned encounter with the congregants of Kehila Kedosha Janina:
“…was transformed into an incredible personal journey of discovery, filled with wonderful people, interesting experiences and fascinating places. As I explored and probed deeper, I discovered this story is much larger than the synagogue on Broome Street, that it reaches far into the past…to the rich history of the Jews in ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire…and the devastation of the Holocaust.”
For Extra Content: Hear a conversation recorded on Oct. 22, 2020 with B’nai B’rith CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin and curators Dr. Samuel Gruber and Renee Pappas, who outlined the history of the Romaniote Jews in the United States and Greece, and who traced the journey of Giordano’s photos themselves, from his own studio and their display at the Greek Consulate General in New York City and the Embassy of Greece in Washington, D.C. to their present home at Queens College.
Located in the Marais District in Paris, le Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme houses a superb collection of periodicals, photos, graphics and other materials connected to the Dreyfus Affair, which is remembered as critical to modern Jewish history, and as having a pivotal impact on Theodor Herzl—formerly an advocate for assimilation—and his intense desire to create a Jewish homeland. The museum has recently acquired a collection of 200 illustrations by journalist and artist Maurice Feuillet depicting the proceedings at the trial of Emile Zola in 1898, and at Dreyfus’ second court-martial in 1899.
An observant Jew and patriotic Army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted in 1894 of selling secrets to Germany after a sham trial in which witnesses lied and forged documents were submitted as evidence. In egalitarian France, his supposed crime opened the floodgates of hatred for the Jews as an ethnic group, revealed in the thousands of caricatures, anti-Semitic editorials and even board games preserved today. Two years later the real traitor was identified, leading to novelist Emile Zola’s open letter to the president of France, published on the front page of the journal L’Aurore in 1898. In it, he accused specific individuals in the French government of subverting the truth. Subjected to death threats and mob violence, Zola was tried and convicted for insulting authority. Dreyfus was pardoned and released from confinement on Devil’s Island after his second trial in 1899, but he was not exonerated until 1906.
A sampling of Feuillet’s sketches reveals his sources in Japanese art. With an economy of line, the young artist assigned to cover the trials conveys the stoicism of the physically deteriorated Captain Dreyfus, now ill and emotionally spent from his five-year imprisonment and the shame he had suffered. Her back to the viewer, Mrs. Dreyfus is rendered in profile, dignified and perfectly attired in a dark shirtwaist and plumed hat. At his 1898 trial, Zola glares at a man who is perhaps the prosecuting attorney. His expression defiant, the writer adopts a posture that may have been disrespectful in a court of law at that time, one leg crossed over the other. It is not difficult to discern that Feuillet was in sympathy with the innocent man and those who were fighting for justice.
It’s satisfying to learn that elsewhere in Europe, plans are going ahead to mount exhibits that were cancelled due to the pandemic. At London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, “Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty,” which was to have been on view in 2020, has been rescheduled and can now be seen from May through November of this year. A survey of the artist’s woodcuts, the show is comprised of art loaned from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.
As Elizabeth Smith, the Foundation’s director, has commented: “The extensive survey of Frankenthaler’s woodcuts is an exciting opportunity to introduce the artist’s printmaking to U.K. audiences through works from our collection. It will continue to advance the understanding and appreciation of her ground-breaking contributions to art.”
Celebrated for her lyrical interpretation of Abstract Expressionism and her impact on the New York and Washington Color Field School, Frankenthaler was born in New York City in 1928, and studied art at Bennington College. After she was discovered by influential critic Clement Greenberg early in her career, she became a star and exhibited her large-scale paintings widely. Referencing the methods of first-generation Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, her process involved pouring and dripping that resulted in an entirely different, lyrical effect, produced by the thinning of the paint absorbed by the raw canvas and her use of a wide range of translucent tonalities.
Later, Frankenthaler would expand her medium, even applying the juicy residue of crushed berries on the surface of the canvas.
Mounted a decade after her death in 2011, the Dulwich installation will shine a light on the artist’s constantly evolving style and experimental methods through its focus on her large-scale, fluid and painterly woodcuts, executed from the 1970s on. Employing innovative processes and unconventional tools, Frankenthaler continued to draw inspiration from the aesthetics of Japan. A number of the woodcuts in the installation—including the room-sized “Madame Butterfly” (2000), produced in collaboration with Tyler Graphics artist Kenneth Tyler and woodblock print specialist Yasuyuki Shibata—represent a fusion of American and Japanese printmaking methods.
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