Saturday, March 26, 2011

Poland -- project to build replica of wooden synagogue for Museum of Jewish History

Picture from

by Ruth Ellen Gruber

You can sign up to help build replicas of some of the components of the destroyed 17th century Gwozdziec wooden synagogue, which will then be placed as a key installation in the upcoming Museum of the History of Polish Jews now under construction in Warsaw.

The work is coordinated by the Handshouse Studio, which has already carried out a big project and exhibition on wooden synagogues, including reconstruction of part of the Gwozdziec ceiling, in collaboration with Tom Hubka, the author of a book about the synagogue, Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth Century Polish Community.

Wooden Synagogues of Poland An Exhibition: "A Lost World Revisited"

"Wooden Synagogues: A Lost World Revisited" is an exhibition about the 17th and 18th century wooden synagogues from the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth with a particular focus on the Zabludow and Gwozdziec Synagogues.

These magnificent buildings were destroyed during the Nazi invasion of Poland in World War II. Fortunately, an extensive collection of architectural drawings and photographic documentation has survived in several Polish archives. The exhibition displays reproductions of this historic documentation as well as scale models of the buildings themselves. Through this exhibition, the public will gain an understanding and appreciation of the architectural significance of the wooden synagogues and the nearly lost cultural heritage of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.

The exhibition is a collaboration between Handshouse Studio and Tom Hubka, professor of Architecture and author of Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth Century Polish Community.Exhibition Contents

The exhibit includes six large scale B&W prints of photographs of the interior of Gwozdziec Synagogue; a large 1/2 scale colored painted replica of a portion of the Gwozdziec Synagogue ceiling and wall painting; a large-scale wooden model of the Zabludow Synagogue; reproductions of drawings (mostly produced by faculty and students from the Institute of Polish Architecture of the Polytechnic of Warsaw in 1920s and 1930s); and photographs of 14 additional synagogues along with descriptions of their Polish Jewish communities. There is also a full scale replica of a hewn timber framed brace, the roof truss and log wall connection from the Zabludow Synagogue structure.

The project web site offers this history of wooden synagogues in Polish lands:

During the period between the two world wars, the approximately 3.5 million Jews living in the Polish Republic constituted the largest Jewish community in the world outside of the United States. The Jews of Poland had a tradition of many centuries of peaceful existence alongside the other inhabitants – Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Germans, Armenians, Gypsies – creating a culture of richness and diversity. During the Nazi invasion of Poland and the Holocaust, this part of Poland's cultural richness was lost. Over two hundred wooden synagogues were completely destroyed and only through photographs, drawings and documentation compiled before the war are we able to envision a handful of the hundreds of synagogues that once existed.
Wooden architecture is a dominant element in the historic landscape of Poland. Before World War II synagogues were a significant visual component throughout the countryside in the villages and towns of Poland. Their exterior massing was reflective of Polish vernacular tradition while the interior designs, including elaborate wall paintings and a highly crafted bimah and ark signify a distinctly Jewish art form. The paintings, which often covered the entire wall surfaces, depict zodiac symbols, arabesques, animal images, floral designs and Hebrew text. Upon entering the main sanctuary, the space is organized and dominated by two significant objects, an ark, a highly decorated towering cabinet used to store the Torah scrolls, and the bimah, a raised platform with an ornamental roof held up by wooden posts covering a table where the torah scrolls were read.
There has been an abundance of research and scholarly discourse concerning Jewish society and religious beliefs, but up until recently, little has been written about the subject of the Jewish art and architecture particularly of this period and region. Scholars have suggested this may be a reaction to the second commandment that prohibits the making of and worshipping of idols.
A common misconception is that the Polish Jewish communities who built wooden synagogues were blighted by poverty. This image may be an appropriate 19th and 20th century description, but Zabludow and similar synagogues from the 17th and 18th centuries were built by cosmopolitan, relatively affluent communities who could afford the highest regional standards of construction and craftsmanship. These wooden synagogues are an extraordinary phenomenon, worthy of high artistic standing among the wooden architecture of Europe and the world. They represent a high point in Jewish architectural art and religious painting, a tradition that was later abandoned by Eastern European Jews. This gives greater importance to the study of the subject. Today, these historic wooden synagogues remain only in the memories of a handful of survivors and in the limited but significant documentation.
Most fortunately, between the two World Wars, Professor Oskar Sosnowski of the Department of Architecture of the Polytechnic of Warsaw, and photographer and art historian Szymon Zajczyk directed architects and architect students to produce extensive documentation of these wooden structures through architectural drawings, replica paintings, and photographs. Recognizing the historical importance and artistic value of this architecture and fearing its impending destruction with the rise of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, this team compiled extensive data and produced architectural drawings, color and detail studies and photographs of many synagogues. Much of this project was destroyed during World War II but a substantial amount survived. Today the documentation is all that remain of the wooden synagogues of Poland.
[...] The image of the impoverished shtetl is an appropriate 19th and 20th century description but these buildings are monuments of the 17th and 18th century, a time referred to by some scholars as "a golden age" of shtetl Jewish history. These wooden synagogues were built by cosmopolitan, relatively affluent communities who could afford the highest regional standards of construction and craftsmanship. Conforming to the style of that period, wooden synagogues were an extraordinary architectural phenomenon, worthy of high artistic standing among the wooden architecture of Europe and the world.

Friday, March 25, 2011

I'm speaking in Ithaca NY on Sunday

For anyone in central/upstate New York, I'm speaking in Ithaca on Sunday:

The Ithaca Area United Jewish Community will present “Empty Spaces/Bold New Realities: Jewish Culture in Today’s Europe,” a lecture from author and journalist Ruth Ellen Gruber, on Sunday, March 27, from 3:30-5:30 pm, at the Women’s Community Building, 100 W. Seneca St. in downtown Ithaca. The event will include a musical interlude by the Cornell University Klezmer Ensemble and a book signing by Gruber. Refreshments will be served. The event will be free and open to the public.
In Europe, 65 years since the end of World War II and since the fall of Communism, there are empty synagogues and abandoned cemeteries. However, there is also a new Jewish reality. Gruber is an expert on the impact of the Holocaust as a backdrop in today’s Europe. An award-winning American writer and photographer, she is a witness to the burgeoning European forms of Jewish religious and cultural expression, where few if any Jews live today.
During her presentation, Gruber will focus on the changes in Jewish life since the fall of Communism and compare them with conditions as she found them throughout the past decades. She will provide an illustrated exploration of the re-emergence and popularity of Jewish culture, and will discuss new Jewish youth trends that blend old traditions with today’s culture. Additionally, she will describe the “virtually Jewish” world of “shtetl chic, klezmer cafes and kitschy souvenirs.”
For more than two decades, Gruber has chronicled Jewish cultural developments and other contemporary European Jewish issues. She coined the term “Virtually Jewish” to describe the way the “Jewish space” in Europe is often filled by non-Jews. Her books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” “Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere),” “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe” and “Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today.”
Gruber is the senior European correspondent for the Jewish Telegraph Agency. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Tablet Magazine, Hadassah Magazine and many other publications. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and three Simon Rockower Awards for excellence in Jewish journalism. Gruber was recently a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.
The Ithaca Area United Jewish Community is a volunteer organization dedicated to educational and humanitarian efforts both locally and globally. Donations to the IAUJC in support of its work will be accepted at the door.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Macedonia -- New Holocaust Museum Opens

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

There have been several articles about the opening of the new Holocaust Museum and Memorial in Skopje, Macedonia last week -- the opening marks an important step in coming to terms with the past and also was made possible by a landmark decision on post-Holocaust compensation.

The Forward writes:

The inspiration for the center came from Ivan Dejanov, president of the Macedonian Israeli Friendship Association, and its implementation has been led by principal consultant and Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum and by Victor Mizrahi, honorary consul of Israel in the Republic of Macedonia. It became possible, however, only with the enactment of the Law on Denationalization, which allows for restitution of money and property rights of Jews, even those without living heirs. The Macedonian government allocated 17 million euros to the Holocaust Fund for the Jews of Macedonia, and this eventually went toward the completion of the center and helped in the construction of the country’s only synagogue, in 2000. “It is almost unprecedented for a government to have acted in this way,” Mais said. “It’s an exemplary phenomenon.”
 It says:
The official celebrations marked only the first phase of the center. A special children’s museum will open in the complex in March 2012, to be followed by the permanent exhibition, in March 2013. The completion of all phases of the project coincides with “Skopje 2014,” a $273 million initiative to transform the city into a competitive European capital and rebuild its infrastructure after a 1963 earthquake that destroyed about 80% of the city’s architecture.

 There are about 200 Jews in Macedonia -- I was present at the inauguration of Skopje's little synagogue in 2000 and have posted about other efforts to restore Jewish heritage.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

USA -- My brother Sam will be speaking in NYC on Monday

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This is a heads up for anyone in New York that my brother Sam will be speaking on the architecture of NY synagogues on Monday, March 21, at synagogue Emanu-el. The information can be founr HERE.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its “Sacred Sites” program, the only statewide initiative in New York and just one of three in the country dedicated to preserving and protecting religious properties with both grants and technical assistance.

Temple Emanu-El is pleased to host the Landmarks Conservancy, which will inaugurate a series of illustrated lectures about religious architecture with Restoring Splendor: The Architecture of New York Synagogues led by Samuel D. Gruber. Sacred architecture represents some of the most ambitious collective expression of human creativity. Regardless of religious beliefs, it is easy to be captivated by glorious spiritual buildings. Churches, mosques, synagogues and temples — whether ancient or post-modern — inspire us with their universal and exalted beauty.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Poland -- Video on Construction of Museum of Polish Jewish History in Warsaw

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Polish television ran some very interesting video showing the status of building of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, now under construction in Warsaw. The peg to the story is that 200 students from Israel, Europe and North America are there to assist in the construction stage of the "synagogue ceiling" instalation that recreates the highly decorated interior vault of one of the elaborate wooden synagogues destroyed during World War II.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Poland -- Synagogue in Zamosc renovation is complete

Zamosc synagogue after restoration. Photo: FODZ web site

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The renovation of the renaissance synagogue in Zamosc, the gorgeous "ideal town" in the southeast of Poland, is complete -- and the building will be dedicated next month.

The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland posts a gallery of before and after pictures -- click HERE.

Interior, Zamosc synagogue, after restoration. Photo: FODZ web site

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Poland -- Video on Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture

by Ruth Ellen Gruber

I found it a bit slow getting into this video which was made from last year's 20th edition of the Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow -- and it focuses a bit too much on the music at the outset, rather than the comprehensive variety of workshops, performances, exhibits and other events. But there is some good footage and there are some interesting interviews.

20th Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland from Jewish Culture Festival on Vimeo.