Wooden Synagogues of Poland
Oberlin Exhibition: "Wooden Synagogues: Recovering History Through Art and Architecture"
A new exhibition on view at Oberlin College’s Mudd Center through November 20, 2009, features the magnificent wooden synagogues of Poland built in the 17th and 18th centuries. The centerpiece of the exhibition is the 13' replica of a bimah, a synagogue platform for reading the Torah, stretching to the ceiling of the Mudd Center gallery.
The show's curators are Rick and Laura Brown, professors of sculpture at the Massachusetts College of Art and founding directors of Handshouse Studio. The exhibit is made possible by a generous gift from the Ring family.
Polish 18th century wooden synagogues were destroyed during the Nazi invasion of World War II, but fortunately they live on in the form of architectural drawings and photos.
This exhibition draws on the historic documentation available and scale models built by students to show the architectural significance of the wooden synagogues and the nearly lost cultural heritage of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.
The Oberlin exhibition features 12 to 1 scale models of two synagogues built in the Jewish market towns Zabludow in 1637 and Gwozdziec in 1731, plus a full-scale replica of the Gwozdziec Bimah. There are also colorful elaborately painted ceiling panels, which were were under the Browns’ direction by a group of Oberlin students during winter term workshops at Oberlin in 2005 and 2009. The full-scale models of the Zabludow synagogue log wall and entry door were hand-made using traditional materials and techniques of carving, turning, joinery, and steam bending.
Tom Hubka, author of Resplendent Synagogue and Mass Art and Oberlin students helped with the installation. Reports Rick Brown: "Laura and I gave a presentation of the history of the project to a packed house on opening night when we began with a thank you to everyone who made a contribution to the project. It is a wonderful example of multi-disciplinary collaborative hands-on education including college and secondary school coursework, workshops, lectures, demonstrations, film production, and travel programs."
Rick Brown received the Fulbright Scholarship Research Award, which allowed Rick and his wife, Laura, to spend 2007 researching the architecture and art of wooden structures of Poland.
The exhibition will travel throughout the U.S. and eventually go to Eastern Europe.
Visit the Oberlin website here.
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 current exhibition addresses the common misconception of Polish Jewish communities that build wooden synagogues as blighted by poverty. 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 of people 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.