Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Yiddish Letters Revealed

In an area of paint loss located on the original plaster just above the decorative border on the west wall, between Shivat and Tevet, revealed writing in what appears to be pencil. Initially the letters were only partially visible, but as they seemed to be of importance we went ahead and lifted the adjacent paint layers. This revealed more letters...with the help of the the shul members, Miriam, Elissa, Josh and Jonathan, the meaning of the words was clarified, "Leave the whole bench (area) free".

Gantzeh= whole thing, entire
Bank= bank of benches
Frei= free

There are still some letters that remain uncovered. Who knows what new information will be gained when they are revealed. One explanation of, "leave the benches free" could be to keep the benches out of the area in order to have space to paint the mazels. Another explanation is to keep the lower part of the wall open for the the intended decoration to be painted. These words represent a moment captured in time when the original decoration was was being painted. How exciting!

Last week we were able to take measurements of the moisture content in all of the mazels and the areas in between. The specialized equipment was loaned to us by our colleague and great supporter of the Stanton Street Synagogue project, Norman Weiss. It was found that areas with the most visible damage indeed have moisture problems. We are on the ball, and with time, research and further collaboration with specialists, we will know where the problems stem from and how they can be mitigated. We want to keep the great momentum going...

We are well on our way to finishing the stabilization of all of the mazels. Amazingly, we are able to carry out more consolidation than anticipated. This is great for the safety of the paintings as we wait for the next phase to begin...

Original Plaster Walls

We are extremely grateful to Linsly Boyer, our conservation graduate student who is participating in the work, for running a sample of the original plaster walls to determine the composition. She was able to use an XRD-- or x-ray diffraction machine-- at the American Museum of Natural History for this work. XRD uses x-rays to determine the composition of unknown substances. In a (rather simplified) nutshell, the x-rays impinge on the surface of the sample, and are diffracted or bent back towards the machine in different patterns, depending on the arrangement of molecules in the substance. This is a wonderful tool to identify inorganic materials-- which can be extremely important as conservation treatments are planned. We were able to learn that the original white plaster layer is most likely a lime plaster with a small amount of gypsum, which was probably added to help hasten hardening of the wall (or as it is sometimes termed, the plaster was gauged with gypsum). Yet another step towards unraveling the exciting mysteries of the Stanton Street Shul!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Some interesting links

I've just been browsing around the web and though I knew abstractly that Stanton Street was one of the few LES shuls left, I didn't exactly realize how MANY similar buildings with similar histories have been demolished or turned into shiny new condos. Sam Gruber's Jewish Art and Monuments blog has some photos and information about these places here, and also see Elissa Sampson's incredible trove of photos from various spaces that no longer exist...

It's amazing to me that so many existed and now have just disappeared. I'm already so very impressed by the Stanton Street congregation's incredible commitment to preserving and maintaining the building and the active community that gathers there - this just underscores the importance of soldiering on in this direction.

Keep checking in for more great updates on the conservation of the sanctuary interior.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Discovery of another treasure

After a very successful two weeks of stabilization of Tevet, we moved on to Adar, our great fish. Adar has extensive water damage on the visual right side of the image. Similar to Tevet, the central image was covered with contact film to impede loss of the unstable paint. The contact film was successfully removed and any paint left on the film will be consolidated and reattached to the wall at a later date. 

During paint stabilization, an important discovery was made. Hebrew letters from an earlier decoration scheme were found. These words are located above the mazel and can be seen  quite clearly in raking light. This placement of the mazel title is quite different from what we see today, wherein the words are placed below the central image. With a bit of research (thanks Elissa) it was found that one of the words says 'Dagim' meaning fish in the plural . SO COOL!  

Discoveries like these contribute to the understanding of the history and use of historic sites, making their preservation even that much more important. And for us as conservators, it is yet another inspiration to continue our work to save the world's cultural heritage. 

Who knows what undiscovered treasures are yet to be found!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Well, all I can say is that I am thrilled we have such a fantastic team to kick off the Stage 2 of this project. Roos Keppler is back from Amsterdam, and she is doing a fantastic job moving the project forward-- she is thoughtful and careful, and really puts her heart into her work. This time around we are lucky to have Batyah Shtrum on board as well, a dear friend and wonderful conservator. Like Beth and myself, Batyah is an objects conservator, but she has lots of experience working on painted surfaces. We also have some wonderful graduate students-- Katie Gordon and Linsly Boyer--and even a pre-program person working with us. I hope they will post their thoughts about this project as we make progress.

We met with two interested members of the congregation yesterday, including Molly Yestadt. Molly worked with us to raise awareness and interest in the project, and we are so happy she is still involved and helping us liaise with the shul. It was such a wonderful opportunity to talk about this stage of the project. One important issue we discussed is Elul, the mazel we treated intially. This treatment was completed as a Stage 1, which involved lots of testing and researching (still going on now!). We developed our treatment method during stage one-- and now, several months later, we are able to review its success. We are quite pleased with the results actually-- there is some minor lifting of paint flakes that were consolidated originally, but this is only very minor and we will be able to go back in and set them down. It really is fortuitous that we have this time to review work done earlier, during a very different season-- with a lot more humidity!

I will be working one day a week, as with the initial treatment-- wish I had more time to work on this. But I am thrilled with the team and very proud of how hard everyone is working.
Till next time, good night!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Following a very successful completed treatment on the Elul mazel, we have started phase two of the conservation treatment of the mazelos. The next steps are as follows:

               A “triage”, ie., stabilization treatment of the three mazel paintings at greatest risk of significant paint loss: Tevet, Shevat and Adar

               Surface cleaning and consolidation of the three most intact mazels: Nissan, Iyar, and Sivan

               If time allows and outstanding building issues are addressed, stabilization of the remaining five mazels will take place

In addition to the conservation treatment, this phase will include a more detailed assessment of the condition of the west wall, where the sanctuary abuts the adjacent building, in order to ensure no leakage issues remain. As well, paint analysis will be carried out to better determine the history of the paint layers.  

The past week was all about establishing the situation and status of the mazel Tevet. It suffered severe damage the last decennia caused by water infiltration in the wall and also later applied fills left their marks. The paint layer has been pushed off the wall so to speak because of the moisture that needed to go somewhere. Also the later applied gypsum fillings have reacted with the water causing to form salts. Salts occur when a wall gets moist the water gets transported via capillarity and seeks it's way out, when the water evaporates at the surface cristallisation of salts occur. And these again push off the paint layer. An other feature that hasn't helped Tevet at all is the plastic contact film--applied in the past to 'save' the paint layer-- One doesn't need much of an imagination to understand what happens over time with a paint layer under a plastic contact film...

Removal of this plastic film was the most important action to be done--intense and very much like surgery as Batyah and I decided to call this procedure. Furthermore the right consolidation treatment needed to be found. The Tevet appeared to be different than the Elul and therefore an adjustment of the previous consolidation treatment was needed. Off course we have found it and we have made lots of progress the last few days. It has been a rewarding week and very satisfying to liberate Tevet from the plastic film!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The finished product!

After a final week of some intensive inpainting, we are proud to present the final result! More soon on the treatment and future plans...

Friday, August 7, 2009

This isn't Eldridge Street...thoughts on preservation

We had an interesting and illuminating visit from Jonathan Shore today, a previous Vice President of the Shul who spearheaded the fundraising and renovation project that was completed in November of 2007. Though Jonathan voiced deep concerns about going down the conservation/preservation road, he also expressed his support for the project and his hopes that the shul will continue to improve the building and the interior. One comment, though, stuck in my head as it is something I have heard before from people I've met in the shul - that "this isn't Eldridge Street." By this, people mean both that it isn't possible for Stanton to raise the kinds of funds that the Eldridge Street Shul raised for their renovation, and that this shul strongly feels that it does not want to become a "museum" to Jewish history, but wants to remain an active and alive Jewish community.

I want to address the fear here that "preservation" is synonymous with a museum - or, for that matter, that "museum" is synonymous with "dead"! From my point of view as a conservator, "preserving" this historic interior does not mean leaving it as an untouched time capsule, decaying before our very eyes. It means respecting the efforts, ideas and lives of those who created this space, and doing as much as we can to reveal their original handiwork, to reveal the space that they created in which to gather and pray, and to live in that space as they lived in it.

The notion of place is very strong in Judaism, isn't it? The physical place, the enclosure in which the divine dwells, the centerpiece of the community. Being at the shul always makes me think of how it must have felt being a newcomer to this country, finding your way, and how important it was to recreate the familiar structures and relationships, to produce the visual reminders of home. I was thrilled when Elissa showed me a painting from Mayer Kirshenblatt's book, on view now at the Jewish Museum, of his childhood shul in Apt, Poland - there they were, the mazelos (also see the lovely multimedia page at the Jewish Museum website). It must have been heartwarming for the shul's congregants to see them again in New York. When I spend a day or, more recently, a week straight looking closely at the painting of the B'sullah, I never fail to see the hand that gently drew in the strands of wheat, that painted in the soft focus of the trees on the horizon and the blue and white of the clouds in the sky. The delicacy of the painting and the subtlety of the transitions between colors is largely obscured now, but the skill and care with which these were painted is clearly evident with a closer look. I feel strongly that this care and this effort must be honored, and must not be thrown away simply because it has been damaged.

I grew up with the notion that Jews valued history, lived and breathed the past, not in a regressive or stagnant way but in a way that celebrated the beauty and the strength of those who came before us. We study what they wrote, what they did, discuss how it relates to our current lives, use it, learn from it. This has a lot to do with why I chose the conservation profession, but that's a different topic. Jonathan had a lovely idea of working with local schools to create interpretations of the mazelos and display these in the shul. It's a beautiful idea. I feel, though, that in order to learn from the experience, the students must also know the original mazelos and experience the original space, to know that someone before them took the care and time to create this beautiful cycle. The mazelos have meaning on so many levels, Jewish and non, and their importance to the original Stanton community cannot be understated; but it isn't only the subject matter that matters here. Why do people travel to Jerusalem when they could very well look at a photo of the Wall online - or go to see Michelangelo's David in Florence when there are dozens of copies, even ones you can put on your coffee table? There is clearly something about the physical place and physical presence of Art - whether it's considered "high" or "low", whatever you think about its aesthetics - that holds power and energy for people. The paintings at the Stanton Street Shul have that energy, and though it may be obscured under the layers of the years, it is important that it now be brought to light.

Some photos..

"Before treatment" image:
I am about a week behind with these photos, so if you go into the shul you will see we are much farther along - but I wanted to share a few images of the first big part of the work, which was consolidating the flaking paint and removing the large areas of bright green overpaint.

The paint layer - which is not just one paint layer, of course, but can consist of three or four or five different applications dating to different time periods - was detached, or delaminating, from the plaster wall in many places. The separation from the wall and the many losses did allow us to see that the plaster behind this painting is in good condition, which isn't true for many parts of the wall, as those of you who know the shul can attest!

Our first big task was to readhere the flaking paint areas to the wall. This was time consuming but very successful and our method is detailed in an earlier post. If you look at the wall today, you will still see a network of cracks, but the paint flakes are now all lying relatively flat against the wall.

Our second simultaneous task was to remove the bright green overpaint areas. This green paint represents what seems to be the most recent effort to cover the damaged areas. There have also been at least two layers of spackle applied over the damaged areas, which extend, in many cases, quite far outside the missing areas, covering lots of original surface. We have carefully removed as much of this as we can and have revealed large portions of the original painting, in good condition. Luckily the spackle cleaves easily from the paint layer and is soluble in water, though it takes a bit of work to remove all the traces from the irregular topography of the surface. We are not as lucky with the green paint, as it leaves a greenish residue which is difficult to remove without also affecting the original surface underneath, and tends to stay in the cracks and small depressions of the surface.

Here we are with the bright green removed and the paint flattened. The two areas of green on the right are areas where we are keeping the old fill material in the losses; we will just inpaint it to match the surrounding area.
Since this photo was taken, we have removed large areas of the dull brown overpaint that covers the lower half of the panel, and filled in most of the loss areas at the bottom with a tinted spackle that will cover only areas of loss, not original surface. We have also removed a large part of the overpaint from the scene itself and filled in the large and small losses there, which are now ready to be inpainted to match the surrounding colors. Please check back in a week or so for more photos!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Yes! We found more treasures today! 
Beth an I had a long but very rewarding day at our bright yellow scaffolding. Part of the restoration treatment is the removal of later applied paint layers and skim coats that go extensively over the original decoration scheme. This is done with a small surgical knife aka a scalpel. By scraping very carefully and using otivisors it is possible to remove the later applied paint- and plaster layers and uncover the original paint layer.

And we found out that indeed it is extensively over painted! 

The center piece, the hand with the wheat also known as the 'Virgo sign' was pretty much over painted for almost 50% while maybe 15% was an actual loss and therefore a filling.
Uncovering the original paint layer is highly addicting and Beth and I just couldn't stop. Mumbling along the removal to each other how addicted we were...

Anyway we found  a lot today and the treasures we found are highly appreciated and cherished and will be preserved for the next generation!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Whew what a day! Complete with torrential rainstorms and saturated humid interior air. Still, we made tons of progress. Beth and I worked on the scaffold, sitting on plastic crates, while good-natured Roos stood the entire day on a ladder working on the left marbled column.

We started by consolidating—or reattaching to the wall—areas of paint that had lifted and curled up from the wall. Some areas exhibit several layers of paint—applied over many years-- which makes for a very thick, brittle paint film. The wonderful and incredibly knowledgable Harriet Irgang consulted with Roos and Beth during this previous week, working with them to develop the best treatment method. First we wet the lifted paint through tissue paper, with ethanol:distilled water, 1:1. This is allows the paint to relax back into position. Next we apply the consolidant—which is called BEVA D8 and is aqueous, or in a water solution. The adhesive looks a lot like Elmer’s, which is because it is a dispersion of tiny molecules of BEVA in water—the same way milk is tiny gobules of milk fat in water.

So we apply the BEVA, which in most instances is diluted with water, and let it work its way down behind the cracks and flakes. For the really tough and heavy lifted paint fragments, we apply the BEVA undiluted directly on the back of the paint. After this, we apply some light pressure to press the paint back in place. Finally, we use a little heat where needed to smooth down the flakes.

As we have been examining the painting and beginning to work, we have found some really interesting details about the history of the painting. Part of understanding how to conserve a piece involves understanding its construction—for instance, what was painted and when—and what might be the original mazel and what is more modern. We have spent a lot of time looking, slowly testing solvents and reducing overpaint to create a map of what paint is where. This is like archaeology in a sense, where you slowly move down through historical layers. One thing we know for sure is that large areas of the mazel are painted over, and we are so excited that we are able to uncover more of this original design. We have also been reducing large areas of light green overpaint—which is a bright mint color—that was applied in discrete sections throughout the piece. This distinct layer was marbled with black paint where it occurs in the marbled columns.

We are really excited about how the work is going—and I am so looking forward to the shul’s congregation getting to see our progress at services this week. We hope people visiting the shul will pick up our postcard—and post on the blog here what their thoughts are!

We just want to thank several people who have helped and shared their time and wisdom to make this project move forward—including Harriet Irgang, Norman Weiss, and Katie Gordon.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

beginning of week 2

So, the conservation work of the mazel entered the second week. Today was a great day; work went well and we are making progress. Also the shul was less of a sauna and not that hot and humid as it was last week.... 
We are discovering new details every day and that's keeping the work exciting and interesting. Being a conservator is sometimes like treasure finding, it is always so fulfilling to find new details, paint layers, decoration schemes or even the right treatment procedure. Also treasure finding needs tact, skill and a lot of patience, good for us we have those skills too! A more detailed follow up will be given by Sarah shortly.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Some Conservation Resources

So for those out there who are not so familiar with conservation, it might be useful to have a very brief introduction. According to the American Institute of Conservation for Historic and Artistic Works (AIC)-- the professional affiliation group to which many North American conservators belong--
“The primary goal of conservation professionals, individuals with extensive training and special expertise, is the preservation of cultural property. Cultural property consists of individual objects, structures, or collections. It has significance that may be artistic, historical, scientific, religious, or social, and it is an invaluable and irreplaceable legacy that must be preserved for future generations.”

You can read more information on AIC's website at

The essential gist here is that we help to keep cultural property safe- whether a painting, building, book OR wall painting- for future generations. Sometimes this work involves lots of physical activity on the actual object, for instance, using different chemicals to reduce soiling on a painted surface-- and sometimes it involves trying to control the environment around the object, through climate controls like an HVAC system. Often times conservators consider themselves the advocate for these objects, because as we all know, paintings cannot speak for themselves.

Conservators are professionally trained, either through graduate schools or as apprentices in other conservation workshops. Today, most people entering the field do study at the graduate level, and typically receive a master's degree. Several graduate schools offer this type of study, including the Conservation Center at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University; Buffalo State College; University of Delaware, Winterthur; UCLA in partnership with the Getty; and The University of Texas at Austin (for book conservation). Even more universities offer degrees in historic preservation, which is the conservation of the built environment.

Please let us know if you-- the reader-- have any questions about this. As we start working on the Stanton Street painting, I think some of this information will really come to life.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Preparations underway

We are gathering supplies and getting ready to start on July 26th, next Sunday! We'll be setting up our scaffolding and equipment on Friday morning, if all goes according to plan. Here's a quick run-through of the team:
Beth Edelstein (me), objects conservator, NYC
Sarah Barack, objects conservator and businesswoman extraordinaire, NYC
(together we run SBE Conservation, LLC)
Roos Keppler, conservator of historic interiors, from Amsterdam. Roos is the conservator who will really be running the project day to day, and I am so glad she's on board!
We will also be working with:
Harriet Irgang, paintings conservator, who has been incredibly generous with her time, support and expertise and will be starting us off during the first week.
Melanie Brussat, objects conservator, who will be coming on during the third week.
Batyah Shtrum, who is now in Italy conserving ancient artifacts and will be coming in towards the end of this phase.
There are lots more people who are deeply involved in this project and without whom it would not be happening, but above all is Elissa Sampson, resident historian of Stanton Street Shul and unflagging supporter of the preservation of these paintings. I could go on and on but an enormous thank you is going to have to suffice for now.
More to come...

Friday, July 10, 2009

We’ve Got Mazel!
by Miriam Aranoff and Elissa Sampson, August 2008

Mazoles (as in Mazel tov!) are a pictorial depiction of the Jewish Zodiac, a folk art tradition brought by Eastern European immigrants to the small neighborhood shuls of the Lower East Side. This tradition is now represented in only two remaining buildings still used as shuls: the Bialystocker Shul and the Stanton Street Shul. At Stanton Street (Anshei Brzezan) originally one of the poorest neighborhood shuls, the mazoles are literally crumbling into ruin. Once a familiar sight in many Lower East Side synagogues, the mazoles are now a rare and precious artifact of our cultural and community history.

Their appearance here stands as a testament to the depth of the association and affection that immigrants had for the towns and shuls they left behind in Europe, and to their desire to carry the familiar elements of their past lives forward into their new and unknown futures. The restoration of Stanton Street’s mazelos would be a fitting chapter in the ongoing renewal of the Shul, fulfilling its vision of bridging the past and future of the Lower East Side.

History and Context
These zodiac paintings are the heirs to an almost two-thousand-year-old synagogue tradition that has its roots in Roman Jewry. The antiquity of zodiac imagery can be seen in the 2nd-6th century Hellenistic era synagogues with zodiac mosaics (see box). The zodiac has taken on a number of meanings within Jewish thought; there is a long tradition of heeding the stars and referring to the zodiac as an instructive metaphor. A variety of sources including the Talmud, the 13th century scholar Nachmanides, and Isaac Luria (The Holy Ari) of the 16th century have written about astrology and Jewish tradition. Mentioned in the Talmud, mazoles religiously and culturally became increasingly associated with the 12 Hebrew lunar months and often with the Tribes, and disassociated with astrological worship over time. In modern common usage, mazel, as in mazel tov, signifies one's constellation or fortune, and months such as Elul are seen Jewishly as being particularly lucky.

In 17th-19th century Poland, particularly in poorer regions such as Galitzia, zodiac paintings became popular as a means of decorating the walls of wooden synagogues in small communities. As populations shifted to larger cities and synagogues of stone became more prevalent, this vernacular tradition began to diminish. Given the mass destruction of the wooden synagogues wrought by the Holocaust, there are no existing buildings with mazelos paintings still used as shuls; the few buildings saved after the war no longer have active congregations. In the Ukraine, there are only two buildings left at all. The crumbling Stanton Street Synagogue murals and the restored ones at the Bialystocker Shul on Willet Street are thus the remaining living heirs to this rich tradition.

Eastern European traditional Jewish folk art disallowed the full representation of the human body and avoided pagan or Christological associations. This led to some interesting changes in the zodiac imagery. At Stanton Street, for the harvest month of Elul, the Virgo counterpart is a B'sullah (Virgin) depicted solely as the outstretched hand of a woman showing the embroidered cuff of a peasant blouse and holding a sheaf of wheat, thus honoring the prohibition on showing the face. There is also a lobster or crayfish portrayed for the month of Tammuz, which directly parallels the representations in the synagogues of Galicia.

We must act now
The mazoles at Stanton Street are in dire need of your help and support. Their disappearance would be like having a page torn out of a history book of the immigrant story. It's one thing to hear about people who migrated from Eastern Europe; it's quite another to sit here on the Lower East Side where they sat, seeing just what they saw in the sanctuary, and to realize their experiences of life in both of these places. The unique authenticity of Stanton Street’s building and interior is a strong attraction to a new, younger demographic seeking a meaningful connection to its immigrant past. These paintings are an essential part of the shul’s warm, appealing, historic nature and if they are lost, a large part of that identity will also be lost.

"Rami b. Abba was building a synagogue. There was a certain old synagogue which he wanted to pull down, so as to take bricks and beams from it and use them for the other. He was doubtful, however, how to interpret the dictum of R. Hisda; for R. Hisda said: A man should not pull down a synagogue until he has built another [to take its place]. The reason there, [he knew] was so that there should be no negligence [to build the new one after the old one had been pulled down]. But what was the rule in such a case as this? He applied to R. Papa, who forbade him; to R. Huna, and he also forbade him. Raba said: A synagogue may be exchanged or sold [for secular purposes], but may not be hired or pledged. What is the reason? … its holiness is still adhering to it. Its bricks also, may be exchanged or sold [for secular purposes] but not lent. This rule applied only to old ones, but in the case of new ones there is no objection."

The holiness attributed to the physical fabric of "old" synagogues thus prevented R. Abba from destroying an old synagogue to use its materials for a new one, because the innate holiness of old synagogues is irreplaceable. Today we have the opportunity to create a new synagogue while still preserving the innate holiness of the old one. It is an opportunity that we cannot let pass us by..

Where the Mazelos Once Reigned
Like the Lower East Side, Brownsville, Far Rockaway, the Bronx, Kensington (Toronto) all had shuls decorated with mazoles. In Poland, most famously there was the Targowica ceiling painted from the end of the 18th century to early 19th century, the Chodrow ceiling painted mid 17th century by Izaak Baer and son, and by Israel son of Mordacai Lisnicki of Jaryczow, and the Gwozdziec ceiling painted in the early 17th century by the same painters. Other well-known examples existed among shul paintings in Lancet, Riminiv (the Lower East Shuls from the last two towns merged into Stanton Street in 1952), Zamosc, Opt, Kupa in Cracow, and Czernowitz and Lemberg (Lvov) now in the Ukraine.

For more information, see Elissa Sampson's Picasa website albums and pictures from the Lower East Side including pictures from no longer extant shuls: .


Welcome to the Stanton Street Shul Conservation Project blog! We've created this blog to provide a place for feedback from the congregation and the larger community about the conservation work on the synagogue's wall paintings that is scheduled to begin at the end of July 2009. We'll be posting some information about the history of the building, the paintings, and of course plenty of pictures as the work progresses. Please feel free to ask questions, make comments and enjoy!