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:
http://picasaweb.google.com/ejswoo. .


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!