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.


Iconography
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. .

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