The Jewish Value of Understatement

How Simple Beauty Can Outshine Complex Vulgarity

A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body: The Isaac Solomon Synagogue, (above, c.1950) took care of consumptive souls at JCRS.
BECK ARCHIVES SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body: The Isaac Solomon Synagogue, (above, c.1950) took care of consumptive souls at JCRS.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published January 06, 2010, issue of January 15, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Modesty and diffidence are not qualities usually associated with American Jewry. In the clothes we wear, the homes we inhabit and, most especially, the synagogues we build, American Jews live large.

A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body: Helio- therapy at the nearby Texas Building (above, c.1930) helped heal tuberculoid patients.
PENROSE LIBRARY
A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body: Helio- therapy at the nearby Texas Building (above, c.1930) helped heal tuberculoid patients.

An artifact of hard-won affluence and an outgrowth of a fiercely guarded sense of belonging, our predilection for conspicuousness happens all the same to be of relatively recent vintage. Many American Jewish buildings were once distinguished by their very inconspicuousness, a function of both limited resources and insecurity. As I discovered recently when visiting two long-standing synagogues, one in Washington, D.C., and the other in Denver, the community’s public face in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was often a decidedly unassuming one.

Flanked on one side by a fast-moving highway and on the other by a series of nondescript modern-day office towers, downtown Washington’s Adas Israel synagogue, dedicated in 1876, sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. Formerly located within D.C.’s small Jewish quarter, the building was moved to its present site, at the intersection of Third and G Streets, in 1969, painstakingly restored to much of its 1870s self (the restoration project remains ongoing) and transformed into the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum, a repository of Washington’s Jewish history.

A scaled-down version of the Romanesque Revival style fancied by many of the Capitol’s official institutions in the years after the Civil War, the red-brick edifice, whose tall arched windows flood the interior with abundant natural light, contains a sanctuary whose unfussy lines and clean, elegant proportions seem to have more in common with a Quaker meetinghouse than with an Orthodox synagogue. A wrought iron fence and a lovely little garden enhance the site, beckoning passersby to stop whatever they’re doing and peek inside. At once incongruous and charming, this “dear and lovable little building of utmost simplicity,” as The Washington Post’s architecture critic put it, appears to have stayed the hand of time, of wholesale urban development, thrusting its visitors back to an era when American Jews made do with less.

Thousands of miles away, on what had long ago been the outskirts of Denver, the Isaac Solomon Historic Synagogue takes pride of place on the campus of the former Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society, now home to the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. Though I’ve written about and often lectured on this institution, which early in the 20th century sought to return ailing tubercular Jews to good health, I had not actually visited its grounds until December.

A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body: The Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum is a refreshing change of pace for Washington, D.C.
THE CJS, UNIVERSITY OF DENVER
A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body: The Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum is a refreshing change of pace for Washington, D.C.

For all my bookish familiarity with the place, I was unprepared for what lay in store. As I made my way past snowdrifts, the cold so intense I could barely feel my toes, my only thoughts were of getting inside the synagogue to warm up. But the immediacy of the moment quickly gave way to a sense of wonder. Shaking the snow from my boots, I crossed the threshold into a different world. Modest in scale, its window panes flecked with fading bits of color, the building, with its gently rounded ceiling, cheery blue walls and cluster of sturdy wooden benches, put me in mind of intimacy and humility, the kind born of the shared experience of illness and limitation.

In the midst of a complex and costly process of restoration, the synagogue has clearly seen better days. Broad furrows of paint peel from the walls, the ark stands forlorn and open, and the pews contain memories in lieu of parishioners. And yet, despite years of neglect, the space is a most inviting one. Within its precincts, you could imagine the inhabitants of the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society — far from home, unwell, anxious about their fate — finding some relief from life’s uncertainties, let alone their own frailties.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, this structure and the one in D.C. pack more of an emotional wallop than the grand and grandiose ones that typically dot the American Jewish landscape. Attractive alternatives to the sprawling and monumental synagogue architecture that characterizes so much of contemporary Jewish life from coast to coast, they speak of aspiration and hope, of innocence and the glories of simplicity — something to bear in mind the next time we’re given the opportunity to leave our mark on the horizon.


A Decade of Wonders

After the success of Jenna Weissman Joselit’s award-winning 1994 book, “The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950,” the Forward invited her to write a monthly “Wonders of America” column. From Hanukkah 2000 to this week’s edition, Jenna, recently appointed Charles E. Smith Chair in Judaic Studies at George Washington University, has informed, entertained and enlightened our readers about Jewish material culture and history.

With insight into subjects as varied as ostriches, vegetarianism, department stores, and Henry Ford, she has provided us with a Decade of Wonders — long may the wonder continue.

— Dan Friedman


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.