Through Stained Glass, Brightly

American Synagogues Are Awash in Stained Glass

Growing Panes: The Museum at Eldridge Street installed a new window in 2010.
Courtesy Eldridge Street Synagogue
Growing Panes: The Museum at Eldridge Street installed a new window in 2010.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published June 19, 2012, issue of June 22, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

If you were to poll the average American Jewish man and woman on the street about what constitutes normative American synagogue architecture, stained glass windows would probably be the very last thing that comes to mind. Some folks might be quick to conjure an image of an elaborately decorated Moorish-like interior; others, jokingly, might bring up the parking lot, and still others, especially if they are accustomed to davening in an Orthodox shul, might allude to the mechitzah, the partition that separates male and female worshippers.

Stained glass windows, though, rarely make the cut. At first blush, this omission is hardly surprising. When most American Jews think of stained glass, chances are they automatically associate the medium with the church — with the grand cathedrals of Europe — rather than with their own, more modest, home-grown institutions.

But wait a moment. That can’t be right. After all, the American synagogue is awash in stained glass and has been ever since the late 19th century. The handiwork of anonymous craftsmen as well as celebrated artists, stained glass windows adorn the sanctuaries of synagogues from coast to coast. Flooding the space with light and color, they’ve depicted scenes from the Bible, showcased its heroes (Moses is a particular favorite), celebrated the flora and fauna of the Holy Land and played with all manner of geometrical forms, such as the six-pointed Jewish star. More strikingly still, the stained glass window has lent itself inventively to the charitable gesture, becoming a luminous vehicle for saluting the generosity of the congregation’s members. By recording and inscribing in glass the names of those who contributed to the synagogue’s well-being, it evolved into a medium of memory all its very own, one that bears the weight of history, pane by glorious pane.

How is it, then, that we’re apt not to notice? It may well be that our aesthetic antennae are not nearly as acute as they ought to be, dulled by years of fidelity to an interpretation of the Second Commandment that redirects our attentions elsewhere. Despite the valiant efforts of Israel’s Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts (now the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design), among others, to overturn the notion that Jews were “non-visuals,” as the American publication Current Literature categorically put it in 1909, American Jews at the grass roots have not been entirely comfortable with artistic expression.

In this instance, as in so many others, sociological concerns often colluded with history and tradition to render Jewish visual culture a low priority or, worse still, a waste of resources. Taking its members to task for spending money on décor, on “carved wood and ornamented bricks,” as the American Hebrew newspaper once related, rather than on education, communal sentiment militated against the wholesale embrace of aesthetics. In short order, Jewish visual culture took a back seat to other, seemingly more pressing, matters.


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!
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • 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.