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!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "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.
  • 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.