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.
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Still, we’ve come a long way. Just last month, Congregation Beth Elohim, in Brooklyn, was the happy recipient of a $250,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation/American Express to restore its aging building, including its once richly hued stained glass window. That the lively Brooklyn congregation, whose building dates back to 1909, saw fit to highlight the importance of its stained glass window in its winning proposal, suggests that our collective inattentiveness to the ocular might well be a thing of the past.

So, too, does the installation of a brand-new stained glass window at the Museum at Eldridge Street (or Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun, to hark back to its original name). Balancing the imperatives of preservation with the claims of the present, this 16-foot window, the artistry of Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans, replaces a series of clear glass panels above the Ark, which, in turn, replaced the original, late 19th-century composition. Warmly received by contemporary audiences, this new, starry-eyed creation not only takes its cue from the exuberant visual vocabulary of the sanctuary, which is richly appointed with gleaming stars and other painted surfaces, but also “completes it,” as Amy Stein-Milford, the deputy director of the Museum at Eldridge Street, recently told me.

By the time Adath Jeshurun decided in the 1880s to erect a grand house of worship on Eldridge Street, in the heart of the Lower East Side, Manhattan’s teeming Jewish enclave, stained glass had become all the rage within Jewish circles. From Cincinnati’s magnificent Plum Street Temple, which was dedicated in 1866, to New York’s Central Synagogue, which opened its East 55th Street doors in 1872, the modern American synagogue sanctuary was aglow, lit from within by stained glass as well as by the flicker of gas illuminations.

A generation earlier, though, the very idea of stained glass windows in an American synagogue was a novel and oftentimes controversial conceit. When, in May 1850, Congregation Anshi Chesed dedicated its spanking-new building, the very last word in modernity, on Norfolk Street, just a few blocks away from the future location of the Eldridge Street synagogue, the presence of a prominently situated, circular stained glass window kicked up quite a rumpus. Grumbling and murmuring darkly, as they are wont to do, some congregants went so far as to question whether it violated Jewish law.

Others took a slightly different tack. As far as the self-styled Honestus was concerned, the stained glass window was an unwelcome herald of modernity. “I have observed of late a disposition on the part of certain Israelites to attempt what they term improvements,” he lamented, writing in the pages of the Occident and American Jewish Advocate shortly after Anshi Chesed’s consecration. “But they go too far.”

What Honestus might have made of Eldridge Street’s many stained glass windows or those of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, which confidently featured Moses descending from El Capitan rather than Mount Sinai, is anyone’s guess. But even he would be hard put to deny their sparkle.


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