Painting as Prayer in Poland

Recreating a Forgotten Synagogue, Rediscovering Family

Evelyn Tauben paints a flower on a ceiling panel of a replica of a Polish synagogue.
Yari Wolinsky
Evelyn Tauben paints a flower on a ceiling panel of a replica of a Polish synagogue.

By Evelyn Tauben

Published October 03, 2012, issue of October 05, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

A peculiar flower was assigned to me — a bulbous green pod with curled tips, resting on wide red petals. One of the experienced “painting leaders” patiently instructed me to layer colors and blend them using rabbit skin glue. When the time came to work on the actual panels, my hands trembled and I recalled my initial poetic notion of invoking my zayde’s assured artistry to guide me. But in actuality, it was not easy painting with ghosts at my back.

The Handshouse synagogue project, helmed by sculptors Rick and Laura Brown, is fueled by curiosity and conviction resembling faith. During those two weeks in July, ritual abounded in the shul-turned-studio: Our team rhythmically traced shapes, laid down background colors and ground powder pigments into paint. Instead of talmudic debates, we engaged in a “colorscape chevruta.” Painting leaders argued over the quality of a brushstroke or the details of the color scheme, using archival black-and-white photos of the synagogue and the few remaining pre-1914 color sketches to guide them. The devout and these artists have much in common: patience, dedication, fidelity to tradition and commitment to a legacy. But while they were devoted to artistry, I was yearning for a deeper connection to a place I wanted to claim as my own.

With all our energy focused on the decorated ceiling of the Gwoździec synagogue, we often forgot to “look down” to the space that cannot be recreated: the place where the congregation gathered, where their voices lifted to meet the fanciful forms gracing that ceiling. I wanted to be with those people — to grasp why they built this elaborate house of worship, not just how. But by focusing on the massive devastation brought upon the Jews, it’s easy to overlook the reality that new synagogues are built around the world every year. New Jewish communities continue to rise up, even in Poland.

Between the push-and-pull of doing and discovering, I felt, at any given moment during my time with the Handshouse team, a mixture of pride, frustration, admiration and isolation. Perhaps what I was looking for — a textured experience of a Jewish past and present in my family’s ancestral home — could not actually be found in this art project.

But I did find Blumeh. After carrying her story with me since birth, I finally spent time with her in the form of a funny little flower. And I found a new understanding of my grandfather — of his loss, his resilience, his courage and his pressing impulse to create art.

Evelyn Tauben is an independent curator, producer and writer based in Toronto. Her work is largely focused on new Jewish culture.


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!
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • 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.