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!
  • 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
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 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.