An old apartment building in Burlington, Vt. seems like an odd place to find a rare survivor of Lithuanian synagogue art and a relic of American immigrant Yiddishkeit. But the nature of treasures is that they turn up in unexpected places, and Burlington is home to a century-old synagogue mural that is an extraordinary artistic and cultural survivor linking pre-Holocaust Lithuanian synagogue art to the religious beliefs and aspirations of first generation Jewish immigrants to America.
Beginning in the 1880s, Burlington hosted a tight-knit and vibrant community of Lithuanian-born Jews who maintained ties with the Old Country, but also happily adapted to their new environment. Today, many of their descendants still live in Burlington, and the original Ohavi Zedek Congregation, founded in 1885, continues as a strong and creative Conservative synagogue.
Aaron Goldberg, a sixth-generation Burlington Jew and one of two volunteer archivists at Ohavi Zedek is leading a project to move and preserve the mural. When I first heard about the mural last summer, he told me, “The mural is a survivor that happens to be in our backyard. It deserves to be shown and preserved, it deserves to be saved to honor millions and millions of people, Jews and non-Jews, who did not survive the Holocaust.” The Center for Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont is actively supporting the project.
The Lost Shul Mural, as it has come to be called, was revealed beneath the walls of an apartment building that once housed the Orthodox Chai Adam Synagogue, founded in 1889, after splintering off from Ohavi Zedek. It was probably decorated in 1910 when the congregation engaged a young Lithuanian Jewish artist, Ben Zion Black, to paint the synagogue — a six-month-long project for which he was paid $200. Some stories say the artist came because he was following a girlfriend, Rachel Saiger, whom he married in 1912.
Black was born in Kovno, Lithuania. Once in America, he was active as an artist, actor, Yiddish writer and avid mandolin player. He never joined a synagogue himself; his religion was secular Yiddish culture. After limited success as an artist, he supported himself and his family as a successful commercial sign maker. (The exact history is still uncertain, and an alternative story holds that Black arrived in 1910 but dates the mural to 1918.)
Before settling permanently in Burlington, Black also spent time in Boston, where he apparently painted some backdrops for theatrical productions — though these have been lost. He never again painted a synagogue.
Black was trained in Lithuania, where his father was an artist who made illustrated books. The Lost Shul Mural is a rare survivor of the rich Jewish artistic tradition in Eastern Europe that in the 20th century combined traditional folk design and manufacture with the techniques of more modern training. This world of Jewish art was destroyed in the Holocaust and remains poorly understood.
The mural is a rare and striking painting, one of only a small number of extant synagogue murals in North America painted by immigrant Jewish artists for congregations that were still tied to their distant homelands, the Yiddish language and traditional Jewish religious practice. Nothing quite like this survives in Europe, and no mural in the United States, and only one in Canada (recently restored), equals the Lost Shul Mural in size, scope, completeness and Jewish meaning. Only a few highly damaged painted fragments survive from all the synagogues of Lithuania, most notably from Čekiškė, the town of origin for many of Burlington’s Jews.