Century-Old Jewish Mural's Hidden History in Vermont

Lithuanian Mural Reclaimed From Burlington Apartment

lostshulmural.org

By Samuel D. Gruber

Published January 17, 2014, issue of January 24, 2014.
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Today, in all of Eastern Europe, only a handful of surviving painted synagogue decorations can compare with the Lost Mural’s preservation of the completeness of its design, though more fragments continue to be discovered. The recently conserved paintings of Pińczów, Poland and Boskovice, Czech Republic are mostly decorative wall paintings, not ark wall decorations rich with the Jewish symbolism that carried deep meaning for their communities. Remains of paintings from smaller urban prayer houses painted in the early 20th century such as those in Będzin and Kraków, Poland, are closer in spirit to the Burlington mural, though quite different in content.

Chai Adam Synagogue closed in 1939 when it merged with Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, and then served a variety of functions before its final transformation, which obscured all remaining traces of religious identity. When the wood frame building was turned into an apartment building in 1986, Goldberg and others persuaded the new owner not to destroy the mural and to cover it over instead. This year, when ownership again changed hands, Goldberg and his colleague Jeffrey Potash devised a plan to reveal and reclaim it.

Now, Ohavi Zedek Synagogue is renting the apartment behind which the mural was hidden, and has cut away the covering wall to reveal the still intact and stunning painting. When I visited in November, and came up close to the mural to check its condition, I was amazed at its power — even in its present damaged condition. Painting conservator Constance Silver has been engaged to save the painting in situ. She explained that the situation is dire, but reversible. She is confident the work can be saved and will appear much as it did in its original state. When funds are raised, the mural will be cut away and the section of wall will be moved and installed in the vestibule of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue along with educational displays and the synagogue archives.

The new synagogue is a modern building erected in the early 1950s, located only a short walk from former the Chai Adam building and the entire old Jewish neighborhood.

The mural combines many primary symbols of Judaism. Black uses bold theatrical colors and lines to emphasize particular themes in different sections of the mural, much the way that a rabbi highlights different aspects of a Torah portion each year. Inscriptions, known today from a surviving photo and a few fragments, gave worshippers clues to some mural meanings and perhaps provided the occasional sermon prompt.

The mural’s central image is that of a large Decalogue set upon a throne-like stand and flanked by lions similar to those found on heraldic devises and long familiar in Jewish tradition. Above it floats a crown, and the Hebrew words keter Torah, or “the crown of the Torah,” on a painted ribbon, as if there was any doubt. Appropriately, the Torah and the commandments are given a royal treatment. Where in a church apse one might find an enthroned Jesus or Mary, here only the word of God is exalted.

The arrangement suggests the throne of Solomon described in the Book of Kings, which was supported by carved lions (and so much more), but the Burlington lions should likely be seen in their more common guise as surrogates for Jews — supporters and defenders of Torah. All this is set in a dimension between the mundane (Burlington) and the celestial.


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