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Supporting and studying Torah is the path between these realms. The apse-like area is framed and richly layered with painted curtains supported on four strong columns. In this painted architecture we see a timeless biblical architectural history where the tents of Jacob, the Tabernacle and Jerusalem Temple are conflated and linked to the contemporary synagogue.
Black was an avid advocate of Yiddish, and more at home in the theater than the shul, so there may also be included just a touch of Yiddish theater.
The commandments are bathed in brightly painted rays of light, which seem to emanate from within and beyond the curtained enclosure. In case we are unsure of how to locate ourselves, the Ma Tovu prayer (“How goodly are thy tents O Jacob”) and the opening of Psalm 82, read every Tuesday after the morning services (“God standeth in the congregation of God,” sometimes translated as “God stands in the Divine Assembly”), are inscribed above and beside the ark.
Front and center, immediately over the ark and under the painted Decalogue, Black included the text of the Ki Mi Zion Tetze Torah prayer: “For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of the lord from Jerusalem.” This is an appropriate affirmation for a Diaspora community, and serves as a recognition of the centrality of Jerusalem and Zion to the Jewish people. It is perhaps also a nod to the painter Ben Zion (literally son of Zion) Black. The inscriptions were painted in large art nouveau-styled letters, linking Black to the international movement heavily influenced by Jews (and adopted by leading Zionist artists). Black’s flair for sign painting is already evident.
According to Myron Samuelson, author of the 1976 study “The Story of the Jewish Community of Burlington,” the synagogue ceiling was painted with an open-sky effect with a multitude of birds, “an illusion many congregants later recalled left them with the lifelong impression of the sanctuary being open to the outdoors.” Similar versions of this type of ceiling can still be seen in the Walnut Street Shul in Chelsea, Mass., and also in the Tsori Gilod Synagogue, in Lvov, Ukraine, which was painted in the 1930s. Other accounts relate that the sky also held angels playing Black’s favored mandolin (he once organized a 30-piece mandolin orchestra) — unpopular imagery for the traditional congregation.
Without doubt, the Burlington mural has its own artistic merit. Its greatest value, however, is as a surrogate for all the other works destroyed by oppression in Europe and lost to “progress” in America. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue makes a case for the communal importance of the preservation and presentation of this mural. Its conservation serves to protect an accidental survivor of an otherwise vanished past, as well as to provide a forward looking affirmation of Jewish history and traditions.
Samuel D. Gruber teaches and writes about Jewish art and architecture. He was recently scholar-in-residence at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vt.
More information about this project is available at www.lostshulmural.org.