Lighting the Way

Wonders of America

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published December 01, 2006, issue of December 01, 2006.
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As the days get shorter and Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, draws nearer, I’ve been thinking about illumination or, more precisely still, about electricity and its relationship to religious ritual. At first blush, electricity and religion made for unlikely companions: One, after all, was bound up with the laboratory and the process of experimentation; the other was bound up with the home and the synagogue and the elements of faith. One had to do with technology, the other with tradition.

And yet, a more sustained look at American Jewry’s material culture suggests that perhaps there’s more here than meets the eye. Consider synagogue architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance. Many newly built houses of worship made a point of integrating electricity, then a brand-new technology, into their surroundings. In part, this was a practical measure. Far cleaner and certainly less noisome than gas lighting, electrical lighting brightened the sanctuary, allowing its stained glass windows to shine and its congregants to breathe more freely. The light bulb provided clarity, too. Much as the introduction of electric lights into the home made possible a culture of reading, enabling would-be readers to cozy up to a book even at night, the introduction of electric lights into the synagogue enabled worshippers to attend to their prayers without having to squint at the siddur (prayer book) or rely on the caprices of memory.

But then there was more to it than that. No matter the architectural style of the synagogue — whether Romanesque or Moorish — electricity was used not only to illuminate the space but also to decorate it. Imagine that: the light bulb as ornament! At the Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York City’s Lower East Side, light bulbs adorned and burnished the stately wooden Aron Kodesh, the ark containing the congregation’s collection of Torah scrolls. Farther south, at Baltimore’s Congregation B’nai Israel, a centrally located, recessed arch, also the site of the Aron Kodesh, was liberally festooned with dozens of light bulbs, adding a festive air to the surroundings.

In these instances, and doubtless in many others, electricity, then at the height of novelty, was a way to enhance the physical splendor of the synagogue and, with it, the majesty of God. Clearly taken with the luminousness of light, synagogue worshippers at the turn of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th could think of no better medium by which to heighten a sense of the marvelous, of the divine spark, than by adorning the sanctuary with light bulbs.

Years later, as congregations aged and death claimed more and more of its members, synagogues took to remembering these congregants’ passing by mounting memorial tablets on one of their distaff walls. Before the advent of electricity, these commemorative devices were traditionally fashioned out of paper and illustrated with drawings of innocent lions, bright flowers and assertive Torah crowns. Technology, however, made possible a new and more self-consciously modern, even streamlined, form of memorial, giving rise to the “Bronze Yahrzeit Memorial Electric Tablet.”

We’ve all seen these tablets, I’m sure, hardly giving them a second look, let alone a sustained thought: dutifully arrayed bronze squares that, like mini-headstones, bear the name of the deceased and the date of his or her death, as well as a small light bulb that the sexton switches on at the appropriate moment, on the yahrzeit. They, too, bear witness to the union of technology and religious ritual.

The invention of the electrified yahrzeit lamp, the domestic equivalent of the communal plaque, also attests to the relationship between the newfangled and the enduring. No need to light a memorial candle that was smelly, susceptible to drafts and a tad old-fashioned when you could memorialize the modern way with “Flame Go” whose “pretested bulb designed for beauty and long life” needed only to be plugged in to do the trick.

In short order, Hanukkah menorahs followed suit. By the 1940s and early ’50s, electrified versions appeared on the market, eliminating the need for oil, which was messy, or candles, which dripped. Very much a part of the “no muss, no fuss” sensibility of postwar America, which placed a premium on convenience, the electrified Hanukkah lamp also claimed kinship with the electric Christmas lights that adorned the neighbor’s home — and tree — across the way. Little wonder that it spread like wildfire.

As this brief inventory of electrified ritual objects suggests, technology hasn’t militated against or even hampered religious expression, as one might initially suppose. Instead, technology has generated new forms of religious expression, enlarging rather than diminishing its range of possibilities. Whether promoting ease or provoking wonder, technology once added luster to faith.






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