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All God’s Griffins Got Wings at Cleveland Synagogue

The ark at Cleveland’s Orthodox Green Road Synagogue looms on an intimidating platform above the congregation. Alternating tan and umber rays — evocative of the divine lights that emanate from the sun in ancient Egyptian art and of St. Francis’s stigmata in Christian paintings — culminate in diamond-shaped niches above the chairs reserved for synagogue officials. There is, as one would expect, an eternal light, and beneath it, a depiction of the Ten Commandments: the double-humped variety recalling the McDonald’s logo.

But the two fierce beasts guarding the ark in the synagogue — which traces its roots back to immigrants from Marmaresher Sziger, Hungary, who built a congregation in Cleveland’s Woodland Hills neighborhood in 1910 — are unusual.

Instead of naturalistic lions, symbolic of the tribe of Judah and of the rabbinic injunction to be “strong as a lion” for morning services, Green Road’s ark features a pair of winged lions. (I initially mistook them for Gothic-styled griffins, but Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion at Vassar College, corrected me; they are Beaux Artes, art nouveau, or Victorian neo-Gothic, and they lack the eagle heads one expects of griffins.)

Surely lions with wings can better protect the Torah than their earth-bound peers, which more typically adorn synagogue arks, but winged big cats aren’t typically a Jewish symbol. And the manner in which they found their way into the Cleveland synagogue, as well as the question of their future in that shul, is murky.

“The griffin is almost certainly an updating of the cherubim who sit atop the ark of the covenant,” notes Samuel Gruber, a cultural heritage consultant, scholar, and frequent blogger on Jewish art and architecture. “Lions take on this role, too, but I can’t think of any winged lions that sit atop the modern synagogue ark… Winged lions are at best very unusual.”

Epstein has a different view. “There is nothing particularly weird, or non-Jewish about these lions,” he says. “There are winged lions and griffins in other synagogue settings.”

In his 2011 book, “The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination,” Epstein suggests that the lion-eagle-human hybrids from the circa 1300 Bird’s Head Haggadah serve two purposes. They refer to the cherubs atop the ark, whose lion and eagle properties represent the union of heaven and earth. They also evoke a prayer written for the martyrs of the Crusades in the town of Mainz, where the haggadah was probably illustrated, who were described as “lighter than eagles and braver than lions.” Given the fact that the haggadah figures aren’t strictly bird-headed, Epstein proposes calling the manuscript the “Griffins’ Head Haggadah” instead.

Back in Cleveland, the future of the winged lions remains uncertain, says Matt Klein, executive director of the Green Road Synagogue. Klein grew up in Cleveland and moved back to the city about six years ago. He didn’t notice the winged lions until someone pointed them out to him. “They’re not my personal taste,” he says.

Klein recalls hearing that someone broke a back leg off of each lion to avoid their violating the Second Commandment against graven images and “to take away some of the realism of the item.” Although religious reasons aren’t cited at synagogue meetings, which are currently underway to determine a restructuring of the synagogue building, some critics don’t like the lions on aesthetic grounds. “There are definitely people who would like to see them go,” Klein says.

Others, such as Sheila Pearl, whose father Joe built the synagogue in 1972, hope that the lions stay. The ark was commissioned from craftsmen in Italy, she says, although she couldn’t remember the names of the artisans. The committee members who negotiated the commission are all deceased. (Klein remembers hearing that the artists were Seventh-day Adventists, but Pearl could not confirm or deny that.)

As far as the synagogue renovation, Pearl notes that the sanctuary was constructed as both a place of worship and a memorial to congregants’ family members who were killed in the Holocaust. “The congregants could not help or save their family members. They could not visit and pray at their graves, as the graves did not exist,” she says. “Who knew where the bodies or ashes, in most cases, of their loved ones were? The sanctuary was used as a substitute for that, adding to its holiness and value to all the survivors that worked so hard to build this shul.”

That defining factor differentiates Green Road Synagogue from other Orthodox synagogues, as it was built solely by survivors, she says. “What a travesty it would be to knock it down to build yet another cold, modern sanctuary?”

Menachem Wecker is co-author, with Brandon Withrow, of “Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education,” recently published by Cascade Books.

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