How I spend my time in syangogue

One of the current exhibits at the Jewish Museum, called Modern Art, Sacred Space. I went on Sunday. In 1951, the rabbi of the Millburn N.J.  Conservative syangogue decided to cal on the stars of the modern art world to help him create a synagogue that was both deeply Jewish and also expressed the ideas of the abstract expressionists.

The architect who designed the synagogue itself was Percival Goodman. Goodman essentially created the vernacular of the post-war suburban synagogue. If you have seen a synagogue in the suburbs you have either seen Goodman's work or the work of one of his imitators.

The exhibit is a small one, just two rooms. The piece I really wanted to see was Adolph Gottleib's ark curtain pictured above. I captured the image from the Jewish Museum's website.. Exhibited along with the curtains were Gottleib's sketches. Seeing those sketches was a treat.

First of all, I loved the pure sketchyness of those sketches. His cartoons for the ark curtain don't look all that different from the sorts of cartoons I produce for my clients. Since I'm self taught, I always feel a little anxious about some of my abilities. The sketches made me feel better about my own work.

But moving away from the self-involved commentary. Gottleib's first sketch was awfully close to a traditional ark curtain, a big menorah surrounded by a foliate border. Some of his sketches included more of the traditonal elements, a lion of Judah, the ten commandments, the crown of Torah. The final design deconstructs all of those elements and also adds abstracted views inside of the ark.( The three vertical elements are supposed to be Torahs dressed in their mantles.)

The result is beautiful. But I want more. Gottleib is playing with the visual elements of what the ark curtain is. Me, I want text too.We are such a text oriented religion , the visual is subsuvient to the word. I keep thinking what would happen to this piece if text were part of the mix. Whish texts would be chosen? Suppose one played with the texts the same way as Gottleib played with the images? Suppose you played with both the text and the images?What would this piece be then???

This is actually what I do when I go to new synagogues. Frankly, most syangogues are architectural versions of the Glamour magazine feature " What's wrong with this picture", those photos of women walking the streets wearing Uggs with evening gowns or stilettos with their cargo shorts. I spend my time trying to figure out how to make the spaces better.

Down the street from me is a synagogue with a spectacular stained glass window of mount sinai above the ark. The ark itself, though, is so spectacularly ugly that when they opened it up, I had to turn away. The combination of purple-ish yellow flourescent lighting emerging from the stumpy ark, the plywood facing on the ark and the really ugly torah mantles were too horrible to take in. I had to look away.

So now, as I sti in synagogue, i may think about how to incorporate both the texts one usually sees on an ark curtain along with the deconstructed elements of ark curtains and torah scrolls.


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