“Know Before Whom You Stand” - Saving a Lost Synagogue Mural in North Adams

Fundraising underway to move long-hidden synagogue mural in North Adams to a new home at the Yiddish Book Center

Tucked away in the attic of what is now a modest apartment building in North Adams is a jewel of the Jewish Berkshires, a mural painted circa 1898 for the original incarnation of Congregation Beth Israel, which was founded by Lithuanian Jewish immigrants on Francis Street in 1893. Largely unseen by anyone for the better part of a century, the mural is intended for the Yiddish Book Center, where it would greet visitors as they enter the newly renovated mecca of Yiddish culture and history.

Spearheading the fundraising effort to make that transfer happen is Carol Clingan, project lead of the “The Mural in the Attic” project. Clingan sits on the board of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston and has, over a 30-year period, compiled an index of over 500 Massachusetts congregations and a photographic collection of what she estimates is more the 80,000 yahrzeit plaques from across the Commonwealth. She learned of the mural while doing research in the Berkshires and successfully petitioned Yiddish Book Center founder Aaron Lansky to find a place for it in the new museum space.

“The only thing standing in the way of that happening is money,” she says. “There is no other obstacle I can think of, but it is a relatively big obstacle.” A nearly half-million-dollar obstacle – at least that is now the estimated price tag for conserving the fragile, 25-foot, roughly 1,500-pound, 125-year-old artwork, then moving it out of the North Adams attic in one piece, and then transporting it to a new home in Amherst. “This mural is a large and important surviving fragment of the visual culture of turn-of-the-century immigrant Jews,” writes Lansky, “and its relatively early date makes it of special interest.”

The “Lost Mural” of Burlington, Vermont from 1910 – click here for more on the November 2 Federation program about its history and restoration – is the best-known example of synagogue art commissioned by a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant congregation in New England that survives. As historian Samuel Gruber says, “There probably were scores, maybe even hundreds of painted synagogue interiors during this period of mass immigration to the United States between about 1880 and 1925. And now we have very few traces of this important period, not just in Jewish history, but I would say, American immigration history.”

Gruber did extensive research on this earlier North Adams mural and took the photographs accompanying this article in 2019, sharing what he discovered on his quirky and fascinating blog, Samuel Gruber's Jewish Art & Monuments (samgrubersjewishartmonuments.blogspot.com). When he spoke with the BJV in September, he explained: “Wall painting was the rule for most buildings in the 19th century, particularly in the latter part of the 19th century. The painting that was done, whether it was a town hall or a church or a restaurant, would be more architectural, more decorative, often using stencil patterns. It was often more polished than what we see in this North Adams example. The Burlington mural is a kind of borderline case where it's in a Jewish context and uses Jewish iconography, but it also uses a lot of the architectural language from a more formal type of decoration that you'd find in theaters, in meeting halls, and churches. What we find in North Adams is a very different type of representation. I hesitate to call the Burlington mural folk art. I call it traditional art, but it's by a trained artist. In the case of North Adams, I think we can call it folk art that draws on a Jewish tradition, but is also influenced by the American experience.”

This is how Gruber describes the mural’s imagery on his blog: “The mural presents the Tablets of the Law flanked by two large colorful lions, which hold American flags in their front paws. The patriotic theme is continued higher up, where a seemingly American eagle with wings spread sits atop a tower of Jewish symbols: the Decalogue, Star of David, priestly blessing hands, a wreath, and the Crown of Torah; all culminating in the eagle. The lions are entwined in tendrils. They spring forward from a stylized landscape that evoke Eretz Yisrael in its palm and cypress trees.”

He continues: “Written in Hebrew over the right-side lion, “Da Lifnei Mi Attah Omed, (Know Before Whom You Stand)…In the plural it is found in the Talmud (B’rachot 28b)…Less common is the paired inscription above the left-hand lion. It is also written in Hebrew and is the answer to the question on the right side. It quotes a well-known line from the Aleinu, the closing prayer of every synagogue service: “Lifnei melech, malchei ham'lachim (Before the Ruler, the Ruler of Rulers)…Underneath the Decalogue and lions is written in Hebrew “Havurah Beit Yisrael”[Congregation Beth Israel] the name of the congregation.”

The mural was painted by Noah Levin, an immigrant brought to America by the congregation from Traby, which is now in Belarus. A mural like the one in North Adams would have been commissioned by an immigrant community after it had started to establish itself in America – the artwork, when not primarily decorative, might reflect a nostalgia for the life, food, scenery, and architectural styles of their countries of origin. There was an established tradition of mural painting in Eastern European synagogues, but the North Adams mural – which Gruber posits may be the earliest surviving example of the tradition transplanted to America – features an arrangement of elements that were unlikely to have appeared in a Litvak shul in Lithuania.

For one, it features secular nationalistic iconography – “The relationship of Jews to the places from where Jews came before they settled in America was not good,” Gruber points out. “You're not going to find voluntary and enthusiastic endorsements of local governments or rulers there. [In America,] it’s quite the opposite – [Jewish immigrants are] almost bending over backward showing their commitment and belief in this new country in which they've landed.” Based on an article he found in an April 1898 issue of The North Adams Transcript about the synagogue, he believes that the American flags might reflect the congregation’s fervid support of the Spanish-American War. The article held that “Among the Jewish population of the city are some 50 naturalized citizens who are hot for the war with Spain, as they have a bitter grudge of 400 years standing against that nation, growing out of the atrocities to which their people were subjected at the time of the [I]nquisition.”

Whether that animus accounts for the flags is speculative, but overall, patriotic American imagery in the synagogue did not become common until World War I, according to Gruber. Also unusual is the mural’s depiction of the Star of David. “If you look at most 19th century synagogues, even early 20th century synagogues into the 1920s,” says Gruber, “look at the front of the synagogue – you won't see a Magen David, you'll see the tablets of the Law. This one has three of them on the tablets and then in between the hands doing the priestly blessing. I think this [mural] is an inflection point, an interesting moment where the Magen David is added as a Jewish symbol to the more traditional symbols of the tablets of the law.”

One of the most charming elements of the mural is its evocation of the Holy Land as a paradisiacal setting. Gruber says that Jews were aware of the sites in what is now Israel through artists and writers who had visited, but the vision of the Holy Land depicted in the North Adams mural would not have reflected a Zionist consciousness, as Theodore Herzl was just getting started in the 1890s. “Zionism is the creation of a state, of a political entity as a return for the Jewish people to a kind of political and social construct,” Gruber says. “The Orthodox weren't talking about Zionism. They weren't following Herzl at this time. They were talking about a messianic age, a yearning for the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the Temple.”

The congregation moved out of the Francis Street space in 1920, when (per the Congregation Beth Israel website) “under the leadership of Hymon H. Kronick…$20,000 [was pledged] toward the purchase of a larger building. In February, they purchased the Bijou Theater on Center Street.” The mural, says Gruber, “is the sort of ephemeral history that people wanted to get away from as soon as they had the means. They moved to better neighborhoods, they got better jobs, they sent their kids to college. They forgot about this early period. So this mural was forgotten. It's just luck that this little piece came down to us. It's like opening an old trunk and finding some old letter at the bottom that had been forgotten and left behind. Nobody cared about it back then, but suddenly it carries great meaning today.”

And Carol Clingan is looking for the support that will allow this strange and wonderful fusion of Jewish traditional art and New England folk art to relocate to the Yiddish Book Center, which she says has been “very collegial and very helpful.” Nevertheless, The Mural in the Attic project needs donor support from other sources To find out more on how to contribute to the preservation of this unique expression of Jewish history in the Berkshires, contact Carol at clingan222@gmail.com.

“[The mural’s] unexpected mix of images gives eloquent expression to the origins and aspirations of the congregation’s original immigrant population,” writes Aaron Lansky. “The mural will feel right at home at the Yiddish Book Center, where it will be viewed and enjoyed by visitors from around the world.”