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Of Prayers and the Playful

December 13, 2007 By:
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You hear about Jewish influence in all of the arts, to say nothing of other areas of expertise; and, though you sometimes think of it as a pleasant exaggeration -- when it's not being posited as a subtle slur -- you can still run across evidence of such influence, and be amazed at just how far and wide and deep it does, in fact, run. I'm thinking now of the Jewish contributions in -- of all realms -- American folk art as it's revealed in a new book titled Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel, Jewish Carving Traditions. And, yes, that means wooden carvings, as in the synagogue lions that used to stand guard over the Torah scrolls in old wooden shuls throughout Eastern Europe all the way to those beautifully carved horses that flowed gracefully around American carousels in amusement parks and fairgrounds almost everywhere in this country.

There's a Jewish link there, a strong one, according to this abundantly illustrated book, which is the work of artist and professor Murray Zimiles, and which is published jointly by Brandeis University Press and New York's American Folk Art Museum. A show tied to the book is on display at the folk museum through March.

Zimiles, who is the Kempner Distinguished Professor at SUNY Purchase where he's taught drawing and printmaking since 1977, dates his interest in the subject of Jewish influence in American folk art to a "serendipitous event" that occurred nearly 35 years ago: He purchased a copy of Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka's book Wooden Synagogues, published in Warsaw by Arkady in 1959. Never, he writes in his preface, had he seen anything like the Eastern European synagogues depicted in the photos that filled the book.

"No doubt," writes Zimiles, "part of the reason they made such a strong impression on me was that these were the sacred spaces of generations of my ancestors. In the same instant that I experienced the elation of finding them, I suffered the grief of loss, for most of these masterpieces, as well as the treasures within them, were destroyed, piecemeal, through time and especially through war."

So moved was he by what he saw that he began a series of paintings based on these lost shuls. But this proved not to be enough to satisfy him. Soon after, he began the research that would take him to Europe, Israel and throughout the United States in search of evidence of this unusual form of folk art.

According to the author, the major goal of The Synagogue and the Carousel "is to return to the Jewish people, and to world culture, an awareness of and appreciation for a visual tradition of great beauty, vitality, symbolic richness and decorative complexity that flourished over a period of several centuries in central and Eastern Europe, and flourished briefly in the New World, where it underwent a remarkable transformation and secularization. Few would divine in the leaping chargers, the tail-swishing lions of the great carousels the hand of the religious Jew from the Eastern European shtetl. But here, indeed, are found the roots of some of North America's greatest folk art traditions."

As Zimiles points out, when Eastern European artisans immigrated to the United States in the last quarter of the 19th century, they easily found work in the synagogues of the New World. But this period was also the golden age of the amusement park. Close to where many of these new Americans had settled, notes the scholar, was the greatest amusement park of them all -- Coney Island, in Brooklyn.

"The United States was becoming the entertainment capital of the world," continues Zimiles. "Young people were eager to spend some of their earnings on what in the Old World would have been frivolities and even immoral thrills. The parks drew on the imaginations and talents of carver, painter, mechanic and businessman; sometimes these were one and the same person. Jewish craftsmen responded with entrepreneurial spirit to the gaiety and chaos. The same talents that carved religious images for the new immigrant synagogues simultaneously carved wooden cigar-store Indians and trade figures, chariots and, above all, some of the greatest carousel animals the world has ever seen. This is the story of a tradition that, when released from surrounding oppression and prejudice, and even its own orthodoxy, could respond to the new environment and engage the world with playfulness and joy."

Zimiles tracked down the work and tells the life stories of four exceptional Jewish artisans: Marcus Charles Illions, Solomon Stein, Harry Goldstein and Charles Carmel, all of whom "revolutionized the level of artistry associated with the American carousel. Their memories of the awe-inspiring, towering Torah arks, papercuts and other liturgical forms that imbued life in the Old World were part of the shared experiences they brought to bear in a fresh arena. The pervasive visual iconography of lions, deer, eagles, Leviathans and other symbolic forms was newly manifested in the animals and decorative elements of Coney Island carousels."

 

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