A synagogue has unveiled a stunning century-old 10 Commandments mural that offers a glimpse into a lost art style
A long-lost relic of Jewish folk art has been revealed after being hidden – but not forgotten – behind a wall for more than 30 years.
“The Lost Mural” is an apse interior painting created in 1910 by Ben Zion Black, a 24-year-old Lithuanian playwright, poet, and sign painter, for the former Chai Adam Synagogue in Burlington, Vermont. Aaron Goldberg, a descendant of Burlington’s first Jewish residents, founded the Lost Mural Project to get Black’s job back,
According to the project’s website, Black’s 155-square-foot triptych “part of a long tradition of synagogue wall painting that was particularly advanced in Eastern Europe between the early 18th and mid-20th centuries.” . Most works of art of this kind were burnt down during the Holocaust, which is now remembered only by old photos and watercolor renderings.
“There’s nothing like it anywhere else in this country,” said Josh Perelman of the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. PAcalling Black’s mural “both a treasure and an important work, both in American Jewish religious life and in the art world of this country”.
The project site indicates that itinerant peddlers from Čekiškė, Lithuania, built the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in 1887. Two years later, Burlington’s Jewish community had grown to 150, so they broke ground that year on Chai Adam. The classic wooden synagogue became their second place of worship, just 500 feet from the city’s first.
Black arrived in Burlington in 1910 and established a reputation as a gifted painter, mandolin conductor, and champion of Yiddish culture. In 1910, Chai Adam offered Black $200, or about $5,314 by today’s standards, to paint the synagogue’s mural and ceilings.
He depicted the Tent of Tabernacles according to the Book of Numbers, “including the Decalogue flanked by rampant lions and surmounted by a floating crown, all bathed in the rays of the sun, and framed by elaborate architectural features and curtains”. Although the work’s rich colors and symbolism struck aesthetic chords, worshipers bristled at the idolatry of the artist’s angels and inclusion of musical instruments, which are forbidden on the day of the Sabbath.
Chai Adam no longer called Black. The synagogue closed in 1939 and merged with the congregation of Ohavi Zedek.
The building was sold in 1986 and turned into apartments, but the owners agreed to seal Black’s artwork behind a wall in the hope that defenders would one day return to its rescue. Then he spent 25 years in hiding.
In 2012, the Burlington Jewish Community partnered with the building’s new owner, Offenharz, Inc., to remove the false wall and assess the condition of the lost mural. The insulation, badly installed, had done its damage. They found chipped plaster, layers of shellac, and natural debris that obscured the true vivid palette of the mural.
Raising over $1 million through hundreds of donations, the project extracted the artwork by crane in 2015 and trucked it to its current home in Ohavi Zedek Hall. The cleanup began last year, and professionals at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center have since restored the mural’s hues based on archival slides from 1986, sealing their work with new varnish.
Chief Rabbi of Ohavi Zedek, Amy Small, saw it all, calling the tale “both Jewish and American history,” as well as “universal history,” in the AP.
Burlington Free Press said the June 28 unveiling ceremony was attended by officials including former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin, U.S. Representative Peter Welch and Vermont Arts Council executive director Karen Mittelman. Later in the evening, the public joined in a party filled with Yiddish music and dancing by the Nisht Geferlach Klezmer Band.
The Lost Mural project is not over. The lay association seeks donations “to reproduce green corridors on the original painting which has not survived,” Goldberg told AP. In the meantime, you can visit this global relic on your next trip to the Queen City.
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