One of the last wooden synagogue murals in the country, and possibly the last of its type in the world, spent 30 years behind a plaster wall in a rug store cum apartment building. On August 2, Burlington's Lost Shul Mural was unveiled at its new home at the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue.
Painted by Lithuanian immigrant Ben Zion Black for a different Burlington temple over 100 years ago, the mural has had a long pathway to where it is now displayed, suspended by steel beams in the synagogue's front hallway.
The art, which portrays traditional Jewish symbols like the Ten Commandments and the lions of Judah, spent years incongruously decorating a carpet shop. It was then walled off for decades when its original building was turned into apartments. The tri-paneled mural was finally transported with great care and expense – along with a sizable chunk of wall and roof – to the new site on North Prospect Street in Burlington.
Vermont Edition visited Ohavi Zedek with the synagogue's president, Jeffrey Potash, and archivist Aaron Goldberg to learn more about the mural's history and meaning.
On the art of the mural
Visitors to the Ohazi Zedek Synagogue are met with the splendor of the mural as soon as they enter the main lobby. Hanging 11 feet from the ground, suspended by steel poles, is Black's depiction of the Ark of the Covenant.
"The man basically encased us in the Ark of the Covenant," says Potash. He says this speaks to the "spirit of egalitarianism" found in the population of Jewish immigrants in Burlington at the time.
"You're looking at it from the perspective of the men," says Goldberg. "The men would have been on the first floor looking up at about a 45-degree angle, and the women would have been located in the second floor women's prayer gallery looking straight at it."
Goldberg notes that the coloration of the mural today is not how congregants would have seen it early on. Years of coal heat in the original building the mural was painted in altered the rich blue and red hues.
"It's a portal," says Goldberg. "When you look at the mural, you're transported backwards in time." The piece holds much weight in the immigrant narrative of Burlington, and more broadly, Vermont.
Would it be considered a great piece of art, however?
"This is a survivor of an era," says Potash. "No, it's not great work. But what it is is inspired work. All walks of life and circumstance are truly taken with it. It does speak ... It has voice."
On the artist, Ben Zion Black
Black was a Lithuanian artist who immigrated to Burlington in 1910.
"He was an an accomplished impresario," says Potash. "He was putting on plays, in addition to being a fairly effective painter in Lithuania." Before making his way to Burlington, Black traveled through Europe and painted a variety of pieces.
Black arrived in Burlington during a fortuitous time for an artist looking for work. By 1910, the Jewish immigrant population had expanded to account for 1,200 to 1,300 individuals, mainly from Lithuania. Two synagogues were opened in Burlington to accommodate the congregants.
"In the presence of greater amounts of wealth and prosperity, they wanted to embellish," says Potash. Black was commissioned to paint a mural on the inside of the Chai Adam synagogue from floor to ceiling. The artist was paid $200 and it took him 6 months to complete the mural. Preserving, moving and restoring Black's work over the last few years has cost much more – nearly half a million dollars and counting from various philanthropic sources.
On the preservation effort
Although the mural seems to fit the space it now occupies perfectly, that has not always been the case.
Archivist Aaron Goldberg has spent three decades trying to ensure the mural's survival. His life and the mural are deeply entwined.
"I've dreamed about it for decades," says Goldberg. He recounts seeing the mural for the first time when he was in high school. This building was no longer a synagogue but a carpet store and the mural was visible behind rolled up rugs. The building was later sold into private hands, and was renovated to become an apartment complex. When Goldberg realized there was not the will or the funding to move the mural at that time, he convinced the building's owner in 1985 to wall up the artwork. Tenants occupied the building until 2012.
"Jeff and I have been, I think, working more than full-time on this since 2012," says Goldberg. Ohavi Zedek agreed to take the mural and funds were raised to cover the cost of moving the mural.
In order to save the mural, which is a half-inch thick and painted on wood lath, workers had to remove an entire segment of wall and roof. After the removal of the wall, restoration efforts shifted to relocating the piece from the apartment building to a place where it could be displayed and appreciated.
"When we walled it up we didn't know that we'd ever get it out from behind the wall, and now we have literally brought it out into the light," says Goldberg.
Restoration efforts at the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue are ongoing, and there are plans to include educational displays for visitors to learn the history of the mural and to serve as a reminder of what was lost in Europe during the Holocaust.