something beautiful

as part of my last night of a week of relaxation and dodging work, i just watched Raise the Roof [through that link; pw: movie], and you should too! i’ve known about the recreated painted ceiling of a wooden synagogue at the Polin museum in varshe/warszawa for as long as the museum’s been open (a bit under a decade, now), but i had no idea there was a film about the process of creating it. deep thanks to @shvlman of twitter – a badass visual artist and inveterate researcher of yiddish jewish visual culture – for pointing it out!

the film does something unusual: it documents the process of studying history through collective, participatory embodied practice, through the life of a ten-year research/building project that had the resources (by which i mean: funding) to be completed on a majestically ambitious scale.

i wish more projects of this kind got this level of documentation throughout their development. jenny romaine and Great Small Works’ recent production Muntergang, for instance, which includes recreations of performances by its subjects, revolutionary puppeteers zuni maud and yosl cutler, embedded in a biographical/political/historical exploration spanning a century of yiddish radical organizing. or Ya Ghorbati: Divas In Exile, laura elkeslassy and ira khonen temple’s brilliant musical project on jewish maghrebi divas of the twentieth century, presented in part in a wonderful new folio from Ayin Press.

what performance documentation alone – or depictions of the final state of a visual project, in the case of the recreated roof and ceiling of the gwoździec synagogue – can’t capture is the day-to-day-ness of the work in projects like these. and that day-to-day is the vast majority of these projects, and at least as important as the slice that the audience sees in the end.

this kind of study-through-craft is a lot of what i do, and it was a great gift to get to see a work process so thoroughly documented, and the documentation so clearly and compellingly assembled.

(i also got the impression that the Raise the Roof film crew operated in ways that did not interfere with the work of the project. that’s very unusual, in my experience, even for simple performance documentation. in projects i’ve worked on, i’ve had to physically stop dudes with cameras from stepping into the way of torches and mourners at a memorial procession, and from dashing onto a stage where they would not only block audience members’ view but also be directly in the path of a late-medieval-style longsword wielded by a performer in a steel helmet that eliminated his peripheral vision entirely. beyond being abject fools, both of those crews were actively assholes to the people around them at every turn – and enjoyed the full backing of the men running the fairly major yiddish culture organizations that hired them.)

while the film doesn’t meet my (admittedly unrealistic) hope for all such things – showing the entire series of work processes for a particular element from start to finish – it comes damn close. we get at least glimpses of almost every step from raw logs to built structure, from dried woad to painted ceiling, from sketches to installation. and it’s fascinating all the way through.

it also highlights what’s possible when there’s money behind a project like this. part of why Muntergang and Ya Ghorbati don’t have the depth of documentation that i’d wish for them is just economic constraints. but even beyond that: the reconstruction project shown in Raise the Roof operated with resources of money and time that are pretty much unimaginable for most of the cultural workers i know who do this kind of work.

to give one example: i think the best-supported large-scale project like this i’ve worked on was Bobe Mayses: Yiddish Knights and Other Impossibilities, at Yiddish Summer Weimar 2016. it was a collaboratively created exploration of the text, contexts, and themes of one of the first printed works of yiddish literature, elye bokher’s bovo-bukh, in the light of the still-ongoing trans-mediterranean migration wave and its causes. we made a multi-space installation performance, a processional performance, and a stage-theater performance – all three parts performed as an afternoon-long suite in weimar, erfurt, and berlin (each requiring an entirely different installation plan, route, and staging). everything was collaboratively developed and built by a multinational and multilingual ensemble of a dozen (plus musicians) under the direction of jenny romaine, who was supported by a team of three (including me), plus michael wex as script writer and avery gosfield & alan bern anchoring the music.

to do all that, we had one month of working time. (plus some research and planning time before meeting the ensemble or knowing much about what materials would be available to us.) six or seven of the people involved were paid (the ensemble was not) – a decent artist fee, but not enough to focus entirely on this project for even three or four months. many of our working materials came from the trash (and trash is hard to find in germany, let me tell you!).

that may sound absurd, but it’s far better than the conditions that most of this kind of ambitious, specialized, and demanding work gets made under, entirely due to Yiddish Summer Weimar having managed to wrangle german government funding for it. it’s a glimpse of another world to get to see a project develop over ten years, with money for skilled team leaders (i think most of the rank-and-file labor was still unpaid), ample workspace, tools and materials, and this gorgeous documentation. and it whets my appetite for working conditions for all of us that match the beauty, and the importance of the work we do.

there are a few things i have quibbles about, because that’s who i am. but i’ll only go into two of them, because the film comes soooo close even where i think it’s useful to nudzh.


one of the talking-head scholars (thomas hubka, i think) describes how the double-curved synagogue ceiling is modeled, in its overall shape and its details (tooth- and stitch-pattern borders, rope and knot ornaments), on ottoman ceremonial tents like the ones captured at the siege of vienna and displayed by the polish court. but that’s long after an overall framing has declared – with no evidence offered – that the synagogue’s artistic style was “brought from germany” by jewish migrants to poland. which is just absolute crap.

these wooden synagogues were mainly in galicia and bukovina – now partitioned between southeastern poland, western ukraine, and northeastern romania. gvazdziets/gwoździec/hvizdets, whose synagogue was the subject of the recreation, is in bukovina, and its painters were from a little ways northwest into eastern galicia, near lembrik/lviv. and damn near every aspect of it is blatantly of that specific region or looks to the ottoman empire, which at the time began a few miles south of gvazdziets.

the carvings and painted animals are very much in the same style as the carved and painted gravestones found from galicia down through the ottoman-ruled balkans (i again have @shvlman to thank: i ‘d seen them in christian cemeteries from maramureș to southwestern serbia, but i hadn’t seen photos of the jewish versions from further north till she shared some). the octagonal, domed bima is blatantly modeled on an ottoman köşk (from which we get the word “kiosk”). the loops of rope/vine with flower ornaments are just like the ones painted on the walls of the orthodox monasteries of bukovina, and on the interior of those ottoman tents. an eerily similar combination of wooden tent-like architecture and luscious interior painting can be found in a church from the same period, in ieud, transylvania (then an ottoman vassal). iconographically, the two deer looking backwards are (as the film says) a common jewish poetic image for the divine – but they are that because of liturgical use of hebrew poems that adopted (starting in the andalusi golden age of hebrew poetry) the standard arabic (and then persian & turkish) poetic image of the gazelle/deer as a figure for the lost or vanished beloved. i could go on.

i don’t think a single one of the things i just rattled off has a stylistic parallel in the german-speaking lands.

but beyond all that, there’s simply no reason that jewish artists from this region would look westward for stylistic inspiration in the 1600s. the ottoman empire was where you looked for ‘civilized’ culture in their part of the world: it was not only a political superpower at its height of its influence, but the acknowledged cultural heir to both christian byzantium and muslim baghdad. western europe was a backwater by comparison, and the thousand flyspeck would-be-states of the german-speaking zone were a joke at best. the fantasy that yiddish jewish culture is “western”, “european”, or “german” is just white supremacist nonsense, and always has been. we are a people that emerged along the borders of the ottoman empire, and within its cultural orbit – flourishing especially in the polish-lithuanian commonwealth, whose ruling class was so thoroughly ottoman-oriented that they created a whole origin myth (“sarmatianism”; look it up for a wild ride…) to out-Oriental the turks!


there’s a totally unnecessary bit where a talking head (maybe hubka, maybe antony polonsky?) maybe brings in the idea that the biblical ban on “graven images” is a real thing. it’s not. it never has been.

as far back as there have been synagogues (which actually begin before rabbinism emerged, so before anything we would recognize as jewishness), they have had images of people, animals, and plants in them. as far back as we have jewish material culture of other kinds, it has included images of people, animals, and plants. graven, carved, painted, woven, you name it.

to imply that all this – to repeat: the entire history of jewish material culture – is somehow an exception in need of explanation is to completely misunderstand the traditional relationship text and practice in jewish life. and it’s done all the goddamn time.

as haym soloveitchik has written (and i apparently can’t stop repeating in everything i write) in his classic essay Rupture and Reconstruction, the traditional function of text in jewish life is to provide an after-the-fact justification for embodied practice passed on through modeling and imitation. only within living memory does text begin to get used by traditional jewish communities to dictate practice. this was a major shift in cultural power (from older women in family and community spaces, to men with specific educational credentials in institutional spaces), and is, i think, pretty obviously an adoption of the christian “literalism” that was conquering the protestant world at exactly the same time (accompanied by a similarly gendered and classed power-grab).

tl;dr: jews have always used graven images, especially in synagogues. the second commandment hasn’t posed a problem. if that’s confusing for people (especially academics), it’s because they’ve internalized a bizarre christian relationship to texts. they should deal with that in private, and not keep projecting it on the rest of us.

and here’s a lagniappe – or, i suppose, an afikomen:

these two things that gave me brief moments of crankiness converge in the gvazdziets synagogue on an image that opens a whole other can of worms: a painted leopard.

first of all, just look at this guy!

in the film, there’s some fun and interesting conversation about this image, and the ways that it’s notably less naturalistic than most of the other animals on the ceiling. they conclude that its rather human face was probably a reference to a specific person, but leave who that could be as an unknowable mystery. i don’t think it’s all that unknowable!

the gvazdziets synagogue was built and painted in the 1650s; its cupola was added in the early 1700s and its paintings renewed around 1730. so the subject is most likely a famous figure of the late 1600s, someone whose face would be familiar from woodcuts or engravings.

someone like this, perhaps:

or perhaps like this:

or even (if we ignore the chin-fringe) this:

the label on the last one gives the name of the guy portrayed in all three images: nathan of gaza. side-swept moustachios? check! round soulful eyes? check! perky ears? can’t tell, under the headcloths. extreme fame? not anymore, but at the time, absolutely!

nathan was the main publicist for the messianic claims of sabbetai tsvi, who drew massive (possibly majority) support in the jewish communities of the 1660s for his antinomian apocalyptic movement centered in the ottoman eastern mediterranean. galicia and bukovina were sabbatean strongholds for decades after tsvi’s forced conversion to islam ended his role in the movement, and became the home turf of jakob frank, who led a messy neo-sabbatean upsurge in the 1750s.

i’ve got no idea whether gvazdziets was a sabbatean or anti-sabbatean community, or one torn by the tension between the camps. but either way, it’s not hard to picture a connection between the sabbatean controversy and changes to a synagogue carried out right around the time that the last community leaders active in the 1660s would be vanishing from the scene.

even better: to my very cursory understanding of this kind of iconography, the leopard would fit this reading in either direction. it could be nathan as one of the defeated imperial beasts from daniel’s dream (the leopard being associated with greece, where tsvi gained his most lasting support [in salonika] and met his personal defeat [in constantinople]). or it could be nathan as a symbol of steadfastness (the leopard does not change its spots), signaling a quiet adherence to sabbateanism.

i’m tempted by the sabbatean interpretation, since it would tie together some of the other imagery as well. the lion opposite the leopard could be the ARI [“lion”], isaac luria, whose kabbalistic writings were particularly important for nathan and sabbetai. and the deer [“tsvi”] paired with each cat could then be a figure for the messiah tsvi as well as the divine beloved. i don’t have a great explanation for the turkeys that sit between each big cat and its accompanying deer, but “the infinite variety of divine creation” and “a whole new world across the ocean” as messianic gestures will do as handwavy placeholders.

all of which is really just wild speculation based on sugestive fragments. but i do hope someone with the research chops for it (i’ve got no fluency in polish, ottoman turkish, or loshn koydesh, which disqualifies me from the start) will dig into the possibility of sabbatean (or anti-sabbatean) connections in gvazdziets. and whether or not it has any relation to my harebrained notions, i’d love to see an analysis of the iconography that’s as lush and detailed as Raise the Roof!

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