Sisterhood Blog

The Synagogue as a Veiled Woman

By Elissa Strauss

  • Print
  • Share Share
Kate Milford
Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans

The Museum at Eldridge Street, a Lower East Side synagogue that was built in 1887 and holds National Historic Landmark status, recently underwent a quarter-century-long renovation, which culminated with the recent installment of a 16-foot glass window — see it here designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans.

The synagogue, long an Orthodox congregation for early Eastern European Jewish immigrants to America, had no record of what the original window looked like. So the museum decided to commission something new. Gans spoke recently with The Sisterhood about synagogue architecture in America, designing for gender-segregated congregations, and how the process made her re-think sacred spaces.

Elissa Strauss: Did you have any preconceived notions about synagogue design that informed your design?

Deborah Gans: I was very interested in the fact that there is no one synagogue architecture. This, of course, has scriptural roots — the Temple in Jerusalem being the one true Temple. I love the way in which that precept combined with cultural wandering and iconoclasm has created a kind of elusive architecture. Eldridge Street is identifiable within a category of 19th century eclectic synagogues — a bit Mudéjar mixed with Gothic revival, but also a kind of Americanism.

Kiki and I both love the fact that the surfaces of the synagogue are emblazoned with 5-pointed American flag stars, as if the congregation was equally proud of their Americanism and their Judaism.

The synagogue, in addition to hosting a variety of cultural events, still holds services for an active Orthodox congregation every Friday night. During those services, women sit up in the balcony. Did you take this gender-segregated seating plan into consideration when coming up with the design?

I am not sure we did it on purpose, but the best view of the window is from the balcony. During the process I was conscious of the imagery of veils. There is a trompe l’oeil painting to either side of the ark of a classical apse filled with stars that is then obscured by a painted curtain, just as there is a curtain in front of the Torah. I am sure it has other symbolic readings as well. In Kabbalah there is a female principle — the Shekinah, [which] is described as hidden by veils, just as God is not visible directly. I think of the walls of the synagogue as a veil of stars — a veil both obscuring and defining heavenly spirit. The window simply carries this veil of stars into the literal void of the sky, so the fundamental concept feels feminine to me.

How did the process of designing and installing the window change the way you think about sacred spaces and the ways in which they can affect the community they serve?

Our initial reaction to the synagogue was that it has enough already; it is almost encrusted with ornament. Rather than add yet another motif we wanted to discover something there to use — the star being the obvious choice. The window then continues that logic in many ways. Its rib design and central six-pointed star rehearse the sanctuary domes, so the window is a dome on its side. It has been amazing to observe how this rhyming encourages the eye and mind to see the synagogue afresh, in unanticipated ways. The docents have noticed this, too.

The commission gave us the opportunity to reflect on the structure and meaning of a sacred place, and then to create a reflection of it in a window. I think that this mode of reflection is a way of approaching the sacred. It is something discovered in designing the window that I will take with me.

Much of your previous work as an architect has a social activism component — including design projects for [housing] refugees, schools, and polluted spaces. Did that experience play into your and Smith’s design for the synagogue?

Not specifically or directly. But I take on those projects because they offer a way for architecture to engage culture in all its dimensions. I don’t think of them as marginal extreme situations so much as emerging social conditions that will ultimately impact all of us. The window is a public project that belongs to the contemporary city as well as to the great institution of the synagogue, it has both a congregation and tentacles in the immediate neighborhood of Chinatown, so it is organic and engaged beyond the conventional museum.

Smith and Gans are speaking about their work tonight, November 17, at 6:30 p.m. at the Eldridge Street Synagogue.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Stained Glass, Museum at Eldridge Street, Kiki Smith, Deborah Gans

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.