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!
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • 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.