The Arty Semite

Turning a Synagogue's Tale Into Kid Lit

By Samuel D. Gruber

  • Print
  • Share Share

Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments

“If these walls could talk” is a cliché in the historic preservation world, but when standing inside an old synagogue it is still an irresistibly phrase and idea. Anita Kassof, associate director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and illustrator Jonathon Scott Fuqua have now taken the idea literally and made an appealing children’s book from it. “Long before your grandparents’ grandparents were babies, before they walked or talked or tied their own shoes, I was built with shovel and pail, hammer and nail, brick and stone.” So begins the narrative of Baltimore’s Lloyd Street Synagogue, opened in 1845 as Maryland’s first synagogue, the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, as told in the recently published “The Synagogue Speaks.”

The historic building, now part of the museum, evolved from traditional to Reform observance in the mid-19th century, and was transformed into a Catholic church in 1889. In a less common twist of fate, the building became home to an Eastern European Orthodox Jewish congregation in 1905. It was saved from the wrecking ball in 1960 and now serves as the cornerstone of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and has long been celebrated as one of the Jewish community’s first historic preservation successes.

Illustration by Jonathon Scott Fuqua from ‘The Synagogue Speaks’ (The Jewish Museum of Maryland, 2011).

That’s a lot of history to relate in a 48-page book, especially one with only about 100 words per double page. But the richly detailed and historically precise watercolors by Fuqua bring the story to life. While the book is recommended for children ages 4 to 10, I think adults will enjoy the illustrations, which include construction views in the style of the great architectural illustrator David Macaulay.

Children’s books that tell the stories of American historic sites are quite common, but “The Synagogue Speaks” is only the second example of the genre I know of that tells the story of an old American synagogue.

Illustration by Jonathon Scott Fuqua from ‘The Synagogue Speaks’ (The Jewish Museum of Maryland, 2011).

“The Old Synagogue,” (1989) written and illustrated by Richard Rosenblum, tells the story of the creation, decline and restoration of a small New York synagogue like the Stanton Street Shul. It is a mix of reportage, nostalgia, exploration and discovery.

More recent is Mark Podwal’s “Built by Angels: The Story of the Old-New Synagogue.” This children’s book, also 48 pages, is more about myth, mystery and imagination. Its vivid illustrations and text of legends leans more to the fantasy genre than to history. While it does introduce young readers to a important building and history, it also reinforces misconceptions and stereotypes — not the best way to learn from the past, but perhaps a way to inspire curiosity.

Other congregations and historic preservation planners will want to learn from these examples.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Samuel Gruber's Jewish Art and Monuments, The Synagogue Speaks, Jonathan Scott Fuqua, Lloyd Street Synagogue, Samuel D. Gruber, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Books, Children's Books, Jewish Museum of Maryland, Anita Kassof

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!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • 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.