Union of American Hebrew Congregations. 276 pp. $10.00.
The most important thing is that people are now beginning to think in terms of synagogue art. For a very long time there was a positive cult of ugliness in the synagogues of the Western world: as in music, and certainly in decorum, anything with an aesthetic appeal was considered, as it were, to be Hukath haGoy, the Way of the Gentile, and ipso facto undesirable. When there was any attempt at renewal, it was along the old familiar lines, and the synagogues themselves were unadventurously constructed in what has been termed the Meshugothic style.
It had not always been so. The old synagogues and synagogal appurtenances not only in Italy (where this might have been expected) but also in Central and Eastern Europe were not infrequently splendidly designed and executed. Nor was figurative art wholly excluded. One of Dr. Kampf’s introductory chapters deals with the interpretation of the Second Commandment in the past, with conclusions which to some persons will seem surprising.
The fact is that Jewish religious life, while always rejecting iconolatry (that is, the veneration of the image), wavered in accordance with the circumstances of the age and the environment between iconoclasm and iconopathy (if we may use this term to describe the toleration of the image); and this, not only in marginal religious objects, such as those used in domestic rituals, but even in the synagogue as well as at other central foci of public worship.
All this has been slowly revealed, to a great extent only in the course of the past few decades. Indeed, Jewish art in the past went even further than it can venture to go today—even in the most “liberal” circles—sometimes not even excluding the delineation of the Godhead.
It has, however, only been in the past generation that art in the contemporary sense has reentered the synagogue to the full extent. The reasons are obvious enough. For it is only in the past generation that art in the contemporary sense has entered to the full extent into the Jewish home. A very large proportion of contemporary modern artists are Jews; a very large proportion of the patrons of the arts are Jews; and the growing well-being of the Jewish communities of the Western world has made inevitable the attempt to secure their embellishment in the modern idiom and without overmuch regard for expense. The revelation in these years of the existence of Jewish synagogal art even in the hyper-religious past has no doubt helped to create a favorable psychological atmosphere for this new development. It is perhaps significant that at the entrance to the monumental Beth Tzedek synagogue in Toronto (not mentioned by Dr. Kampf, who patriotically restricts himself to the geographical confines of the United States) there is a reconstruction by Perli Pelzig of the famous synagogue mosaic of Beth Alpha, in Israel, depicting among other things the sacrifice of Isaac, the discovery of which marked the beginning of the revolution in our ideas regarding Jewish synagogal art of the past.
After discussing general problems and present attitudes, Dr. Kampf deals methodically with the art-work to be found on modern American synagogue exteriors, in the vestibule, in the prayer-hall, and finally in stained glass windows (anticipated, as we are informed, in medieval rabbinical literature in the Rhineland, six or seven centures ago!). He devotes special attention to the B’nai Israel synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey, where the collaboration of the architect, Percival Goodman, the sculptor, Herbert Ferber, the muralist, Robert Motherwell, and the tapestry-artist, Adolph Gottlieb, has resulted in a singularly impressive and coherent place of worship, essentially modern yet not revolutionary. The illustrations do not show us any of the ritual appurtenances here, but it is to be presumed that the Torah-silver and the corresponding brocades are of the modern type which the author describes and illustrates in his chapter on artwork in the prayer hall.
At this point, however, unless I am mistaken, the pervasive influence of modernity ends completely. In all of these utterly contemporary synagogues, so far as I have seen, the modernistic Torah mantles and silver decorations by Wol-pert or Schor are placed on Torah-scrolls whose hideous wooden staves remain all too visible to the naked eye. Moreover, the scrolls themselves are written by Sopherim—scribes—who will reproduce the unlovely, cramped Gothicized lettering that became usual in Central and Eastern Europe during the past century. What would one not give to see a Sepher Torah copied by a pious and meticulous Sopher who combines a feeling for aesthetic values, in a contemporary sense, with a knowledge of his craft! This is not impossible, as any person familiar with, for example, the Italian Torah-scrolls of the 17th and 18th century can testify. So far as I know only one outstanding Sopher has emerged in the American environment: that curious person, Abraham Nieto, in his pious younger days.
Dr. Kampf’s book is fascinating, and the illustrations lavish, but more care could, and should, have been devoted to detail. There are, for example, repeated references to the B’nai Aaron Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota, ruining one of the most delightful of all American synagogue appellations: for the actual name is Temple Aaron. The stained glass windows here by William Saltzman (which won the artist a Guggenheim award) receive the special mention that they deserve, but if the central panel of the three reproduced on page 241 is the right way up, then the trees outside must be growing upside-down. According to the official account, incidentally, this represents Old Age, but Dr. Kampf identifies it with Marriage: abstract art forever!
Future prospects in the field with which this volume deals are almost unlimited. Renaissance art in Italy was largely conditioned by the existence of a wealthy and art-conscious public bent on embellishing the family places of worship without regard to financial expense, and it was largely on the basis of this patronage that the Renaissance artists, architects, and sculptors were able to establish their careers. In America at present, for the first time in history, it is economically possible for creative artists in all fields to make a high reputation and a more than adequate livelihood by working in the synagogal and the Jewish religious spheres. Something memorable should come out of this, and Dr. Kampf’s book shows that the process is beginning.