In the 18th and 19th centuries, more than 1000 wooden synagogues were built in Eastern Europe. To bring attendees closer to the heavens, local painters decorated the ceilings with religious art: leering lions of Judah, the Decalogue, a Torah crown, a radiant sun. Anti-Semitic pogroms, including the Holocaust, destroyed most examples of the folk art during World War II. But one extraordinary mural remains in a surprising location: a Burlington apartment building.
Thanks to Aaron Goldberg and Jeff Potash, the artwork may soon see the light of day once more. The two archivists for Ohavi Zedek synagogue are spearheading an effort to raise $350,000 to restore the painting, remove the wall it’s on and relocate it to the temple up the street.
It will be an expensive undertaking, but, according to a blog post by art and architectural historian Samuel Gruber, a necessary one. “The mural is a gift from the past that adds color, vitality and the immediacy of piety to what we are usually forced to recall only through occasional black and white and often blurry photographs,” he writes.
The story began when poet, performer and playwright Ben Zion Black immigrated to Burlington from Kovno, Lithuania, in 1910. He made the trip for love, following a fellow actor, Rachel Saiger, after she and her family came to Vermont in 1905. The pair moved to Boston after they married, but returned to Burlington in 1918.
For $200, the artist — who would later open B. Black: Signs of the Better Kind on Center Street — was hired to paint the Chai Adam synagogue in the style of his hometown. He included the familiar tropes mentioned above in his highly dimensional, colorful work. To the chagrin of some orthodox worshippers, Black also portrayed musical instruments and angels, elements that were banned on the Sabbath and considered graven images, respectively. Overhead, the congregation could see a trompe l’oeil rendition of an open sky, complete with birds.
Chai Adam was the second temple built in the insular North End community known as Little Jerusalem. The settlement was first documented in about 1880, when a group of 20 Jews, all transplanted from the Kovno area, began congregating for prayers. Chai Adam was built on Hyde Street nine years later, two years after the city’s first synagogue, Ohavi Zedek.
That older building, on Archibald Street, has been known as Ahavath Gerim synagogue since Ohavi Zedek moved to North Prospect Street in 1958. The Chai Adam congregation merged with that of Ohavi Zedek in 1939, and the turreted building began a secular life as a dry-goods store, then a carpet shop.
Sixth-generation Burlingtonian Goldberg remembers visiting the latter business and standing on what was once the second-floor balcony that separated female parishioners from male ones. There, surrounded by carpets, he saw the vivid mural. When the store closed in 1986, Goldberg fought to save the mural, which was still complete and hadn’t changed much since Black finished it in 1910.
According to Potash, Goldberg contacted galleries all over the East Coast hoping someone would help him preserve the painting. “It was in much better shape at the time, and literally everyone just imagined it was a pink elephant that didn’t interest anyone,” the historian remembers.
But, with the help of Black’s daughter, Leicia, longtime personal assistant to architect I.M. Pei, and her sister, Goldberg was able to have the mural professionally photographed before it was walled up to prevent further damage. It became part of the apartment complex that replaced the carpet store.
The building’s current owner, Steven Offenhartz of Offenhartz Inc., says he sees only an upside to donating the mural to the synagogue. “If they can pull it off, and I really hope they can, it’s going to be a wonderful thing for the Jewish community,” says the businessman, whose only condition is that the mural be displayed along with a plaque remembering his father, Michael Offenhartz, himself a supporter of the Jewish community.
The modern apartment where the mural resides is painted sterile white; finding the images at the end of the hall, in the master bedroom, is like stepping into Technicolor Oz. Last year’s Vermont Public Television special “Little Jerusalem” introduced many locals to the mural’s secret history.
Thanks to that and the efforts of Potash and Goldberg, the latter says, “What’s now happened is, the stars have sort of aligned, and we have the right combination of historians, folk art experts, engineers, architects, local people and people who have given us opinions that this truly is a piece that cannot simply be replicated. Because of what it is and what it represents,” Goldberg adds, “you have an obligation to preserve it for general history and Jewish history.”
With $6500 already raised, a restorer has begun stabilizing the remaining paint. After that, the mural will be cleaned, then extracted from the current building, placed in a steel cage and moved to a permanent home at Ohavi Zedek.
“What’s truly amazing to us [is], this sudden international importance seems to have been thrust upon us,” Potash says. With a little help from the community, Burlington’s own relic of the pre-Holocaust past will retain its importance for many years to come.
Learn more about the mural project at lostshulmural.org.