4. The Ark
The ark stands close to 9 m high13
and is made from cast and painted plaster, with the exception of the inner grill, menorot, (measuring 1.2 m high and 1 m wide) (Figure 8
) and the ark doors, which are cast bronze.14
The grill was left open because behind it sat the choir. While the shape is symmetrical, the right and left sides are not identical. The entire façade of the ark is filled with decoration—flowers, acorn designs, acanthus leaves, scrolls, and vines. It is possible to divide the ark into three main parts: on each side, a paisley-shaped area, bordered by text that contains three elements relating to Jewish holidays or practice; the bronze ark doors with the symbols of the tribes; and the upper area, surmounted by a crown and also bordered with a text. The ark should be interpreted from right to left, as that is the order of the verses that appear on its flanks, and of course, the way the Hebrew language is read.
On the right side (Figure 9
a) is a scale, above which is a shofar, and above that, a Torah scroll, symbolizing, respectively, the Day of Atonement, the New Year, and Simchat Torah.15
A bird facing outward, above which is a palmette, completes that part of the ark.
The text around these elements reads as follows, starting at the level of the scale:
תּוֹרַת ה’ תְּמִימָה מְשִׁיבַת נָפֶשׁ עֵדוּת יְהוָה נֶאֱמָנָה מַחְכִּימַת פֶּתִי. פִּקּוּדֵי ה’ יְשָׁרִים מְשַׂמְּחֵי לֵב מִצְוַת
The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart…
The second half of verse 9 continues on the left side, followed by verse 10. These texts surround the following motifs (Figure 9
b): a two-branched candlestick, with two challot and a kiddush goblet in front of them; the scroll case of a Megillah; and, above that, an oil lamp for Hanukkah. The text starts at the level of the candlesticks and works upward, around the bird atop the Hanukkah lamp, and curls down the outer left side of the ark.
ה’ בָּרָה מְאִירַת עֵינָיִם. יִרְאַת ה’ טְהוֹרָה עוֹמֶדֶת לָעַד מִשְׁפְּטֵי ה’ אֱמֶת צָדְקוּ יַחְדָּו
[T]he commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true, they are righteous altogether.
Below the central doors are two heraldic animals facing each other, reminiscent of the kid of the Passover hymn, Had Gadya
(Sabar 2008a, pp. 148–49
). In the center rectangular panel above the doors is a representation of the breast plate worn by the High Priest at the Temple services in Jerusalem. Above them (Figure 10
), centered over the door, again reading from right to left, are a lulav
; a round seder plate, topped by the Hebrew letter “פ” for Pesach
and flanked by four goblets; and the two tablets of the Ten Commandments surrounded by fruit. These are symbols of the three pilgrimage festivals according to their order in the Jewish year: Sukkot
(Tabernacles), which occurs immediately after the Jewish New Year, in the month of Tishrei; Pesach
(Passover) in the month of Nisan; and Shavuot
(the holiday of the First Fruits and the Giving of the Law) in the month of Sivan. Above them, a rampant stag on the left and a rampant lion on the right face inward, to what appears to be a pinecone. At the base of the pinecone is a Star of David. Above them are the two Tablets of the Law, with the first letters of each of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew (Figure 11
), reading from right to left. At the very top is an elaborate Torah crown. At the base of this crown are colored gems (glass), and above them are two rampant griffins. Bells hang from both sides of the crown. The crown is topped with a small knop. The verse that extends from the right upper border of the ark to the central motif of the crown and tablets reads as follows:
וְהַלֻּחֹת מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹהִים הֵמָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּב מִכְתַּב אֱלֹהִים הוּא חָרוּת עַל
The verse then continues down the left side:
הַלֻּחֹת, אַל תִּקְרָא חָרוּת אֶלָּא חֵרוּת
It appears that the entire verse is a commentary from the Ethics of the Fathers (6:2) to Exodus 32:16: “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets”. The text of Ethics of the Fathers continues thus: “Read not harut
[engraved] but herut
[freedom] for none can be considered free except those who occupy themselves with the study of the Torah”. This rabbinic play on words is caused by a change in the vocalization of the words, with a kamatz
under the first het
, and a tzere
under the second.18
6. The Unique Iconography of Szyk
Several elements in this ark are specific creations of Szyk’s. Some are based on traditional motifs that have been adjusted by Szyk to fit his scheme. It is also clear that, in the design of this ark, Szyk drew heavily on his previous works, particularly the Haggadah. Szyk had already made use of many traditional motifs in the Haggadah of 1940,24
and he incorporated them into the design of the ark. A few examples include the griffins and heraldic lions (Sabar 2008a, pp. 50–51
the two animals below the symbols of the tribes on the ark doors; and the design of the menorot
on the bimah
in front of the ark (Figure 8
) already appeared in the Haggadah.26
The symbols used for the holidays, such as the seder plate and the Torah scroll, are Szyk’s innovations and modernizations of earlier themes, which in the past would sometimes appear on ark curtains27
rather than on the ark themselves.
One original element is the 39 “jewels” around the upper frame of the ark doors that stand for the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible.28
As mentioned above, on either side of the ark doors, and above the holiday motifs, are two birds, each facing outward. The ambience of the postwar era, and the hope that World War II would be the last war, no doubt influenced the choice of these two birds, which were described by Rabbi Bokser as “doves, the symbols of peace”.29
Doves were already used by Szyk in his frontispiece to Volume 10 of the 1943 Universal Jewish Encyclopedia
, published belatedly in 1948, but there they are more naturalistic in their appearance (Landman 1948, frontispiece
) This frontispiece exemplifies Szyk’s attention to detail and his creation of unique symbols. Besides doves, he depicts a parrot and a frog, which are not at all typical Jewish motifs! Dedicated to the “Hallowed Memory of Europe’s Martyred Jews”, the image was accompanied by the following text written by Szyk: “It portrays the Jews as defiant and unafraid, marching confidently and dauntlessly into the future. In his arms he bears his most precious and eternal possession, the portable fatherland, the Torah. Draped round his shoulders is the mantle of royalty that eclipses the yellow badge he perforce must wear. In his right hand is the shepherd’s staff of leadership; in his left, the jester’s bauble betokening his unfailing sense of humor in the midst of adversity. Accompanied by the stage of eternity, he serenely goes his way in scorn of the bloated toad of pride, the arrogant parrot of vanity and the hissing serpent of treachery, coiled around the tree of life. Beneath is the Shield of David, bearing the scales of justice and the doves of peace, with its crest of the crown of a good name and its supporting lions of Judah. In the background are the brilliant clouds of hope and at the base are the grapes of fertility that promise a happier future” (ibid.).31
This drawing and accompanying text illustrate Syzk’s sensitivity to the plight of European Jewry, at the same time showing his emphasis on detail and symbols, coupled with a free-wheeling approach to iconography, which is also seen in the ark.
Another original motif of Szyk’s are his tablets of the Ten Commandments (Figure 11
), which are an extremely common element in western Torah arks (Sarfatti 1990
Szyk signifies the commandments by their first letter instead of by the first two words, and this motif already appears in the Haggadah (Sabar 2008a, p. 131
), as well as in his illustrations for Pathways Through the Bible
Perhaps the most puzzling element of the ark is Szyk’s interpretation of the symbols of the twelve tribes33
), which adorn the doors of the ark (as well as the doors of the ark of a smaller chapel34
) downstairs. There has yet to be a comprehensive article about the plethora of depictions, varied both in iconography and arrangement, of the twelve tribes in Jewish art over the centuries.35
Szyk based his depictions partially on Jacob’s blessing to his sons in Genesis 49 and also incorporated elements from BeMidbar Rabba
(the Midrash) on Numbers 2:2 and Deuteronomy 33.36
The symbols on the right side are fairly easy to interpret, as their depictions are based directly on Genesis, chapter 49, Exodus or the Midrash. There are no labels to the symbols.
Starting from the upper right, the depictions appear as follows:
Reuven is depicted as a flowering plant (Midrash on Numbers);
Simeon as the gate of Shechem (Midrash on Numbers);
Levi—by the Priestly Breastplate (in Hebrew, Hoshen) (Exodus 28:15–21);
Judah by a Rampant Lion (Genesis 49:9);
Issachar by man in ancient garb, hunched over with basket on back (Genesis 49:15);37
Zebulun by a Ship (Genesis 49:13).
Having said that, the order is not clear, because it is not according to the birth order of the sons, the order of the verses in the Bible, nor the order of the sons in Jacob’s blessing.
The depictions on the left door are more challenging, because neither the order nor the iconography of all of the symbols are readily apparent.
Starting from the upper left, the following depictions appear:
The last three depictions are a pyramid with a crown on top, below that, a tree, and below that, what appears to be a unicorn.39
The remaining tribes are Gad, Asher, and Joseph, who is often represented by his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh.
The main source of inspiration for Szyk’s tribal depictions is a book illustration by Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874–1925), who taught for only six months at Bezalel at its founding, but continued to be an important influence for the school until 1929.40
Among one of his many book commissions, Lilien illustrated the work of poems by Morris Rosenfeld (1862–1923), Lieder des Ghetto
, that was translated from Yiddish into German, and published in 1902.41
In the book, the images of the twelve tribes frame the poem “Juda” (Figure 15
), which speaks of the longing for the “Heimat
”, the homeland. The tribes are not mentioned specifically in the poem (Rosenfeld 1902, pp. 63–64
In a review of the book at the time, published in the American Hebrew
, there is no specific reference to that particular poem or its decoration.43
Szyk arranged the tribes differently from Lilien. In Lilien’s work, Reuven, the first-born, appears in the lower left side of the frame, and then the order continues up and to the right. Szyk uses the same order exactly, but starts in the upper right, going down and then starting again in the upper left side. The explanation for this order of the tribes may be tied to the biblical verses from Exodus 1:1–4, which describe the descent into Egypt.
וְאֵלֶּה, שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַבָּאִים, מִצְרָיְמָה… רְאוּבֵן שִׁמְעוֹן, לֵוִי וִיהוּדָה. יִשָּׂשכָר זְבוּלֻן, וּבִנְיָמִן דָּן וְנַפְתָּלִי, גָּד וְאָשֵׁר
Joseph is not mentioned in this list, since he had previously come to Egypt on his own. Lilien added Ephraim and Manasseh, who, as the sons of Joseph, would have a portion in the land, at the end of his depiction. Lilien depicts Gad as a pyramid, Asher as a tree, and Manasseh and Ephraim as a bull and a unicorn, respectively. Gad’s depiction is based on Genesis 49:19, and the usual depiction is of a tent.44
The depiction of Asher as a tree comes from the midrash
on Numbers 2:2, as cited above. The depictions of Manasseh and Ephraim show a bull for Manasseh and a unicorn (re’em)
, interestingly enough, for Ephraim. This is based on Moses’ blessings to the tribes in Deuteronomy 33:17. If anything, according to the midrash
, Manasseh is symbolized by the unicorn, not Ephraim. The biblical re’em
, associated by the rabbis with Manasseh, is a horned animal, which, when seen from the side, might look like a unicorn (Bamidbar Rabba
2:7). Interestingly, in the German translation of the Bible, based on the Vulgate, re’em
is translated as a unicorn, and this most likely explains Lilien’s depiction.45
Szyk, who copied all of the other motifs in his own style, without labeling them, only depicted one of Joseph’s sons—as the unicorn. To return to the verse, the order of the text indicates the importance of the mothers, as is reflected in the order of the symbols on the ark: Leah’s sons appear on the right-hand door, while Rachel’s youngest son, Benjamin, is on the top left. They are followed by the four sons of the handmaidens, again in order of importance: the sons of Bilhah (Rachel’s handmaiden), followed by the sons of Zilpah (the handmaiden of Leah.) The last medallion is therefore somewhat ambiguous. The discrepancies between the traditional texts and the depiction of the tribes as they appear on the ark may be explained by the fact that Szyk sometimes played fast and loose with Jewish iconographical and textual traditions, perhaps due to his prodigious output and its attendant pressures. In his Haggadah, Szyk depicts the story of Exodus 7:10 in a manner at variance with the actual text:
So Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh and did just as the LORD had commanded: Aaron cast down his rod in the presence of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and it turned into a serpent.
Instead of Aaron turning his staff into a snake, it is Moses who does so!46
To return to the arrangement, Lilien’s choice of the order of the tribes as they descended into Egypt speaks of the consciousness of living in the Diaspora, which would also apply to the poem “Juda” by Morris Rosenfeld that was framed by these symbols. Did Szyk just copy them slavishly, or was there another meaning hidden here, particularly because he omitted Manasseh, and since we know that Szyk commonly employed symbolism in his works?
To confuse matters, around the same time, on the first-day issue envelope for two stamps Szyk designed for the nascent State of Israel, he also depicted the tribes, whose symbols are the same as those on the ark, but the order here is different. Moreover, Szyk labeled the tree as Joseph (which would be congruent with Genesis 49:22: “Joseph is a fruitful bough…”), but the pyramid as Asher and the unicorn as Gad, which are clearly at odds with all traditional interpretations.47
It would also be interesting to compare his imagery with the imagery of a fellow artist from Lodz, Ze’ev Raban, who designed the doors of the Bikur Holim
synagogue in 1925. Raban’s imagery has some overlap with Szyk’s, but also has not been completely analyzed. What is significant is that Raban’s order is clearer—the tribes are labeled and arranged by the order of their birth.48
In short, with both Szyk and Rabbi Bokser’s passing, this question of Szyk’s intent in the ark door design remains partially unanswered.
Last but not least, one of the remarkably innovative themes of this ark is freedom. This is hardly surprising in the wake of World War II and in light of Szyk’s oeuvre, particularly the Haggadah and his extensive work as a caricaturist during the war, and the fact that Bokser served as a military chaplain during the war. Three main elements convey this theme. As mentioned above, two doves are depicted on the ark. However, the heraldic position and appearance of these doves are more reminiscent of Szyk’s depictions elsewhere of Polish and American eagles.49
Although eagles often appear on European carved arks,50
for Szyk, they also symbolized freedom in the wake of World War II, which would also be congruent with Bokser’s message. In addition, the unique choice of texts around the top of the ark and the accompanying bronze menorot
on the bima
(the raised platform before the ark), which have the word “herut
” (freedom) emblazoned on their bases (Figure 8
), emphasize the theme of freedom. This echoes the verse that surrounds the entire top of the ark, as mentioned above, which has a play on the words “engraved” and “freedom”. The choice of these texts, which are not traditional, as explained by Bokser in a text found in his archive51
entitled “An Interpretation of Our Ark”, was that the ark “proclaims the rabbinic doctrine of the role of the Ten Commandments in civilization, as the pathway to human freedom”. Szyk’s connection to freedom was more political. On 4 July 1950, a gathering was held in Szyk’s community of New Canaan, Connecticut, to honor the publication of his illustrated Declaration of Independence
. The speaker at the event hailed Szyk “as one of the world’s great free men who has dedicated his life and art to the preservation of freedom”.52
Exactly how immersed Rabbis Pressman and Bokser were in the design of the synagogue and, specifically, the Torah ark, is not documented. In general, not all rabbis were involved in the postwar boom of synagogue building in the US (Kampf 1966, p. 51
). I have been unable to locate any design requests or specifications in correspondence between Szyk and the two rabbis, or with members of the congregation.53
Interestingly enough, Pressman, in his memoirs, writes that, in his career, he designed three Torah arks. However, it is not clear whether they were all for his community in Los Angeles (Pressman 2001, p. 352
The art historian Avram Kampf lamented the fact that “the tragedy of World War II had a surprisingly small influence on the artworks placed on or designed for synagogues” (Kampf 1966, p. 65
). Nevertheless, it seems that Rabbi Bokser’s vision and life experience definitely inspired elements of the Forest Hills ark. It is possible that Bokser, who was born in Luboml, in 1907, and came to the US in 1920, had some recollection of the synagogue decoration there.55
According to one account of the synagogue in Luboml, “all along the wall, under the windows, and on the retaining wall of the women’s gallery on the western side were pictures of various scenes—the primeval ox and the Leviathan, musical instruments from the Temple, and the twelve tribes. Only the eastern wall was pure white, without pictures or adornments, and against this background stood the magnificent Holy Ark, with the two traditional lions on either side, as well as engravings of various tree branches”.56
More importantly, in his Kol Nidre message of 1945, reprinted in the synagogue newsletter, Rabbi Bokser stated his overall mission for the new building: “Because we shall build it in these times, I should like to see in it an answer to the dehumanizing forces released by modern technology whose deadly peril has been dramatized in this war. I should like to see in it a fitting memorial to those fallen, whether on the fields of battle or in Europe’s death camps. And I should like to see in it, too, a memorial to those historic synagogues that perished in the flames of Nazi vandalism, but whose spirit lives on, and must find in us a new vindication”.57
In fact, besides all of the details already mentioned, if one looks at the overall form of the ark, it is in some way reminiscent of the shape of many of the carved-wood arks of Eastern Europe that were no more.58
In this way, the community of Forest Hills was singularly prescient at that time in commemorating the lost synagogues of Europe and, by extension, the lost communities.59
There is no doubt that the ark’s design was a synergy between Rabbi Bokser and Szyk’s ideas, and their views complemented each other and came together in the unique design of the ark.
The ark was not without its critics. The exterior style of the synagogue was considered contemporary in style,60
but clearly the ark was not designed in a modern idiom. Both Stephen Kayser and others felt that Szyk’s ark was not suitable for its architectural surroundings.61
Szyk passed away in 1951. He had already suffered one heart attack at the beginning of the year, and the second one proved fatal. Was his death hastened by the fact that, at the beginning of the 1950s, his name was published on a list of individuals associated with “un-American” organizations? As a newly minted US citizen, Szyk must have been desolate that he, with his fervor for democracy and freedom, the same fervor that brought him so much fame in the 1940s, was blacklisted.62
It would seem that the reason for this was the program cover he illustrated for an organization that was connected to the Soviet Union in 1943, when the United States and the Soviet Union had common cause (Ansell 2004, pp. 230–32
; Luckert 2002, pp. 107–09
The subsequent change in attitude toward the Soviet Union in the postwar United States resulted in Szyk’s name being added to a list of prominent Americans to be investigated for belonging to an organization considered subversive by the Attorney General. Szyk died before he was called to testify (Freudenheim 2017, plates 50, 94
). The funeral was, of course, held at the Forest Hill Jewish Center (Ansell 2004, p. 233
As for the ark—once at the center of a thriving Conservative Jewish community, the sanctuary and the Forest Hills Jewish Center building are in the process of being “re-purposed”. The community can no longer afford the upkeep of the large and, by now, old building. As of this writing, original plans to demolish the synagogue have been put on hold.64
In any case, the ark will either be retained or find its way to a new home, possibly a museum.65
To conclude, an analysis of Arthur Szyk’s Torah ark reveals his originality, creativity, and richly deserved stature as an innovator in Jewish art, albeit not in a modern idiom. The inevitability of change in contemporary life in general and in the demographics of Jewish communities in particular underscores the vital importance of the documentation of works of Jewish art as a means of sharing the treasures of Jewish cultural heritage with future generations.