A roar and its echo at three synagogues
A hand-carved wooden sculpture showing the Tablets of the Law flanked by two Lions of Judah landed in a third synagogue this past May.
In late May, Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer of B’nai Abraham in Butler contacted the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives to see if we had any information about a treasure her congregation had recently acquired. It was a hand-carved wooden sculpture showing the Tablets of the Law flanked by two Lions of Judah. Their paws held the tablets. Their roaring mouths faced outward, protecting the commandments from threats.
The piece, she explained, had been given to her congregation by Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle. Before the congregation formally closed in 2017, it spent years systematically preserving its legacy. It found homes for its Torah scrolls and many other important ritual objects, and it held a burial ceremony for everything that remained.
Early in that process, the congregation donated its records to our archive. The 10-box collection contains information about Temple Hadar Israel and its two predecessors, Tifereth Israel (Orthodox) and Temple Israel (Reform), which merged back in 1997.
Cantor Michal, as she is known, knew that the carving originated at the old Tifereth Israel synagogue on Jefferson Street and was brought north when the congregation dedicated a new synagogue across town, on Moody Avenue, in 1958. She wanted to learn anything she could about its provenance: Who made it, who commissioned it and why?
I forwarded the matter to Dr. Alanna Cooper at Case Western Reserve University. She has been studying how Jewish congregations deal with large physical possessions — memorial plaques, stained-glass windows, even buildings — when they close, merge or downsize. She had spent hours with the New Castle records earlier in the year, and she recalled this photograph of the old Jefferson Street bimah with the lions adorning the ark.
Intrigued, Cantor Michal devoted most of a summer day to reviewing the New Castle records. In a 1958 dedication booklet for the Tifereth Israel synagogue on Moody Avenue, she found a history of the congregation that described the dedication of the Jefferson Street synagogue in 1909. It included this line: “The Young Ladies Benevolent Association with Pearl Weinberg Nach as president presented the large Lions and Tablets of the Ten Commandments for the new building.”
Tifereth Israel brought the sculpture to Moody Avenue in 1958 and eventually hung it over the doors leading from the social hall into the sanctuary. No one thought to document the move, but it probably required some muscle and ingenuity. To get it down this summer required a hydraulic lift, and even then both lions broke into several pieces.
The sculpture now hangs on the back wall of the B’nai Abraham sanctuary. As you enter for prayers, the lions seem to leap out at you. Even folks who had grown up seeing the sculpture in New Castle were surprised. The men realized they had never seen it at eye level before. The women who had sat in the ladies’ balcony at the Jefferson Street shul had spent many hours staring into those fearsome eyes but never at such close range.
Some of the effect comes from the restoration. The wood has been oiled to a rich, dark luster, bringing out the white of the teeth, claws and eyes and the vital red of the tongues.
I wish we knew more about the original installation of this sculpture in 1909 and its re-installation 1958. At a dedication service in Butler this past August, curator and artist Michael Kraus recalled his encounters with the sculpture as a child. The piece gave him an appreciation for the drama inherent in great religious art.
Cantor Michal ended the evening by singing a new piece of music she composed based on Genesis 49:9: “Judah is a lion’s whelp; On prey, my son, you have grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, like the king of beasts — who will rouse him?” I asked her to donate her sheet music to the archive. At some point, decades from now, someone may want to research the history of these Lions of Judah. Why not make it easy for them? PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Sen. John Heinz History Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-454-6406.
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