If you were to poll the average American Jewish man and woman on the street about what constitutes normative American synagogue architecture, stained glass windows would probably be the very last thing that comes to mind. Some folks might be quick to conjure an image of an elaborately decorated Moorish-like interior; others, jokingly, might bring up the parking lot, and still others, especially if they are accustomed to davening in an Orthodox shul, might allude to the mechitzah, the partition that separates male and female worshippers.
Stained glass windows, though, rarely make the cut. At first blush, this omission is hardly surprising. When most American Jews think of stained glass, chances are they automatically associate the medium with the church — with the grand cathedrals of Europe — rather than with their own, more modest, home-grown institutions.
But wait a moment. That can’t be right. After all, the American synagogue is awash in stained glass and has been ever since the late 19th century. The handiwork of anonymous craftsmen as well as celebrated artists, stained glass windows adorn the sanctuaries of synagogues from coast to coast. Flooding the space with light and color, they’ve depicted scenes from the Bible, showcased its heroes (Moses is a particular favorite), celebrated the flora and fauna of the Holy Land and played with all manner of geometrical forms, such as the six-pointed Jewish star. More strikingly still, the stained glass window has lent itself inventively to the charitable gesture, becoming a luminous vehicle for saluting the generosity of the congregation’s members. By recording and inscribing in glass the names of those who contributed to the synagogue’s well-being, it evolved into a medium of memory all its very own, one that bears the weight of history, pane by glorious pane.
How is it, then, that we’re apt not to notice? It may well be that our aesthetic antennae are not nearly as acute as they ought to be, dulled by years of fidelity to an interpretation of the Second Commandment that redirects our attentions elsewhere. Despite the valiant efforts of Israel’s Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts (now the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design), among others, to overturn the notion that Jews were “non-visuals,” as the American publication Current Literature categorically put it in 1909, American Jews at the grass roots have not been entirely comfortable with artistic expression.
In this instance, as in so many others, sociological concerns often colluded with history and tradition to render Jewish visual culture a low priority or, worse still, a waste of resources. Taking its members to task for spending money on décor, on “carved wood and ornamented bricks,” as the American Hebrew newspaper once related, rather than on education, communal sentiment militated against the wholesale embrace of aesthetics. In short order, Jewish visual culture took a back seat to other, seemingly more pressing, matters.