The Yeshiva University Museum (15 West 16th Street • New York, NY 10011 ) has on exhibit, Old and the New: Mark Podwal’s Textiles for the Altneuschul. This exhibit started on November 27th and will close this coming Sunday, January 15th, so the Torah covers and Parokhes (torah ark curtain) can leave for Prague to the Altneuschul.
The Prague Jewish Community is about one thousand years old, the Altneushul (Old-New Synagogue) was completed in 1270, making the oldest surviving synagogue in Prague. It is now Europe’s oldest active synagogue. An even older place of worship was demolished in 1867 to make space for the Spanish Synagogue. It is in the Altneuschul that legend says the Golem (made by the MaHaRa”L) lies in the attic. On the side of the building there is a staircase leading to the attic, 10ft of the lower rungs have been removed so as to stop the curious from climbing up to look for the Golem. The attic is closed to the general public.
The legend of the Golem has gripped the imagination of Jew and gentile alike over the centuries. Twenty seven years ago, a Chekoslovakian friend – who worked at that country’s Consulate here in New York – told me that when he studied at Prague’s nearby medical school, whenever there would be a hard test coming up throngs of medical students would gather around the Altneuschul to ask for the Golem‘s help in passing the exams.
Another legend is told of a Nazi agent during World War II broaching the genizah, but who perished instead. In the event, the Gestapo apparently did not enter the attic during the war, and the building was spared during the Nazis’ destruction of synagogues.
The New York Czech Center, says on its website:
The textiles, which include a Torah ark cover, three Torah mantles and covers for the Torah reading and cantor’s desks represent the first major commission for the sanctuary of Prague’s Altneuschul in over 70 years. Built in 1270, the Altneuschul, or “Old-New Synagogue,” is celebrated for its architectural beauty and legendary provenance–myth has it its stones were brought by angels. It is one of the few Gothic synagogues in existence and sits at the center of Prague’s Jewish Quarter, a vibrant community famed for its scholars, mystics, writers and intellectuals. Perhaps the most famous of the synagogue’s legends is the Prague Golem, believed to lie dormant in the attic of the building to be restored again, if needed, to defend the Jews.
Mark Podwal, an internationally recognized New York-based artist, author and physician, has long been engaged with Prague and its famed Jewish Quarter. The textiles are the latest and most ambitious of his works relating to Prague’s Jewish Community.
“With its history, mystical legends and remarkable beauty, the Altneuschul is one of the world’s great Jewish monuments–and a living one,” said Podwal, who is known for his drawings on The New York Times Op-Ed page and is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Jewish Museum in Prague and many others. “To be able to contribute to the ongoing religious and communal function of the synagogue is a humbling honor. It was daunting but exciting to make works that reflect and speak to the character of Prague’s broad and rich Jewish fabric.”
Complementing the textiles in the exhibition is a detailed historic model of the Altneuschul (part of YU Museum’s permanent collection), a selection of complimentary graphic work by the artist, and a short original film that charts Podwal’s artistic engagement with Prague and features a behind-the-scenes look at the textiles’ creation.
“We are delighted and privileged to unveil Mark’s striking textiles and to give a New York audience the opportunity to appreciate their beauty as objects as well as their rich liturgical and cultural context,” said Jacob Wisse, director of YU Museum. “We think viewers should, and will, appreciate the way a fresh aesthetic vision has been used to complement a historic site, and how the magic of the synagogue’s and its city’s story are brought to life through the exhibition.”
The three Torah covers show the banner given the Jewish community, as a gift of gratitude, in 1648 – by the Emperor – for their courageous help in in repelling the Swedish invasion during the Thirty Year War.
The banner has the shield of David with a cap worn by the Swedish soldiers, in its center, as well as the sun and it’s rays. The font used for the two Hebrew letters is the same as the font used the famous 1526 Prague Haggadah. The exhibit is complemented by some of Podwal’s prior artwork on Prague (a city that captured his heart, while doing research with Elie Weisel for a book on the Golem).
The exhibit ends this coming Sunday, January 15th[ the textiles will leave for Prague in March to be inaugurated at the Altneuschul.
Also ending this Sunday is the Jews on Vinyl exhibit, which features recordings by Jews as well as non Jews on Jewish subjects. You can listen to various songs, with headphones, at 4 stations arranged to look like 50’s living rooms.
Enjoy, gentle reader, enjoy!