Robert Hirsch

Ben Shahn & the Secrets of the Temple
By Robert Hirsch
From Forever Young Magazine, December 2004

Many people are aware of Temple Beth Zion at 805 Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, but few know its origins or about its hidden trove of historic and contemporary artistic works.

Buffalo’s first synagogue was founded as an orthodox congregation in 1850. Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo’s first Reform Jewish congregation was officially dedicated in 1865 on Niagara Street. In 1890 an exotic Byzantine style building with a cooper-covered, half-sphere dome was opened on the present Delaware Avenue site. This building was destroyed by fire in 1961. A new facility, designed by architect Max Abramovitz,was rebuilt in 1966. It features ten scalloped outside walls, symbolizing the Ten Commandments, which flare 15 degrees outward towards the sky. Artist Ben Shahn (1898 – 1969) was commissioned to create two stained glass windows, an interior sculptural rendition of the Ten Commandment tablets, and a menorah.

Shahn’s artistic reputation was set in 1932 with The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti series of paintings. Both the content and style of the work proclaimed his commitment to social realism and an agenda of political reform. Shahn was also involved with photography and many of his works were based on photographs. In the early 1930s Shahn’s friend, photographer Walker Evans, taught him the basics of photography. Shahn’s eye for social justice led him to become a photographer from 1935 through 1938 for the Farm Security Administration, whose mission was to inform the country about the plight of the rural poor during the Great Depression. As a Jewish artist living in New York City he was engaged in struggle for social change, but he never idealized or sentimentalized his subjects. He said it was "alright to have a soft heart, so long as your have a hard eye." Shahn sought a public art and painted several public murals that were done to serve social causes and move people to action. He combined art and document to fabricate work that could be seen and understood by people without any special training. His commitment to a moral life and public art made him a model artist to communicate the ideals of the Temple.

As one enters from the east, there is a foreshadowing of the Beth Zion’s artistic contents. In the north corner there is a menorah on a pedestal, a candelabrum with six branches and a central socket, designed by Salvador Dali. Inside the sanctuary ones’ eye is immediately drawn to Shahn’s two stained glass windows, reaching a height of forty feet, which frame the front (west) and back (east) of the temple. The congregation faces the east wall window, which is behind the altar that is framed on both sides by the mosaic lettering of Shahn’s tablets. This provides the setting for the Holy Ark where the sacred scrolls,Torahs, and the Five Books of Moses that reveal the law of God are housed. Above the Holy Ark hangs the Ner Tamid (eternal light), a symbol of the nearness of God and reverence for Torah. The Torah is read from a lectern in front of the ark that is shaped like an open book in honor of the Jewish commitment to study.

On the north side is Shahn’s giant menorah,The Shabbat Candlebra, a seven-branched Menorah that represents the menorah in Solomon’s Temple. The sanctuary seats 1,000 people and its balcony holds a 4,000-pipe organ. Tinted glass windows in the ceiling further accent the play of light in the sanctuary, making it a major architectural theme. The open and soaring interior space reinforces this motif by encouraging people to visually follow the bush-hammered walls, which give the concrete surface an antique mottled effect, skyward.

Visitors may think that they have seen it all, but additional surprises wait. Beth Zion’s caretaker,David Maldonado, can show you the Temple’s Cofeld Judaic Museum whose purpose is to document, celebrate, explain, and interpret the Jewish experience. The collection of eclectic Judaic artifacts is contained in two jam-packed rooms that spill out into the hallway that runs the length of the building. Inside these wonder rooms is a wide assortment of objects ranging from a nineteenth century Italian matzah perforator (a simple device for making the lines of holes in the unleavened bread) to a twentieth century Tiffany Purim Grogger (holiday noise maker). The collection contains many items from the Holocaust, yellow stars of David the Jews were forced to wear on their clothes; a concentration camp uniform; a brick fragment from Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam; and drawings by children who were in the Terezin camp. Mr. Maldonado commented that he appreciates being in the mist of history and that places like this are important because they remind people never to forget the lessons that history can teach.

The museum’s showcases contain many religious objects ranging from a Shofar (a ram’s horn trumpet that was used as an ancient battle signal and is now blown in the Temple during the High Holidays ceremonies) to a burned Torah scroll that was saved by a Buffalo fireman from the blaze the destroyed the Temple.

Other items remind viewers of the wide variety of contributions Jews have made to American culture. These range from a signed postcard of Harry Houdini; a baseball signed by Sandy Koufax, and a portrait of Barbra Streisand made by photographer Duane Michals. There are also mementoes of from former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, Buffalo painter Susan Rothenberg, and Henry Kissinger. The role that Jews have played in entertainment, from Yiddish Theatre to Hollywood, is remembered with items from stars such as Molly Picon, Al Jolson, and Woody Allen. The hallway contains friezes of the prophets that were salvaged from the fire and numerous framed drawing, painting, lithographs, and photographs, many made by Buffalo artists such as Harvey Breverman, Seymour Drumlevitch, and Milton Rogovin.

The collection features numerous menorahs, including the eight branch ones used during Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. Traditionally Hanukkah is a minor holiday, but modern commercial interests have lead it to become a time when gifts are given, especially to children. Hanukkah commemorates the 160 B.C.E. victory of Judah the Macabee’s forces over the powerful Seleucids (Syrians) during which the Temple in Jerusalem was almost destroyed, leaving only a one day supply of oil for the Ner Tamid. The oil lasted until a new supply arrived, eight days, and the flame never went out. It is an archetypal story of empowerment, about how a minority persevered and succeeded against a powerful adversary. Today lighting the Hanukkah menorah may symbolize the ignition of the flame of an individual’s soul, a spark that can never be extinguished, and a source of internal ethical guidance.

For more information and visiting hours call 886-7150.

Temple Windows © Robert Hirsch

Detail of Torah mantle © Robert Hirsch

Temple Beth Zion's stained glass window © Robert Hirsch

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