Suburban synagogues, like the sprawling developments in which they took root in the 1950s, often get a bad rap. The baby boomers who grew up in them remember them as kitschy and conventional; nostalgists lament what was lost when Jews abandoned vibrant urban neighborhoods for the “ticky-tacky” cul-de-sacs and split levels. “The modern temple suffers from a severe cold,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote. “The services are prim, the voice is dry, the temple is clean and tidy, and the soul of prayer lies in agony.”
That image is in for a reevaluation in the wake of an exhibit, at New York’s Jewish Museum, focusing on an iconic suburban New Jersey synagogue. “Modern Art, Sacred Space: Motherwell, Ferber and Gottlieb” focuses on three works of art created for Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn in 1951. The rabbi, Max Gruenewald, was a German refugee eager to make a physical statement about Judaism’s survival and rebirth on distinctly American soil. The artists, each an established name in abstract expressionism, jumped at the invitation of synagogue architect Percival Goodman to bring the avant-garde to a mainstream setting.
The exhibition, in two rooms, takes advantage of an ongoing renovation at B’nai Israel to bring the three artworks together in two rooms. Robert Motherwell’s monumental mural and Herbert Ferber’s copper “burning bush” sculpture are on loan; the synagogue donated Adolph Gottlieb’s 20-foot Torah curtain to the museum in 1987 when its upkeep became too difficult. Each of the works is accompanied by the artists’ preliminary sketches and revealing photographs, like Ferber’s sculpture lashed to the back of a moving van and a charming photograph of Gottlieb supervising the synagogue’s women members as they sew the huge curtain.
That latter photograph evokes the two worlds colliding — and getting along quite nicely, thank you. Goodman’s design for the synagogue, dedicated in 1952, was sparse and modern, eschewing Old World flourishes like Moorish arches and all references to traditional church architecture. He sought out three artists — for a whopping $2,500 — to create equally modern works.
You might have expected pushback from a rabbi with his feet planted in prewar Europe, but Gruenewald trusted Goodman to respect tradition while pointing forward to a new, emerging Jewish identity.
The old and the new are seen in Gottlieb’s curtain. It is deep red, featuring pictographs whose Jewish imagery ranges from obvious to obscure. The two tablets of the law, a menora, and a star of David are unambiguous. Less so are what the wall labels tell you are a lion’s mane and the wings of cherubim. The accompanying studies show how conventional imagery gave way to abstraction.
Motherwell’s mural also balances the abstract and the representational. The only non-Jew among the artists, he immersed himself in the study of Jewish religion and mysticism to create what the exhibit calls one of the largest paintings of its time. Brown, white, and orange, with touches of blue, the eight-foot by 16-foot mural is dominated by three main motifs: the tablets, an unfurled Torah, and a seven-branched candelabrum. Motherwell explained that the intersecting lines on the “page” of Torah represent the Jewish Diaspora. The background is divided into “boards” by light blue and white vertical lines, giving the work its name: “The Walls of the Temple.”
There is enough “realism” in both of these works to comfort a modern-art skeptic, and enough abstraction to assuage a downtown critic. Indeed, the art press was tickled by the collaboration. Art Digest hailed the fact that abstract art was being exposed to a “wider audience.” A Time magazine article from 1951 called the commissions a “bold vote” for abstractionists.
That boldness might be a little hard to appreciate 60 years later, now that imagery that seemed edgy in the 1950s has been absorbed as cliche.
Ferber’s sculpture, which normally faces the street from a perch on the synagogue facade, was said to stop traffic when it was first installed. The “bush” features flame-like “branches” coated in a blistered lead — it almost looks like cement. Scattered among the branches are copper rods forming what could be thorns, or barbed wire. All of these motifs have since become overused in Jewish and synagogue art: Countless Holocaust memorials feature, for obvious reasons, the sculpted flames, barbed wire, and primitive finishes. It’s useful to be reminded of a time when those symbols were still fresh and even shocking.
The irony of abstraction, of course, is that what most perceive as “modern” can also be seen as “primitive.” Motherwell’s sketches, especially, could be children’s drawings, and all three artists render their Jewish symbols as elemental shapes. Like religious ritual itself, each works brings something primal, even prehistoric, to the heart of suburbia.
The exhibit captures a brief moment when two cultures — modern art and American Judaism — were eager to establish their wider legitimacy, and found each other useful to the task. The result suggests the ways innovation and creativity can flourish beyond the cities, so long as rabbis and leaders are open to fresh ideas and unfamiliar voices.