September 22, 2019

Raising the Roof of a Polish Synagogue in L.A.

Photo by Esther D. Kustanowitz

In 2016, when artist Wanda Peretz was at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, she looked up and fell in dizzying and enduring love.

Peretz found herself gazing at a reconstruction of a ceiling from the Gwozdziec Synagogue, a 17th-century building that was destroyed twice, first in World War I, then by the Nazis during World War II. The ceiling, painted with elaborate and colorful zodiac figures, had been painstakingly reconstructed as one of the permanent exhibits for the POLIN Museum, which opened in 2014.

“Standing underneath the actual replica was one of the most intensely emotional reactions I have had to a thing as opposed to a person,” Peretz said.

Inspired by the art and the history of the synagogue, Peretz embarked on extensive research surrounding the art and the artisans, and let the inspiration come. One project that grew from this fascination is about to come to fruition at her synagogue, Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, where she previously had done many art projects themed to Jewish holidays.

But this project will be different in scale and content. It is a replica of and homage to that resurrected art of the Gwozdziec Synagogue, suspended in the alcove above the bimah in the Dorff-Nelson Chapel, where the Library Minyan — Beth Am’s volunteer-led, participatory prayer group — will meet for the High Holy Days. To make sure that the community was on board and engaged, Peretz invited them to help create it.

This project is what Beth Am Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld called “a meaningful nod to the fact that the chapel deserved some kind of love,” especially this year, as the synagogue’s sanctuary undergoes major reconstruction.

“It’s a way of giving a gift to the people who daven there,” Kligfeld said. “Giving the space some loving attention is a nod toward hiddur mitzvah [beautifying the mitzvah] for that room.”

When it is installed in advance of Rosh Hashanah, the project will testify to the massive achievement of Polish synagogues and serve as a remembrance of the destruction that all but eradicated the synagogues from existence.

The reconstruction of the Gwozdziec ceiling Peretz saw in Warsaw came about when, in 2011, the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland together with the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and Handshouse Studio launched an educational project that saw students, historians, architects, artisans and artists working together to rebuild the synagogue’s roof structure and polychrome wooden ceiling.

As much as possible, the team used only construction and painting methods that would have been used in the 16th century. Once the project was underway, the team held workshops in seven Polish cities, in each town’s synagogue, generating interest and buy-in from local residents. The roof and its decorative ceiling were mounted inside the museum’s building at the beginning of 2013.

Under Peretz’s stewardship, Temple Beth Am is engaged in a somewhat parallel process. The community is learning about the synagogue and its history while working to re-create a portion of it. For the last few months, congregants have been coming to Peretz’s art studio in Beverlywood to color in art panels. Peretz traces the images from the Gwozdziec murals, enlarges them and then presides over others who follow the color guides.

“I love watching everyone use the oil pastels — all  beautiful, rich and varied colors but still with the comforting boundaries of a limited palette — and seeing the black-and-white images suddenly transform into art that is bright and alive with color,” she said.

Peretz also organized a recent screening at Beth Am of  “Raise the Roof,” a documentary about the reconstruction process of the Warsaw synagogue roof and ceiling. She brought in Thomas Hubka, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an architectural historian, to talk about the project. Hubka said that the two major components in the Gwozdziec prayer hall were the ark and the bimah. Beth Am’s chapel also has a bimah in the middle, over which the Gwozdziec-inspired art will be installed.

“I so admire Rick and Laura Brown’s Handshouse Studio reconstruction at the POLIN Museum,” Peretz said. “I just wanted to re-create a much simpler, much smaller and quicker version of what their teamwork accomplished over three summers — their stunning permanent exhibition for the world to visit in Poland. Our alcove is for whoever comes into the Dorff-Nelson Chapel to daven for the High Holy Days this year, and in memory of Israel and Isaac [the painters whose signatures are visible in the Gwozdziec murals],” she said.

“A wide array of Beth Am Jewfolk have found themselves involved in this,” Kligfeld said. “People are just drawn to it.”

The art installation will remain through a Hoshana Rabbah Live music Hallel with singer Josh Warshawsky and will be taken down right after Simchat Torah.

“What [Peretz] is creating isn’t intended to be that enduring a project,” Kligfeld said. “But everyone who’s been involved understands that Jewish art in synagogues made these synagogues treasures. It connects the kahal (congregation) to that and opens the mind to what a synagogue could look like.”

“This dream, this artwork, these images are part of the collective Jewish soul and memory,” Peretz said. “By interacting with those Gwozdziec images [through the act of coloring them in], we are opening the possibility of having an emotional experience, one that accesses the childhood simple joy of colors and crayons, the pleasure and satisfaction of participating in hiddur mitzvah, the beautifying of a sacred object.”

“It’s all her dream,” Kligfeld said.

A screening of “Raise the Roof,” will take place at American Jewish University in Bel Air at 1 p.m. on Sept. 27.