Charlie Fishbein, the proprietor of the Coffee Exchange in Providence, told me about plans to rededicate the Sons of Jacob Synagogue, in Providence’s Smith Hill, where Orms and Douglas meet, as a Jewish museum.
The cordial host of the Wickenden Street café showed me images of the murals and the illustrated signs of the zodiac that decorate the interior of this religious relic and also serve as a reminder of the historic role the building has played in Providence history.
Charlie said, “I’m not a speaker, but the artist who created the beautiful designs was my great-grandfather, and I’ll be there to represent him.”
I showed up at the June 25 open house to witness the promising proceedings and to shake Charlie’s hand. The only original name on the cracked marble plaque at the main entrance is the gold-inscribed “Samuel Shore” – and there was great-grandson Charlie, in a proper dark suit with an elegant necktie, on the balcony to meet and greet the crowd gathering in the various chambers.
Our renowned local klezmer band, conducted by Fishel Bresler, brought the music of eastern Europe into the multilayered rooms, where the local crowd mixed nostalgia for their shared past with their hopes for the future.
I guess my favorite, although faded, detail among the temple’s diverse attractions is the depiction of the signs of the zodiac, the astrological, almost “animated,” calendar we all know in one form or another. They take on a new/old meaning here for the Jewish people.
See that lamb? It symbolizes the biblical Hebrews, and their sacrifices! Gemini, the twins, stands for the double tablets of the Ten Commandments. Leo, the lion, or “Aryeh,” somehow suggests that the destruction of the Second Temple was the will of the divine in order that – in its own time and way – it could be rebuilt. The scales of justice claim that all our deeds are weighed – what we do counts.
My own sign is Sagittarius, the centaur with the arrow. The bow of Kislev tells us to trust that the fight against tyranny is inspired by the design of the universe.
Aquarius pours water to nourish trees and their fruit, and Pisces, or Adar, is a metaphor for “concealed reality.” The souls of Israel are likened to minnows that swim in the seas – the unconscious mind?
I’m leaving out a few, but you get the point.
Sadly, there is obvious damage to the elegance of these gentle and intelligent pastel pictures, caused by leaks in the roof.
How has Sons of Jacob survived at all? Largely thanks to a wonderful and devoted person named Harold Silverman, who told me just a bit about his personal devotion to maintaining this landmark.
Silverman said, and I’m paraphrasing, “My mother died two-score years ago, and I had to observe the proper traditional prayer of mourning, the Kaddish, and this was the only place that kept the minyan according to tradition in the right form, so I kept it all going in her honor.” While this is not a direct quote, it’s the sense of what he correctly claimed.
And, of course, there were many other important contributors to the splendid launching of the noble campaign to save, restore, and redeem this otherwise-lost world of brick and stone, marble and memory.
At the open house, visitors climbed upstairs and downstairs, to the front and back, indoors to the sanctuary and out back to the garden spaces and courtyard shaded by a summer tree on a sunny day. Many searched for the names of their forebears, family names left behind as the Jewish immigrants of the early 20th century dispersed from what had been labeled “Jewtown” to more assimilated quarters, and as the years, decades, century, millennium, opened and closed.
It was a marvelous event with balloons and goodies, small fry and seniors, neighbors and well-wishers. L’chaim to this new museum – which will only happen if the wider world values this Jewish chapter in Rhode Island history embodied in wood and wrought-iron gates both protecting and inviting.
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.