Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ten Commandments in Central New York

Temple Society of Concord, Syracuse, NY. top: Decalogue over front porch.
Bottom: Decalogues set in the sanctuary flanking the bimah (platform) and Holy Ark. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber

Temple Adath Yeshuran, Syracuse, NY. Top: Decalogue in stained glass window moved from previous syangogue (commonly known as Salt City Playhouse). Bottom: Sculpted Decalogue over modern Ark.
Photos: Samuel D. Gruber

Ten Commandments in Central New York
by Samuel D. Gruber

This week Jews all over the world celebrate the festival of Shavuot, translated into English as "The Festival of Weeks" (so-named because its date is calculated as 7 weeks after Passover). The holiday commemorates God's giving the Torah to Moses (and thus to the Jewish people)on Mt. Sinai, as described in the Biblical Book of Exodus. The revaluation is summarized as the giving of the Ten Commandments. Visually,the common Judeo-Christian image of the Ten Commandments inscribed on the Tablets of the Law (Decalogue)is a symbolic abbreviation of the narrative of this event.

Representation of the Tablets of the law was developed as symbol of Judaism probably by Christian artist in the Middle Ages. The two tablets (a diptych with rounded tops) were frequently represented held by the defeated figure of synagoga / synagogue represented on church facades and elsewhere in contradistinction to the triumphant figure of ecclesia /church with a cross. The same image was sued as a badge that Jews were requited to wear in medieval England. But the tablets appeared in Jewish sources, too, usually in manuscript illuminations of Moses receiving the Law included in Hebrew bibles and other books. Sometimes the tablets are show as rectangular in shape (Regensburg Pentateuch), sometimes they are rounded (Sarajevo Haggadah). These images are presumed to have been made by Christian artists.

By the late 17th-century, however, the image of the Tablets became more established within the Jewish world. Starting in Amsterdam after 1675, we see the Decalogue included in synagogues decoration. First the Decalogue, usually with the first Hebrew words of each of the Ten Commandments, was included on or near the Holy Ark (where the Torah scroll itself was kept). By the 18th-century, however the Decalogue moves to the exterior of the synagogue, too, where it is included on facades as a symbol of the Jewish identity of the site, much as across is affixed in front of a church. This tradition became even stronger in 19th century Europe, following Jewish Emancipation in many countries., and it was adopted (with slight variation) by Jews of all persuasions. In America, this became a sort of branding - identifying a synagogue often when there was little else on the building that did so.

The Decalogue was seen as a positive statement of the fundamental basis of Judaism. It also was a symbol to which Christians, especially Protestant, could relate.

Images of the Tablets also became common in other contexts, decorating the Ark, sanctuary windows, and all sorts of ceremonial objects. The Decalogue eventually became a more common Jewish symbol that the Menorah, which had represented Judaism for nearly 2,000 years. In the 20th century use of the Decalogue has waned as the Jewish Star (Magen David) has become the universally accepted Jewish sign, and one more associated with Jewish nationahood. Jews, too, have more frequently represented the idea of Torah and Torah Law with images of scrolls - the way the Torah is actually preserved, read and studied today - rather than stone tablets. This may be in part due to the rise in popularity of the Ten Commandment tablets (usually with Roman numerals, or the Commandants written out in English) in American Protestant (especially Evangelical) Christian venues.

In Syracuse and Central New York there are several examples of the Decalogue used in Jewish contexts. These can be seen inside and out on Temple Society of Concord, the 1911 building at Madison and University just recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places. More artistic renderings of the Decalogue can be seen inside of Temple Adath Yeshurun on Kimber Raod (Syracuse), where stained glass windows from the earlier building, and a modern more expressionist sculptural rendering of the Decalogue is on the Ark of the Sanctuary. In Cortland, the Ten Commandments appear on the outer doors of the synagogue Ark in the spare modern sanctuary of Temple Brith Shalom (1969) designed by former SU Architecture Dean Werner Seligman.

Cortland, NY. Temple Brith Sholom. Ten Commandments represented on the doors of the Holy Ark.
Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

To the west, in Rochester, Syracuse University alumna (and sculptor of the Saltine Warrior) Luise Kaish created in bronze a dramatic representation of Moses receiving and revealing the law, and placed this on the massive bronze Ark of congregation Temple B'rith Kodesh (1962). Kaish was a student of Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic who made several images of Moses during his career. There is also a relief sculpture of Moses holding the Ten Commandments attached to west facing wall of Syracuse University's aw School. But the big striding Moses by Mestrovic set between Shaffer and Bowne Halls has no tablets.

Rochester, NY. Brith Kodesh. Moses receiving the Law, detail of Ark by Luise Kaish. Photo: Paul Rocheleau

Have more local instances of the Ten Commandments? Let me know. Are they in our courtrooms? I'll have to go and check.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Excavations Continue at Harriet Tubman Home

Excavations Continue at Harriet Tubman Home
by Samuel D. Gruber

Last Friday I took time to stop in Auburn, NY to check out the newest archaeological excavations at the Harriet Tubman Home, a large tract of land on the south side of town that had been owned by Tubman (from 1859), and where she spent almost a half century of her life, from the end of the Civil War until her death in 1913. The Tubman Home has been a National Historic Landmark since 2000 (part of the site has been designated as early as 1975). You can read the entire nomination here.

My friend Prof. Doug Armstrong of the Anthropology Department at Syracuse University
has been running field sessions with his students at the Tubman site for several years. Doug is a past president of the Preservation Association of Central New York (PACNY). This was the first time I'd managed to get there when the dig was running.

This year the excavation is focused in two spots. The first dig is in the vicinity of the brick house where, according to Beth Crawford, a project manager for the house restoration (and Beth just happens to be Vice-President of PACNY), Tubman lived from 1882 or '83 until 1892, and then again from 1896 until 1911. An earlier wooden house of Tubman's on the site burned down, making way for the new brick building (restoration of which is just beginning).

At the brick house the students were uncovering an old walkway which led from the street to the formal entrance, though the common entrance was through a side door on the north. It was beneath a porch located here that the archaeologists discovered a rich deposit of artifacts including dinner dishes and other items destoryed in the fire, that had all been dumped in this deposit when the new house was erected on the older foundations. The addition of a porch (now removed) sealed access to the deposit until the archaeologists started digging. Who ate on those plates? Frederick Douglas? Secretary of State Seward? Or Harriet's many friends and admirers - including children - who used to flock to her house for her company and her stories.

A second site is on the east side of the wood frame house further north - that's the one that has the plaque and that served as the Tubman Home for the Aged, but where Harriet lived only for a few years from about 1892 to 1896, when she moved back to the brick house.
The house was extensively remade in 1953, and has served since as the most visible part of the Tubman legacy. The students have uncovered a crude brick foundation which probably supported a wooden addition, possibly a lean-to kitchen area that adjoined the main house. This may have burned down (as many kitchens did), since there is a large adjacent ash deposit, or it may have leveled sometime in the past.

Due to declining health Harriet Tubman moved in 1911 to the John Brown Home for the Aged which she had long maintained on the property. That building was almost entirely demolished, but Armstrong and his students were able to locate it and excavate its footprint a few years ago.

Tubman is buried in Auburn's Fort Hill Cemetery. Both her home and the grave remain popular tourist sites for history buffs and for an annual Pilgrimage sponsored by the AME Zion Church of which she was a stalwart member, and to which she gave the property in 1903. The Church still owns the Home and the Pilgrimage takes place in early June.

Work is also ongoing for the restoration of the Tubman family barn just behind the brick house. This wood structure is partially preserved - though it served for many years as a bus station. It is presently jacked off the ground, and a new foundation have been set. Much of the wood siding has to be replaced, but it seems that about 30 to 40 percent of the original wood can be saved.