Long-hidden mural revealed at Burlington synagogue

Archivist and historian Aaron Goldberg stood in the nearly empty foyer of Ohavi Zedek on Sunday beside the synagogue’s president, Jeffrey Potash. Each gripped a length of rope affixed to a massive, veiled object suspended above their heads. A camera at the back of the room projected images of the two men via livestream to a reception room full of guests and congregants.

Attendees held their collective breath as Goldberg and Potash glanced at each other and, at a signal, pulled the ropes to reveal a three-panel mural painted in rich gold, blues and reds.

The synagogue erupted into applause and cries of “Mazel tov!” as the paper veil drifted to the floor, and the men were swept up in a wave of celebration. Somebody congratulated Goldberg. He thanked them without taking his eyes off the mural.

After four years of hard work and 30 years of dreaming, the Lost Shul Mural of Chai Adam has at long last been returned to a Jewish place of worship.

Discovering a masterpiece

Goldberg is an attorney by trade. He practices elder law at his office on Pearl Street. But since work on recovering, transporting and restoring the Lost Mural began in earnest, he said, the project has been seriously cutting into his day job.

“It’s been at least three business meetings a week for over three years,” he said to a friend at the unveiling.

But the Lost Mural of Chai Adam is, by all accounts, a treasure. Painted over a century ago in the style of the richly decorated murals that once adorned hundreds of wooden synagogues across Eastern Europe, it is a unique piece – the finest surviving example of this Lithuanian-Jewish art form in the world, said Jewish art historian Samuel Gruber.

“No others match it in size, intricacy and Jewish meaning,” Gruber said.

Suspended 11 feet off the ground by a protective steel frame, the mural forms a massive concave trapezoid with the corner panels angled inward like an inverted half-shell. The center panel is decorated with what Gruber calls a decalogue, or a depiction of the Ten Commandments on two rounded stone tablets. Two heraldic lions flank the decalogue, holding up the tablets with their forepaws. This, Gruber said, is a traditional symbol found in numerous works of Jewish art. The lions represent the Jewish people, supporting and defending the Torah, he said.

Less traditional are the theatrical curtains which dominate the side-panels and the modern musical instruments which originally extended further down the wall of the synagogue. These, Gruber said, were personal touches applied by the artist – a young Lithuanian mandolin player, painter and playwright named Ben Zion Black.

Artist’s Link to Vermont

In 1910, when Black emigrated from Lithuania to Vermont, Burlington’s Old North End was an Eastern European immigrant hub known as Little Jerusalem, Goldberg said. Many Lithuanian immigrants chose to settle in the area because it moved at the pace of their home country.

Mural artist Ben Zion Black emigrated from Lithuania to Burlington’s Old North End in 1910. Courtesy photo

Mural artist Ben Zion Black emigrated from Lithuania to Burlington’s Old North End in 1910. Courtesy photo

“We were a Lithuanian-Jewish village that happened to be stranded in Vermont, which was only superficially affected by American ways, that basically lived – and maintained for a whole generation – its East-European Jewish pattern of life,” a former resident recalled in a 1949 issue of The Jewish Spectator.

But Black moved to Burlington for an entirely different reason: while directing a play in Lithuania, he fell in love with one of the actresses. When she came to America, he dropped everything to do the same.

“Her parents did not approve of the match, and they took her to America – so the story goes, and so the story goes, he followed her,” said former Gov. Madeleine Kunin during a speech at the unveiling.

The two eventually married, and Black supported the young family as a professional artist, mandolin player, actor, Yiddish poet, playwright and commercial sign maker, according to an informational packet passed out at the unveiling.

He was commissioned to paint the Chai Adam mural the year that he arrived in Burlington. He charged $200 for the work, which took him six months to complete, the biography said.

Unfortunately, his personal touches were not well received by the traditional Orthodox congregation at Chai Adam. Musical instruments are not supposed to be played on the Sabbath, and some feared that Black’s depictions of angels violated a commandment to not worship graven images, according to the biography. Black was not asked to decorate another synagogue interior again, but earned a comfortable living making signs from his workshop at 50 Center St. in Burlington (the current site of the restaurant The Daily Planet), according to the biography.

Unorthodox journey

When Chai Adam Synagogue merged with Ohavi Zedek in 1939, the mural was left behind. The building changed hands numerous times, and the mural became an unusual backdrop for different retail establishments. When Goldberg first saw it as a child in the 1970s, he said, it was the back wall of a rug store.

“It was pretty surreal,” he said.

In 1986, the former Chai Adam building changed hands again and became an apartment complex. In an effort to preserve the mural, Goldberg said that he, art conservator Rick Kerschner and architect Marcel Beaudin took archival photographs of the mural and sealed it behind a false, plaster wall. (Archival images can be seen of that early preservation here.)

Goldberg said that he had always hoped to someday recover the mural, but technological and financial limitations at the time rendered that impossible. In 2010, however, he came back to the old Chai Adam and cracked open the wall for a day, to see how much of it had survived.

The wall was resealed the next day, but after that visit, Goldberg said that he knew he wanted to begin working on extricating the mural from the old Chai Adam building and bringing it to Ohavi Zedek.

Moving a massive chunk of roof without destroying the mural on the other side was no easy feat. Kerschner discussed this during the unveiling.

After careful forensic analysis to determine the strength of the paint and plaster, the team coated much of the mural in a fine veneer of silk crepeline and extremely fine fiberglass mesh to prevent the paint from detaching during the move. They cushioned the plaster with soft foam and plywood, he said, while a team of engineers built the massive metal frame that now holds the mural.

After cutting out a large section of roof, the team transported the mural “a few long blocks” from Hyde Street to Ohavi Zedek with a 50-foot crane, Kerschner said. After removing the doors from the synagogue, they were able to fit the mural inside its new home with only a half inch to spare.

Kerschner and fellow conservator Connie Silver said that there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done: Silver, who is in charge of cleaning the painting and restoring it as near to its original state as possible, said that the paint must be forensically analyzed to see how much of it is original, and how much has been overpainted by other artists trying to touch up Black’s work. Areas where paint is missing must be filled in as well, she said, and the entire painting needs to be carefully cleaned.

Silver said that the painting will look dramatically different once it’s fully restored. Areas of curtain, which now appear dark green, she said, will actually be a deep blue color that carries biblical significance, while the now-brown decalogue will actually be a vibrant red.

Goldberg said that the synagogue also needs to raise more funds in order to build a full exhibit for the mural, highlighting Black’s life in the context of Burlington’s Little Jerusalem.

Still, Goldberg said getting the mural into Ohavi Zedek represented a major achievement.

“Four years of hard work, and decades of dreaming,” he said with a smile.

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  • J. Scott Cameron

    This is wonderful!

  • Allan Ruggles

    What a remarkable story. Congratulations to all.

  • Dixie O’Connor

    Great Northern Construction, Inc. is proud to be the contractor that moved the mural! With many thanks to the team of professionals that made it all happen.

    Dixie O’Connor, CGR
    Project Manager
    Great Northern Construction, Inc.

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