Mystery in the Mikveh

Posted on July 2nd, 2012 by

A blog post by LSS Archaeology Intern Karen Bishop.

A few weeks ago a few of my fellow interns and I tagged along on a lighting meeting with a representative from Sylvania light bulbs, who are helping the museum phase out the use of incandescent light. While touring the basement of the Lloyd Street Synagogue one bulb in particular caught everyone’s eye– the bulb lighting the mikveh (a bath used for ritual purification).

The lighting specialist was very intrigued, and although he didn’t know its exact age, he guessed it was at least from the 1920’s. You can clearly see the looped path of the filament and the pointed tip of the glass bulb indicates that it was likely hand-blown. Jobi is sending a few photos to a specialist who hopefully will be able to tell us its exact age. It is amazing that it still works considering it is turned on and off every time The Synagogue Speaks exhibition is opened for the public, four days a week!

My and Kierra’s main project for the summer is to inventory the contents of the Lloyd Street Synagogue. Most of the time we are detailing old records and reconciling object numbers and photographs. The mikveh light bulb is an interesting surprise, as we will get to do some research and make a new record for it.  As of now we’re not sure where the light came from or how long it’s been screwed into its current location.

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Athenian Judaism…in Baltimore?

Posted on June 21st, 2012 by

A blog post by Kierra Foley, LSS Archaeology Intern

Hulking Doric columns and a stately pale façade cast shadows upon the sleepy downtown street, an imposing and authoritative presence in this otherwise aesthetically lackluster area. The building looks suited for housing a body of people pulsing with the commanding spirit of Athenian democracy, not necessarily the spirit of modern Western religious thought. Briefly, I scratch my head – if worship were to occur within this structure’s walls, it seems as though it would be of a pagan variety (specifically Greco-Roman!), but certainly not anything rooted in the Hebrew Bible, like the Jewish and Catholic congregations that have found homes here in years past. Even more likely, it looks to be an administrative or governmental building, a place that has little to do with worship altogether.

The Lloyd Street Synagogue

Over the past few weeks and for the coming weeks, this architecturally deceptive structure – the Lloyd Street Synagogue (or LSS) – has come to be my home. I’m both a Near Eastern Studies major at Johns Hopkins University and the JMM’s LSS Archaeology intern. For those of you who closely follow the oh-so-riveting lives of JMM interns, this is not your first time hearing from me, as I was the Collections intern this past winter. My task is to process everything within the synagogue, including objects recovered from recent archaeological excavations. Naturally, I spend a great deal of time within the synagogue, rifling through the endless of web of objects that call the synagogue home.

The wild intern in its natural habitat, tagged and ready to accession!

However, the outside of the structure has piqued my interest more than anything that lies within the building. Why would one make a synagogue so…stately? The physicality of Greco-Roman art has lost its spiritual integrity over the past few millennia, instead representing intellectual progress and highly structured administrative systems. This phenomenon occurs especially in American architecture, which from its outset aimed to embody the democratic ideals previously founded in Grecian antiquity. The Neoclassicism rampant in our nation’s capital is exemplary of this trend; this is simply an extension of the Revolutionary War era movement to borrow from Grecian antiquity in both scholasticism and politics – a movement pioneered in order to ensure a flourishing democratic state. Americans have adopted Classical architecture in order to establish visual harmony and organization, creating a statement of august power, a far cry from the spirituality Westerners so often achieve with the Gothic architectural principles of “height and light”. The B’nai Israel synagogue’s plan seems to full heartedly embrace the common modern practice of illustrating divine mystery via breathtaking architecture. Contrastingly, the Lloyd Street Synagogue makes no such effort.

 

The façade of the B’nai Israel synagogue combines both Moorish and Gothic elements to make an engaging exterior and stunning interior.

So, if not a communication of the sublime, what was the intended affect of the synagogue’s external aesthetic? It was constructed in 1845, the height of Neoclassicism, in the Greek Revival style. A clear disdain for Roman features can be observed in this building, rendering it Greek Revival in the purest form of the term. It was designed by Robert Cary Long Jr., Baltimore’s first native and trained architect. In many ways, Long was an architectural Renaissance man, wearing hats that ranged from the Greek Revival we examine here, to high Gothicism, to Egyptian Revival. A learned man, it’s more than likely that Long and the founders of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (the LSS’s first congregation who oversaw its construction) had a pointed intent.

Long himself, from the museum’s collections (CP 3.2010.001). Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

Though far from an expert on such matters, from my time in the synagogue and my access to its inner workings and rich history, I have several theories developed as to why the synagogue was constructed in this way. The first reason being that the congregation wanted to remain inconspicuous, thus disguising themselves in a veil of Neoclassicism – an unlikely façade for worship. At this time, Jewish culture and religion was not met by gentiles with the utmost pleasure, and Anti-Semitism ran rampant through the streets of downtownBaltimore. With a wholly “American” covering for Jewish activity, the congregation could remain largely undetected by other intolerant Baltimoreans. In similar vein, the majority of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was comprised of German immigrants.

Rabbi Abraham Rice, the first spiritual leader of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and the first ordained rabbi in the U.S.

The attempt to “Americanize” the German mindset of the congregation was seen in its transition from strictly Orthodox to Reform in the early 1870s, as a campaign to modernize traditional behaviors was observable in new phenomena like the abolition of gender stratified seating in the April of 1973. The first step to modernization was taken in 1845 with the construction of the LSS, as it was a distant cry from all things German and a direct embrace of all things American. Still wholly Jewish, the building was also of the same nature as the American capital, beautifully merging both Judaism and the American spirit. Neoclassicism also may have been required to create an air of organization. The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was one of the first established inAmerica, and a need to make the building an authoritative presence is valid, as this could potentially stimulate an air of reliability and productivity.

However, this is all postulation from the mind of an intern. Perhaps if we could go back in time and ask Long himself, he’d answer, “Oh, it just looked lovely!”

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Glass Like Water: Fact or Fiction in Antique Windows

Posted on June 12th, 2012 by

A blog post by Karen Bishop, Archaeology Intern

One of the first things I noticed walking into the main floor of the Lloyd Street Synagogue were the windows. Not the colorful, glowing, starburst-patterned stained glass windows above the ark, but the rippled square windows on the side walls. Whenever I see antique glass I always think, “wow, this building is really old,” and I feel like a lot of other people have that thought, too. The appearance of old windows has always fascinated me: the variance in transparency and wavy patterns look like a suspended liquid. In fact, I was always of the belief that glass actually was a liquid. That’s why the bottom of stained glass in medieval cathedrals is thicker than the top, and why centuries old homes have river-like patterns running down the windows. When I went to research the liquid properties of glass to explain the appearance of the LSS windows, however, I found out that glass is in fact not a liquid, this is just a myth. 

The truth is that if you were to examine the thickness of cathedral glass or appearance of home windows when they were installed hundreds of years ago, you would make the same observations. The variances observed today are simply a result of the methods used to make glass ‘back in the day’. Glassmakers used hand-blown techniques that made it impossible to achieve a perfectly smooth, even texture. Glass is noticeably thicker at the bottom likely because it was easier to install it that way. However, there is some truth to the thought of glass being a slow moving liquid. Glass is an amorphous solid: when molten glass cools, the molecules retain the random patterns of the liquid state, but the bonds formed are strong, like that of a solid. The nature of glass still baffles scientists, though, so it’s no surprise this myth is so widespread.

If you would like to know more about the nature of glass and the exciting debate about it within the realm of scientific research (because I know you all do!), you can read the New York Times article The Nature of Glass Remains Anything but Clear.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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