What is “Folk” about Synagogue Art?

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This publication is a tribute to the memory of the outstanding folklorist and ethnographer Dov Noy, who passed away in 2013. In the scholarly discourse that classifies folklore by modes and media of transmission, synagogue art—as distinct from folk narrative and behavioral lore—is commonly categorized as “visual folklore.” This paper examines the approach of classifying murals and sculptural decoration in east and central European synagogues from the late seventeenth century until the Holocaust as “folk creations.” It suggests a revision of pre-established definitions in the field, in general, and in the analysis of representative folk narratives relating to synagogues, in particular.

The position of academic research into traditional Jewish visual culture, at the seam of art history and folkloristics, challenges predefined divisions of this integral cultural phenomenon into the conventional categories of separate disciplines. In the discourse classifying folklore according to the ways and media of its transmission, synagogue art—in distinction to folk narratives and behavioral lore—commonly falls into the category of “visual folklore,” defined as the visual domain of folk art and material culture. Jewish “folk art” is often attributed generally to “folk artists” and “craftsmen,” without a clear distinction between the two groups. This paper holistically examines the approaches to the murals and sculptural decoration in east and central European synagogues from the late seventeenth century until the Holocaust as visual folklore, craftsmanship, and artistic work, and outlines the part of oral lore in the programming and interpretation of synagogue art. Finally, it proposes to re-approach folk synagogue art as a medium that creates a visual environment for liturgical activity and predicates its viewers’ responses to the challenges, trials, and tribulations of daily life.

What is “Folk” about Synagogue Art?





Cf. Joan M. Benedetti“Who Are the Folk in Folk Art? Inside and Outside the Cultural Context,” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 6 no. 1 (1987): 3.


See Howard S. Becker“Arts and Crafts,” American Journal of Sociology 83 no. 4 (1978): 862–889; Joan M. Benedetti “Who Are the Folk in Folk Art?” 3–8; idem “Words Words Words: Folk Art Terminology—Why It (Still) Matters” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 19 no. 1 (2000): 14–21.


See Rachel WischnitzerSymbole und Gestalten der jüdischen Kunst (Berlin: S. Scholem1935); idem The Architecture of the European Synagogue (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America 1964) 128–147 150–154; Ida Huberman Living Symbols: Symbols in Jewish Art and Tradition (Jerusalem 1989); Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka Bramy Nieba. Bóżnice drewniane na ziemiach dawnej Rzeczypospolitej (Warsaw: Krupski i Spółka 1996); idem Bramy Nieba. Bóżnice murowane na ziemiach dawnej Rzeczypospolitej (Warsaw: Krupski i Spółka 1999); Thomas C. Hubka Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community (Hanover NH: Brandeis University Press 2003).


Dov Noy“Folklore,” in Encyclopaedia JudaicaMichael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik eds. vol. 7 (Detroit: Macmillan Reference2007) 105; Shalom Sabar “Folk Art” 156–157; Lee I. Levine “Art Architecture and Archaeology” in Martin Goodman Jeremy Cohen and David Jan Sorkin eds. The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005) 825.


Mamie Harmon“Folk Art: Problems and Analysis” and Giuseppe Cocchiara, “Folk Art: Historical Background,” in Encyclopedia of World Artvol. 5 (New York: McGraw-Hill1961) 451–466. See also Roger D. Abrahams “Phantoms of Romantic Nationalism in Folkloristics” The Journal of American Folklore 106 no. 419 (1993): 3–37. For the early developments in folk art theory in central and eastern Europe see for example Mirjam Rajner “The Awakening of Jewish National Art in Russia” Jewish Art 16–17 (1990–1991): 98–121; Margaret R. Olin Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl’s Theory of Art (University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press 1992) 25–29; Stefan Muthesius “Alois Riegl Volkskunst Hausfleiss und Hausindustrie” in Richard Woodfield ed. Framing Formalism: Riegl’s Work (Amsterdam: G. and B. 2001) 135–150; Georg Vasold Alois Riegl und die Kunstgeschichte als Kulturgeschichte (Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach 2004); Ján Bakoš “From Universalism to Nationalism: Transformations of Vienna School Ideas in Central Europe” in Robert Born Alena Janatková and Adam Labuda eds. Die Kunsthistoriographien in Ostmitteleuropa und der nationale Diskurs (Berlin: Mann 2004) 79–101; Matthew Rampley The Vienna School of Art History: Empire and the Politics of Scholarship 1847–1918 (University Park PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press 2013) 37–40 116–141. See also Steven Fine’s recently published “Lernen To See: ‘Modernity’ Torah and the Study of Jewish ‘Art’” Beloved Words (Milin Havivin) 7 (2013–2014): 24–35.


Noy“Folklore” 103; Shalom Sabar “Folk Art” 156.


Simon PaulusDie Architektur der Synagoge im Mittelalter: Überlieferung und Bestand (Petersberg: Imhof2007) 166; Ilia Rodov The Torah Ark in Renaissance Poland: A Jewish Revival of Classical Antiquity (Leiden: Brill 2013) 120–124.


See Frederic C. BartlettRemembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (London: Cambridge University Press1967).


See Bracha Yaniv“Early Wall Decoration in Polish Synagogues and the Role of Pattern Books,” Polin (Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization forthcoming).


Iris Fishof“Depictions of Jerusalem by Eliezer Sussman of Brody,” The Israel Museum Journal 14 (1996): 67–82; Armin Panter “Bemerkungen zur Geschichte und zur musealen Präsentation der Unterlimpurger Synagogenvertäfelung” and Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek “Die Unterlimpurger Synagoge in der Tradition der jüdischen Kunst” in Gerhard Taddey ed. Geschützt geduldet gleichberechtigt: Die Juden im baden-württembergischen Franken vom 17.Jahrhundert bis zum Ende des Kaiserreichs (1918) (Ostfildern: Thorbecke 2005) 139–146 and 147–154 respectively.


See Murray ZimilesGilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press2007).


See Richard Bauman“Performance,” in A Companion to Folklore101.


See the examples in Shadmi“Ha-ketovot she-ʼal kirot” 286 no. 2 and 287 no. 11; Yaniv “Galafei ’eẓ yehudim” 63 no. 1; Rodov “With Eyes towards Zion” 144.


Joan M. Benedetti“Words Words Words: Folk Art Terminology” 14.


RodovThe Torah Ark in Renaissance Poland68–72.


Ilia Rodov“Papal Lions on the Torah Ark: A Heraldic Symbol Converted” Materia Giudaica 17–18 (2012–2013): 215–227.


Rachel NeisThe Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press2013); Kalman P. Bland The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2000).


Shlomo EidelbergR. Juspa Shammash of Warmaisa (Worms): Jewish Life in 17th-Century Worms (Jerusalem: Magnes Press1991) 82–84 no. 15. See also Eugen Kranzbühler Worms und die Heldensage: mit Beiträgen zur Siegel- und Wappenkunde Münz- und Baugeschichte der Stadt (Worms: Stadtbibliothek 1930) 108–111.


Rachel Wischnitzer“The Wise Men of Worms,” Reconstructionist 25 no. 9 (1959): 11–12.


See Noy“What Is Jewish about the Jewish Folktale?” xviii.


Rodov“With Eyes towards Zion” 142.


See Joseph Gutmann“When the Kingdom Comes: Messianic Themes in Medieval Jewish Art,” Art Journal 27 no. 2 (1967–1968): 168–70. Biadula testified (see note 75 above) that the commonfolk in late nineteenth-century Jewish eastern Europe were familiar with folk versions of the story about the three animal monsters and feast of the righteous in Paradise; see Biadula “V dremuchikh lesakh” 191–192.


Cf. Galit Hasan-Rokem“Jews as Postcards, or Postcards as Jews: Mobility in a Modern Genre,” Jewish Quarterly Review 99 no. 4 (2009): 505–546.


Biadula“V dremuchikh lesakh” 225–230.


  • View in gallery
    El (Eliezer) Lissitzky, Dragon under the Walls of Worms, ca. 1916. Copy of a detail of Ḥayim ben Isaac Segal’s ceiling painting (1740) in the synagogue in Mogilev on the Dnieper, reproduced in Milgroim, vol. 3(1923): 8.
  • View in gallery
    Leviathan, 1895, synagogue in Pakruojis, ceiling painting. Photograph by Chackelis Lemchenas, May 1, 1938. © Šiauliai, The Aušros Museum, no. 2783.
  • View in gallery
    Leviathan, Jewish New Year postcard, ca. 1910. Published by The Hebrew Publishing Company, New York.

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