Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Synagogue in a Prison?

We visited Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia today thinking it would be a fun outing with our niece.  I didn't know there was a synagogue in it.  Nor did I guess how unexpectedly moving it would be.

Eastern State closed in 1971, and today is a big tourist attraction in a state of 'stabilized ruin', "a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and surprising eerie beauty."  This wreckage of the original synagogue is pretty much what the interior of the cells looks like, though of course much smaller.  In 2004 "the decision became clear:  save what could be saved, learn what could be learned, and carefully piece this sacred place back together."  

Today it looks like this:

There is even a side room with a basket of kippot (skullcaps) on a table as if about to be used:

In the Exhibit on Jewish Life, there was a video of the Rabbi who was the visiting Chaplain talking about bringing in special kosher foods for Passover.  Here they are holding a Seder in the Synagogue.  The inmates feasted on all the traditional delicacies so foreign to their normal fare, with enough leftovers to take back to their cells to share or barter with the non-Jewish prisoners. 

Sheldon Glasshofer also spoke on the video, about how they got to together at Seders and discussed the Passover story, as Jews everywhere always have.  Except that these Jews were discussing a holiday of freedom and liberation from inside a prison.

Services first began with High Holidays in 1913 / 5674, with an inmate leading:

Weekly Shabbat services were added by 1917, with much support from the Philadelphia Jewish community:

It's remarkable the extent to which the prison administration accommodated to Jewish ritual and custom, and for such a small percentage of of their population. The Synagogue skylights were even opened up at Sukkot, turning it into something of a virtual sukkah.

Perhaps it helped that the President of Eastern State's Board of Trustees was Alfred Fleisher.  After his death The Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue was named in his honor.  

The original synagogue door is carefully preserved.  You can see the "ghosts" of the two Stars of David on the upper panels:

The mezzuzah  currently in use on the doorpost is a reproduction:

It was touching to see that the local Jewish community is obviously still active in both preserving and teaching about this unusual history.  The invitation to fill out cards about both good deeds done or good deeds done for you were filled out and posted by children who had visited from all over the world.

I'm glad we visited Eastern State Penitentiary, and I'm surprised and touched to have visited both the synagogue and the accompanying exhibit on Jewish Life in the prison.  People talk about the "ghosts" in Eastern State, and Halloween season is their time to stage a massive haunted house.  I don't know about ghosts.  I know I felt the presence of this unusual congregation who together with many volunteers from outside the walls made this space very sacred.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Cherry Blossoms and Shoes

The cherry trees in Washington D.C. last Saturday were stunningly beautiful.  I escaped the crowds that were milling around the National Mall admiring the phenomenal trees and taking photos of 'family at Cherry Blossom Festival', as if sprung out of their houses like the blossoms from their buds. Instead I ducked into the Arthur M Sackler Gallery,, to see an exhibit by Chiharu Shiota, a Japanese installation artist born in 1972 in Japan who has been living in Berlin since 1996.  

I had seen a lot of her work online and knew I was a fan.  This was my first experience of seeing an actual installation that I could walk around and see from various angles as well as close up. Wow.  What a reminder that we think we see art online, but it's no comparison to the real thing!  She has worked with the shoe theme many times in various locations around the world and in different ways.

The one above was done in Berlin in 2008.  Like Chiharu Shiota, I am touched by the life of objects and the stories they tell about the people who previous used or wore them.  In the Sackler installation she had people write notes that told stories about each particular shoe.  The translations from Japanese can be found at  The note attached to the sneaker below says:  "The time they were worn: November 2005 to October 2007. Place: from my home to my work place and the pilgrimage of Shikoku’s 33 temples. The memory: These were familiar shoes. When it rained, water went into the shoes. At the end of the life of the shoes, I wore them only when it was nice out. When I did the Western pilgrimage of the 33 temples they served my purpose very well. In addition, every time I went out running, the laces became loose."  So personal and individual...

Shiota has said that she visits each location before she does an installation to make each one uniquely site-specific.  The one at the Sackler was clearly influenced by the light from the windows, which changed over time and therefore created changing shadow patterns of the red threads.  

There is something so tender and poignant about worn shoes.  These were Mikhail Baryshnikov's.....

These paint paint covered shoes belonged to Lee Krasner, photographed in the Pollock-Krasner studio in Long Island in 1988.  The stool feels like an altar.

Artist Elina Chauvet created this installation "Zapatos Rojos" (Red Shoes) in 2012 - more than 200 red shoes in honor of the hundreds of women and girls who have been killed in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She didn't have to be aware of Chiharu Shiota's work - it's just something about shoes as a metaphor for the person.

These boots once belonged to Jesus Alberto Suarez del Solar, 1983-2003.  I saw them at a Dia de los Muertos celebration in Carlsbad, California in 2005, at the booth of "Proyecto Guerrero Azteca"  "una voz contra de la guerra in Irak."  (Aztec Warrior Project, a voice against the war in Iraq).  

The shoes below are one of the SHOES OF MEMORY: HOLOCAUST CERAMIC WORK by Jenny Stolzenberg. She made seventy pairs of ceramic shoes for an exhibition that echoes the piles of shoes, clothing, hair, glasses and suitcases found in the warehouses of Auschwitz at liberation and evoke the memory of those who perished. Meticulously researched and rendered in clay, Stolzenberg’s shoes return a sense of identity to the victims of the Holocaust by rescuing the shoes from their anonymity in the piles at Auschwitz.

Shoes have played a role in my own work as well, and I gather them at thrift shops and garage sales whenever particular ones catch my eye.  This piece actually makes use of a sneaker that had been my father's.  


I'm so glad that Chiharu Shiota will represent Japan at the 56th Venice Bienniale this year!  This time she plans to use keys in her installation.  She asked visitors to the Sackler to leave unused keys in a box, feeling they will tell the story of the person who once used them, the places they unlocked, the hands who once touched them...  Go Chiharu!!!