What happens to our stuff when we’re gone? Hillel Smith and Alanna Cooper join the podcast to talk about their projects that consider what happens to Jewish communities and their stuff, both buildings and objects, especially when we look at communities and synagogues that shrink, disappear, merge together, or move from one place to another.
This is an important issue because when we consider Jewish history in the twentieth century at a 30,000 foot level, one overarching development we might identify is the consolidation of Jewish populations and communities into a handful of countries and major metropolitan centers. Of course, most of this was not by choice, given the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. But if we look at the overall trend, Jews were once found in almost every country on earth – and while you can still more or less find Jews everywhere the vast majority of Jews are today found in Israel and the US, and a handful of countries; and within them, Jews today are consolidating more and more into major metro areas. In our conversation today we look at this in terms of material culture, as Alanna and Hillel are looking closely at this process of communal consolidation and movement which is still going on, when we look at what is left behind as the “traces” of Jewish life in this landscape.
Links to topics and issues we discuss today:
- Hillel Smith’s Jewish Traces project
- Alanna Cooper, “Preserving the past at what cost? Restoring L.A.’s Wilshire Boulevard Temple” (Cleveland Jewish News, Mar. 2019)
- Also see: Trailer for the documentary “Restoring Tomorrow” (2018)
- Alanna Cooper, “When An Old Synagogue Downsizes, What Do You Do With All Its Stuff?” (Forward, Sept. 2018)
- Alanna Cooper, “A Rust Belt synagogue ‘runs out of people’ and gathers to bury its past” (JTA, Jan. 2018)
- The Lost Mural (Burlington, VT)
Alanna Cooper is a cultural anthropologist and currently serves as director of Case Western Reserve’s Jewish Lifelong Learning Program. She’s the author of Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism, published in 2013, and is writing a book entitled Preserving and Disposing of the Sacred: American Jewish Congregations. In 2020 she’ll be joining Case Western’s Department of Religious Studies as the Abba Hillel Silver Professor in Jewish Studies.
Hillel Smith is a prolific artist and graphic designer who uses contemporary media to create new manifestations of traditional Jewish forms. He’s painted murals in Southern California, Atlanta, Virginia Beach, Jerusalem, and at the Fendi headquarters in Rome, and he’s pursued online projects like “Parsha Posters” and now “Jewish Traces,” which is supported by Asylum Arts. You can find Hillel’s art and other projects at hillelsmith.info, and the Jewish Traces project, which we talk about in the episode, at www.jewishtraces.com.
Alanna and Hillel’s interest clearly align, inasmuch as both of them are thinking about what happens to the stuff of Jewish culture:
Hillel’s “Jewish Traces” project highlights the monumental buildings and architecture that serve as a material foundation of Jewish life. Cities and communities are always evolving, and Jews are always on the move as part of this. As Jewish communities dwindle, or get too large, they often sell their buildings or abandon them, leaving “traces” of Jewish life throughout the urban and suburban landscape. Through this Jewish Traces project, Hillel is documenting photographing, and annotating some of these “traces” of Judaism and their adaptive reuse in new contexts.
Alanna’s research asks similar, but distinctive, questions about the development of Jewish culture. She looks at communities that merge, shut down, or downsize, and what happens to the buildings as well as parts of buildings: stained glass windows, yizkor memorial plaques, monuments, and so on. Alanna examines the decisions people make about what they leave behind, what they preserve, and what they choose to let go of, and how these decisions are informed by their understanding of their own place in history.
We are so excited to speak with Alanna and Hillel because these projects illuminate some of the issues relating to the nature of material culture in Jewish life, what gets left behind, what is preserved or reused in surprising ways, and by looking at individual cases of cities and communities we can understand the big picture of Jewish history in recent times.
An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Jason Lustig: Thank you so much for joining me for this really exciting episode. It might be a good way for us to get started, maybe, if each of you just wanted to say a few words briefly about the projects you’re working on.
Alanna Cooper: Sure. I’m working on a book project called Preserving and Disposing of the Sacred: America’s Jewish Congregations. The book is built on the understanding that there’s an intimate relationship between the life of a community and the life of its plastic form. What I mean by that is that things, the physical objects that a congregation owns, are sites for articulating a group’s identity and a sense of belonging to each other. The easiest way to look at that relationship is to look at congregations that are in flux, traveling around to different communities, looking for congregations that are in the midst of change. The big changes I’m interested in are congregations that are merging with other ones, that are downsizing, that are moving or even disbanding, in some cases, congregations that are new, that are in the process of building or forming a new group, and looking at how these different groups relate to physical possessions.
Hillel Smith: I’m Hillel, and I’m an artist in graphic designer, and I’m working on a project called “Jewish Traces” that looks at the buildings that Jews leave behind after a community moves, particularly synagogues. I’m looking at where synagogues used to be and what’s left of them, and how they’ve been incorporated into the environment in new ways. So whether it’s a church that’s taken over a synagogue, or a building that’s turned into a community center, or even just something that’s been gutted and there’s only very tiny traces left of those buildings, and to document that through photography and then make art and write narrative stories about what happened to these communities and tell essentially a biography of the building.
JL: You two are probably aware of this, but not necessarily the listeners. I also, in my own research, think about some of these same kinds of issues. My research is on the history of archives, and thinking about how Jews have tried to hold on to their history in that physical form. And archives are also a thing that is, kind of, left behind. So this is one of the reasons why I wanted to bring you onto the podcast, both of your projects are each individually interesting and also because it touches on a whole series of issues that I also have been thinking about for quite a long time. One of the things that I think is really interesting about it, as well, is that each of us really represents a different discipline: Alanna’ an anthropologist, Hillel, you’re an artist, I’m a historian. And we’re all sort of thinking about this fundamental question about what is it that Jews, as individuals, as communities, what they leave behind. One way to maybe try to think about these issues is, especially working on these kinds of projects—for you, Alanna, you’re writing this book, you’ve written a whole bunch of articles about this; Hillel, you’ve been documenting these synagogues and other kinds of buildings that are, so to speak, left behind—but why does it matter to look at what’s left behind by Jews? What does it tell us about Jewish experiences and communities?
HS: I think there’s something visceral about seeing a building that used to be synagogue, and knowing that Jews were here. And I think that that strikes me, at least, walking through a community and seeing how tied Jews were to a very particular space. Looking at places where you wouldn’t expect to find Jews and finding them there, I think, is very powerful. I think also, as an artist, what drew me to this project initially was that as Jews, but also as human beings, we express our identity through aesthetics. The kinds of architecture that we put out there, I think, is a very public face to how we want to represent ourselves in our neighborhoods, in our cities, and how we integrate ourselves into the urban environment. And so looking at both initially how Jews put that public face out there into their communities, and then, over time, how those communities evolved, developed, when Jews moved from those communities to other communities, and the buildings left behind, and then comparing the different buildings that they have built throughout the city, seeing how the public face of the Jews has changed over time.
I think there’s also something very fascinating about this layering of history. One of the things I’m trying to focus on is what’s left behind, and how those fragments that are left behind are preserved. And I’ll find often, especially with churches that have taken over synagogues, how some of those churches either preserve these original buildings, and on occasion you’ll find buildings that you would never know that it was a church if you didn’t see a new sign on the front lawn outside, because it kept the building totally intact, really out of a sense of veneration and respect to the community that started this place. But sometimes, all the traces that this building used to be a Jewish space are removed. And I think that’s also very interesting as a way to kind of navigate these cultural boundaries between Jews and their surroundings.
My thinking is that by documenting some of these buildings, we learn a bit about Jewish history, through a visual lens, and to be able to fundamentally have a new relationship with Jews in their communities, in their environments. Because I think a lot of the time we have this assumption that the way the world is now is the way the world has always been. Now, I’m just thinking about, if you show up to any Shabbat service. Most of those tunes that we think are so common and so ubiquitous across the Jewish world are less than half a century old. And at the same time, the neighborhoods that we think of as Jewish neighborhoods now, and the way we think of Jewish architecture now, is very different than the way it used to be. And so to reexamine some of these spaces, and to look at the layering and layering and layering of history, to have a different perspective on what Jewish life has been like in the United States for the last 150 years.
AC: I think in terms of the question of leaving behind and preserving, it’s important for us to think about where we are in a historical moment in the West, or in the United States in general, not just as Jews. I think we’re at this point where we have a glut of material culture. We’re obsessed, all of us, publicly, are obsessed about what to do with our things. We have too much. We’re interested in downsizing, and at the same time as downsizing there’s a question of—when you throw stuff out, how do you figure out what are the things that you’re going to keep? What’s worth preserving? And if you are going to preserve it, where do you preserve it?
The archive question is interesting because with archives, there’s a sense of, like, you want to hold onto something, you want to preserve it, but you’re not going to preserve it in situ, you’re going to put it somewhere else. The building is immovable property. There are some examples of buildings being picked up on wheels and moved somewhere else. But usually, we think of buildings as immovable so if they’re going to stay behind, they’re going to stay in the place that they’re in. I think it’s important to distinguish between what’s particularly a Jewish phenomena. I think the fact that we’re living in a post-Holocaust era, there is a sense of the need to preserve, to hold on to things that is a particular Jewish sensibility. But questions about material culture in general, it’s just important to situate it in terms of a wider phenomena, about a glut of material culture and making decisions about what we’re going to hold on to and what we’re not.
JL: Part of what’s interesting about both of these projects is that we have so much—so many buildings, so many objects. And what do you choose to preserve or put into a new context? I think these are all really good questions.
AC: Right. And sometimes, it’s not a conscious choice. Hillel, I think some of the examples that you have on your website are so interesting because a Jewish community might have not decided that they needed to preserve a building or the Jewishness of a building. They built another one in the suburbs and left their building in the city behind. But then the furniture owners, the people who own a furniture storeroom or who have used the space as a church, decide that they want to either keep the Jewish markings or not keep the Jewish marking. So it’s not even just about the Jewish decisions, it’s about what to do with their things.
HS: Right, exactly. I think that’s a really interesting distinction between the way that both of us are approaching our respective projects. In your case it’s, this is a Jewish community that is in the process of downsizing. There’s not enough people left to preserve this synagogue, and what do we do with our yizkor plaques? What do we do with all of this stuff? Whereas the things I’m very interested in is, the Jews have already left. Maybe they are able to take the ark with them to their new synagogue building. But by and large, they’re not taking the building with them. And so, how much did the new owners see as valuable and worth preserving for the future? And in many of those cases, sometimes it’s made out of veneration. I’ve spoken to a number of pastors and community leaders and also just reading websites and narrative histories where people think that there’s something very beautiful about being in a space that has been loved and treated with this kind of holy veneration.
But sometimes, it’s just purely because of cost. Now, they didn’t have enough money to gut the facade, demolish the building, and are making use of this building for what it is. And if these accidental traces that are left behind, unearthing this is kind of an archeologist to go through and find this entire wall has been demolished, but there’s half of a menorah left in the brick work, that either nobody noticed or nobody thought to tear down. And these little moments of almost serendipity, of finding these little bits and pieces that are still accidentally there.
AC: Yeah. And I imagine what you see is… You spoke about the issue of, in some cases, there’s reverence for what was one sacred. In some cases, there’s just cost decisions. And then some cases, there’s aesthetics, there’s beautiful aesthetics that people want to hold on to. I guess like in terms of our discussion about movable versus immovable property, there’s another category, which is semi-movable property. Things like stained glass windows, wall murals. You can move a stained glass window, but usually if you’re going to move it, its function as the window, it’s going to cease to exist as it exists in the building that it’s in right now. I call that semi-movable, because if you’re going to move a stained glass window or a wall mural, usually it’ll take on a different quality in a new space, as let’s say like a sculptural quality, rather than it being a window. It’s not so easy to remove a window and remove the frame and then, in your new space, build a frame to match the specs of that particular window. So in that case, the window ceases to function as it once did, and becomes an object of memory.
HS: I think what’s interesting about this is that in many cases, when they are moved into a new synagogue building, they (windows) are not put in place where they’re actually letting natural light in anymore. They’re put in the lobby, in the sanctuary, and they’re backlit by electric lights. They’re no longer being used as windows letting in natural light. And I think this evolution of these objects from something that’s more functional than aesthetic, or something that is a historical artifact, plays into some of these other ideas about little objects that have moved from, say, in ritual use in the home to a display case in synagogue. I think a lot of you did some work about Holocaust Torah, where Torah scrolls that were used in a ritual context are now being used as display objects and mementos in Holocaust that repurpose them as historical artifacts and curiosities rather than as functional items anymore.
AC: Yeah. And they become, in a way, archival objects as opposed to objects that are, I like to call them “lively objects,” enlivened by the community, using them or being part of the vibrancy of community life. They become something to look at behind the glass vitrine, like a museum piece.
JL: I guess one of the driving questions, and this is one that I think about a lot is, why do we care about these things? Clearly, they matter to the people who wanted to preserve them. But there are also so many instances in which they are not preserved. And part of the question, when we think about all of these issues, is why these material objects matter to the people who use them, to the people who choose to preserve them, to the people who choose to take over them? Also why do they matter within their local context as well?
AC: I think it helps to think about the things that do matter, versus the things that don’t matter. Because there are things that don’t seem to matter, or don’t seem to matter to the right people. I think of my research in Central Asia. The Jewish communal buildings that have been left in the landscape, no one’s really tending to them, and no one cares much about them. And the Jews have more or less emptied out of Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. And those buildings in a generation or two, those might not be there anymore, versus the rebuilding that I see going on in Eastern Europe and Poland. Why is it that there is a decision to preserve and rebuild a synagogue in a small town in Poland, and no real care about what happens in Central Asia? And there, there’s all sorts of things to get into, which is—who’s paying for it? What does it mean by who cares? Is it the local community or Jews at large? And again, I go back to us living in the post-Holocaust era. I think real fear of losing our history in Eastern Europe as survivors pass away, I think has a huge impact on some of the things that American Jewish communal monies are going towards preserving?
JL: Yeah, I think that’s a really important point. I think that it’s one thing to think about in Eastern Europe. And also the way in which non Jews in Europe and in Eastern Europe may or may not, as the case may be, want to preserve the Jewish heritage, the idea of preserving the Jewish history when there are no Jews there. I think that there may be a different kind of context or a different set of questions when we talk about American Jews and the American Jewish community in our contemporary moment. I think that when we think about, Hillel, what you’re doing and, Alanna, what you’re doing by looking at the American context, it’s a similar set of issues, perhaps as what’s happening in Eastern Europe. But there are perhaps also different questions and different contexts as well.
HS: I specifically wanted to focus on American buildings, or at least North American buildings, Canada included. The story of former synagogue buildings and former Jewish communities in Europe is deeply, deeply traumatic. These buildings and communities that don’t exist anymore because of genocidal violence. I think that raises a whole other set of issues about memorializing the past, recognizing hatred and all of these other issues that I didn’t want to get involved with. But I think it’s the American Jewish story that hasn’t been covered to the same extent, but I think is worth telling. These are not buildings that were abandoned because the Jews were all massacred or because of some other kinds of governmental violence. These are communities that just by nature of migration patterns and urbanization and changing local economies, have changed and shifted, and to tell a very American story of Judaism in America from the invention of Jewish denominational movements, and how those lead to communities fracturing and then re-merging together. The impact of the steel economy, the cotton economy, these are stories worth telling, especially as Jews living in America today that tend to be overlooked, and by using the synagogue buildings and by telling the story through material culture.
I think it’s a great way to start to begin to tell these stories, and using these buildings as a launching point for that discussion. And hopefully, through looking at some history that this buildings have a greater ways of where we came from, where we’re going, especially now at this moment where people are less inclined to actually go to synagogue, to church, for services, and so as building’s themselves become increasingly less of a focal point for communities at large to go back and look at how we defined ourselves. We defined ourselves through public architecture and think about what’s left of those spaces and how we can continue to use interact with them. And to think about them as a community.
JL: Yeah. I think, Hillel, you brought up a really important point about public architecture that I want to come back to in just a minute. But I also want to pick up on something else that you said. The story of the Jews of Eastern Europe is a very traumatic one. The history of the Jews of Central Asia or of any number of a whole range of communities that have migrated to larger population centers, primarily North America and the State of Israel. It represents also another major and well known story of the history of certain Jewish communities that have declined in number as a part of the mass migration of the late twentieth century. But we don’t always necessarily think of America or American Jewry in the same terms. But, I think that part of what you both are doing in each of your projects is highlighting this migration and movement, and decline as well, it’s something that happens every day. And it’s something that’s part of the American Jewish experience, as well, inasmuch as we have relics of Jewish communities kind of dotting the landscape, whether we’re looking at the rust belt, or even the Los Angeles. Hillel, you were in LA for a long time. You’re very familiar with the story of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Even there, we have an instance where you have a synagogue that has moved and it has preserved its building. But these stories are not just a part of the history of Jews in Eastern Europe, or the history of the Jews elsewhere. It’s also part of America as well.
AC: I definitely agree. And I think it’s really important to make a distinction between Jewish communal life that came to an end in a tragic, let’s say unnatural, violent way, versus Jewish communal life that comes to an end in a “natural” way. And in that case, I would say, just like the life of a person is kind of being born and growing up and flourishing and then decline and death, it’s true the life of Jews communities too since the history of time all over the world and of course in the United States as well. And Hillel, you got at some of that with talking about Jewish communities that have moved because of urbanization, changing localities, because of changing economies. A lot of my work has been in the rust belt. And those are sort of, I think, natural processes that happen and it’s important to tell that American story.
But what I would add is that the way American Jews are experiencing their story today and the natural life cycle of a congregation or a Jewish community, the way Jews experience it today is very informed by the post-Holocaust era that we’re living in. So that a natural end to a community where that community has just kind of relocated elsewhere can be seen or even spoken about in terms of disaster or sense of mourning. And the urge to preserve, in part, I think is influenced by the urge to preserve in the post-Holocaust era.
I’ll give you one concrete example. In Burlington, Vermont, there is a synagogue that has preserved a very, in one of its earlier buildings, a mural. It’s called the Lost Shul Mural, which was painted by Eastern European Jew from Lithuania who came over at the turn of the century in one of the congregation’s first buildings that ended up being… In the ’50s, the congregation built a brick modern building. And that old building became a furniture warehouse. It became an apartment building. And the area above the ark was painted, this beautiful painting by this Lithuanian artist was boarded up. And in recent years, they found it again. And they’ve restored it, spent a lot money restoring it, cutting it out of the building, putting it into steel girders to move it into their contemporary modern building where it’s become a sculpture. Where did that idea come from? I don’t think that in any age of American history, a congregation would have decided to do that. But I think it’s not coincidental that the preservation of that mural happened right around the same time that Polin, the museum in Warsaw, was going up and was working with a studio in the United States to rebuild a synagogue in Poland and recreate the wall mural of a synagogue to be put into the Polin museum. And there was a lot of press around it. What is the importance of a mural, of Jewish aesthetic art in Eastern Europe that gave the Jews in Burlington, Vermont, a certain notion about what they should preserve? So I think it’s important to distinguish between the end of community life, tragic end versus natural end, but also to understand that the urge to preserve in the United States is, in some ways, linked to what we see happening in Eastern Europe and to this kind of post-Holocaust urge to hold on to what was lost their tragically.
HS: Yeah, I never thought about that before. But I think you’re definitely right about that. There are examples around the country of former synagogue buildings that have been re-taken over by Jews as other kinds of spaces. So I’m thinking of Sixth and I in Washington, D.C., Pico Union Project in Los Angeles, the Temple in Denver, these buildings that used to be synagogues then were used in some other kind of context for a very long time. And now in the last really two decades, I would say, as survivors age and the Holocaust becomes farther and farther away, there has been this new, this urgent effort to preserve these Jewish buildings and to create Jewish spaces in a very tactical way. So Sixth and I, a former synagogue building that was in a church then with some other stuff that has been re-taken over as a Jewish communal space that does arts and cultural programming. Pico Union Project in downtown LA was a synagogue and then a church and then another church, and was purchased not so long ago, and is now functioning as again a community space that hosts a number of faith communities, but also arts and culture projects. And then the Temple in Denver was purchased, and is now being used as an artists workspaces. But the name has been preserved as a marker of, an indicator of what this place was. Alanna, I think you’re definitely right that a lot of this effort to preserve some of these buildings has been formed by the sense of communal loss and know if we lost everything in Europe, we can lose everything here.
JL: Yeah, I mean, I think that the Holocaust is certainly a point of reference for many people as they think about these questions of preservation. Part of what I was trying to say, though, was that even if the Holocaust and the destruction of Eastern European and European jury more broadly, perhaps informs a sense of the need to preserve, actually, part of what’s interesting about these particular projects that you’re doing is that it indicates the way in which this kind of transformation, which leads to things being left behind is actually an everyday process.
AC: Yeah. And it’s part of the natural rhythm of life. I also think that in the twenty-first century, forgetting the particularities of the Jewish experience in the twenty-first century, where things are shifting so quickly, and we’re going to virtual on so much of our material stuff. The ground is shifting so fast. People want to hold on to the past and they want to hold on to physical things as a way to connect to a past as our lives move and change so rapidly.
JL: I think that’s actually a really interesting segue into thinking perhaps into more of the specifics of each of your two projects. You know, Hillel, you mentioned before the importance of public art and architecture. Why is it that these physical manifestations of Jewishness matter? So like, Hillel, you’ve written about this on your website. I’ll just quote because it’s such a great list of items. You’re interested in the role of, “Monumental architecture, identity through design at adaptive reuse.” As we think about why these things matter and why people have tried to preserve or reuse as the case may be, why do you think that those things like architecture and design matter as we try to think about Jewish history and culture, as well as the contemporary Jewish experience?
HS: I, in particular, experience the world through a visual lens. A narrative story doesn’t do as much for me as interacting with actual physical objects. I think those physical objects tell stories in a way that verbal histories just can’t. And so, by looking at actual objects, I think speaks very much to the human experience, how we represent ourselves, how we venerate objects and ideas through the kinds of work we make about it. Then this goes through for those for portraiture, for landscape painting, for illuminated manuscripts, to kind of craftwork that artisans and folk artists have been creating for millennia. It’s through that tactile connection to things that we can really experience life and the world through these objects creators.
Looking at the history of these kinds of objects also speaks to an evolution of not just philosophies, but also the evolutions of technology and how technologies impact Jewish life. On a related subject, we can talk about how we can tell the story of Jewish history and Jewish thought through the evolution of printing technologies. Before, we had Jews writing texts on scrolls, and then evolved to the handwritten codex to the printed text, now digital communication. And so how do each of those technological innovations impact the way Jews think about themselves, think about ritual practice, think about the transmission of tradition and information and how the evolution of other kinds of technologies influence Jewish rituals from the Judenstern, from this hanging Shabbat oil candelabra, and then how that fell out of fashion after the invention of paraffin wax and now we think of lighting Shabbat candles as wax candles, not as just lights that happened on Shabbat.
And I think in the same way that looking at monumental architecture gives us a very particular lens to think about Jewish history, who these people are and what kinds of aesthetics were meaningful to them, what kind of public face they put out in their communities, how they either incorporated the architectural styles of the communities around them or specifically push them away. There’s a brief moment in the late nineteenth century where you find a very small number of Gothic synagogues. But by and large Jews shied away from creating buildings in a gothic architectural style, because that architectural style is so closely related to Christians. Then, there’s this idea of “Okay, well, if we want to have a Jewish kind of architecture, what do we use?” And so one thought is, “Well, we’re Jews of the modern era. So we should be building synagogues in a bow art style, we should be building art nouveau synagogues, art deco synagogues.” But you also have Jews thinking, “Well, we’ve been emancipated, we’re now private members of our communities.” What’s a very particular Jewish architectural style? And then you have this kind of invented Moorish, Byzantine architectural style that becomes very popular, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. And so it’s through examination of these changing tastes and the way that we want to represent ourselves in public. I think speaks very much to the Jewish experience in a way that I think hits a lot deeper than just hearing narratively that the Jews became wealthy and build the synagogue and then move to somewhere else.
AC: That question of why physical manifestations matter… I think that there’s different angles of getting to the heart of the question. Hillel, as an artist you’re focusing on the way in which the building or the artistic creation can serve as a symbol for people to say, this is who we are, this is who we want to proclaim ourselves to the world. And you’re looking at, I think, sort of one piece in the lifecycle of an object, the birthing of an object. How does the artist, how does the community think about the aesthetic design and how they’re going to make it and how they’re going to bring it into the world to represent themselves? Then we might take that perspective and extend it along the life cycles. So once the synagogue is there, and it stands for fifty years or one hundred years, the people have to maintain it. They have to make sure that the roof stays intact. And when there’s a leak, they fix it. I think it’s also interesting to think about the way in which people and communities live with objects. And in this sense, the human object relationship is part of life. It’s part of daily life.
So, Jason, you asked about why physical manifestations matter of Judaism, of Jewish identity. And of course, we have our texts, and we have our rituals. But there’s also a sense that the way we live as Jews is embodied, and it’s embodied through the sculptures that we live in, which are our buildings. I often sit at board meetings with my synagogue and think, “Oh my god, how much more time are we going to talk about the difficulty in changing our lightbulbs?” because our ceiling is so high that no one can get to the top to change the lightbulbs. I’ve asked people about their experiences on synagogue boards and how much time is spent, how much energy is expended talking about leaks, a broken gate in the front of the synagogue. The truth is, this is religious work. This is a holy work also because the way that we relate to our physical forms is a way that we live in the world as community. I tell our fix-it man in the shul—he’s a member of our synagogue who’s on top of the electric wiring with the yahrzeit plaques and all that. I’m like, “You’re the rabbi of this shul,” and he’s like, “What are you talking about? I’m not even really religious.” And I was like, “You keep the shul running. Without you, without the physical, we couldn’t be doing our daily business of standing with our prayer books and praying.”
HS: I think that’s exactly right. And I think it’s how both we live with these buildings. And for me and this Jewish Traces project, it’s also how future people live in these buildings. The building is no longer there. Or when the community is no longer there, what happens and how important is the preservation of that building to people who’ve been taken over? You do have cases like Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which remains a synagogue in a community that, by and large, doesn’t have that many Jews living in that neighborhood anymore. And there’s a community that the building remains a synagogue. They did build a satellite congregation a little bit further west of their community and moved to, and then spent millions of dollars renovating their building to preserve that aspect of the Jewish history, rather than tearing it down and building something which they could have done for significantly less money.
But then, blocks away from Wilshire Boulevard Temple, in what used to be a very Jewish neighborhood, are three other former synagogue buildings that are now all in use as churches, some of whom have chosen to keep the original fittings of buildings, Sinai Temples, second location before they move to Westwood is very close by, now a Korean church. And the facade of the building has a massive mural that’s still there with two tablets of the 10 commandments written in Hebrew on top of them. And right below them, a sign in Korean. The interior of the building, built in a similar style within just a few years of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, still has its own dome ceiling with a Jewish star still there. And here you have a community that’s very invested in preserving this beautiful monumental building and the building’s Jewish history, even though the community, this Christian Korean community really has no specific ties or reverence for the Jewish tradition, but do have a very particular reverence for this building’s previous owners and for the aesthetics and the care that was taken to create this building to start with.
So I think it’s an interesting conversation, a lot of between the work that you’re doing of how are Jews preserving these aspects of their past as the building shuts down and then, for me, of course, I like to ask, especially when I’m photographing some of these buildings, how are the new owners paying tribute and holding on to some of these remnants? It’s often not cost effective, especially because many of these Jewish buildings are now in neighbors that are both not Jewish but also not economically advantaged. So you have these communities that are going out of their way to spend more money than they probably would need to, to preserve an older building from a community that wasn’t even theirs. There’s a building in downtown LA that, as far as I’m aware, is probably the fourth synagogue built in Los Angeles, and what may be the oldest synagogue building still standing. It’s been a church for a number of years. I spoke to the pastor. The roof had problems, there were leaks, there were electrical wiring issues. And rather than tear the roof off, they spent a significant amount of their own money preserving this building to pay tribute to a community that’s not there anymore. And I think that’s powerful. And that’s a very beautiful statement about the position of faith in America today.
AC: I think that when we talk about preserving, we also have to talk about letting go. And we often cannot preserve everything and perhaps shouldn’t preserve everything. I think in twenty-first century, we have a heritage impulse to preserve things, which is valorized, but that letting go can also be done in the right time and in the right circumstances, is appropriate. One congregation where I saw really deal with the letting go of things in a dignified manner was a small congregation in New Castle, Pennsylvania in the rust belt. They found ways of preserving certain parts of the things that the congregation owned together like their Torah scrolls, and making conscious decisions about where to send those scrolls to so that they would have an afterlife.
With their yahrzeit plaques, they tried to give away as many as possible to family members who are descendants of the people whose names were on the plaques. But ultimately, they were left with hundreds of plaques that they had nothing to do with. What do you do with a yahrzeit plaque? This congregation decided to bury their plaques, which I thought wasn’t an inventive, interesting ritual that they created as a way of letting go in, what to them, felt a proper way. But I think it’s also important to consider, given the glut of material culture that we live with, that in some circumstances, it either costs too much money, or there’s no space, or it’s not worth it. And maybe it’s the right thing to do, to let go. And I wonder, Jason, in your thinking about archives, is that something that you’ve seen, where certain decisions have to be made about what’s going to be kept and what’s kept in the hard form and what’s put on in digital formats, and how the space kind of play into, shelf space play into decisions about what you’re going to save in an archive?
JL: I mean, that’s a huge question and I think it’s an important one. I think that when you talk to an actual practicing archivist, it’s very clearly not just about preserving. But it’s also about choosing what not to preserve, or after a certain point in time, what you want to deaccession and get rid of. I think that what you find out here, which is very interesting, is that in the popular imagination, it’s all about preservation. But in kind of a practical way, there are always choices that go into this. And this is why preservation is so interesting, and so important to unpack because every individual, every institution, every archive, every community is constantly making this choice—what do you keep and what do you get rid of?
One of the things that’s interesting is, you mentioned, the digital aspect. I think that digital archives and digital materials present a fantasy of unlimited storage, that it doesn’t cost anything to keep things on a computer. Well, actually, it does. So it’s a whole separate set of issues. But I think that when we look at the history of archiving in Jewish life, a lot of the same questions come up. I think that was interesting is to think about the life cycle, how an object or a building, or a document goes through its process of birth to death, so to speak. I mean, archivists, I think if we talk about contemporary archival science, they actually have moved away from what they talk about as the “life cycle” of documents for a whole bunch of different reasons. I don’t think we need to get into because it’s very specific and lots of jargon. But I still think that the idea of a life cycle is useful, because I think that it helps us to understand how communities, how objects, how things go through a process.
I think that’s here, where the two of you actually represent in a certain way, people who are each thinking about different sides of this life cycle process. I really liked what you said before, Alanna, about how Hillel, in looking at these buildings and these and what they represent in terms of the communities, is looking at two specific moments in this life cycle, in the way in which they represent something for the communities who created them, and also how that they end up having an afterlife, so to speak, in many cases. Whereas, Alanna, you have been thinking a lot about this downsizing aspect, thinking about the idea of communities becoming empty nesters, in particular. That’s a phrase that you’ve used a couple of times in your writing about this process.
So I think that what’s interesting here, again, is that you each focus on each of these things. And I think that is very clear, especially, Hillel, what you were saying before about why these buildings matter in terms of understanding the development of Jewish culture, and Jewish communal life. But I think it’s also interesting to think about what we learned by looking at the downsizing or the shrinking of communities, which is what you’re really looking at, Alanna.
AC: Yeah, and I think the example of communities that merged with each other to synagogues that decided that they’re going to become one because they both shrunk in number. Usually when congregations go through a process of merging, they have to make decisions like which rabbi are they going to keep? What religious ideology is going to dictate more? What will the seating look like? What prayer book are they going to use? But in addition, they have very practical considerations to take into account. What are we going to do with our yahrzeit plaques? What are we going to do with our pews? What are we going to do with our Torah scrolls? You guys have ten, we have twelve, they don’t all fit in the ark. But the way two congregations come together to try to become one congregation happens in a large way through the conversation about objects and through negotiating how they’re going to merge their objects together. And they’re not easy conversations. They don’t happen without a lot of effort. But the point that I’m making with that is, we live with our objects. Our objects help to define who we are, as people and as communities. While, I agree with you, it’s important to focus on the birth of an object and on the afterlife an object, the middle of it also, how we negotiate our lives with our objects and with others who have objects is important too.
HS: Much of what I’m investigating with my project is, I’m only looking at buildings after they are no longer synagogues. I do take into account the birth of these objects. And so what caused this community to start? What they’re taking into consideration when they built these buildings? What were the choices that they made in picking an aesthetic vision? But I’m only looking at them after the fact, looking at what’s left. And it’s that question of what did we leave behind? And what were the choices that we made when that community was no longer able to sustain the building, when they, maybe it’s because the community downsized and there was nobody left and had to merge to another synagogue? If there was a small town that the whole population evaporated, or in many urban environments, it was because the community actually outgrew the building and then had to go somewhere else.
And if you have the privilege and the blessing of having a growing community and you’re moving into a new building, and you have the money to build another grander, new structure, you don’t need this stuff anymore. And looking at what the Jews left when they left those communities and then how those aspects have been incorporated into the next life of the structures, I think makes both a very compelling visual look at kind of a biography, an ongoing biography of a structure.
I like how are we talking about the life status for a building at birth, midlife, death, but also rebirth but also these things are mixed together in a way. These buildings can have multiple lives, and the consecutive decisions that each additional tenant might have to these buildings and the physical layering of iconography that happens on top of it, whether it’s a sign in Korean on top of Hebrew, or in other places buildings that have taken on entirely new purposes. How much of the original structure those entities which don’t have a religious veneration, whether it’s an office furniture showroom in Salt Lake City, or a squash court in Portland, Maine, how much those entities are interested in either preserving things that were not theirs to begin with, and that they’re not a faith community in any respect, and what makes sense then in terms of their new purpose.
Those decisions are because they’re neither a faith community, nor there’s no ill will by the Jewish community towards those buildings because they sold them when their community moved on years and years ago. I think it’s those decisions that are very interesting. You have a choice of how much you want to keep and how much you don’t want to keep and you have really no connection to any of this. What does that say about both, going back to an earlier question about these ideas of preservation in contemporary American thought and practice? But also just a general curiosity towards history. But I think just in terms of a visual look of the urban environment to see this layering upon layer upon layering of visual style and use and to think about our urban environments and our lived environments in this kind of very direct probable way?
JL: I mean, I think it raises a lot of really interesting issues, especially when we think about what this can teach us about American Jewish history in particular, by looking at this kind of layering within buildings and structures and spaces, and also what it teaches us about the broader American and late twentieth and early twenty-first century context in which we’re living today. This is something that really interests me, to think about how we can take these sets of issues and really draw broad understanding out of looking at them as a way of thinking about American Jewish history and about America at large.
HS: One thing I really love about Alanna’s work, and what drew me to her initially when we first met, I guess, is we’re very much looking at opposite sides of the same process, that Jews like stuff and humans generally like stuff and we have an attachment to stuff. And the way that we hold on to the stuff or the way we get rid of the stuff, and the choices that we make in the process, are very telling about our values. And the differences in the choices that people have made over time and place to place speaks to the difference in those approaches of how different communities relate to their stuff. And this is very much an ongoing story that Alanna as an anthropologist and me as an artists are reflecting on in different ways of trying to make sense of this general human experience of connecting to other people and connecting to a faith, connecting to a history and in the present moment of connecting to these physical objects that surround us.
JL: One thing that strikes me, especially when we try to think about the broader American context of all of these things, this is not just a Jewish story. Alanna, you mentioned this before. We have so much stuff. At what point do we let go of some of that, this story of what we leave behind? Whether we look at an individual community, at a building, at a city, there’s a lot going on in terms of thinking about looking at urban landscapes, as not just a Jewish community or a synagogue, downsize is about an entire city. It is very interesting, Alanna, that so many of the places that you’re looking at. It’s not only in this region, but you really emphasized rust belt cities. And I’m curious what your take is on the relationship between these stories and the broader context. And also I know especially since you’re based in Cleveland, to what extent you, in your own experience, has related to your interest in the set of issues?
AC: Yeah, so I do live in Cleveland and I am in the rust belt, and not far from many of the cities and towns in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, that over the past three or four decades or so have been one by one shutting their doors. And the fact that I’m here, as an anthropologist, it just means that I have easy access. I can hop into a car and in an hour and a half or two hours be in a number of different places. And whenever I’m working in a city or a town, I always try to understand what’s happening more broadly, in terms of the economy, in terms of the first thing I always do is look at the population numbers of the town as a whole. When did the population numbers peak and when did they start to dwindle? And then look also at the synagogue minutes and find out when did people start to feel, oh my gosh, we’re not getting new members and we’re shrinking and our kids are leaving to go to college and not coming back.
And there’s obviously an overlap between the broader phenomena and the Jewish phenomenon. But the phenomena isn’t just a Rust Belt phenomena. I mean, I think the deep south is another really interesting place to look at where the Jewish community has moved out, moving out slowly from the deep south, and more largely to think about Jewish population consolidation in the United States.
Much of Jewish life was made up of Jews in small towns in the earlier part of the 20th century, that just don’t exist anymore. And Jews are consolidating around a number of major metropolitan areas in the United States. But we can even broaden the lens further and say it’s part of a global Jewish story. Before World War II, the Jewish communities that existed in Eastern Europe, they are no longer the Jewish communities that existed in the Muslim world, North Africa, Middle East. Central Asia has emptied out since World War II. And now 80% of the world’s Jews are focused in the United States and in Israel. I think it’s interesting to put it in that context as well. There is a general population shift. And what happens when there’s a general population shift? What are the traces that you see of what once was?
HS: And in my search for former synagogues, I found by and large three stories of American Jewish communities. Those are the Jews in urban environments that have moved out of those urban neighborhoods. New York and Chicago have the most and then cities like Los Angeles, Hartford, Connecticut, as Jews move out of kind of the urban center to other outlying neighborhoods, or even in the case of Los Angeles, not necessarily to the suburbs, but just other parts of the city as neighborhoods shift. The story of Jews in small towns and the South where it’s very much about the Jews leaving those communities, even if the city necessarily isn’t evacuating, but the Jews, the kids move away to college, they go to wherever the work is and don’t come back.
And the story of the Rust Belt communities and other industrially tied communities, where it’s the entire city that de-populates. And so it’s not only the Jews that are leaving, but it’s everyone that’s leaving. The impact that those different stories have on what happens to the synagogue is very telling about what this synagogue ends up being used for afterwards.
Typically, in urban environments, the building is taken over because it’s valuable real estate and whether it’s another faith or if it’s a business that takes over. The story in the south, those buildings are still often used, or they’re preserved as some kind of monumental marker because there’s still people around to take care of them. And the story of the rust belt, I think, is a very particular story of if there is nobody at all left in those cities to take care of those buildings, what happens? There’s a synagogue in, I want to say, Buffalo, where just the building had become a church, but then the church community left. There was no one to take care of this building. It became increasingly expensive and eventually the building was just demolished about five years ago. The impact of the local economies and just the local demographic story impacts, not just what happens to the Jews, but what happens to these structures afterwards.
JL: I’m actually glad that you brought up Buffalo. I wasn’t sure at what point I was going to mention this, because I think that these questions of preservation and how people connect with their history, these are all very important intellectual questions, but it’s also very personal. I grew up in Buffalo. My mother was deeply involved in a whole bunch of work in terms of the synagogue mergers. The story of what happens to communities as they shrink is something that is really personal for me, especially as somebody who left to go into college and never came back. So I think that this is something that we need to think about. What is the personal investment of people in these stories? I can only speak for myself, but as we talk about the consolidation of the Jewish population, whether in kind of a global scale, to only a couple of countries having the vast majority of Jews all around the world, or in terms of the decline of small and mid-size Jewish communities and the rise of major metropolitan areas as the centers of Jewish life… I think that this is a set of issues that’s not just academic. I think it really does matter to a lot of people.
AC: Yeah, I think it’s so important to bring up the different lenses through which we can look at this issue. Because you can put on your academic lens and sociological and historical and look at the big picture and life cycles of communities and things like that. But when you’re inside the community, it’s processed on a totally different way. When your own life is bound up with the synagogue, when you’ve married in a synagogue and raised your children there, and then it closes, there’s a process of grief that the individuals go through. I mean, I often find that my work as an anthropologist sometimes borders on work as a grief counselor, as I talk to people about the process that they’re going through of watching the hard work, the dedication of keeping a synagogue community vibrant, of raising their children there, and then it’s not there anymore. It’s difficult even though there’s no tragedy involved at all, even though as analytical academics, we can say, “Oh, it’s end of life, process of life.” When you’re experiencing it, it can be very painful.
HS: I want to add to that, I think, for all three of us, there’s a very personal aspect to why we’re drawn to these projects. Alanna, being in Cleveland and Jason, Buffalo, and for me, personally, on both sides of my family I’m descended from a long line of synagogue founders and shul presidents. On my mother’s side, my great-grandparents were among the founding families of a synagogue in Marion, Indiana, so about two-ish hours southeast of Chicago, where my grandparents left in the ’50s, my great-grandparents left in the ’70s. And the building dwindled down to about ten families, and the building was sold then the last ten years because there were no Jews left. And then, even within the confines of Los Angeles, when my father moved to Los Angeles, and my grandmother moved to the then-new and just burgeoning community in what is now Westchester… Westchester, Inglewood, all these beach cities were full of young GIs just coming back from the war and into this brand new developmental neighborhood. And many, many Jewish families were moving out there from other parts of the country and other parts of Los Angeles as they’re moving out from downtown and points east. And that community, there are not very many Jews left anymore in that building, where my father had his Bar Mitzvah at, was demolished ten years ago. And it’s very much about like recognizing the Jewish history and the evolution of communities that sometimes it’s for… We can think of it as a tragedy, that these small towns are emptying out of their Jews. But then in the urban context, you know are we said that the Westchester community doesn’t exist and that the shul moved to another shul in, I want to say, Newport Beach? Or is that just part of the evolution of the Jewish community, that the Jews had moved to Westchester from West Adams and from Boyle Heights, and then they moved on from there, and it’s just one more stepping stone to the Jewish communities as they are now?
And then to think about what happens in thirty and fifty years from now, where are those Jewish communities are going to be? Now, we’ve seen the rise of Jewish communities in places like Las Vegas, as other communities around the country are emptying out. But also, places that do have thriving Jewish communities like Los Angeles, Washington D.C., San Francisco, have become increasingly expensive and young families can’t afford to live in those large Jewish communities anymore. Where do they go? And so as the Jews are getting priced out of the neighborhoods that they would otherwise want to live in, where are the new locations that they’re going to set up shop, and what kind of decisions are they going to make about the kinds of spaces that they will call home?
If it’s increasingly not important to young Jews to have the physical space to call their home, if they’re more interested in meeting at a JCC or in a family home, while we see a different kind of shift and this kind of spaces that we revere that we want to venerate.
JL: One of the things we can maybe think about, as we start to conclude, is: what do we learn from all of this? What do we gain from thinking about this question of what gets left behind? There’s a lot of anxiety within the American Jewish community, thinking about various studies that have been done on Jewish population and the question of the future, as we look at the past, and think about how Jewish communities are established, what happens to their synagogue buildings and also to all of their stuff over the course of many generations? And what can we learn from these histories and from these projects that you guys are doing and the issues that you’re thinking about, as we kind of step back and think about why it matters?
AC: What I learn or to try to keep in perspective is again returning to that image of the life cycle, and that life cycles tied to locations, these communities rise and flourish and then decline in one area. That it’s always important to keep your eye on where the next area is. And Hillel, you intimated that also that for the person living in Erie, Pennsylvania, it’s difficult to watch the downsizing of their community, but for the academic or the person who has their eye on the whole picture, that decline in Erie is happening alongside a reemergence of new movement somewhere else. One thing that I saw in New Castle, Pennsylvania that I thought was fascinating was the community when they closed up shop, made decisions about what to do with their Torah scrolls. And part of the decisions about what to do with their Torah scrolls had to do with where they’re pinning their hopes on where their legacy will be preserved.
And part of it had to do with sending a Torah scroll to a Hillel. Part of it had to do with sending a Torah scroll to a new congregation that was forming somewhere else in the United States. One of their Torah scrolls went to Poland, to a new community, a new Jewish community in Poland with the idea that we witnessed, over the course of the last century, the tragic end of the Jewish community in Poland, but perhaps their seeds have rebirth there. And they also sent one Torah scroll to Indonesia, to a re-emerging Jewish community in Indonesia. And I’ve got my eye on Jewish communities in unlikely places, emerging or re-emerging Jewish communities in South America, in Africa and in places like Indonesia. It’s interesting to keep the long view in mind while we’re also looking at the small view of our various local histories.
HS: Yeah, I think we, and I’ve been approached a number of times by people who hear about this project and think, and ask me, “Aren’t you just depressed all the time thinking about these communities that have ceased to function?” And I think part of it is keeping in perspective that, as you’re saying that on the one hand, yes, these communities are declining, but they’re popping up somewhere else. I think even within the United States, we’re seeing a real shift as young people want to be living in urban centers again. Again, in downtown and the East side of Los Angeles and downtown Washington, DC, where all the Jews did move to outer communities and out into the suburbs fifty years ago, and are now moving back to those areas because they’re young and they’re hip and are thriving, and this great place to be.
Detroit is another example of that. Watching young Jews go back to the Lower East Side and the places of their heritage is something I think that’s balances out in many ways. But I think also, I think it’s important to be somewhat zen about this. That yes, we’re witnessing these decline of some of these communities, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be something that we are sad about. And of course, when a person dies, we mourn their life and that they’re not with us anymore. But at the same time, we also recognize that if someone has lived a full and rich life, that this really is just part of the life cycle. We try to keep their memories with us but at the same time, we recognize that this is a fact of life and to document what they love and to bear witness to their history but to also keep that in mind is just part of the greater story of the Jewish people.
JL: I’m reminded of the twentieth-century Jewish thinker Simon Rawidowicz, who wrote about the idea of the Jews as what he calls the “Ever-Dying People.” I think we need to keep this into perspective that basically in every single generation, Jews have thought that this was the end. So I think that was interesting, especially when we take Rawidowicz’s perspective into account is, he wrote about the way in which this sense of doom was actually quite generative, that essentially so long as Jews were thinking that they were about to be done, they were always creating new things. And this ties back into some of the things that you guys are engaging with quite closely. The way in which buildings and objects are not just left behind, but they’re reused and put to use in new contexts, which I think is really important for us to always keep in mind.
I guess there was one other thing I wanted to ask Hillel about specifically: Hillel, I know we talked about kind of the personal relationship of ourselves to some of the work in some of these issues and questions that we’re discussing. But I think that it’s really interesting the way in which you’re looking at physical spaces, buildings, public manifestations of Jewishness, through design and through art, when this is really something that you do a lot of yourself in terms of your own artwork. I’m thinking about the murals that you do, and so on and so forth. And I’m curious if you just want to say something briefly about how the Jewish traces project relates to your broader artistic activities.
HS: Sure, so they do relate to each other on a pretty base level that I’m very interested in about how we create spaces visually. I think synagogues are a great representation of this, that here we are as Jews, commissioning and building large public architecture and putting a public face to the community. And I think street art functions very much in the same way that a lot of my work in murals is making very clearly Jewish public work, making murals with Jewish iconography, with Hebrew. And I think it functions very much in the same way that it’s a way for a neighborhood to rally around public visual displays of identity.
In cities like Los Angeles, in particular, where I grew up that the city that’s both very ethnically diverse and also very segregated, mural artists have historically used art as a way to express something about their communities, and projecting their history, their tradition, their origins in a way for really the city at large to see and as a way for those communities to feel pride and to project that aspect of themselves out into the public and a way also for other visitors to those communities to encounter and interact with and engage with the communities that they’re visiting in a different kind of, but still very direct way.
I think my work in both really informs the other. My experience making murals and making these public displays of Jewish culture does fit in very much to this idea that I’m trying to explore with the Jewish race’s project of how do we represent ourselves publicly and whether that’s in neighborhoods that still have a Jewish presence or neighborhoods that don’t, and allowing a tour of the urban environment as a way to teach us about the people who either currently live there or who have lived there in the past.