- The Challenge of Implementing Reconstructionism:Art, Ideology, and the Society for the Advancement of Judaism's Sanctuary Mural
In May 1935, a large-scale, three-paneled mural was unveiled in the sanctuary of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), a synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side established more than a decade earlier by Mordecai M. Kaplan, the founding thinker of the Reconstructionist movement in American Judaism, and his followers. Painted by an art student who was directly influenced by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, the mural included more than fifty images of contemporaneous Palestinian Jews. It was a significant departure from most synagogue art of the period, which avoided figural representation based on the prevailing belief that it was forbidden by the Second Commandment. Titled Elements of Palestine, Old and New, the mural presented a Labor Zionist vision of pioneers, with the central panel celebrating a kibbutz harvest (see Figures 1 and 2). One side panel featured recent Zionist accomplishments (see Figure 3); the second captured the diversity of the inhabitants of prestate Israel (see Figure 4).
How did a mural influenced by a radical leftist painter and depicting the program of an avowedly secular political movement come to hang in the prayer space of an American synagogue? The mural was painted by Temima Nimtzowitz, a New York artist and Kaplan disciple who had earlier sat on the scaffolding with Diego Rivera as he painted murals during the 1933 construction of Rockefeller Center.1 She created it expressly for the SAJ, which served as an experimental laboratory for Kaplan's Reconstructionist ideas. Commissioned by Kaplan, the mural was part of his agenda for the radical reimagining of American Jewish life. As this article will argue, however, both the mural's creation and reception reflected the serious challenges Kaplan and his followers faced in inspiring American Jews to embrace their vision. In particular, it highlights the difficulties they experienced in translating an ideological [End Page 195]
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platform into a concrete program that would attract large numbers of adherents.
Kaplan and his followers had established the SAJ in 1922, after they broke away from the Jewish Center, an Upper West Side Orthodox synagogue where Kaplan had served as founding rabbi.2 Though established to meet the religious needs of its members, the synagogue's name reveals the more expansive aspiration of its founders to serve as a laboratory where Kaplan could work out liturgical and communal innovations that would help to develop his philosophy of Reconstructionism and, in this way, to "advance" Judaism so that it would thrive in a modern environment.3
Kaplan maintained that eastern European Jewish immigrants to America and their children felt torn between a traditional "old world" version of Judaism, which was law-based and dependent on a degree of social, religious and cultural exclusivity, and the appeals of...