Favorite Stories I Can’t Use

Ark Cinti

Favorite Stories I Can’t Use

There’s an Ark at my school, it is set against the west wall of the Chapel. It’s an old room, part of the original building which dates from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the stained glass windows its most prominent feature before my teacher insisted they be covered with retractable drapes. By the time my teacher got to it, the original stained glass windows were no longer prized, too Churchy I suppose. But the rest of the room was to his design.

This was about the time of the Centennial of the College, 1975, which was several years before I got there.

He researched everything. He was one of the few in those days who thought about the esthetics of the synagogue, how it looked, what was the optimal environment for prayer, what kind of lights, what shape of seats, what sort of flow of movement, colors, venue: everything in the environment either contributed or detracted from prayer.

First, he researched the chairs. He wanted moveable chairs, nothing fixed, so the room could be changed into a variety of shapes. He found an interlocking chair made in England, simple light wood support in the back, nice light cushion for the rear end. The chairs slipped into each other so you could make rows (or not by detaching) anywhere.

He placed a raised bima in the middle of the room, in the style of the old synagogue, that could be turned around to either face the room which is not traditional or face the Ark the traditional way. Except the Ark would have been on the eastern wall, so that when you faced it, everyone would have been facing east. In that room, we were mostly facing west, which I bet he did purposely since he believed in a new Judaism of the West. He came from Hungary, and he was not fixed on a Judaism of the Old World. Many of my teachers were of the Old World, and their relation to that was complex and varied. It held no romance for them, only for their suburban born and bred mostly American students.

On the western wall of our chapel was the piece that he designed the room around, it was an Ark fifteen feet tall, the wood had been restored in that kind of rubbed pickled look that later became popular in old house restorations, light and dark woods, some shades of graying as if to say yes it’s old but not crummy old.

The Ark was tall and ornate. The story that we were all told, I remember being told this story but not by whom, it seemed that everyone in generations of students knew the story and I imagine it was useful for fund raising. It also had a mythic sensibility that is irresistible even to a cynic.

I imagine this story is familiar to every student of my school who spent their four years of training there, five years before the year in Israel program began, between the years 1955 and just several years ago.

Here’s the story, in brief: The Ark appeared after the War on a dock in New York City, having been dug up, boxed, and shipped to the United States with this address: To the Jews of America. Someone had buried the Ark during the Nazi atrocities, presumably the dearest object in an European synagogue, buried before the Nazis could either get to it for one of their museums or destroy it, and after the War survivors who knew the story dug it up and in those chaotic first months or years after the War’s end, shipped it where someone thought it would find a home, addressed to the Jews of America.

So the Ark sat on a wharf in New York for several years while the courts decided its outcome. The Hebrew Union College made a bid for it and it was awarded to them. My teacher saw it, had it restored, and designed the chapel in Cincinnati at the Hebrew Union College around that Ark.

The Ark addressed to the Jews of America. What a wonderful story of destruction and hope, of old world past and new world future, of denigration and reclamation. Except it wasn’t true.

One year I wrote a piece about my school and I included the story. I received a note from another of my teachers (edited):

Hi, Jim!

Sorry I missed you last week, etc.

My wife shared with me your poem (very moving!) and your query about the Polish wooden ark (from Posen, 1720) in the College synagogue. Unfortunately, that nice little maiseh about the ark having been buried during the war and shipped “to the Jews of America” is just that, a Jewish urban legend (and I have no idea who started it!). The ark wasn’t even in Europe during the Nazi era; It was already part of the HUC Museum collection in Cincinnati in 1925!

The true story (researched by Judy Lucas, former curator of the Skirball Museum collection here in Cinti) is as follows: the ark originated in a wooden synagogue in Posen in 1720. Sometime in the late 19th century (or, at least, by the early 20th) it had passed into the private collection of a Berlin Jewish Judaica collector by the name of Solli Kirschstein (I don’t know how it peregrenated from Posen to Berlin). Kirschstein’s Judaica collection was acquired for the College by Adolph Oko, then Librarian of the College, in 1925, and became the core of the HUC Museum (now the College Skirball Museum collection, mostly in LA). So the ark was in the Museum for almost 50 years, from 1925 until 1974-75, when it became the centerpiece of Gene Mihaly’s rebuilt HUC Chapel in time for the College Centennial. When I was a senior rabbinical student in 1973-74, we sometimes chose to conduct daily services in the Museum Gallery, in front of this ark, instead of in the Chapel. (As I recall, this began when some work was being done in the Chapel and we had to move elsewhere for a few weeks. After that, we just preferred to stay in the Gallery!) At any rate, the power and poignancy of this ark (even without the urban legend, it’s still one of the very few surviving arks–if not the only one–from pre-war Polish wooden synagogues, and was so documented by Joseph Guttman, the late former professor of Jewish art at HUC) made a sufficient impression on all of us—and I think that Gene’s decision to rebuild the Chapel around that ark probably resulted from the experience of those morning services in the Gallery in 1973-74. So that’s the true story. The poem has an artistic integrity of its own, but if you choose to revise it, it is still the case that that ark remains in all significant ways a “brand plucked from the burning.”

Kol tuv, R.

So I couldn’t tell that story, or I had to make the corrections. I turned it into a story about the students praying around the Ark that had a history and a fanciful story grafted onto it and that became the story. A story of inspiration that eclipsed the myth of the mystery relation between Old World and unlikely survival in New World. The Ark became a kind of totem, the power to attract spirit that way, fire up prayers – that too was a good story but not the same category of mythos. The movement from that world to this world remains a story intact, without the sentimental details, more mystery.

I had written a poem but I revised it and learned it new. Maybe it’s better and more relevant, it’s less of a maiseh now and more a story of redemption. What’s the power in that Ark? The power to renew, to inspire, to create something in proximity of the physical object that transcends the object itself, if nothing else, to generate more story. And the truth of the last: in Zechariah’s prophecy it’s a question (3:2). No question here: it’s a brand plucked from the burning.

That image alone, out of a bundle of images of burnt burning and the inelegant associations of Holo-kaustus from the Greek for the Hebrew olah of the offering burned up, offered up, the brute sense of an ember snatched out of the conflagration. In Hebrew ‘ud with an alef, set against the other images of burning that the Holocaust in English conjures, this one with the sense of survival, an ember, and for a few of us a strange homonym with the classical stringed instrument of the eastern Mediterranean (‘ud with an ayin) and its place in the foundational creativity of the Middle East.

These two silent letters, the alef and the ayin, the homonym bearing quiet witness to the swirl of ideas associated with history underneath myth, the rising of new story out of old story, a conflation of images that continues to generate when story is organic when it is alive, throwing another chapter another tale another shoot another version looking forward and back, something new something alive something arrives something survives.