The Challenge of Implementing Reconstructionism: Art, Ideology, and the Society for the Advancement of Judaism's Sanctuary Mural

Article excerpt

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 platform into a concrete program that would attract large numbers of adherents.

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Kaplan and his followers had established the SAJ in i922., 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 American society, including a democratic government, a consumer-oriented economy, and the possibility of meaningful participation in American life. Kaplan's formulation of Judaism as the "evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people," made widely known with the publication of his Judaism as a Civilization in 1934, was a response to the impact of modernity on Jewish life and to the challenges and possibilities presented by the American context. Chief among his concerns was the potential for fragmentation and divisiveness as competing visions of Judaism and Jewish life began to multiply. Kaplan's approach sought to accommodate both the religious expression of Judaism, including liberal innovations, and, in contrast to the Reform Judaism of his day, to celebrate the "ethnic" or "national" expressions of Jewish life, including ones that were exclusively secular. (4) Among the innovations introduced at the SAJ in its first decade was the establishment of a bat mitzvah ceremony for girls and the elimination--temporary, as it turned out--of Kol Nidrei from the Yom Kippur liturgy on the grounds that its legal formulation was mistaken by most worshippers for a prayer. …