Magazine article The New Yorker

She Does Windows

Magazine article The New Yorker

She Does Windows

Article excerpt

The art of designing rose windows, those enormous circles of stained glass that punctuate the facades of Gothic cathedrals, is generally considered to have peaked in the thirteenth century, which is why it could seem a bit odd that the artist Kiki Smith has been working on one for several months. Smith, who is known for her sculptures of human figures and body parts, animals, and characters from fairy tales, was raised Catholic. Her rose window is not destined for a cathedral, however, but for a synagogue on the Lower East Side, not far from where she lives and works.

Smith's rose window, which consists of several hundred five-pointed stars swirling randomly about, will be fabricated this spring and installed on the eastern wall of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, an ornate, Moorish-style structure. The synagogue was designed by the architects Peter and Francis Herter and constructed in 1887 by Eastern European Jews who wanted it to have the grandeur of an established house of worship, and so the Herters included not one but two rose windows. One faces the street, and the other is on the rear wall of the building, positioned over the ark containing the Torah scrolls. The front window survived years of neglect that nearly caused the building to crumble, but the rear one disappeared more than half a century ago, replaced by glass blocks arranged to resemble four ancient tablets.

When the synagogue was restored--a project that took more than twenty years and turned the building into a combination museum and synagogue--the quasi-modern, industrial-looking window was left as it was. But it was always something of an embarrassment. "When my daughter's class came to tour the synagogue, one of the boys looked up and said, 'Oh, that looks like the windows in my bathroom,' " Amy Stein-Milford, the deputy director of the Museum at Eldridge Street, said. "So much for the feeling of inspiration."

At that point, in 2007, what Milford referred to as "the great Talmudic debate" began, pitting members of the board who wanted to keep the glass-block window against those who wanted to re-create the original 1887 window, and both groups against a third that thought the synagogue should have something altogether new. …

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