The lost art of the wooden Torah arks

The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe, Bracha Yaniv, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press, £45


The common assumption in many Ashkenazi communities today is that their forebears in Eastern Europe all davened in simple shtiebl-type shuls, devoid of any architectural pretensions or artistic merit. Implicit in this view is that such austere surroundings expressed authentic Yiddishkeit. 

This book explodes this myth. It is packed with evocative photographs of exquisitely carved multi-tiered arks that adorned the interiors of both well-built masonry and intricately designed wooden synagogues that once existed across Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. These black-and-white archive images are all that remain of the arks themselves and, in most cases, of the buildings that housed them, destroyed in the political turmoil of the first part of the 20th century.  

Bracha Yaniv, professor emerita at Bar-Ilan University, has made a meticulous study of these lost arks and of the lost Jewish crafts of joinery, woodcarving, painting and gilding that made them possible. She demonstrates that these arks cannot be dismissed as mere folk art. They exhibit a high level of artistic accomplishment. Moreover, the symbolism and iconography used in their decoration indicate a sophisticated understanding of Jewish textual sources. 

Precious little of this rich artistic or literary tradition made it to the West. Certainly, there was a preponderance of Jews in the East End furniture trades but rarely were their skills put to work beautifying British synagogues. You would be lucky to find a cut-out crown, pair of lions or luchot (tablets of the law), crudely painted gold, on the ark of first-generation immigrants, and not much has changed today. Even Charedi communities who may be aware of the ornate appearance of the ark in their parent shul in the Old Country must settle for a machine-tooled model, most likely made at Kibbutz Lavi in Israel.   

Dr Kadish is the author of The Synagogues of Britain and Ireland: An Architectural and Social History

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