Ark Curtain (Parochet)
Undated, c. 1881
Silk with embroidery and appliqués, cotton lining
85.75 x 81 inches
An Ark curtain, or parochet in Hebrew, is hung over the door of the ark where Torah scrolls are kept. This curtain predates the 1887 opening of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. It was made for the ark when the congregation was still in its former home, a converted church at 78 Allen Street. We know this because its embroidered inscriptions mention Allen Street, and because it fits perfectly on the ark now in the lower level chapel at Eldridge Street, which was moved to the newly built synagogue.
A parochet is usually made from a heavy fabric like velvet, but this curtain is made of delicate gold silk brocade, suggesting that it was donated at a time when the congregation was less affluent by a congregant who perhaps had used it for parlor draperies or a bed covering. The curtain was used for the High Holidays, as indicated by the green embroidered words “For Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur,” and the red Hebrew letters arching across the top that spell out a biblical inscription relating to these holidays. The lettering on the swag tells us that the curtain was a donation of the women of the congregation in 1881. At the center, a Torah crown is sewn, with The Commandment tablets flanked by standing lions, familiar motifs for synagogue and Torah decorations used by Eastern European congregations
The decoration of the top of the curtain is sewn expertly by machine.Below is another type of decoration, clearly done at a later time. Withan amateur’s hand, gold wire coils and metallic fabric have been attached with silk thread to form a tree of life, Etz Chaim, spelled out in Hebrew above the branches. Doves fly above holding pomegranates, Biblical symbols of hope and fruitfulness. When this decoration was new, it would have been shiny and golden and somewhat more in keeping with the embroidery above, but it remains an unexplained addition to this historic curtain. Perhaps it was added to cover a stain or a tear; maybe it was the work of a well-meaning congregant; or could it have hidden significance that escapes the modern eye? Most curious of all is the patch awkwardly added to the base of the trunk.