This post was written by curator and archivist Nancy Johnson.
It’s been many weeks now since we’ve been at the Museum, and I find myself wanting to enjoy some of my favorite artifacts there – not just the items on display in our permanent exhibition, but also some of the treasures that are tucked away in storage. It seems like a good time to take a virtual visit.
This elaborate ark curtain is not typically on display at the Museum due to its large size and very fragile condition. But it is one of my absolute favorite pieces of the collection. Not only because of its beauty and age (it’s one of the oldest pieces in our collection), but also because of the stories it tells.
First, just what is an ark curtain? Called a parochet in Hebrew, is it a curtain used to cover a synagogue’s ark (the cabinet where Torah scrolls are kept). In Exodus 40:21, there is a description of a curtain that covers the Ark of the Convenant – so all ark curtains are meant to allude to that story. This gold curtain, however, wasn’t meant to hang on the grand walnut-carved ark in the main sanctuary of the Museum’s home, the Eldridge Street Synagogue. This curtain actually predates the 1887 opening of the synagogue and was made for the ark used at the congregation’s former home, a converted church at 78 Allen Street. That ark was transported from Allen to Eldridge by the congregation when their grand new building opened, and it’s been in the Bes Medrash (the more modest entry-level worship space) of our landmark building ever since. We know the curtain was meant for that ark because its embroidered Hebrew inscriptions mention Allen Street. This assumption is confirmed because the curtain fits perfectly on that older ark.
The embroidery on the curtain spells out a few clues as to its origin and use. The inscription on the swag at the center of the curtain indicates that it was donated by the women of the congregation – a group called the Ladies’ Auxiliary. This tells us that it was not just the men who were active in this community of immigrant Jews. Another inscription indicates that it was made to use for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So this wasn’t the congregations everyday ark curtain – it was for special occasions.
There are also stories that can be inferred. Usually ark curtains are made from fabrics, like velvet, that are both luxurious and sturdy. But this curtain is made of fragile gold silk, the kind that might have been used for parlor draperies or a bed cover. It is likely that this ark curtain was created from a re-purposed household fabric donated by a congregant. Looking at this regal gold fabric, embellished with elaborate embroidery, we can imagine a congregation that wanted to make an impressive statement for the high holidays, a time when the synagogue would be filled with worshipers.
Now let’s look at the curtain as a whole, because the aesthetic of the top doesn’t exactly match the bottom. The embroidery at the bottom is quite different than the top inscriptions. With an 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. This portion of the curtain has a more folk art quality than the top does. 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.
I like to think that the life of this object and the stories it tells become a metaphor for the story of the Eldridge Street Synagogue itself. The original embroidered curtain was made with the energy, care and pride of its original congregants, just as the synagogue was. The additional embroidery and repair are signs that the curtain was watched over by subsequent generations who sought to keep it viable and sacred, saving it in whatever way was possible, even if it was not the most elegant result. And finally, we look to the curtain today – its beautiful beginning, its troubled later years, its will to survive — and treasure it for the stories it tells.