A team of researchers from the Center of Jewish Art and the Jewish University of St. Petersburg, recently returned from an expedition to Romania and the Ukraine with exciting reports of a wealth of discoveries. Of particular interest were their findings in Romania where they came across synagogues containing high quality artistry in wooden aronot kodesh (Torah Arks) and wall paintings. They were able to document a collection of ritual objects which has recently opened to the public. The expedition also documented exquisitely decorated tombstones in Bukovina, which spans both Rumania and Ukraine, and Southern Podolia, part of present-day Ukraine.
The Romania team comprised Center researchers, Boris Chaimovitch and Binyamin Lukin, experts on Eastern European Jewish art and ethnography, Bianca Stube, an historian and specialist on Jewish communities in Romania, and St. Petersburg Jewish University researchers Olga and Valery Dimshitz, experts on ritual objects, Marina Bruck, specialist in Hebrew texts and epigraphy, Alla Sokolova, an architect who has participated in previous expeditions and Dimitry Vilensky, photographer. The expedition took place in two separate regions, Moldavia and Romanian Bukovina.
The team was able to document a most fascinating collection, inaccessible until recently, of ritual objects at the Jewish Museum in Bucharest, collected by Rabbi Rosen during his period as Chief Rabbi of Romania. Of particular interest were the fine parochot (Torah curtains), and Torah crowns, pointers and rimonim (Torah Finials), some of which are characteristic of the local style.
The expedition documented a wealth of Romanian synagogues, their interior furnishings and ritual objects whose style resembles that in Moldavia and Southern Galicia. Among the important finds was the wooden synagogue in Piatra Neamt dating from 1766, which contains a wooden aron kodesh from 1835, the earliest located on this expedition. In Botosani the team found a synagogue containing an ornate wooden aron kodesh from the mid 19th century, and important wall paintings colored in a special technique, in which the paint was applied to fabric attached to the walls. They also recorded highly decorative tombstones from the 19th century.
The Great Synagogue of Iasi (Jassy), dated 1670, with an eclectic style as a result of many restorations, contains a small museum of ritual objects. The synagogue is noteworthy for its unusually large and beautiful aron kodesh, which takes up the entire eastern wall. Another interesting find was the Leipziger Synagogue in Roman from the second half of the 19th century, with its late Volk-Baroque wooden aron kodesh, elaborately decorated with floral and animal motifs. The cemetery in Roman was memorable for its decorated tombstones employing local motifs based on the community insignia.
In Hirlau the team documented an early 19th century synagogue with a wooden cupola, important because its construction is reminiscent of earlier, now-lost, synagogues. The wall paintings in the Hirlau synagogue are noteworthy for their unusual motifs, among them, a painting of the burning bush, and another, a painting of Temple implements.
Center researcher Boris Chaimovitch examining details of elaborately decorated paintings on ceiling of synagogue in Hirlau. This early 19th century synagogue is in use by only a handful of elderly Jews still left in the community.
In the Ukraine, Center researchers, Chaimovitch and Lukin, were joined by researchers from the Jewish University of St. Petersburg: Michael Nosonovski, a specialist in the study of Jewish epitaphs, Marina Bruck and Alexandra Chernina, both of whom have participated in previous expeditions, Yuli Lipshitz, an architect specializing in Ukrainian monuments, Michael Kheifetz, photographer, and ten students from the university. Three different cemeteries were documented. In Buchach in Galicia, rare tombstones date back to the 16th century. Several from the 17th and 18th centuries are noteworthy for their marvellous portal shaped construction, and interesting texts. The inscriptions at Buchach are particularly informative from an historical point of view, the genealogical information revealing much about the migration of the Jews in this area.
The Chotin cemetery in Bukovina contains approximately 5,000 tombstones from the 19th - 20th century and selected examples of art historical interest were documented. Over 50 tombstones from the beginning of the 18th through the 19th century were recorded in the Sadgora cemetery, also in Bukovina, and famous as one of the oldest cemeteries in the region.
In Southern Podolia near the Dniestre River, the expedition surveyed synagogues and cemeteries in twelve still existing shtetls, which were populated continuously by Jews until about twenty years ago. After the Second World War, large numbers of Jews moved to the bigger cities. The shift in population continued until the 1970s and 1980s when many of the remaining Jews emigrated to Israel. Previously unknown synagogues were discovered in these areas, which date from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century. These synagogues, which the Center plans to fully document with a team of architects on a future expedition, are typical of this area known as Transnystria. Many of these synagogues are being used as warehouses, as is the case elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
The research team returned to Israel with 150 rolls of film, a wealth of information to be analyzed and great enthusiasm to mount future expeditions to this area in our continuing efforts to uncover the Jewish cultural heritage in Eastern Europe.