Congregation Beth Haknesseth Anshe Slonim
Congregation Beth Haknesseth Anshe Slonim is the oldest synagogue building in the city of New York. It still resembled a house of worship when I first saw it in the winter of 1975, but the windows were boarded up, the fence was bent and broken, and the paint was peeling from the walls. I knew that I would have to hurry if I were to do a painting of it.
The synagogue stands on a street which had become a meeting place for narcotics dealers and addicts. The area is bleak and deserted, and I had been warned not to go there alone. My husband took photographs of the building, and I decided to begin with drawings from them. Throughout the following year, I tried to do so, but the drawings left me with a dissatisfied feeling. I have never liked to work with only photographic references- they can capture a moment in time and give structural guides, but the feeling necessary to create a real resemblance can only exist when the artist knows the subject well enough to feel out the things that are not visible.During the following summer when I came back, the street was filled with people. A man played his guitar on the steps, while his friends sat around him and listened. The air was hot and humid, and empty beer bottles lay broken around the fence.The synagogue no longer had solid doors. Panels were broken and children had squeezed through them. Then, I could have worked there safely, but this was not the mood I wanted in my painting.Autumn came, and again the street was empty and forbidding. The police said that it would be foolish to walk there unprotected. The neighborhood people said that I must not even think of sitting there. Winter passed. I returned in spring and found the doors gone, an old mattress behind the fence, and broken bottles everywhere.By then, this had become an obsession for me. The people in the area gave me advice, and some offered more than that. A coffee shop owner, Anthony Ortolano, of the Mojo Luncheonette at 78 Rivington Street, and Morris Benrubi offered to take turns sitting with me while I worked. A young man who sold ices in the area promised to watch out for me.On a chilly day in late autumn, I began to lay out the sketch on canvas, and I worked on it at home during the winter months. Time after time, I would drive to the Lower East Side from Long Island and work from the inside of my car. In spring I was working on two commissions nearby and I would take the painting along. During lunchtime when the schoolchildren were in the nearby playground, it was safe to work on Norfolk Street. The painting grew easily. Sometimes it is difficult to decide how to deal with composition, with color,and with mood, but here the choices selected themselves. The old synagogue could not be too somber and it could not be too bright. It could not look too hopeless and it could not look too romantic, and above all it had to have dignity. It stood on that street as if it owned the ground, and as if everything around it was only temporary.Rabbi Kohn (man in black suit opening side door furthest to the right of the painting), helped me to recreate the building as it was when he was its rabbi. Dr. Grinstein from Yeshiva University, (third from the left) as an authority on the Lower East Side synagogues, gave me immeasurable help.I drove by a year after the painting was completed. The fences were gone, the doors were boarded up, and the plaster hung in long strips from the walls. In the street, no one seemed to know that it was a synagogue building.