New England brings to mind an image of traditional Yankees in a peaceful rural setting. The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts add an artistic flavor, with cultural attractions that lure elites from Northeastern cities.
But this is the whitewashed version.
New England history is filled with stories of immigrants, minority groups, and cultural diversity. Much of that history has been marginalized and lost.
One lesser-known part of New England's past is its status as a haven for Jewish refugees of European antisemitism. Pogroms in 19th-century Eastern Europe and Russia and the onslaught of 20th-century Nazi Germany forced Jews to flee Europe. The bustling mills of New England drew them to America. In this new landscape, the Jewish people found ways to preserve their history and continue their culture.
Building a Shul in North Adams
The industrial hub of North Adams, Massachusetts attracted a community of Eastern-European Jews who preserved and revitalized their culture in the U.S. even as it was being looted and destroyed in Europe. Part of that culture was building a temple and shul for religious worship and instruction on Francis Street, not far from the train station where members arrived from surrounding communities.
In the 1890s, A European Jewish artist painted a vivid religious mural along the walls and ceiling of the building. The art included many traditional Jewish elements, including lions, tablets, and Hebrew script, along with American images such as the U.S. flag and an eagle. Its evocative folk-art style links ancient Israel, Eastern Europe, and New England.
The congregation eventually outgrew its first temple, and the building was sold. As New England industry declined, North Adams fell on hard times and its population shrank. The original temple was converted to apartments, and the mural was walled off in an unoccupied attic space, where it was nearly forgotten and has begun to deteriorate.
The mural's attic space has already experienced significant damage from moisture, temperature changes, construction, and pests.
The North Adams shul mural is vivid part of New England's true, diverse history, and a thread in the tapestry of the Jewish diaspora. The mural, along with other Jewish architecture in New England, is a vital remnant of European Jewish history that was largely destroyed by systematic racism. The dominant Christian "Yankee" culture of New England also threatens to erase its local Jewish history through ignorance and neglect, however unintentional.
Rock Against Racism Vermont founder John Langran learned about the mural through his work as a decorative artist. As artists, RARVT hopes to publicize and promote the mural and its cause through photography, video, film, and music.
RARVT is reaching out to local Jewish community leaders, art preservationists, and benefactors who can help preserve the mural and restore its place as part of North Adams's history. The eventual goal is to offer viewings and exhibits about the mural, its history, its meaning, its artist, and the role of Jews in this part of New England. To do this, it is vital that the mural be preserved from further physical damage and possibly relocated out of its residential building.
We are deeply grateful to the people and organizations who are working to preserve this part of New England history.
Watch this space for more.
Other New England Jewish Murals
The North Adams mural is one of several examples of Jewish historical architecture throughout New England. RARVT acknowledges the enormous dedication and work of these organizations and congregations:
The Lost Mural of Burlington, Vermont, a similar "lost" mural that is undergoing preservation.