This Place in History: The Lost Mural Part 1

Vermont Historical Society


At ‘This Place in History’ we’re in Burlington with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

“We’re standing on the steps of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue on Prospect Street in Burlington. Through those doors behind us is an amazing piece of history, international in scope. The co-archivist of Ohavi Zedek, Aaron Goldberg, is going to walk us through what we see,” explained Perkins.

“This mural was painted by an artist named Ben Zion Black in 1910. It was painted in an older synagogue called Chai Adam Synagogue on Hyde Street in Burlington. The Chai Adam Synagogue closed in 1939 and the Lost Mural was successfully moved here in May 2015,” began Goldberg.

Why is it called the Lost Mural?

“First, the Lost Mural represents a lost genre of wooden painted synagogues that was prevalent in eastern Europe. We aren’t quite sure if there were hundreds, there may have been thousands, and they were destroyed during the Holocaust, or by fire, or simply just fell into ruin. This may be the only symbol of that lost genre that exists, certainly in North America of this size, grandeur and splendor.”

“The other reason it was lost, or that we call it lost, was that the mural was intentionally hidden behind a false wall in 1986 when the synagogue building it was in was converted into an apartment building,” added Goldberg.

‘What we’re looking at is a biblical image of the Tent of the Tabernacle in the Book of Exodus and the Book of Numbers. So, you’re walking inside what was the mobile Tent of the Tabernacle when the Israelites were wandering in the dessert after leaving Egypt.”

“The imagery is as you’re walking outside into the inner sanctum, going through several layers of drapery into the Holy of Holies, which is where the Ten Commandments would have been kept. So as you move inward, you come to the throne of Solomon.”

“As you’re looking farther up, you have the lions of Judah, the guardians of the Ten Commandments. They’re also surrogates for the Jewish people, who are both receiving the law and defending the law,” explained Goldberg.

“Above that, you have the Crown of the Torah. Of course, you have the sun’s rays emanating down through the tent, and then above that you have the bell chord. The bell chord is also specifically referenced, as are the colors of the drapes, in the Book of Exodus and the Book of Numbers.”

“This is really a very important legacy for many reasons. Many of the original Jewish immigrants came from Kaunas, Lithuania, which is one of the provincial capitals in Lithuania. Ben Black came from that area also,” said Goldberg.

“For immigrants, this represents a symbol of immigrant art. It’s a beacon of hope for all immigrant groups, all refugee groups. Madeleine Kunin, our esteemed governor called the mural ‘a symbol of freedom over oppression and hope over despair’,” concluded Goldberg.

Next week, in Part 2, we will explore the process of saving, moving and restoring the mural and what the future holds for this international treasure.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic site markers, click here.

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