Western New York Heritage

The Windows of Temple Beth Zion

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Temple Beth Zion’s east window contains a massive, upturned hand, symbolizing creation. The design was based on a painting by artist Ben Shahn.

Copyright by and courtesy of Mark F. Heffron

The original Temple Beth Zion at 599 Delaware Ave. in Buffalo, just north of the Twentieth Century Club.  The building succumbed to a fire in 1961.

Private collection

One of Buffalo’s most prominent landmarks is Temple Beth Zion on Delaware Avenue, a unique modern building surrounded by much more traditional neighbors in the Delaware Avenue Historic District. Founded in 1850 as an orthodox congregation, Temple Beth Zion became the first Jewish Reform congregation in Buffalo when it was reorganized in 1863. Meeting for their first several decades in a variety of Buffalo locations, in the late 1880s the congregation acquired land at 599 Delaware Avenue to construct a unique house of worship. The striking building, designed by Edward Kent, was constructed of Medina Sandstone in the Byzantine style with a massive copper-clad dome. The completed structure was dedicated in 1890. Tragically, on October 4, 1961, flames were seen coming from the church.  The blaze spread quickly and the dome collapsed within an hour. Only one Torah was rescued from the fire that destroyed the original temple.

A new Temple Beth Zion was dedicated farther north on Delaware Ave. in 1967. Designed by architect Max Abramovitz, the walls rise 45 feet from the entrance, flaring outward at 15 degrees, firmly anchored to a pedestal 50 feet below ground level.

Copyright by and courtesy of Mark F. Heffron

The current house of worship, sited several blocks north of the original, was designed by the acclaimed architect Max Abramovitz and dedicated in a series of services in April 1967. Every facet of the worship space at Temple Beth Zion is infused with layers of meaning. Francis R. Kowsky, prominent Buffalo architectural historian, has observed that, “members of the congregation who remembered the massive dome and brilliantly ornamented walls of Edward Kent’s former synagogue must have been surprised by the cool, abstract nature of Abramovitz’s new synagogue. Believing that synagogues need not conform to any particular shape or style, Abramovitz choose an oval shape with a flat roof for the sanctuary. Abramovitz chose to have his building express to the passerby ecumenical sentiments of hands upraised in prayer and the ancient Judeo-Christian heritage of the Ten Commandments. Given the terrible events of the recent Holocaust years, Abramovitz’s portrayal of the new Temple Beth Zion as a place of reflection and affirmation expressed the spirit of the times.”

Artist Ben Shahn, ca. 1950s.

Courtesy National Portrait Gallery (UK)

World-renowned artist, painter and calligrapher Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was brought in to design the windows as well as other elements of the new worship space, including the Commandment Tablets, and the menorah. In 2019, the congregation marked the 50th year since Ben Shahn’s death. In spite of the 55 years that have now passed since the new synagogue’s dedication in 1967, his windows continue to move the soul as if they were installed only yesterday.

The windows at Temple Beth Zion have a special significance as the windows behind the altar were the first ever to be made from a Ben Shahn painting.

The congregation had purchased a painting of Shahn’s at a New York art gallery. The painting, in turn, became the inspiration and design for the bimah window, translated into a stained-glass cartoon by Benoît Gilsoul (1914–2000), who also did the detailed acid etching of the flashed glasses. Shahn and Gilsoul also worked together to design and translate a stained-glass design for the large façade window over Delaware Avenue.  Both were constructed by Willet Studios.

This view from the center aisle, near the entrance, looks out over the 1,000 seat sanctuary. The ceiling rises to a height of 62 feet. The bimah (the raised platform at the front) is dominated by the 30-foot high Commandment Tablets, the Holy Ark and the east window.

Copyright by and courtesy of Mark F. Heffron

Benoît Gilsoul would come to note this commission as one of his most important works during all his time in stained glass. Of working with Ben Shahn, he wrote:

When I first met Ben Shahn it was late in his life, I was familiar with his art by what I had seen in Museum and in books . . . It was the first time that Ben Shahn was commissioned to make a transfer of one of his works in stained glass.

Accepting to help, I want to be loyal to the artist, I want to know more about Ben Shahn, to be faithful to the man, to his talent, to his art, to his philosophy.

As Chagall, Ben Shahn could not be separated from his roots. Picasso looking at Chagall said, “he has an angel in his head.” and it could be said ‘Ben Shahn has love in his heart.’ For him the search for truth, for justice, for peace, his concern for the others was and are the basic of Judaism and his concern is obvious in his artwork. It could be the simpler things of life, the joys and sufferings of human beings, above all the scandals and injustices which comes up in the course of his life or at the ends the words of the bible. Because of that the pictorial vision of Ben Shahn is very wide and different, his artwork has another dimension, a depth rarely achieved, blending art and substance with intensity the artwork becomes the vehicle of a deep communication, it shows that anywhere the presence of the other is never as vivid than in the plastics arts, a real dialogue between the artist and the spectator. I want to introduce myself not as an imitator of his work but to capture in my own self the essence of his thinking in this specific job which blend of immense with transcendence it was and with my own limits that’s for sure. After that I have to learn more about his technique, his way with the colors, with the lines so special in Ben Shahn, in a word his gestures.

The windows and ritual objects were dedicated on Saturday afternoon, April 22, 1967, at 2:00 p.m.

Muriel Willett wrote a description of the windows that began as follows:

True collaboration starts with a confrontation of artistic genius and skilled craftsmanship. This is the catalyst that can translate creative art into the glory that is glass. But confidence, dedication, forbearance, humility, patience, understanding—these are some of the extra ingredients that tip the scales towards success.

So it was with the bimah window at Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo. A great artist dreamed a dream of Creation. With his brush he indicated God’s gigantic upturned hand at that moment before time when, out of the void swirling with embryonic possibilities, waves of darkness and of light began to form the firmament. The artist was Ben Shahn. Across the bottoms of his painting, in the exquisite calligraphy for which he is world famous, he wrote the Hebrew text, those words heard by Job from the whirlwind, which translated read in part:

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?

When the morning stars sang together,

And all the sons of God shouted for joy?

(Job 38:4-7)

It has been said that when Ben Shahn came to view his windows installed, his goosebumps had goosebumps. Today, viewers experience the same deep dialogue when they enter the synagogue. As a visitor, one is compelled to a state of reflection. The scalloped sanctuary rises up, both antique and new in its feel. So masterful is the construction that it is a space unlike any other. As one walks slowly down the aisle from Delaware Avenue, the East Window seems to move in its depth of color and form as it is approached. A swirling, powerful sea of color comes into focus, the hand of God becoming clear. Time and time again, viewers come to the sanctuary to experience this temple and every one of them has had a powerful response. Tears are not uncommon. The gravity and the emotion have not dulled with age, the intention as clear today as it has ever been.

“When he saw the windows, Ben Shahn cried.”

– Mireille Gilsoul, daughter of glass artist, Benoît Gilsoul

The first Hebrew letter of each commandment is worked in mosaic, using glass smalti and measures 16 by 40 inches. The “Tablets of Law,” as they are often called, are frequently used in synagogue ornamentation.  However, Shahn’s use of mosaic letters and gold leaf is unique.

Copyright by and courtesy of Mark F. Heffron

The gold leaf lettering for the rest of the commandment text appears below the first letter, which is surrounding by an aureole of intricately designed lettering in gold leaf. The playful animal-like shapes of the mosaic letters are often seen in Shahn’s work.

Copyright by and courtesy of Mark F. Heffron

The west wall window, over the Delaware Avenue entrance, includes Psalm 150, which calls upon viewers to praise God.

Copyright by and courtesy of Mark F. Heffron

The east window measures 32 by 40 feet in size and represents the story of Creation as told in the Book of Job. The windows are held in place by means of stressed steel cables stretched across the openings on the interior that are not present on the exterior of the building.

The lines swirling about the hand represent the voice out of the whirlwind that spoke to a suffering Job. The colors and designs are meant to give a focus for meditation.

Copyright by and courtesy of Mark F. Heffron

Above the Holy Ark hangs the Ner Tamid, the eternal light. The tradition of an ever-burning light dates back to the days of the Temple where the Menorah was never permitted to go out. The lectern, where the Torah is read, is in the shape of an open book, symbolizing the commitment to study.

Copyright by and courtesy of Mark F. Heffron

The full content is available in the Spring 2022 Issue.