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Unexpected Art Offers Tisha B’Av Opportunity

Manhattan congregation’s first permanent space boasts Assyrian art

Stephanie Butnick
August 08, 2011
Assyrian bas reliefs line the entranceway to Beth Simchat Torah.(Wikimedia Commons )
Assyrian bas reliefs line the entranceway to Beth Simchat Torah.(Wikimedia Commons )

The history of Jews and Assyrians has been rife with conflict, but New York City real estate is no picnic, either. Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, founded in 1973 and now the largest LGBT synagogue in the world, will soon move into its first permanent space in Manhattan (the congregation was previously headquartered in the West Village).

The New York Times’ City Room blog reports that the space, two adjacent storefront units (with 19 foot ceilings!) in the Chelsea neighborhood designed by architect Cass Gilbert in 1929, features Assyrian motifs in stone reliefs above the entryways: “Most prominent among them are mirror-image bas reliefs over the lobby and service entrances depicting chariot-borne hunters aiming bows and arrows at loping antelopes, with catlike creatures crouched under the horses. These panels are flanked by pairs of lion heads and forelegs.”

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi of Beth Simchat Torah, has embraced the temple’s inherited artwork, even finding teaching lessons within the reliefs:

“Far from being a liability, the rabbi said, Assyrian architecture could serve an instructional purpose, particularly as Tisha B’av approaches—the holiday, which begins Monday at sundown this year, in which Jews observe the destruction of the first and second temples in particular, as well as the loss more generally of holy places and things held dear.”

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.