Our Gifts to the World

Terumah By :  David G. Roskies Sol and Evelyn Henkind Chair in Yiddish Literature and Culture and Professor of Jewish Literature Posted On Feb 5, 2011 / 5771 | Torah Commentary

The divine instructions could not have been more explicit: the precise measurements, the prescribed materials. Not just instructions on how to build the Ark and the Altar of Incense; not just the design of the kapporet, the menorah, and the cherubim, all of which defined and dominated the inner court, the center of sanctity, but also down to the wooden structure constructed to hold the parohet, the curtain that set apart the Holy of Holies. No wonder the revelation at Sinai took 40 days and 40 nights! Most visibly, most palpably, this portable structure is what set the Israelites apart from the nations, that bodied forth their difference, their chosenness. It is by carrying out God’s design with such zeal, artistry, and precision, with such an outpouring of gifts, of terumah, that this ragtag of former slaves turned itself into a nation of priests.

Yet the divine blueprint was made only to be superseded, to be adapted for the changing facts on the ground. No sooner do we wrap up the Torah and pull out the haftarah, than we are reminded how this Jewish sacred space, portable and ideally suited for desert travel, was eventually replaced by a structure that was built to last forever. The basic features were to stay the same, but everything else changed. According to Perush Sarna (JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, 1991: 169), the Tabernacle was exactly half the size of Solomon’s Temple in length and width and one-third its height. There was a mikdash m’at for a people wandering in the desert and a Beit Mikdash for a people settled on its own land.

That adaptive process, of course, was just beginning, because the divine blueprint handed down at Sinai became for Diaspora Jewry the transformational grammar of Jewish sacred space, at once utterly distinctive and infinitely adaptable. Just think of the shuls we daven in today! Some are built like a temple, of brick and mortar, marble and stained glass, while others are makeshift: a rented basement, a chapel, a room. In the first davening space I called my own—at Havurat Shalom Community Seminary in Somerville, Massachusetts—we sat on pillows and nailed a huge basket to the wall to serve as the Holy Ark. There is a shul, and there is a shtibl.

Exactly a century ago, in 1911, a revolutionary, playwright, poet, prose writer, and public intellectual named Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport set out from Saint Petersburg in the north on a rescue operation to Ukraine in the south. Rappoport, better known as S. An-sky, chose this region because he saw it as the last preserve of authentic East European yiddishkayt: of folk belief, iconography, architecture, material culture; songs, stories, and memories. He saw his ethnographic expedition to Ukraine as a rescue operation, an act of cultural triage. East European Jewry was on the move—from the shtetl to the big city, from the Old World to the New—and was marching to the drum of emancipation, revolution, and national liberation. What would become of the shtetl and its civilization?

An-sky was a revolutionary ethnographer, who knew what he was looking for. Accompanied by his 17-year-old nephew Solomon Yudovin, an amateur photographer, and by the ethnomusicologist Joel Engel and the latest technology for doing field recordings, An-sky came looking for the most tangible expressions of the Jews as a folk, a collective, a deeply rooted presence on the Slavic soil. A mighty and ancient tribe in Israel was on the verge of disappearing and his task was to find and preserve the secret of its distinctiveness. By collecting their legends and lore, and acquiring their folk art and artifacts, An-sky hoped to inspire a new folk art, and to create a new source of secular Jewish self-understanding. An-sky crossed back into the wilderness in order to lead his people to a new promised land.

An-sky and his team were overwhelmed by the wealth of what remained: priceless folk treasures scattered everywhere! Most were housed where he least expected to find them. Based on prior fieldwork among the Russian peasantry, An-sky planned to conduct most of his research out-of-doors, in the home and the workplace. Instead, most of the art and artifacts were to be found in the synagogues, shtiblekh, and study houses large and small, in town after town after town. What distinguished the Jews from their neighbors were these sacred spaces, no matter that they had fallen into ruin. In out-of-the-way places, far off the beaten track, they came across massive stone synagogues, built like fortresses, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. More startling still were the ornate wooden synagogues from the 17th–18th centuries with elaborate latticework and multiple tiers. Both inside and out, these wooden synagogues exemplified for An-sky the genius of the folk capable of creating artistic and architectural masterpieces out of the simplest materials—not from acacia wood with overlays of gold. An-sky returned to Saint Petersburg bearing 2,000 photographs, 500 wax cylinders of Jewish folk music, and 700 sacred objects: parohets, menorahs, yads, keter Torahs, breastplates, sefer Torahs, kiddush cups, spice boxes, amulets. The finest specimens he displayed in the Jewish Ethnographic Museum, which opened on the ground floor of the Jewish Almshouse on Vasilievsky Island.

What happened to these treasures after the Bolshevik Revolution, An-sky’s flight from Russia, the closure of the museum, and the dispersal of its holdings, my wife and I discovered on our first morning in Saint Petersburg this past December. Luckily for us, the exhibition on the “Ordinary Synagogue” at the State Historical Museum of Religion (formerly the Museum of Atheism) was extended by popular demand. And luckily for us, we knew the curator, Dr. Alla Sokolova, a product of the post-Soviet Jewish renaissance. Alla ushered us into an atrium on the top floor, which she and her architect son had transformed into a new kind of sacred space: a composite of the three types of shuls that An-sky had discovered on his expedition, with glass display cases in lieu of four pillars, and held together by Yudovin’s amazing photographs.

This exhibition revealed to us the deep structure of Jewish sacred space, for the constant, from Torah times until the present, were not the measurements and materials, not the sacrificial altar, not the menorah or the cherubim, but the Torah itself, the Holy Ark in which it was housed, and above all, the terumah—the spontaneous gifts of the congregants, their generosity of spirit, and the religious imagination they channeled into ritual objects. For what Alla displayed, and what An-sky prized, were the parohets, embroidered by women with standard folk iconography or fanciful designs, and a wealth of other “memorial donations,” as the informative brochure called them. From Torah times until the present, what turned this people, dispersed and divided, into a mighty nation of priests, was its willingness to carry out God’s design with zeal, artistry, and precision, and with an outpouring of terumah.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.