A long-lost relic of Jewish folk art has been revealed after being hidden behind a wall for more than 30 years—but not forgotten.
“The Lost Mural” is an indoor apse painting created in 1910 by Ben Zion Black, a 24-year-old Lithuanian playwright, poet and sign painter, for the former Chai Adam Synagogue in Burlington, Vermont. Aaron Goldberg, a descendant of Burlington’s earliest Jewish residents, founded the Lost Mural Project to recover Black’s work,
According to the project’s website, Black’s 155-square-foot triptych “is part of a long tradition of synagogue mural painting that was particularly advanced in Eastern Europe between the early 18th and mid-20th centuries.” Most artworks in this genre caught fire during the Holocaust, now remembered only through old photographs and watercolor renderings.
“There’s nothing like this anywhere else in this country,” Josh Perelman of the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia told the AP, calling Black’s mural “both a treasure and also a significant work, both in the American Jewish religious life and the world of art in this country.”
The project’s site says itinerant peddlers from Čekiškė, Lithuania, built the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in 1887. Two years later, Burlington’s Jewish community had grown to 150 residents, so they broke ground on Chai Adam that year. The classic wooden synagogue became their second house of worship, just 500 feet from the city’s first.
Black arrived in Burlington in 1910 and built a reputation as a gifted painter, mandolin bandleader, and champion of Yiddish culture. In 1910, Chai offered Adam Black $200, or about $5,314 by today’s standards, to paint the mural and the synagogue’s ceilings.
He depicted the Tent of Tabernacles according to the Book of Numbers, “including the Decalogue, surrounded by rampant lions and crowned by a floating crown, all bathed in the rays of the sun, and surrounded by architectural elements and elaborate curtains.” Although the work’s rich colors and symbolism struck aesthetic chords, parishioners bristled at the artist’s idolatry of angels and the inclusion of musical instruments, which were forbidden on the Sabbath.
Chai Adam did not call Swart again. The synagogue closed in 1939 and merged with the congregation Ohavi Zedek.
The building was sold and converted into apartments in 1986, but the owners agreed to seal Black’s artwork behind a wall in the hope that advocates would one day return to his rescue. Then it hid for 25 years.
In 2012, Burlington’s Jewish community worked with the building’s new owner, Offenharz, Inc., to remove the false wall and determine the condition of the lost mural. Carelessly applied insulation has taken its toll. They found peeling plaster, layers of shell and natural debris that obscured the mural’s true, vivid palette.
Raising more than $1 million from hundreds of donations, the project removed the artwork by crane in 2015 and transported it by truck to its current home in the lobby at Ohavi Zedek. Cleaning began last year and professionals from the Williamstown Art Conservation Center have since restored the mural’s shades based on 1986 archival slides, sealing their work with a new glaze.
Ohavi Zedek’s senior rabbi, Amy Small, saw it all and called the story “both a Jewish story and an American story,” as well as a “universal story” in the AP.
Burlington Free Press said the June 28 unveiling ceremony was attended by officials including former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin, U.S. Representative Peter Welch, and Vermont Arts Council Executive Director Karen Mittelman. Later in the evening, the public joined in for a party full of Yiddish music and dancing by the Nisht Geferlach Klezmer Band.
The Lost Mural Project is not over yet. The secular nonprofit is seeking donations “to replicate green corridors on the original painting that did not survive,” Goldberg told AP. In the meantime, you can take a tour of this global relic on your next trip to the Queen City.
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