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                        The Fort Tryon Jewish Center Windows: Stained Glass for a New Era

Stories and Photographs of Our Windows

 

In 1938, Fort Tryon Jewish Center (FTJC) was founded by Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. By mid-century, FTJC, then located in a handsome building at 524 Fort Washington Avenue, was no longer the fledgling synagogue of its inception. An ever-growing, vibrant community, FTJC now demonstrated with each simcha a people’s resilience following the devastations of the Shoah.

Yet, FTJC needed a prayer and celebration space to meet the ever-increasing needs of an expanding shul, and congregants soon mounted a fundraising drive to renovate and redesign 524 Fort Washington’s main sanctuary and ballroom.

                      

Views of the FTJC windows, in situ at 524 Fort Washington Avenue

 

In 1960, the new FTJC interior was unveiled, with a centerpiece of the redesign two, 500-square-foot sanctuary stained glass window programs commissioned from the artist Juliene Berk.

Photo of Juliene Berk in FTJC's sanctuary, in front of her panels, sometime close to the 1960 renovation. Image courtesy of Juliene Berk.

Berk, a female, Jewish stained glass artist working in what was then a male-dominated field, won the FTJC commission by chance.

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		                                    Trees and Flowers		                                </span>
		                                		                                
		                                		                            	                            	
		                            <span class="slider_description">Example of Juliene Berk's early stained glass. Image courtesy of artist.</span>
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		                                    Detail of Flowers		                                </span>
		                                		                                
		                                		                            	                            	
		                            <span class="slider_description">Example of Juliene Berk's early stained glass. Image courtesy of artist.</span>
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		                                    Bird Stained Glass		                                </span>
		                                		                                
		                                		                            	                            	
		                            <span class="slider_description">Example of Juliene Berk's early stained glass. Image courtesy of artist.</span>
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		                                    Detail of Stained Glass		                                </span>
		                                		                                
		                                		                            	                            	
		                            <span class="slider_description">Example of Juliene Berk's early stained glass. Image courtesy of artist.</span>
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		                                    Tower and Sky		                                </span>
		                                		                                
		                                		                            	                            	
		                            <span class="slider_description">Example of Juliene Berk's early stained glass. Image courtesy of artist.</span>
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		                                    Detail of Tower and Clouds		                                </span>
		                                		                                
		                                		                            	                            	
		                            <span class="slider_description">Example of Juliene Berk's early stained glass. Image courtesy of artist.</span>
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		                                    Detail of Tower		                                </span>
		                                		                                
		                                		                            	                            	
		                            <span class="slider_description">Example of Juliene Berk's early stained glass. Image courtesy of artist.</span>

 

Examples of Juliene Berk's early stained glass, n.d.

At the time, Berk had been dropping in to architects’ offices with large samples of her stained glass work, hoping her unsolicited visits might someday yield success. One of Berk’s gambles paid off—an architect on the receiving end of Berk’s pitch was responsible for FTJC’s sanctuary and ballroom renovation, and he subsequently recommended her to the community.

For the FTJC windows, Berk was ultimately paid a mere $7 per square foot to design and then fabricate panels spanning the 1000 sq ft. space—a measly sum that she today believes was part of the reason for her hire, citing her inexperience and a cultural reticence to pay a woman artist the rate of a male peer.

Detail of FTJC window featuring text. Photo by Karen Greene.

From 1960 until the building’s closure in 2008, FTJC’s stained glass windows acted as silent witnesses to the Jewish cycle of prayer.

Inspired by a verse from Pslams 104:24, מָֽה־רַבּ֬וּ מַעֲשֶׂ֨יךָ ׀ יְֽהוָ֗ה כֻּ֭לָּם בְּחָכְמָ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ מָלְאָ֥ה הָ֝אָ֗רֶץ קִנְיָנֶֽךָ׃   : “How many are the things You have made, O LORD; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations,” Berk symbolically interpreted the hymn.

Her windows depict Earth’s fundamental elements—land, water, sky—and the day’s progression, with sunrise and moonrise circumscribing life for all of G-d’s creations. Ruby fish swim through a clear, blue sea; birds take flight into soft clouds; and craggy mountains greet the sun while a serene ocean and seashore await the glow of the moon, appearing just over the horizon. Transcribed in golden glass, the words of the psalm traverse the undulating dark blue band that divides the panels’ sky.

These windows’ immersive beauty served to remind worshippers of the divine presence that accompanies not only singular moments of life-changing joy or sorrow, but also that which attends all lived experience.

 

The choice of Psalm 104:24 was made in collaboration with FTJC’s then-rabbi, Rabbi Jacob Goldberg.

According to current and former congregants, Rabbi Goldberg subsequently loved incorporating Berk’s work into his Rosh Chodesh services. Gesturing to the windows during liturgy, Rabbi Goldberg would note that the imagery of mountains, sea, and sky in the Borchi Nafshi prayer, recited on the celebration of the new moon and new Jewish month, was represented within Berk’s design.

Photo by Josh Greenfield

However, the story of FTJC’s beloved windows represents more than just a community’s newfound post-War vibrancy, and more than merely how a beautiful work of art came to be. The windows are, in fact, striking exemplars of the global modernization of stained glass production in mid-century. In the wake of two World Wars, European houses of worship were keen to start afresh, rebuild, and serve the needs of a populace longing for solace. As a consequence, there was a renewed mid-century fervor for stained glass production, a medium historically used in Christian churches or cathedrals as a surrogate for divine light. In France, birthplace of the Gothic cathedral, both the church and the French state joined together to support new, modernized stained glass programs for sacred interiors designed by artists of “genius.”

In the decade following World War II, pre-War avant-garde luminaries like Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, Jacques Lipchitz, Marc Chagall, and Germaine Richier were each called upon to fabricate stained glass programs for sacred interiors, with varying degrees of success and with varying degrees of public and clerical outcry.

Photo by Josh Greenfield

Synagogue stained glass design in America and abroad held a particular charge in this mid-century stained glass revival, as stained class adornment for Jewish spaces of prayer aspired to revive and rebuild far more than a structural interior. Mid-century synagogue stained glass, including Juliene Berk’s work on the FTJC windows, added to modernized technique and refreshed design the emotional gravity of symbolically and literally rebuilding a community after the Holocaust.

Detail of FTJC windows, c. 1960. Photograph courtesy of Juliene Berk.

 

Berk fabricated the FTJC windows in her downtown studio, which were then brought uptown to Washington Heights where an engineer facilitated their installation. However, the installation process was not without complications.

As the windows were being mounted, Berk received a call from a panic-stricken Rabbi Goldberg who was very concerned about one addition to Berk’s sea scene: a lobster. “Juliene,” he said, “you got a lobster in one of the windows…it’s treif!”

Berk ultimately chiseled out the lobster and replaced it with a whale.

Over the decades, Berk’s FTJC windows’ display shifted in tandem with neighborhood changes. Out of concern for vandalism, FTJC’s exterior windows were painted black, necessitating the installation of a special lighting system to maintain the windows’ illumination. Later, when that lighting failed, the FTJC caretaker removed the black paint from the exterior windows, ensuring that natural light could once again enliven Berk’s creations.

Today, FTJC’s windows are safely in storage, awaiting their return to the community in what will eventually be the synagogue’s new home.

 

 

 

The windows in situ at 524 Fort Washington, prior to their removal and storage in 2021. Photos by Josh Greenfield.

Learn More: Juliene Berk, A Mid-Century Artist

Juliene Berk: Brief Biography

Juliene Berk: A Unique Stained Glass Technique

References

Research, writing, and digital exhibition design by Elizabeth Berkowitz, MA, PhD

Advertisement for Juliene Berk’s Studio. December 1971. Interior Design Magazine.

Amsellem, Guy. 2015. On the Spiritual in Art and in Stained Glass in Particular. In Chagall, Soulages, Benzaken…Le Vitrail Contemporain. Edited by Vèronizuqe David and Laurence de Finance. Paris: LIENART éditions, pp. 9-11.

Berk, Juliene. 2007. Call Her Blessed. Published by author.

Berk, Juliene. Interview by Berkowitz, Elizabeth. Oral History. New York, New York. April 27, 2019. 

Berk, Juliene. Interview by Berkowitz, Elizabeth. Telephone Call. New York, New York. August 31, 2019.

Blanchet, Christine. 2015. Betting on Genius: The Church, State, and Aritsts Face the Challenges of Commissioning Stained-Glass Windows. In Chagall, Soulages, Benzaken…Le Vitrail Contemporain. Edited by Vèronizuqe David and Laurence de Finance. Paris: LIENART éditions, pp. 23-29.

The Inquisitive Craftsman. December 1971. Interiors.

Leymarie, Jean. 1967. Marc Chagall: The Jerusalem Windows. New York: George Braziller.

Murad, Jack. Email to Berkowitz, Elizabeth. Email. May 23, 2019.

New Art in Listed Historic Monuments: Metz and its Imapct. 2015. In Chagall, Soulages, Benzaken…Le Vitrail Contemporain. Edited by Vèronizuqe David and Laurence de Finance. Paris: LIENART éditions, pp. 94.             

Reyntiens, Patrick. 1967. The Technique of Stained Glass. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.

Saint-Martin, Isabelle. 2015. The Church and Stained Glass: Contemporary Art and Spirtualty. In Chagall, Soulages, Benzaken…Le Vitrail Contemporain. Edited by Vèronizuqe David and Laurence de Finance. Paris: LIENART éditions, pp. 31-37.

Thu, December 2 2021 28 Kislev 5782