A significant feature of the Burlington mural is how visible it was for the women and children of Congregation Chai Adam. They could see and enjoy the work from their seats in the galleries attached to the sides of the long and relatively narrow sanctuary. The mural was designed for all the congregation.
Mark and Harriet Colodny Rosenthal were filmed visiting the mural for the Vermont Public Television documentary Little Jerusalem. Mark remembers “that the ceiling was blue and there were violins painted, and trumpets, the cherubs, it was light blue ceiling …” Harriet, granddaughter of Lewis Colodny, recalls attending the synagogue as a young child in the 1930s: “Well, my grandfather used to sit on the left, and I used to look down when I was sitting with my grandmother, my mother, my aunts …” [the paintings were] like magic, it was just like magic …when I was sitting back there, and looking up at the blue sky, that’s the only time I sat quietly in the synagogue.”
(if you or family members have memories of Burlington’s shuls before them merged in the 1930s, please let us know!)
At Chai Adam, the women and younger children sat at the level just below the apse mural – the panels that span about 20 feet and survive today – now moved to their new home at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. The men, from their benches, and the bimah and the ark, could look up to the depictions of the Tablets of the Law supported by the Lions of Judah – when they were not following their prayerbooks. But the women could look directly at the mural. Their gaze could pass through the painted curtains into the idyllic landscape beyond.
Like many Eastern European immigrant Orthodox synagogues, the sanctuary of Chai Adam was a relatively long and narrow box-like space, where the men worshiped on the ground floor with women relegated to balconies which ran on each side of the space for most of its length. The narrowness of the room and the relatively width of the balconies meant the space in between was limited.
Women could easily look across the space to other women, but it was difficult to look down and see what was happening below. One had to have a railing seat to have any chance of visually following the men’s service, or watching a husband. The balcony arrangement at the original Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, now Ahavath Gerim, has the same arrangement, but the overall width of the sanctuary is greater, so the open space between balconies was more. It was still not easy for women to see what was going on below, but it was possible.
At Chai Adam, however, and at similar shuls around the country where congregations built tall arks, or painted a mural, the women had something to look at straight ahead. They had an oblique view of the ark, but they had a direct, and from some a close-up, view of Ben Zion’s brilliantly colored mural in the apse above the ark. The ceiling, too, which was very close to their heads, was also painted. Not surprisingly, it seems that women have more memories of these painting than men – especially as youngster – they would have paid more attention.
As Harriet Colodny Rosenthal gasped when seeing the mural for the first time: “Oh my , oh my, look at that, isn’t that something, to believe that this is still in existence after all these years …”
In 1990, the late Rabbi Herman Eliot Snyder reminisced about the place of women in the immigrant shuls of his youth, and described the women’s balcony at a shul in New Bedford, MA.: “The women occupied its balcony, which was of an unusual design. This balcony stretched more than half-way across the floor below. That made it almost impossible for anyone on the balcony to see anything on the floor below, or for anyone below to catch a glimpse of anyone on the balcony. Those on the balcony could see the ark, and could hear the conduct of the service.”
At Chai Adam, even if the design of the space and the tradition of the liturgy separated women from the service, at least the mural allowed them a vivid sense of the importance – and perhaps essence – of Torah. More than anything, the mural embodies the concept of Hiddur Mitzvah, the “glorification” of the mitzvot, or commandments.