The Synagogue at 16 Ateities Street
The former synagogue of Čekiškė, now abandoned and in deteriorated condition, is remarkable as the best-preserved example of painted Ark and synagogue wall decoration in Lithuania today. Certainly there were many more instances, but they have been destroyed. Is it just coincidence that the one synagogue where painted decoration survives is in the town from which most Burlington Jews emigrated?
It is not known if this synagogue influenced Burlington Jews, since it was built after a fire in 1887, but probably before 1900, and so it is contemporary with the erection of Ohavi Zedek (1884) and Chai Adam (1887) in Burlington. Still, since the decoration of Chai Adam was not carried out until 1910, it is possible that some Burlington Jews were aware of the paintings in the Čekiškė synagogue either personally or from correspondence. It is highly unlikely that painter Ben Zion Black would have known this synagogue, since he came from the bigger city of Kovno.
The synagogue has been very well documented and described by the Center for Jewish Art researchers. The following information about the building and its history is mostly adapted from the description in Synagogues in Lithuania.
The brick gable roof rectangular synagogue was located in the western part of the town, behind the square, near the Lašiša rivulet. Today, the building is approached from Ateities Street. The area was once densely built with houses mostly owned by Jews, but these have been demolished. The synagogue’s exterior is intact, including the asymmetrical main entrance on the south facade, divided into three bays.
Inside, remnants of the original paint are preserved on the walls. The most notable feature is the Neo-Baroque Torah ark on the eastern wall, made of plastered and painted brick. It is partially preserved. The columns and pilasters are painted in light green and the capitals are cast in the form of shells, and painted blue and yellow with a row of small shells in red and white. The Ark decoration includes inscriptions and symbols, especially representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel. One can still make out where there was once a crown (Keter Torah, the Crown of Torah) at the top center of the Ark, and also an inserted Decalogue (Ten Commandments), which could have been glass allowing morning light to shine through. Both these common but extremely important elements – crown and tablets – appear in the Burlington mural.
From Synagogues in Lithuania, Vol 1, pp. 128-131:
“The Torah niche is spanned with a sinuous-shaped pediment. There is a Hebrew inscription in a field above the niche and beneath the pediment: ויהי בנסע הארן (“Whenever the ark set out,” Num. 10:35, the opening phrase of the prayer said when the Torah scrolls are taken from the ark to the bimah). Flowers flanked by two pigeons are painted on the pediment above the niche.”
“The frieze bears depictions of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. They are grouped according to their mothers (the children of Leah on the right, southern side, the children of Bilhah, Zilpah, and Rachel on the left, northern side) and placed in order of seniority. The tribe of Joseph is represented by his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and Reuben is represented twice, thus expanding the number of images to fourteen. The depictions on the southern part of the frieze include, from right to left: a stream for Reuben (Gen. 49:4), a sword with the town gate of Shechem for Simeon (Gen. 34:25, 49:5-6), a mandrake for Reuben again (Gen. 30:14-17), a harp for Levi (I Chron. 15:16; II Chron. 5:12), a lion for Judah (Gen. 49:9), a donkey for Issachar (Gen. 49:14), and a ship for Zebulun (Gen. 43:13). On the northern part there are, from right to left: a serpent for Dan (Gen. 49:17), a deer (hind) for Naphtali (Gen. 49:21), a banner for Gad (symbolizing troops or a camp, Gen. 49:19), an olive branch (badly preserved) for Asher (Deut. 33:24), a flower for Ephraim (Is. 28:1), a bull for Manasseh (Deut. 33:17), and a wolf for Benjamin (Gen. 49:27). The parts of the frieze adjacent to the pediment and to the walls are covered with simple plants. In general, the depiction of the Tribes of Israel is a late phenomenon, which appears only at the last years of the 19th and early 20th century.”
“The upper tier of the Torah ark includes six pilasters. Four of them have a figured face, decorated with a flower rosette and a vertical panel above it. The central field of this tier contains a twin arch, apparently designated for the Tablets of the Law. Most likely, glass tablets were inserted there. Thus, the light shining through the window behind the Torah ark would illuminate the tablets as if visually referring to “the commandment is a lamp, and the law is light” (Prov. 6:23). Vestiges of a plaster Crown of Torah flanked by painted plants are discernible above the niche. The side bays of the upper tier are pierced with oculi, which would presumably have originally borne glass bearing inscriptions too. Vases with flowers are painted under the oculi. The molded cornice above the pilasters is surmounted by two volutes abutting to the ceiling. This tier of the Torah ark is flanked by two eagles painted on the wall.”
“A row of semicircular arches with Stars of David inside is painted on both sides of the eastern wall under the ceiling. A painted inscription ממזרח שמש עד מבואו (“From the rising of the sun to its setting”) runs between the arches and windows to the south from the Torah ark, and its continuation מהלל שם ה׳ (“the name of the Lord is to be praised,” Ps. 113:3) runs to its north.”
“Columns are painted between the windows. Some effaced fragments of similar paintings – columns, arches, and Stars of David – are still visible on the southern and northern walls of the prayer hall. Remnants of painted decorations are visible also on the walls of the women’s section.”
After World War II, when no Jews survived in the town, the building was used as granary. Today, the building is empty.
In 2010, the former synagogue was listed as a regional monument of cultural heritage. There has been some discussion concerning restoration.
Cohen-Mushlin, Aliza; Kravtsov, Sergey; Levin, Vladimir; Mickūnaitė, Giedrė; and Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė. Synagogues in Lithuania: A Catalogue, 2 vols. (Vilnius: Vilnius Academy of Arts Press, 2010/2012), 123-131