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Yeshiva College and the pursuit of a Jewish architecture.

In the 1920's, New York City saw the culmination of a great Jewish building boom. Between the end of the Great War and the onset of the Great Depression, elaborate and impressive synagogues, temples, and educational institutions were built by the entire range of the city's prominent Jewish factions. The members of the oldest Reform congregation in Manhattan, Temple Emanu-El, raised a colossal Romanesque house of worship on Fifth Avenue in 1929. (1) The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA), which would serve as the flagship institution for Conservative Judaism, opened the doors to its grand Georgian Morningside Heights building in 1930. (2) And while these two institutions decided upon established aesthetic styles for their buildings, the fledgling Orthodox Yeshiva College chose a striking and innovative combination of traditional and modern styles for the first structure of its Washington Heights campus in 1928. (3) As is apparent from promotional documents aimed at potential donors, public statements from the schools founders, and comparisons with other buildings constructed by the school's architects, the appearance of the Yeshiva College campus served as a physical embodiment of the school's mission. At a time when American Jews struggled to find an appropriate and fitting architectural aesthetic for their various structures, Yeshiva's founders chose to erect an edifice that boldly proclaimed pride in their ideology of teaching secular and sacred Jewish studies under one roof. In the battle to retain a strong modern Orthodox population, the founders of Yeshiva sought to impress American Jewry with a grand and original Jewish aesthetic that simultaneously emphasized their commitment to Jewish tradition and progress.

The Origins of Yeshiva College

Yeshiva sprang from the combination of two of the earliest Orthodox educational institutions in America: Etz Chaim and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). (4) Founded by Eastern European immigrants on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1886, Etz Chaim served as the first full-time Jewish school in the country. The students spent the bulk of their day in traditional study of the Talmud and Jewish law. In the late afternoons, the school administration hesitantly sanctioned the teaching of state-mandated secular courses, but Jonathan D. Sarna points out that Etz Chaim "resisted modernity as much as possible." (5) A decade after Etz Chaim entered the scene, the Orthodox eastern European Jews of the Lower East Side founded RIETS, America's first yeshiva (institute for the advanced study of Talmud), where high school graduates could continue their traditional Jewish studies.

Many of the students at RIETS desired pastoral training and secular studies as supplements to their Talmudic learning, but the yeshiva's higher-ups frowned upon such pursuits. The restrictive atmosphere caused some of the students to transfer to JTS, especially after noted Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter took control of the Seminary in 1902. While the Seminary could not boast a strength in traditional Talmud study as RIETS could, it offered the combination of rabbinical training and academic Jewish studies that many found attractive. (6)

While the students and administration clashed over the nature of the education at RIETS, the Orthodox community felt overburdened by its support of two educational institutions. In 1915, Etz Chaim and RIETS merged under the new umbrella organization known as the Rabbinical College of America and thus streamlining their expenses. Both schools retained their original names and purposes, but shared expenses while the high school served as a feeder of students and funds for the rabbinic ordination program of RIETS. (7) Prominent New York builder Harry Fischel, the new vice president of the institution, chaired the building committee for the Rabbinical College's new home at 9-11 Montgomery Street on the Lower East Side.

Fischel, who possessed a strong interest in architecture, had struck it rich as an investor in real estate. (8) Just a few years prior to his involvement in RIETS, he held the presidency of the Uptown Talmud Torah, a modernized Orthodox supplementary school. Fischel's push for modernization, such as placing a piano in the Talmud Torah's sanctuary and showing motion pictures at the school, worried the board of the institution, who voted no confidence in his leadership in 1914. (9) Fischel took charge of the board of RIETS only months later and began the planning for its new building.

Completed on December 315, 1915, the Montgomery Street building possessed a humble and unassuming brick facade. A sign over the front lintel reading "Rabbinical College," served as the only indicator that the building did not house apartments. (10) At the building's dedication ceremony, Fischel addressed the crowd concerning the new home for RIETS and Etz Chaim. "This building which we are dedicating today is simple in design, yet beautiful in construction," he explained. "Our Building Committee took special pains in providing this building with the most modern improvements, so that it is strictly fireproof, has plenty of air and light, and contains all the latest sanitary devices." (11) Despite Fischel's apparent pride in the way the building turned out, from an aesthetic standpoint its appearance was not much to brag about. For Fischel, the appeal of the building rested in its functionality and the modern conveniences it offered, which had not been present in earlier school structures. Though he called it beautiful, the new home of RIETS had little stylistic significance.

Aside from its new home, the Rabbinical College of America also boasted a new president, thirty year-old Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel. In 1906, Revel immigrated to America from Kovno, Lithuania. Considered an illui (Talmudic prodigy) by his European peers, Revel had studied with prominent rabbis in his homeland. After landing in America, he briefly studied at RIETS and then went on to earn an M.A. from New York University, where he wrote about the philosophy of the early medieval rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, and a Ph.D. from Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning in Philadelphia, where his dissertation compared the halakhic systems of the Karaites, the Sadducees, and Philo. (12)

When Revel ascended to the presidency of the Rabbinical College of America, it became clear that his sympathies rested with the students and Fischel in their support of secular studies. Shortly after taking the helm of the school, he added new, less traditional faces to the faculty and incorporated non-Talmudic studies into the curriculum. He hired archaeologist Nahum Slouschz, a Ph.D. in Neo-Hebraic literature from the Sorbonne, and Rabbi Dr. Solomon Zeitlin to teach Jewish history. The work of both Slouschz and Zeitlin embraced the approach of Wissenschaft des Judentums, the movement initiated by modernizing German Jewish scholars of the nineteenth century who advocated the academic study of Judaism. (13) Their addition to the faculty invited controversy, since many Orthodox Jews considered this movement heretical. (14)

An encounter between Revel and Zeitlin illustrates the American Orthodox view of Wissenschaft in the late 1910s. In a memorial essay to Revel, Zeitlin reminisced about their first meeting, when Revel offered him a job at the Rabbinical College. "Dr. Revel spoke enthusiastically about his plan to modernize the Yeshiva and to make it a center of Torah and Jewish scholarship--the synthesis of Torah and hokhmah (secular studies)," Zeitlin related. Zeitlin was not convinced, however, that Revel would succeed in this vision. "I recognized the difficulties with which he would be confronted, as many extremists would oppose him and set obstacles in the path of his venture." Thus, despite the optimistic vision presented by Revel in offering him the job, Zeitlin felt compelled to lay out his terms clearly. "I told him that while I would be very happy to accept his offer, I would not give up critical research of the Talmud and Jewish history in accord with the method I propounded in the articles I had already published," he recalled. "I warned him that my articles might cause him some embarrassment from the extremists but he encouraged me to continue my research, to seek the historical truth as I saw it." Zeitlin noted that, with one exception, "the rabbinic members of the faculty scorned the Jewish studies-for only Talmud was to be the repast of the students. Even among the Board of the Trustees there was opposition." (15)

Though he strongly encouraged changes in RIETS, Revel came to realize that the yeshiva required more than just a new building and curriculum to strengthen American Orthodoxy. He also produced two bolder proposals, one of which failed and one of which succeeded. The one that was never fully realized was a "Society for Jewish Academicians," which Revel envisioned as a society of Orthodox scholars engaged, under his leadership, in the academic study of Jewish subjects. (16) According to its constitution, the society's purpose was
   to further the ideals of traditional Judaism; to promote, encourage
   and advance constructive Jewish scholarship; to study current
   questions and problems from the point of view of traditional
   Judaism; to elucidate the truths and principles of Judaism in the
   light of modern thought; to determine the place of Judaism in human
   progress; and apply the methods and results of modern science
   towards the solution of ritual problems. (17)


In essence, Revel hoped to amass a council of highly educated Orthodox Jews intent on employing modern ideas and theories to advance and improve the practice of traditional Judaism in America. When the society began to sponsor lectures in 1916, however, prominent members of the academic Jewish studies field who were invited to join ridiculed Revel's demands that members subscribe to the tenets of Orthodox Judaism. (18) In 1920, some of these critics formed their own "Association of Jewish Scholars in America," an organization mirroring the academic focus of Revel's society but without the religious framework. The members of this rival group, many of whom taught at JTS, did not invite Revel to join. (19)

The failure of the stillborn Society for Jewish Academicians did nothing to discourage Revel from his second ambitious project: a yeshiva-college. Etz Chaim, now the high school division of the Rabbinical College of America, had initially been conceived as a feeder for its full-time yeshiva, RIETS, but in practice many of the high school graduates would exit Etz Chaim in favor of matriculation at a secular college, often the City College of New York, at the expense of their traditional Jewish studies. Revel soon realized that securing the highest caliber students for RIETS would necessitate the offering of a college education at the yeshiva that would provide, in his words, "a general academic training ... so that they may harmoniously combine the best of modern culture with the learning and spirit of the Torah and the ideals of traditional Judaism. (20) Thus, in 1923, Revel and his board set in motion the transformation of the Rabbinical College of America into Yeshiva College, an innovative institution suitable for both true yeshiva study through RIETS and legitimate academic pursuits through the new college. A project as unique as Yeshiva College, however, required a campus of far grander proportions than its current Lower East Side abode. (21)

The Campus in Context

On September 23, 1924, Yeshiva's building committee purchased two city blocks in Washington Heights, a site that would expand in the following months. (22) The Jewish Palestinian architect, Joshua Tabatchnik, drew up a plan for a campus on the upper Manhattan site and produced renderings of five buildings. Key members of the building committee for the new institution placed a special significance on the architecture of the campus and Harry Fischel, the chair of the building committee, worked closely with the architect. The minutes of the September 16, 1924, meeting of the committee relate that Fischel, "had spent with this young architect many days and nights and had worked out with him the general scheme for the three main buildings." (23) Judging from the long hours Fischel spent with Tabatchnik, it seems clear that the style of the new Yeshiva College campus held great significance for the building committee chair.

The available building committee minutes and other archival material do not contain much information on the short lived Tabatchnik plan, but the architect's biography provides some insight into why he was chosen. Prior to his Yeshiva commission, Tabatchnik designed a building on Tel Aviv's Nahalat Benyamin Street known as the Palm House, which reflected the feel of the new modern Jewish city. Built in an artnouveau aesthetic, the Palm House also incorporated Jewish symbols, like menorahs and Stars of David, into its design, fusing modernist and traditional Jewish motifs. (24) Fischel, who had traveled to Palestine in 1921 and 1923. may have come across the work of Tabatchnik and thought his aesthetic could work for the new Yeshiva campus. Fischel's background in building made him apt to appreciate the stylistic nuances employed by Tabatchnik.

The sketches for Tabatchnik's campus consisted of buildings that also employed this stylistic fusion, but in a different capacity. Two buildings, the library (see Figure 1) and the dormitory, would have been on the western side of Amsterdam Avenue and three other buildings, the college, yeshiva, and high school (see Figure 2), on the eastern side. The design of the campus combined two different architectural styles commonly found in Palestine at that time. The dormitory, high school, and college buildings, with their limited ornamentation and smooth white walls on the upper stories, reflected the early modern style that gained popularity in Palestine at the turn of the twentieth century. The Technion in Haifa, the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium in Tel Aviv, and--of course--the Palm House bear some stylistic resemblance to these three buildings in the proposed plans. The library and the yeshiva building, which Tabatchnik planned to face each other across Amsterdam Avenue, were to resemble older, famous buildings found in the Holy Land at that time, notably the two prominent synagogues in the old city of Jerusalem. With its squat, shallow domed roof and its neo-Byzantine style, the library plan echoed the design of the Hurva Synagogue, while the sketch of the multileveled yeshiva building, with its smaller central dome, paralleled in many ways the contours of the Tiferet Israel Synagogue. These drafts imply that Tabatchnik, with the possible input of Fischel, foresaw a campus combining two distinct architectural genres from Palestine: the modern, secular style of the high school, college, and dormitory buildings, and the historical Jewish style of the yeshiva and library buildings.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

For reasons not expressed in the available minutes of the building committee, by the beginning of January 1925--a mere three months after Tabatchnik submitted his sketches--new architects were sought to plan the campus. (25) On January 20, three candidates with New York building experience, Oscar Lowenson, Henry B. Herts, and Charles B. Meyers, appeared before the committee. They described their past projects and explained how they would approach designing Yeshiva's new campus. (26) Six year earlier, Herts completed the new home for the Conservative synagogue B'nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, and Meyers had just finished his building for the Orthodox Ohab Zedek (see Figure 3). Meyers would also take on a commission for the Reform Rodeph Sholom (see Figure 4) and complete it about the same time as the Yeshiva project.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

On January 27, the committee decided that Meyers would lead the project and Herts would serve as consulting architect. The committee wanted Herts on board as he was "a specialist in Jewish architecture ... who is thoroughly familiar with the layout of grounds." (27) This mention of "Jewish architecture" is the only time in the surviving minutes that the committee references the style they desired for the campus. But all their choices of architects--Tabatchnik, Herts, and Meyers--imply that they wanted the campus designed by someone with experience in the creation of Jewish structures. As American Jews, however, Herts and Meyers would also bring a distinctly American sensibility to the project.

Zysman Hall

Though they sketched an entire campus for Yeshiva College, only one building of the Hefts and Meyers plan ever reached completion as the Great Depression quickly caused many donors to renege on their pledges. Now known as Zysman Hall, the building complex takes up the whole block on the western side of Amsterdam Avenue between 186th and 187th Streets. Consisting of a dormitory, large auditorium, classrooms, and offices, the building--intended only for Yeshiva's high school--accommodated the entire college until the completion of a new school building in the early 1960s. While architecturally impressive on its own, it is important to remember that Zysman Hall was originally envisioned as but one piece of a greater whole.

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

No detailed plans of the unbuilt campus have been located, yet the many published sketches used in fundraising literature can offer a sense of it. (28) These renderings from the architects exhibit a central quadrangle with buildings around its eastern, northern, and western perimeter and an arcaded gate on the southern entrance (see Figure 5). The quad would have stood between 186th and 188th Streets with Amsterdam Avenue on its western border. Mimicking the design of Columbia University seventy blocks to the south, a central domed library was envisioned as the focal point of the campus. Unlike the Ivy League school, however, a large minaret tower was planned to soar over the shallow domed library, giving it the appearance of a mosque. Other features of the campus plan included sculptured lawns, fountains, and arcaded walkways (see Figure 6). It seems likely that the art deco design elements of Zysman Hall would have been repeated on the other buildings as a way of creating a unifying style for the campus, but the surviving documents are silent on this point.

[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 5 OMITTED]

Three parts of Zysman Hall deserve special attention: the facade, the vestibule, and the auditorium. Running along Amsterdam Avenue, the building has three divisions: a southern wing of four floors with a conical tower at the south-western corner, a protruding central entrance way with a domed tower roughly the same height as the south wing, and a four-story north wing topped by a much larger domed tower with a minaret ascending from its northern quadrant. Festooned with trimmings typical of the Moorish Revival style, such as domes, turrets, horseshoe arches, geometric arabesques, and muqarnas (corbels bunched together in geometric patterns), the facade gives Zysman Hall a sense of exoticness (see Figure 7). (29) But in addition to these Middle Eastern features, the building's exterior also boasts a more subdued art deco approach, as seen by the colorful terra cotta panels, the bronze doors decorated with electric pulses, the zig-zag pattern on the central tower, and the descending window arcade over the main entrance, topped off with its own electric pulse design.

[FIGURE 6 OMITTED]

While the Moorish Revival style dominates the exterior, art deco reigns inside the vestibule, with its elaborate geometric light fixtures and metal radiator grills. Beneath the main doors, a bronze Zodiac wheel with a central compass appears on the floor, resembling the Zodiac carpet mosaics of ancient synagogues in Palestine, discovered only a few years earlier. This design belongs to the Moorish vocabulary instead of the modern art deco as it references an ancient Jewish motif. It also serves as a physical symbol of Yeshiva's commitment to a more academic study of Judaism since modern archeological methods were employed to uncover the ancient Zodiac mosaic referenced in the vestibule. To make matters more intriguing, the Zodiac mosaic discovered at Bet Alpha in Palestine was discovered in an excavation led by Yeshiva's former Jewish history professor, Nahum Slouchz. (30)

[FIGURE 7 OMITTED]

The auditorium is the space within Zysman Hall that most prominently exhibits the modern style. Sporting chandeliers of sharp mirror wedges, a clock with no numbers centered on a cantilevered balcony, an inner dome surrounded by zigzagging lines, and modern-styled geometric columns flanking the stage, the large room screams with an art deco energy. Taken together, these three parts of Zysman Hall exhibit its eclectic nature.

Following its dedication, Zysman Hall gained immediate recognition as an impressive structure, with its synthesis of older and modern styles receiving special notice. Kenneth Murchison reported on it in his column in The Architect shortly after the building's completion. He described "[a]n edifice with bizarre, sharp-pointed little towers and mosque-like domes, with facades strikingly decorated in a manner that may be called modernistic (though these are elements of pattern that would seem to merit still a newer name)." He then went on to sing the praises of Hefts, whom he says "delved into ancient tomes and rusty histories to get his inspiration for the general design of this unique structure [and] then ... tapered it off with a few modern do-doos." (31)

While no longer popular today, the Moorish Revival architectural style was commonly used from the 1830s through the early twentieth century among Jews in Western and Central Europe for synagogue design. Moorish Revival structures often employed bright colors, arabesque designs, and features such as muqarnas, scalloped arches with horseshoe peaks, minarets, and domes. The style certainly stood out in Baroque, Romanesque, and Gothic Europe, making it desirable for newly emancipated Jews anxious both to make their mark on the landscape of the non-Jewish world and to express their ethnic identities. Architects viewed the Middle Eastern style as fitting for the Jews' "oriental" origins. Nineteenth century intellectuals viewed the Middle East as static and unchanging, imagining that the contemporary styles found in that region also existed when Jews lived there two millennia earlier. Though more a fanciful hybrid of architectural styles than an accurate representation of Middle Eastern architecture, the Moorish Revival style was thought by Jews at this time to embody an early Jewish aesthetic tradition. (32)

In contrast to the historicism of the Moorish Revival style, art deco was forward-looking and modernistic. Recognizable for its use of metal, terra cotta, mosaic, bright colors, sleek lines, and sharp angles, art deco symbolized the glories of human progress in the modern industrial age. From the mid-1920s through the 1940s, some of the most recognizable buildings in New York City were built with art deco motifs, such as the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the RCA-Victor Building, and Rockefeller Center. Art deco proved easily adaptable to specific motifs, allowing RCA-Victor, for example, to incorporate waves of electricity and radio dials into the accents of its building, while Chrysler peppered the facade of its structure with elements suggesting hub caps and hood ornaments.

Art deco also became popular with second-generation Jews who settled on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx in the late 1920s and 1930s. Deborah Dash Moore explains that "the art deco styling appealed to 'new money'--those more conscious of being fashionable and up to date," who were expressing a desire to break from the immigrant atmosphere of their former surroundings on the Lower East Side." Yeshiva followed a similar trajectory as it also moved from the Lower East Side to create for itself a new art deco home. By combining Moorish Revival and art deco styles, Herts and Meyers created an aesthetic that acknowledged both the Jewish and modern sensibilities of Yeshiva.

The mixing of Moorish Revival and art deco styles in Zysman Hall is especially notable when one considers that none of the architects' other Jewish commissions--Herts' B'nai Jeshurun and Meyers'Ohab Zedek and Rodeph Sholom, all of which were built before or during the construction of Zysman Hall-employed this combination. Zysman Hall does share some structural segments with these synagogues, such as, the arched articulated molding around the entrance. In addition, the auditorium of Zysman Hall and the sanctuary of B'nai Jeshurun both have central domes supported by pilasters, a design that also resembles that of the auditorium and main sanctuary of Rodeph Sholom, which gains natural lighting from parallel sets of three ceiling-to-wall arched windows with yellow and orange glass panes. Still, if stripped of all their ornamentation, the Herts and Meyers commissions would look similar, while the decor of Zysman Hall gives it a flamboyance lacking in the other buildings. Where B'nai Jeshurun's internal dome dazzled (before it collapsed in the early 1990s) with Moorish muqarnas, Zysman Hall's possess art deco vibrating lines. And where Rodeph Sholom's windows resemble a Romanesque church with their regular arched tops, Zysman Hall's windows are capped with Moorish horseshoe arches. Most notably, a terrazzo compass on the floor of Rodeph Sholom greets the visitors in its vestibule, but unlike Zysman Hall, no zodiac encircles it. Since this motif does not appear in their other Jewish structures, I extrapolate that the architects viewed this deviation as bearing specific significance for Yeshiva.

While the synagogues of Herts and Meyers sport grand facades, none pushed the stylistic envelope. With its Romanesque facade of grey stone, Rodeph Sholom looks like a younger sibling to the colossal Temple Emanu-El, while B'nai Jeshurun and Ohab Zedek both resemble earlier Jewish buildings of the Moorish and Byzantine variety. As opposed to those of its cousins, the exterior of Zysman Hall stands out as something unique, with its colors, turrets, elaborate geometric designs and domes. Similarly, the interiors of the B'nai Jeshurun and Ohab Zedek only have accents of modern touches, and though Rodeph Sholom, with its elaborate radiator grills, has a slightly more modern feel, none of the interiors of these structures comes close to the modern art deco style of Zysman Hall with its pervasive flare. In short, both the interior and the exterior of Zysman Hall incorporate more extreme versions of the available styles than do those of its cousins.

The building committee wanted Zysman Hall to look different from its related Jewish structures, as the building committee intended on using Yeshiva's campus as an archetype for creating a new Jewish architectural style. As one promotional pamphlet for the project explained,
   The Yeshiva College, as visioned and designed by the builders of
   tomorrow, will be a distinct contribution to the architecture of
   America and constitute a departure in the mode of construction of
   American Jewish buildings. In planning the material expression for
   the idea of the Yeshiva College of America, its builders had no
   precedent to follow. In fact, the impelling command was away from
   precedent. (34)


The building committee felt great pride that their physical embodiment of Yeshiva deviated from precedent and created a new style, as did the school's unique educational philosophy.

The architects took up this challenge to find a style to fit Yeshiva. In his interview with Murchison, Herts declared that he found himself "dealing with a persisting spark from the ancient fire that has never gone out, and it seemed to me that here, preeminently, was a call for a distinctive work that should be imbued with a spirit reflecting the ideal for which it stands." (35) Herts also penned an article sent to Jewish periodicals throughout America describing the new and "unique" building. "The uses of material are innovations over abandoned and outgrown precedent and convention," he wrote. "The spirit of the design, the ornamental adornment and the general atmosphere of the edifice gives evidence of a new and an inspiring dictionary of modernistic art." (36) Not only did the architects wish to create a new style that differed from their earlier commissions, but they also wanted to design a campus representing the mission of Yeshiva and serving as a proud symbol for the arrival of a respected Orthodox community in America.

Both Revel and Fischel supported the idea of building a campus that symbolized the mission of the school. "The lofty structure on Amsterdam Avenue, which is to soon house Yeshivath Rabbi Isaac Elchanan," wrote Revel, "is, to my mind ... the outward, material expression of the spiritual edifice that Torah-true American Israel have resolved to erect in their hearts." (37) Similarly, Fischel expressed his hope that the exterior of Zysman Hall would be "unique in character and should reflect the purpose of the institution." In selecting Herts and Meyers, he explained, the building committee "was convinced [that] the combination of their talents would result in buildings that would ... be a credit to the Jewish people who were to give their means for their construction" (38) Both the president of the school and the chair of the building committee placed great weight on the style of the campus as it symbolized the mission of the school and stood to represent the revival of American Orthodoxy.

For the laying of the cornerstone, the building committee published a commemorative journal known fittingly as "The Cornerstone." In it, they wrote:
   A country is judged by its public edifices and to raise the Yeshiva
   College to such a high architectural level of beauty and power of
   expression, is an undertaking that might well tax the foresight and
   knowledge of leaders of men.... As the first group of buildings of
   the Yeshiva College of America is emerging, the character of the
   work accomplished under Mr. Fischel's chairmanship and with the aid
   of the architects, Charles B. Meyers and Henry B. Herts, is
   becoming more and more evident. The public will be able to view and
   appreciate the beauty of the structure which will be a distinct
   contribution to American architecture and a notable departure in
   the construction in Jewish public buildings on this continent....
   For an institution like the Yeshiva College of America something
   more than a useful type of building is to be sought. Something more
   than convenient accommodations must be looked for--it must be a
   building with a soul, a house worthy of the name Yeshiva College of
   America. (39)


In these several sentences, the leaders envisioning growth of Yeshiva express clearly their desire for a building that would serve as a symbol for the school's innovative mission. For this, they needed a new aesthetic and a grand structure to empower the Orthodox community.

Zysman Hall and the Greater American Jewish Architectural Scene

The desire of Yeshiva's leaders to utilize an original Jewish aesthetic for the new campus fit squarely within a larger national conversation among American Jews during the early twentieth century concerning the style of their houses of worship. (40) In an April 1916 forum in the American Hebrew, three prominent architects--two Jews and one non-Jew--offered their perspectives on the question, "Synagogue Architecture: Can a Purely Jewish Style be Developed in the Building of Our Temples?" (41) All three answered the question in the negative, failing to see anything in recent synagogue architecture that could be called "purely Jewish." Chicago architect Alfred Alschuler, who would go on to design the Byzantine-style K.A.M. Temple in his home city in 1924, (42) testified that after surveying photographs from synagogues constructed in the previous twenty years, he concluded that Jews had simply borrowed styles, such as Classical or Moorish, that possessed no intrinsic Jewish significance. (43) Clarence H. Blackall, the senior member of a prominent architectural firm in Boston seconded this sentiment and took it one step further, writing that this lack of Jewish style pleased him. A non-Jew, Blackall explained that he agreed "with the point of view of many Jews who feel that having accepted citizenship in this country, they should avoid differentiating themselves from those around them." (44) Finally, the article closed with the statement of New York architect Albert S. Gottlieb, who, looking to the future of synagogue design, did not expect the development of a unique Jewish architecture. In Gottlieb's view, Jewish houses of worship should limit their distinctive features to a statuette of the Decalogue on their exterior, which would serve as a universal sign of Jewish values. To demonstrate the borrowing of non-Jewish styles the architects described, the American Hebrew included with the article pictures of Temple Israel in Boston, a domed Oriental styled building; B'nai Jeshurun in Newark, another domed but Romanesque structure; and Sinai Temple in Chicago, which has classical overtones. The same point might have been made by considering the architecture of other American synagogues, such as the new Temple Society of Concord in Syracuse, New York, whose exterior was heavily classical; or even the grand Byzantine-style Temple Beth-El in New York City, built in 1891.

Around a decade after the American Hebrew article, the American Jewish Yearbook raised a similar question about the creation of a distinct American Jewish architecture. William G. Tachau penned an article entitled "The Architecture of the Synagogue," in which he delivered a survey of Jewish ceremonial buildings from the tabernacle built by the ancient Israelites in the wilderness, up to the contemporary American scene. He believed that the flood of stylistic revivals in America starting in the nineteenth century inhibited the country from creating its own aesthetic, which also impinged upon American Jews' ability to create one of their own. For Tachau, "the question of style relating to American synagogue construction is inseparable from the general question of a distinctive American style of architecture." Until an original American aesthetic was created, on which Jews could draw to create their own American Jewish version, he argued, Jews would continue to rely on revival styles like classical and Byzantine for their synagogue architecture. (45)

A year before Tachau's article, the Menorah Journal published an essay by the non-Jewish historian, social critic, and commentator on urban architecture, Lewis Mumford, who asked whether the American synagogue should "be in harmony with the buildings around it, or should it stand out and proclaim the cultural individuality of the Jewish community?" (46) In answering this question, Mumford reacted to the critics of the concept of Jewish architecture mentioned above. He noted that for most synagogues "the expression itself will be sacrificed, and its meaning as a Jewish building, as a house of worship and instruction, will scarcely be alluded to by its architectural treatment." Instead of "externalizing the Jewish spirit, the architect too often politely conceals it--as though its exposure was bad form." While Mumford's observation on synagogue architecture appears consistent with the writers from a decade earlier, he believes that things need not persist in this manner. There was no reason, he argued, that contemporary American synagogues "should not echo in architectural treatment the mature and profound conception of the Jewish religion and philosophy." (47)

Mumford suggested that the dome could become the architectural staple to signify synagogues in America. He praised the recently constructed building of Cleveland's Tifereth Israel ("The Temple"), the same city's Euclid Avenue Temple, and San Francisco's Temple Emanu-El as structures that had successfully incorporated the Byzantine-style dome. Mumford believed that by embracing the dome, "a very definite step would be taken towards a coherent architectural style, which would give the stamp of Judaism to a synagog [sic]." (48)

As these articles suggest, when Yeshiva's building committee and architects expressed their desire to create a building representing a new Jewish aesthetic, they were taking a part in a larger dialogue regarding the distinctiveness of Jewish architecture that had emerged among both their American coreligionists and non-Jewish architects that had observed the Jewish scene. The other participants in this dialogue, however, all thought it unwise or impractical to create a Jewish aesthetic, or believed that Jewishness could only be expressed in modest ways by incorporating statues or domes, or by waiting for the emergence of an American architectural aesthetic on which to build. The designers of Yeshiva, however, had far loftier ambitions of looking to the Jewish past and future for the inspiration for a new form of Jewish architecture.

Though Zysman Hall did not end up serving as an exemplar for future Jewish buildings, it is significant that Yeshiva's founders wanted it to. They could have devoted their funds to a purely utilitarian campus as they did for the 1915 building on Montgomery Street, but instead they planned a striking campus that would both stand out amid its surroundings as something distinctively Jewish, but at the same time contain many contemporary elements. Instead of maligning the use of revival styles, the campus embraced one. Zysman Hall contained standard Jewish symbols like the Star of David and emerging ones like the dome. It incorporated a newly discovered ancient Jewish symbol, the carpet zodiac, and put it front and center in the main vestibule, simultaneously showcasing the school's dedication to both Jewish tradition and modern scholarly methods. Finally, it fused these revival styles with contemporary art deco design in ways that suggested a symbiosis of America and Judaism, of modern and traditional.

By combining in one grand campus the energy of the art deco, the flamboyant and colorful aspects of the Moorish, and the nod to modern Jewish scholarly pursuits as seen in the zodiac, the designers of the campus sought to capture the vibrancy and tradition of the unique mission of Yeshiva College. Since the other projects of the architects--and indeed, the other Jewish buildings built in the decades before and after the completion of Zysman Hall--did not possess this unique combination of elements to the same degree as did the Yeshiva campus, it stands to reason that the building committee and architects felt that this combination fit with the unique goals of the school. By stating that this aesthetic should represent the new Jewish style that other Jews were discussing and debating at the time, the founders were boldly insinuating that Yeshiva's religious model possessed a Jewish authenticity lacking in the other streams of Judaism. While the Great Depression and the rising tide of high modernism rendered the Yeshiva aesthetic obsolete before the campus could even be completed, the desire to create a new Jewish aesthetic coupled with a new form of Jewish higher education showcases the ambition and confidence of the Orthodox community in New York during the 1920s.

* The author thanks Curtis Evans, Jeffrey Gurock, Sam Gruber, Jonathan Sarna, and the editors of American Jewish History for their insightful comments on a previous draft of this article. Thanks are also due to Steven Fine, Debra Kaplan, Will Lee, and Shulamith Berger for sparking my interest in Jewish culture and the history of Yeshiva University; Jeremy Stern, Olivia Wiznitzer, Matthew Williams, and Daniel Feldman for assisting me in polishing my arguments and writing; my parents Beverly and Michael Kastner and siblings Jenny, David, and Ayelet for motivating me to complete this project; and my wife Adina who, aside from being an exceptional and brutal copyeditor, showed great patience as I devoted too much of our first year of marriage to this and other academic projects.

(1.) Sara Hart, "Temple Emanu-El: New York City," Architectural Record 195 (Jun. 2007): 69.

(2.) Jenna Weissman Joselit, "By Design: Building the Campus of the Jewish Theological Seminary," in Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary, ed. Jack Wertheimer (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1997), 1:282-83.

(3.) I am grateful to Dr. Steven Fine for pointing out to me the nearly simultaneous construction of these major institutions.

(4.) Three books deal with the early history of Yeshiva University: Jeffrey S. Gurock, The Men and Women of Yeshiva: Higher Education, Orthodoxy, and American Judaism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988); Gilbert Klapperman, The Story of Yeshiva University: The First Jewish University in America (New York: Macmillan, 1969); and Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1972). None of these sources, however, offer more than a sentence or two about the architectural aesthetic of the school's original campus.

(5.) Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 180-81.

(6.) Gurock, Men and Women of Yeshiva, 24-25.

(7.) Klapperman, Story of Yeshiva, 131.

(8.) For Fischel's biography, see Samuel Goldstein, Forty Years of Struggle for a Principle. The Biography of Harry Fischel (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1928).

(9.) David Kaufman, Shul with a Pool: The "'Synagogue Center" in American History (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press, 1999), 151-53.

(10.) A picture of the building appears in Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Bernard Revel, 54.

(11.) The speech appeared in the Hebrew Standard and can be found in Goldstein, Forty Years of Struggle, 166.

(12.) Klapperman, Story of Yeshiva, 138.

(13.) Gurock, Men and Women of Yeshiva, 49-51. On the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, see Ismar Schorsch, From Text to Context: The Turn to History in Modern Judaism (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press, 1994).

(14.) Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Bernard Revel, 241-42.

(15.) All of these quotations from Zeitlin appear in Sidney B. Hoenig, Rabbinics and Research: The Scholarship of Dr. Bernard Revel (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1968), 148-55.

(16.) See Ira Robinson, "Cyrus Adler, Bernard Revel, and the Prehistory of Organized Jewish Scholarship in the United States," American Jewish History 69 (Jun. 1980): 497-505.

(17.) Quoted in Robinson, "Cyrus Adler," 500.

(18.) Ibid., 501.

(19.) Ibid., 505.

(20.) Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Bernard Revel, 71-78; Gurock, Men and Women of Yeshiva, 89. Revel wrote this in a manuscript titled Aims of the Yeshiva.

(21.) After outgrowing its Montgomery Street residence, the Rabbinical College of America moved to 301-303 East Broadway in 1921. See Goldstein, Forty Years of Struggle, 224.

(22.) New York Times, Sep. 24, 1924, 15.

(23.) Building Fund Committee Minutes (hereafter cited as BFCM), Sep. 16, 1924, in Harris L. Selig Administrative Files, 12/2-44, Yeshiva University Archives, Special Collections, Mendel Gottesman Library, Yeshiva University, New York.

(24.) Banister Fletcher and Dan Cruickshank, Sir Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture (Boston: Architectural Press, 1996), 1457.

(25.) A successful fundraiser at the end of December may have sparked this pursuit of a more ambitious campus, though this is only speculation. The fundraiser raised $850,000 of the $5 million objective on the first night of the campaign. See New York Times, Dec. 28, 1924, W16.

(26.) BFCM, Jan. 20, 1925.

(27.) Ibid., Jan. 27, 1925.

(28.) Some of these sketches are located in Menachem Butler and Zev Nagel, eds., My Yeshiva College: 75 Years of Memories (New York: Yashar Press, 2006).

(29.) Zysman Hall's combination of Moorish revival and modern styles in pointed out in Rachel Wischnitzer, Synagogue Architecture in the United States: History and Interpretation (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955), 125.

(30.) Steven Fine, ed., Sacred Realm: The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4.

(31.) Kenneth M. Murchison, "Mr. Murchison of New York Says," The Architect 11 (Jan. 1929): 474.

(32.) Ivan Davidson Kalmar, "Moorish Style: Orientalism, the Jews, and Synagogue Architecture," Jewish Social Studies 7 (Spring 2001): 76-77.

(33.) Deborah Dash Moore, "On the Fringes of the City: Jewish Neighborhoods in Three Boroughs," in The Landscape of Modernity: New York City, 1900-1940, ed. David Ward and Oliver Zunz (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 261.

(34.) The Yeshiva College, What It Is and What It Stands For: A Challenge and a Promise to American Judaism, undated pamphlet, Yeshiva University Records, 2/2.

(35.) Murchison, "Mr. Murchison of New York Says," 474.

(36.) Henry B. Herts, "The Yeshiva College Was Designed and Built in Jewish Style of Architecture," Jewish Review (Buffalo, NY), Dec. 7, 1928.

(37.) Bernard Revel, "Judaism in America and 'American Judaism,'" Jewish Forum 10 (1927): 183.

(38.) Goldstein, Forty Years of Struggle, 357.

(39.) Quoted in Ibid., 376-77.

(40.) I must thank the anonymous reviewer of this article for referring me to these sources.

(41.) American Hebrew, Apr. 14, 1916, 662-66.

(42.) Samuel D. Gruber, American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community. (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2003), 54.

(43.) American Hebrew, Apr. 14, 1916.

(44.) Ibid.

(45.) William G. Tachau, "The Architecture of the Synagogue," American Jewish Yearbook 28 (1926-1927): 192.

(46.) Lewis Mumford, "Towards a Modern Synagog Architecture," Menorah Journal 11 (Jun. 1925): 225.

(47.) Ibid., 230.

(48.) Ibid., 233.
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