Yaakov Stark died penniless and unknown. His murals at the Ades Synagogue are a masterpiece of early Zionist art.
In 1901, in Ottoman Jerusalem, members of the wealthy Ades family funded the construction of a synagogue for Jews who had moved to the city from Aleppo, Syria. It was built off an alleyway near the open-air market of Mahaneh Yehuda, a neighborhood where the other houses of worship were little more than shacks; so although this one was barely the size of a small restaurant, it was called the “Great Synagogue.”
The woodwork inside the Ades (pronounced “Addis”) Synagogue was intricate Damascene carpentry inlaid with mother-of-pearl, a reminder of the community’s Syrian origins. The benches were not arranged facing the front, as in European synagogues, but rather in a rectangle, so that worshipers faced the small central platform where the cantor stood and where the Torah was read, and faced each other, in the more social style of the Middle East.
This was all in keeping with custom. But then the synagogue’s leaders made an unlikely decision: To decorate the walls they would invite an artist not from Syria but from Galicia, and affiliated not with any of the city’s religious communities but with the Zionist bohemians and avant-gardists who had just established an art school nearby.
The young painter, Yaakov Stark, covered the interior with a combination of traditional motifs, like the symbols of the 12 tribes of Israel, and with the new icons of the Zionist movement, stars of David and menorahs, woven together like a mosaic in shades of blue and green. He included a biblical passage expressing the Jews’ longing to return to Zion, using a Hebrew font that mixed Arabic calligraphy with Art Nouveau. Stark’s masterpiece of early Zionist art turned the building from a mere bastion of traditional craftsmanship into something else—a strange, even unsettling amalgam of styles, the physical expression of the conviction of the Syrian worshipers and the Eastern European artist that though they had never met before, and had recently arrived from vastly different places in a city where they had never been, they were all home. There is no other synagogue like it.
Stark died a century ago, shortly after completing the synagogue, impoverished and all but unknown. Now, after a saga involving clashing art restorers, an Israeli court, and the office of the prime minister, one of Israel’s most exquisite buildings has re-emerged after decades of neglect, and with it the reputation of the artist who did so much to make it beautiful.
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