“As soon as you say, 6-foot, gold, electrified lions, I’m all in.” So was the sentiment expressed by Jewish Museum of Maryland collection manager Joanna Church when receiving the news that Suburban Orthodox Toras Chaim was offering a very special donation.
Four or five years ago, the now 60-year-old synagogue on Seven Mile Lane in Pikesville was revamping its look and decided that two large gold-painted, carved wooden lions installed above the sanctuary ark should come down. They went into storage where they gathered dust and were largely forgotten. But recently, as the congregation embarks on ambitious plans for a new complex, the old lions saw the light of day again, and the question became how to find them a new home.
“Baltimore has been described as a community of communities, and this is a unique and rare opportunity for The Associated agencies and the Orthodox community to work together in preserving a piece of Jewish Baltimore history,” said Juliya Sheynman, Suburban Orthodox’s executive director. “History is often lost; there is not a place to preserve it, not enough space for all of the archives. So, the fact that the Jewish Museum saw this was of value and was really excited about it and that we’re able to honor several legacies, of Rabbi [Chaim] Gevantman and Rabbi [Ervin] Pries and their families, before we endeavor to build our new building in the same space is a really big deal for us.”
With fierce eyes, bared teeth and intricately carved manes, the lions had been in residence at Suburban Orthodox since the current building was dedicated in 1962.
Bernie Kozlovsky, operations manager and historical preservationist for Suburban Orthodox, said that the eyes were originally fitted with blue light bulbs and that perhaps the mouths lit up red.
“Certainly the eyes,” he said. “I was told the mouth was red, but I don’t know, I never saw them lit up.”
The lions were originally brought to the congregation from another synagogue in East Baltimore when it closed or moved. Kozlovsky said a Hyman Winer and his brothers were responsible for donating the lions. But beyond that, their history and origins are sketchy.
Although there may have been some concern by Gevantman’s family when the lions were taken down, Kozlovsky said their move to the Jewish Museum of Maryland has been celebrated by all concerned.
“I never realized how much it meant to me until Mr. Kozlovsky said they didn’t know what they would do with the lions,” Gevantman’s daughter, Lynn Caesar, said.
She remembers being frightened by the blue-eyed lions when she was a girl. But hearing of their move to JMM, she was pleased.
“I was very happy,” she said. “I started crying.”
On July 27, Church and the museum’s new archivist Lorie Rombro, joined Sheynman, Kozlovsky and Rabbi Shmuel Silber at the synagogue to pick up the lions. Church was excited at the prospect of such impressive artifacts coming into the museum’s collection.
“We have a lot of archives at the museum, but I’m an object person at heart. So much of our exhibits and our programming really need that combination of the archival and photograph collections, but also the big, graphic elements that really speak to people, even before they read the label and learn the history,” Church said.
The museum board was easily convinced to take on the lions. “Our director is excited,” Church said. “We have a big new exhibit coming up that is going to talk about the history of Jewish Maryland in ways we have not been able to do before, and we can’t promise that these will be in it. But these are definitely under consideration, as we are looking for big, really powerful artifacts for the exhibit.”
While the carved lions have no markings, labels or signatures as to their maker or origin, Church said a folk-art scholar may be able to get a better idea of their provenance after some research. “I’m hoping we can get someone who can take a look and tell us these are typical of this era, or people who are trained in this school of carving. So I think we can get more information, even if we can’t identify exactly where they came from in East Baltimore.”
For now, once arriving at the museum, the lions will be photographed, assigned catalog numbers and measured. A detailed description and condition report will be written, and then they will be stored.
“With the exhibit coming up, we’ll probably get started on research,” Church added.
In Judaism, lions are symbolic of the Lion of Judah and also appear in sacred texts as a symbol of the Jewish people’s strength.
For Silber, the lions’ departure also symbolizes growth and change for the synagogue.
“Thank God we are privileged to be an almost 60-year-old organization and we’ve been blessed as a congregation with wonderful rabbinic leadership in Rabbi Gevantman and Rabbi Pries who shepherded the shul through a different period of history. When I say different period, [I also mean] different people, different times, different issues, different challenges facing the Jewish people. And each did so with incredible poise and incredible love and incredible warmth,” Silber said. “Just like the challenges of the times change, so the décor changes also. And I think that our job is that the shul reflects the spiritual vitality of the community. But at the same time, we recognize that everything that was part of this building is really sacred and hallowed, because it was used to enhance the religious and spiritual lives of Jews for close to six decades”
“We are so happy that the lions, which had occupied a very prominent place on top of our ark, will be essentially memorialized in a place that celebrates Jewish history in Baltimore, and we hope it cements our synagogue’s place in the very rich spectrum of Judaism in this beautiful community.”
Suburban Orthodox, with about 370 family and individual members, plans to break ground on its new complex this year, shortly after the High Holidays, according to Sheynman. She said they hope to have construction completed within a year and a half.