A Religious Experience - Part Thirteen

Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage, my favorite book on ecclesiastic art and architecture in my hometown, has a special chapter on stained glass, which includes almost all of the color photographs in the text (it was published in the early 1980s). Given my abiding love of stained glass, I made a point of reading that chapter right off the bat, and I was struck by an absolutely stunning half-page image of an abstract window entitled, Let There Be Light, and There Was Light.

It was located in the Chicago Loop Synagogue, and I knew at that moment that I needed to see it for myself. After all, I had walked by the outwardly nondescript building dozens of times in my life, with no idea of the beauty it contained. However, like most religious buildings, it was not open to the public, and with the particular security issues faced by synagogues (which are often the targets of anti-Semitic attacks), it was even more difficult to obtain access to this building than others I have seen. Just when I was starting to entertain the idea of emailing them to see if I could arrange a visit that way, I saw that they were going to be participating in 2012's Open House Chicago. I found a place for it in our itinerary immediately.

Chicago Loop Synagogue
16 South Clark Street
Chicago, IL

The Chicago Loop Synagogue was formed in 1929, primarily to serve as a secondary place of worship for highly observant Jews who wished to pray or study the Torah during the workday as well as providing kosher meals at lunch time. The congregation moved into their current space in 1957, and architects Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett were confronted with the problem of how to situate a synagogue on a narrow, city lot. Going vertical provided part of the solution: the sanctuary is located on the second floor, leaving spaces for offices and a smaller room for daily worship on the ground floor. The sanctuary, which seats 530 congregants, is used only for high holiday celebrations, and weekend services.

The exterior of the synagogue is minimalist in style, with its primary distinguishing feature being the bronze statue hanging over the doorway. Created by Israeli artist Henri Azaz, "Hands of Peace" features two stylized hands reaching outward, surrounded by a blessing from the Book of Numbers in both English and Hebrew: "The Lord bless thee and keep thee; the Lord, make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious to thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace." Because the sanctuary's stained glass windows are not visible from outside the building, the statue is really the only indicator that the structure is a house of worship; all other traditional elements of ecclesiastic architecture have been eschewed.

Inside, the Chicago Loop Synagogue is an exercise in mid-century modernism with an unusual sideways seating arrangement to maximize seating. Instead of placing the altar at the opposite end of the sanctuary from the entrance, the alter is located on the left side of the room, with only the ark against the end of the space. Artificially rough hewn concrete blocks in the walls are designed to evoke the Western Wall in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Judaism.

The only gloriously glaring exception to all this minimalist restraint is the monumental stained glass wall that makes up the entire rear wall of the space. Designed by American artist Abraham Rattner, the wall depicts important themes from the Torah and Judaism in general. Rattner, whose works routinely dealt with religious issues and imagery, had been looking for an opportunity to work in stained glass since the 1940s, and had completed many studies for potential stained glass pieces before he was approached for the Chicago Loop Synagogue project.

When he received the commission, Rattner made an intensive study of Jewish liturgy in order to select just the right themes and imagery, and then worked closely with the glass fabrication firm Barrilet, even going so far as to climb a ladder to different heights to look at the glass samples in the light in order to choose the perfect piece of glass for each section. 

And God Said, Let There Be Light and There Was Light, carries meaning on several different levels: it refers to God's light in the universe, to the enlightenment that can be reached through faith, and literally, to the light passing through the window itself. The colors Rattner selected are symbolic as well. Green symbolizes youth, purple is wisdom and old age, blue signifies the regeneration of the spirit, gold is prophecy, red stands for fire, and white, eternity. 

On the left, one can see the glowing star of David, surrounded by symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel. Below it is the burning bush. In the center of the composition is the tree of life, topped by a menorah whose candles further symbolize the light of God. Other Judaic symbols are scattered throughout, such as the shofar, the instrument used to call worshipers together during the High Holy Days. Across the bottom of the scene is a saying in Hebrew, which translates to, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One."

There was another stained glass window inside the building, in the corridor leading to the sanctuary, which was also covered from floor to ceiling in plaques acknowledging gifts to the synagogue. It was a stark contrast to Agudas Achim, which might still be thriving today if it had the same kind of monetary base behind it. Even though the Chicago Loop Synagogue may not be a primary house of worship to many congregants, it manages to remain a vibrant and active faith community where visit on a daily basis to pray and connect with God. It made me happy to see them doing so well, and to be able to rest assured that the incredible artwork contain within their walls will be protected for years to come.

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