This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary


The shtetls of eastern Europe did not provide a very welcoming enviromnent for those artistic spirits that tend to blossom in any normal society. The harsh economic realities that beset those Jewish communities would have stigmatized creative passions as little more than impractical, self-indulgent extravagances; and the austere mood of the prevalent religious outlook would insist on channeling their energies towards more respectable pursuits. Those creative individuals who insisted nonetheless on seeking outlets for their talents often found niches for themselves within the acceptable bounds of Jewish religious life, through the fashioning and decorating of items for ritual use.

Some of that creative energy was directed into a distinctive east-European artistic tradition of wooden synagogues with elaborately carved ornamentation. Very few of those original structures survived the Holocaust, but their memory has been preserved to some degree in the form of drawings and photographs. Some North American synagogues were modeled after prototypes from the Old Country.

Variegated motifs of iconography evolved in those old European wooden synagogues. Some of the images were deeply rooted in Jewish tradition; for example, the tablets of the covenant, the crown of the Torah, the priestly hands stretched out in blessing or the lions of Judah. Other favourite images had more tenuous connections to standard Jewish iconography, such as the depictions of myriad beasts, birds, foliage, fruits and other natural or mythical wonders that inhabited the synagogues' walls and ceilings. Though it might be possible to link those images to passages from the Bible, Midrash or Kabbalah, it is hard to escape the suspicion that they really stemmed from the artists' inborn personal fascination with the glories of creation.

We know virtually nothing about the identities or biographies of the gifted artisans who contributed their inspired skills to the beautification of the eastern European Jewish houses of worship, except for a tiny handful of individuals who made their ways to the New World where they found opportunities to continue their crafts and were able to record for posterity some of their prior experiences in the Old Country.

Perhaps the most remarkable exploit to emerge from this world of biographical obscurity was that of Marcus Charles Illions, whose artistic oeuvre bridged the transition between the Russian shtetl and the American melting pot. While Illions' saga might be the best documented instance of this trajectory, his story should probably be regarded as typical of other anonymous Jewish craftsmen whose lives followed similar courses.

Illions spent his childhood in Russia where his father traded in horses and where he was first imbued with his characteristic familiarity and fascination with the equine form. At the tender age of seven, he was apprenticed to a woodcarver in order to cultivate his impressive talents. He fled Russia at the age of fourteen and eventually found his way to America where he was hired by a number of synagogues to carve decorative Torah arks. Several examples of his work have survived--whether intact, in part or in photographs--and they attest to his faithful transmission of the familiar motifs from the European synagogues, including Grecian columns, tablets, crowns and lions.

But oh those lions! These were not the staid, mass-produced two-dimensional beasts that can be seen on the ark curtains and Torah mantels of many of our current synagogues. These were spirited animals graced with cascading manes, waving tails and fiery gazes, whose limbs and sinuous torsos reveal the artist's stunning attention to anatomical detail. There can be no question but that Illions was drawing upon his intimate familiarity with the beloved horses of his Russian childhood.

Even the massive wave of Jews who immigrated to America from the 1880s to the 1920s could not provide stable, long-term employment for synagogue artists. However, an unexpected opportunity presented itself to them at this stage of history owing to a fortuitous combination of social and technological developments. The hardworking American urban populace was in need of some form of cheap and unsophisticated leisure entertainment, and that demand could be satisfied through the proliferation of mechanized amusement parks whose clients could now be whisked to the fair grounds on trolleys and other novel means of affordable rapid transit.

In their lively competition to attract paying customers to their enterprises, the operators of these parks provided plenty of work for the immigrant wood-carvers who were now being hired to supply the parks with magnificent colour and flamboyance. A centerpiece of the new amusement parks was the modern carousel, on which the huddled urban masses could pretend that they were freely riding horses or yet more fabulous steeds. That illusion was enhanced by technological innovations that allowed the animals to be rotated by steam power and to gracefully rise and fall in a credible imitation of equine leaps and gallops.

Marcus Charles Illions made a name for himself as a leading fashioner of carousel horses, initially in the employ of the acclaimed workshop of Charles I. D. Loof, and later as the master of his own studio. His carousel animals are considered the finest exemplars of the "Coney Island Style," energized by an animated realism that was combined with gaudy ornamentation and glitter. The purveyors of that style included several other Jewish immigrants, such as Solomon Stein, Harry Goldstein and Charles Carmel who very likely spent part of their formative childhood years in eastern Europe daydreaming about the exotic creatures that they saw carved on the Torah arks of their wooden shuls.

When a recent exhibition at New York's American Folk Art Museum juxtaposed Illions' synagogue lions with his carousel horses, it left no room for doubts about the existence of a shared artistic ancestry and a consistent aesthetic vision that permeated the sacred and profane realms of his work.

It is intriguing to ponder the profound thematic symbolism that brought us full circle from the wonders of creation, through the imperial lions of the Torah arks, to the spinning, galloping steeds of a Coney Island carousel.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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