Donate

How a Stained-Glass Window Caused Controversy for a 19th-Century New York Synagogue

On May 18, 1850, the Anshi Chesed synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side moved into a grand, newly completed building that was then the largest Jewish house of worship in New York City. The new structure included a prominent stained-glass window depicting the Ten Commandments—and that, as Jenna Weissman Joselit writes, led to unexpected controversy:

As stunning as the building’s exterior turrets and as modern as its chandelier, [the window] floated right above the ark that contained the Torah scrolls, commanding the attention of those seated in the pews below. The window’s unusual shape also drew the eye. Instead of embedding the ten prescriptions within the rigid and customary geometry of two tablets, [the designer] had them marching freely within the circumference of a circle. These Ten Commandments were in the round. More like the spokes of a wheel than the flat inscriptions on a stele, each “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not” was housed within its own unit of glass. To heighten the effect, a series of ten petal-shaped panels occupied the center of the composition. . . .

Thrilled at first by the positive publicity [the window received], the members of Anshi Chesed soon changed their tune and, in the time-honored tradition of congregants everywhere, began to grumble and murmur darkly about their distinctively configured Ten Commandments window. The minutes of the synagogue, which dutifully record this and other instances of congregational dissension, contain scarcely a clue about the identity of the naysayers. . . . As momentum for [the window’s] displacement accelerated, Anshi Chesed’s lay leaders decided to quell further dissent within their ranks by forming a committee. The committee approach to problem-solving had recently become a regular feature of the congregation, . . . a testament to its newfound democratic ethos. . . . And now, dutifully drawing on the Hebrew words for the Ten Commandments, Anshi Chesed decided to constitute its very own “Committee on Aseres hadebros,” whose members set out to repair the situation.

Read more at Tablet

More about: American Jewish History, Lower East Side, Religion & Holidays, Synagogues, Ten Commandments

The Future of a Free Iran May Lie with a Restoration of the Shah

June 25 2018

Examining the recent waves of protest and political unrest in the Islamic Republic—from women shunning the hijab to truckers going out on strike—Sohrab Ahmari considers what would happen in the event of an actual collapse of the regime. Through an analysis of Iranian history, he concludes that the country would best be served by placing Reza Pahlavi, the son and heir of its last shah, at the head of a constitutional monarchy:

The end of Islamist rule in Iran would be a world-historical event and an unalloyed good for the country and its neighbors, marking a return to normalcy four decades after the Ayatollah Khomeini founded his regime. . . . But what exactly is that normalcy? . . .

First, Iranian political culture demands a living source of authority to embody the will of the nation and stand above a fractious and ethnically heterogenous society. Put another way, Iranians need a “shah” of some sort. They have never lived collectively without one, and their political imagination has always been directed toward a throne. The constitutionalist experiment of the early 20th century coexisted (badly) with monarchic authority, and the current Islamic Republic has a supreme leader—which is to say, a shah by another name. It is the height of utopianism to imagine that a 2,500-year-old tradition can be wiped away. The presence of a shah, [however], needn’t mean the absence of rule of law, deliberative politics, or any of the other elements of ordered liberty that the West cherishes in its own systems. . . .

Second, Iranian political culture demands a source of continuity with Persian history. The anxieties associated with modernity and centuries of historical discontinuity drove Iranians into the arms of Khomeini and his bearded minions, who promised a connection to Shiite tradition. Khomeinism turned out to be a bloody failure, but there is scant reason to imagine the thirst for continuity has been quenched. . . . Iranian nationalism . . . could be the answer, and, to judge by the nationalist tone of the current upheaval, it is the one the people have already hit upon.

When protestors chant “We Will Die to Get Iran Back,” “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, My Life Only for Iran,” and “Let Syria Be, Do Something for Me,” they are expressing a positive vision of Iranian nationhood: no longer do they wish to pay the price for the regime’s Shiite hegemonic ambitions. Iranian blood should be spilled for Iran, not Gaza, which for most Iranians is little more than a geographical abstraction. It is precisely its nationalist dimension that makes the current revolt the most potent the mullahs have yet faced. Nationalism, after all, is a much stronger force and in Iran the longing for historical continuity runs much deeper than liberal-democratic aspiration. Westerners who wish to see a replay of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 in today’s Iran will find the lessons of Iranian history hard and distasteful, but Iranians and their friends who wish to see past the Islamic Republic must pay heed.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Iran, Nationalism, Politics & Current Affairs, Shah