Stained Glass Window to the soul

A kaleidoscopic bouquet of light flows across the bimah at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom, emanating from a graceful stained glass window depicting the crackling flames of the burning bush bookended by scrolls of proto-Hebraic letters.

As it does almost every Shabbat, the window catches the eye of Rabbi Alan Lew, conjuring up a mental image of a fellow rabbi's fiery death.

"The letters seem to be flying to heaven, and it reminds me of the old midrash about Rabbi Hananiah, who died in Roman persecutions. They wrapped him in a Torah scroll and burned the scroll, and as he was dying, he saw the letters of the Torah flying free, flying back to God," said the Conservative rabbi.

"I often think of that image — not the whole grisly thing with the rabbi being burned, but the letters flying free. It always reminds me of my deep feeling for Hebrew letters."

The past century has witnessed the construction of a number of synagogues adorned with breathtaking stained glass windows — with some of the nation's finest right here in the Bay Area, according to local stained glass makers. Yet it was not always this way.

Stained glass windows came into vogue during the European Middle Ages, thanks in large part to the architectural wonder known as the flying buttress. The buttress' purpose is to take the job of structural support off a building's walls, leaving them available for large and elaborate stained glass masterpieces. Europe's Jews of the day were far too busy being slaughtered by crusaders or expelled from one country after another to expend centuries toiling on edifices comparable to Notre Dame or Chartres cathedrals. Although still more closely associated with churches than synagogues, stained glass as a Christian monopoly has long since been shattered.

"By the 1880s, both the Reform and Conservative synagogues in San Francisco had elaborate stained glass windows," said Seymour Fromer, the co-founder of Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum. As congregations began building larger edifices, they incorporated more ornate decoration. At the time, stained glass was popular in civic buildings, and it was adopted by synagogues, he added.

While Lew is probably the only local rabbi who can't help but think about Rabbi Hananiah's fiery demise every time he delivers a Shabbat sermon, he is far from the only Bay Area spiritual leader to draw inspiration from a stained glass window.

Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray of Redwood City's Conservative Congregation Beth Jacob is nothing less than awestruck by the kite-shaped, menorah window on the south wall and the gargantuan, swirling blue and gold diamond one behind the ark — which very well could be the favorite backdrop of Bay Area b'nai mitzvah photographers.

"The sun comes through the menorah in blues and yellows. It's really beautiful," said the rabbi. "There are wood tones around the temple that create a real sense of warmth that I think is just awesome. It's a real feeling of spiritualism and worship."

The north wall is currently without a stained glass window, but Cantor Dani Lipschultz assures with a smile that "one day, when I'm a wealthy cantor," she'll commission one.

Meanwhile, Gerald Raiskin, rabbi at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame for the last 45 years, can't get enough of San Francisco Congregation Emanu-El's world-famous stained glass windows, "Fire" and "Water."

"It's a grand synagogue. I know some people say, 'Well, Emanu-El is cold,' but I don't find it that way. I have officiated a few ceremonies there, and from the bimah it is also very inspiring," said the Reform rabbi of the arc-shaped windows — which, thanks to their countless small panels, somewhat resemble immense, colorful honeycombs.

"Some people feel the colored windows have warmed up the room, that before it was too stark. But even then I liked it a great deal."

When it comes to stained glass, Raiskin is far from Emanu-El's only fan. Spring and fall sunsets beam through both windows, creating a Pink Floyd-esque light show in the middle of Clay Street. The effect makes the Reform congregation's towering stained glass — a pair of shimmering, abstract, red and blue half-circles each massive enough to accommodate the passage of a low-flying stealth bomber — some of the city's most well-known and well-liked windows.

In fact, it's hard to believe that when the installation of stained glass windows was initially proposed it was a major point of contention.

"When the building was completed in 1926, all the glass in the main sanctuary was amber-colored plain glass," said Stephen Pearce, Emanu-El's senior rabbi. "Almost from day one, when the building was completed, people thought we ought to put stained glass in there. But purists felt we ought to keep the building the way it was."

Of course, the decision to install new windows became academic in the early 1970s, when the original amber panes began plummeting from the walls and shattering on the pews far below, menacing purists and stained glass advocates alike. The congregation offered a commission to Marc Chagall, but the celebrated artist was already in his 90s, and his wife forbade him to leave Paris.

Instead, Emanu-El settled on San Francisco stained glass master Mark Adams, who designed the massive windows from more than 2,000 pieces of glass in 200 colors, with every shard imported from Europe. George McKeever installed each panel individually over the summers of 1972 and '73.

And though he isn't Jewish, Adams visits his windows every year, when he attends Yom Kippur services at Emanu-El. Perhaps coincidentally, when it comes to illuminating the temple's vast sanctuary, Adams' windows save their best for the Day of Atonement.

"I must say, it's quite a moving service," he said. "It's all about self-examination, which is not an easy job. And I just like the feeling it has about a man's relationship to God."

Scientists are uncertain whether light consists of waves or particles or both. Science notwithstanding, Emanu-El's congregants aren't the only ones dazzled by a stained glass light show on the Days of Awe. Adath Israel's quartet of imposing, 6-by-16-foot windows, the setting sun and off-white walls make for a wonderfully spiritual combination in the San Francisco synagogue.

"Around Musaf, depending on how late it is in the month, just as the sun starts to go down behind the buildings on the west side of the street, it reflects through the stained glass windows," said Marsha Szander, the Orthodox synagogue's administrator and a congregant for 40 years. "As the sun hits the windows at different angles, the colors reflect off the walls. On a day like Yom Kippur, it's a soothing feeling."

While Emanu-El's windows are among the largest in the Bay Area, the label of "cleverest" stained glass windows might go to Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

In the Reform congregation's lower chapel or beit kehilla, the ark is secured behind a pair of 4-by-9-foot sliding doors depicting the deep blue tones of the turbulent Red Sea and the stormy gray sky, punctuated by a golden bolt of lightning — which stands out violently from the windows' dark background.

On the glass, designed and built by the Santa Rosa couple Michelle and David Plachte-Zuiebach, the Red Sea is neatly "parted" when the doors are opened, revealing a tumultuous depiction of Mount Sinai with reddish and orange flames billowing off the mountain's summit as if a heavenly petrol bomb had scored a direct hit.

In yet another deft touch, the Plachte-Zuibachs scattered 613 lentil-sized, shiny, triangular bits of glass throughout the windows, a nod to the number of biblical commandments given in rabbinic tradition.

A zillionth of a second's trip up the road (for a beam of light, that is) from Los Altos Hills, Congregation Sherith Israel houses some of the best — and most unusual — stained glass in the Bay Area.

Those under the impression that depictions of human beings are forbidden within a synagogue will be in for a shock should they ever set foot within the San Francisco Reform congregation. Rampant depictions of human beings gallivant through Rabbi Martin Weiner's temple, but he points out that the notion this is a bad thing only popped up in the Middle Ages.

"Jews in the Middle Ages took the Second Commandment very literally," he said. "But if you go back to Greco-Roman times and examine the evidence in ancient synagogues, you'll find there are mosaics that clearly have human figures in them. In fact, there's even a mention in the Talmud about a synagogue that had a bust of a human figure, an emperor I believe."

The human images in Sherith Israel's windows are not stick figures, either, but jaw-droppingly realistic and detailed depictions. In fact, the pretty little girl peering out of the corner of the window depicting Moses delivering the Ten Commandments to the Israelites is actually the young daughter of Jacob Nieto, the congregation's rabbi from 1893 to 1930. The juxtaposition of such realism with the windows' decidedly abstract depictions of mountains, rivers and trees in the background somewhat resembles the stained glass version of a Gustav Klimt painting.

Staring at the Moses window, déjà vu-stricken onlookers routinely swear that the near-cubist "Mount Sinai" rings a bell. And they're right.

"The artist who did the windows wanted to commemorate the idea that Sherith Israel was a pioneer synagogue of the American West founded in 1849," said Weiner. "Therefore, he portrayed not Mount Sinai but the majestic peaks of Yosemite Valley as the background of the window."

Stories abound when it comes to Sherith Israel's stained glass windows. Directly across from Moses' descent from Half Dome is a window displaying a woman with her arms outstretched to a tired, sickly looking group with the caption: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless.

The window was donated eons ago by a wealthy congregant who, as a young immigrant, came to the city more or less hungry, naked and homeless. But a benevolent woman sheltered his family, nursing his ill parents back to health.

"When he became a prosperous merchant, he gave that biblical window to honor the San Francisco woman who saved his family," said Weiner. "Is that a nice story or is that a nice story?"

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.