Why Was a Synagogue Mural Hidden Behind a Wall in a Vermont Apartment?

The restoration of the stunning 112-year-old artwork is now complete

Mural
The mural in its new location inside the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vermont Courtesy of the Lost Mural Project

For nearly 30 years, a historic mural painted by a Lithuanian immigrant in the early 20th century sat hidden behind a wall in a Vermont apartment complex.

Now, after years of painstaking preservation work, the colorful triptych known as the “Lost Mural” is back in the spotlight once again. Community members in Burlington, Vermont, unveiled the restored mural in its new home at the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue earlier this summer.

The mural is “a treasure and also a significant work, both in American Jewish religious life and the world of art in this country,” Josh Perelman, chief curator at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, tells Lisa Rathke of the Associated Press (AP).

The artwork’s saga begins in 1910, when religious leaders at Burlington’s second synagogue, Chai Adam, hired 24-year-old Ben Zion Black to paint the 155-square-foot mural and the synagogue’s ceiling for $200. Black was a talented sign painter, poet, playwright, mandolin orchestra leader and, as Vittoria Benzine writes for Artnet, a “champion of Yiddish culture.”

With his paintbrush, Black skillfully depicted the Tent of the Tabernacles, a portable sanctuary that played an important role in Jewish history. Using rich red, gold and blue hues, Black painted a dazzling sun shining on two lions and a crown floating above the Decalogue, also known as the Ten Commandments.

The Chai Adam Synagogue merged with the congregation at the nearby Ohavi Zedek Synagogue and closed its doors in 1939. The building went on to serve a variety of other purposes; at one point, it became a carpet store and warehouse.

Eventually, new owners bought the former synagogue and began converting it into apartments in 1986. But first, Burlington residents convinced the new owners to build a wall in front of the mural to preserve it for posterity.

In 2012, working with the building’s owners, the mural’s advocates tore down the wall. They found that the mural was in bad shape, with flaking paint and damaged plaster, but community members pushed ahead with their plans to bring it back to life.

They carefully moved it in 2015 to the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, where conservators started the restoration process. All told, residents raised $1 million from local, state, national and international donors for the ambitious project, per the AP, which involved removing the roof of the synagogue-turned-apartment-complex, then using a crane to lift the delicate artwork onto a flatbed truck for transport.

“So many things could have gone wrong with the mural, but it survived through fate and circumstance,” says Aaron Goldberg, who leads the Lost Mural Project, to Seven Days’ Alison Novak. “It’s not just a surviving remnant. It’s a surviving piece with an astonishing history.”

The Vermont mural is also significant to the field of art history because so many synagogue wall paintings in Europe were destroyed during the Holocaust. Per the Lost Mural Project website, it’s “one of only a handful of remaining examples of this once joyful art form.”

“It’s a benefit to the Jewish people internationally to have a piece of folk art from the world the Nazis destroyed,” Joshua Chasa, former rabbi at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, told the Burlington Free Press’ Zach Despart in 2015. “In that sense, it’s a memorial to those who died in the Holocaust and ... to that Jewish world that perished.”