By: Dr. Jess Olson
Every day that I am at YU’s Wilf Campus in Washington Heights, I follow the same ritual. For the eleven years, when the time comes for me to go and teach, I walk from my office to wait for the elevator on the 15th floor of Belfer Hall, and gaze out the floor-to-ceiling window facing north. While I always begin scanning the horizon to pick out the distant Westchester high-rises of New Rochelle and my hometown of White Plains, my gaze inevitably settles much nearer, on the jewel of our own neighborhood, Zysman Hall. I walk across Amsterdam on my way to teach, and usually stop off in the lobby of the Glueck Center (well, technically the library, but it seems like a shared space) to buy a cup of coffee at Nagel’s. Then I cross the 185th street plaza to Furst Hall, coffee in hand, and walk up the stairs to my classroom on the third floor. For over a decade I have followed a nearly identical path with only tiny variations – primarily that before Glueck was completed and Nagel’s existed, I had to make my own coffee.[i]
I have come to realize that over my years at Yeshiva these structures have become my home. These are the places where my work life takes place, where I encounter and share ideas with students and colleagues, where I think, where I plan, where I write. While I am certain that our other campuses downtown and spread over the five boroughs have their own architectural gems, I have taught entirely at the Wilf campus and know these buildings best. As my students know, I am an avid amateur architecture enthusiast. As a professional historian I am engaged with the buildings as living artifacts of a history very close and important to me and all of us at YU; as a clinical psychotherapist I am fascinated by the idea of these spaces and how they affect our moods and social interactions. But what I am most interested in is the intersection, unique to buildings, perhaps unique to American buildings – perhaps unique to American Jewish buildings – of past and present, memory and representation, beauty and function. In our buildings on the Wilf campus, I don’t see piles of brick and mortar arbitrarily arranged (a tempting interpretation, given our campus’ eclecticism), but rather an idea of a place, evolving over time, telling us both who we are, where we have come from, and where we wish to go. These three buildings – Zysman, Furst and Glueck – are more than the setting of my routine to me, rather they outline my understanding of this remarkable place. After innumerable iterations of the same short journey over the years, I have realized that these buildings represent an essential part of the kedushah of Yeshiva University, inscribed in its whole history as an institution: It is a place in the present that is rooted in the old, strives for the new, in both the mundane and the sublime – a place where ideas (and ideals) matter in a way I have experienced in no other university, even in the very bricks, mortar, steel and glass of these structures themselves.
Zysman, the oldest of the three, the landmark structure of our university for almost a century, is the most recognizable symbol of our institution. It is an exquisite late example of a long-passed epochal fascination prominent in Jewish buildings, historicism, in which modern buildings are constructed imitating historical styles to evoke specific sentiments or ideas in the present. Although historicism was the dominant mode of 19th century monumental architecture in Europe and America generally, Jews developed their own, unique take that evolved from the 1840s into a characteristic style, most often called “neo-Moorish” for its fanciful evocation of the architectural designs and ornaments of Islamic Spain. From the earliest experiment in this style, first imagined by legendary German architect Gottfried Semper, the style was embraced by Jewish communities and institutions and culminated in monumental buildings that dominated urban blocks throughout Central Europe and North America.[ii] It lasted until the collapse of the world economic system in 1929 made such projects financial unfeasible and the triumph of modernism made them decidedly unfashionable. Though all of these buildings were remarkable in their own way, Zysman Hall is singular in its purpose and execution. Like its sister structures in Europe, Charles Meyers’ building is a continuation of an old world architectural homage to a millennia of Jewish life in Europe, transplanted to the new world.[iii] It displays an imagined past of Jewish nobility and grandeur. its minarets and horseshoe arches are an homage to an idea of Jewish sophistication and culture associated with medieval Spain, while its historicism connects it with its siblings in nearly every town and city with a sizable Jewish population in Central Europe. But in a unique Yeshiva University fashion, Zysman goes further. Erected in 1928 at a time of great optimism for the future of the Jewish people in a new home – the United States – the building echoes the can-do grandeur of other Jewish structures of its period, such as the magnificent Emanu-El synagogue on Fifth Avenue. Simultaneously, it evokes a new idea of possibility in a different “old-new land.” Unlike other buildings of its type, Zysman not does not simply refer to a historical past in the Diaspora, it aesthetically unifies the Diaspora experience with an even older past and a tangible, hoped-for future of the Jewish people in its homeland in Eretz Yisrael. In addition to typical “Moorish” details once found in nineteenth-century synagogues across Europe and North America, Zysman has its own, unique additions which were a deliberate reference to the New Yishuv. Like other designs, such as the voluminous production of artistic Judaica from the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem which were then becoming popular adornments to china cabinets and Shabbat tables in Jewish homes in Europe and America, Zysman adds to its design specific images that reference the past and present of the nascent Jewish state. Accenting its more common historicist towers, arches and other details are unique ornaments such as art deco Assyrian-inspired friezes, stylized six and seven-pointed stars and, most delightfully, a zodiac, a reference to the then-recently-uncovered floor of the Beit Alfa synagogue near Tiberias, greeting every visitor in the foyer. Like this archeological discovery, they were designed to represent an amalgam of the Jewish past and future as imagined in the interwar period.
Furst Hall, around the corner and across 185th street, would seem to be a stark contrast; the differences in design of the two buildings could not be more obvious.[iv] But together they form a harmony of continuity of the Jewish experience on three continents across the most wrenching and simultaneously redemptive events of modern Jewish history. As I reiterate to my students each semester as we sit in our Furst classroom and contemplate the vicissitudes of Jewish modernity, it is, in its own unassuming way, another jewel of our campus. Designed by New York architect H. I. Feldman and opened in time for the fall semester of 1962, it is a near-pure example of high modernism: It is functional; its sturdy austerity, obsessional simplicity and angularity carry with them the lightness and weight of a modernist ethos of truth and honesty in simple, unornamented design. Primarily a designer of apartment complexes in Manhattan and the outer boroughs, Feldman tended in other buildings towards a staid, postwar New York brick apartment building style – heavy on the bricks, light on the windows – with two notable exceptions: a signature International Style building at 1025 Fifth Avenue, replete with a grand cantilevered slab awning (now obscured by a glass addition) and our Furst Hall. Furst is a reference to the bold architects and designers who first pioneered the style of cool, constrained simplicity – in particular the Bauhaus style of Walter Gropius, immortalized in the Weimar-era institute’s home in Dessau. Emerging out of the destruction of World War I, centers of modernism like the Bauhaus represented a revolution in architecture and design, emphasizing simplicity, functionality, and a near-moral commitment to minimal ornamentation – a stark contrast to the historicism that it overtook. Like the modern style itself, Feldman was a Central European who was transplanted to the fertile new soil of the United States, a Galicianer, child of immigrants who completed his training as an architect at Yale University. Like Furst Hall, Feldman’s aesthetic sense was forged in a Central European cultural context that flowered in the new world. Yet whether or not he was conscious of it, I would suggest that Feldman’s building makes another connection that is part of Yeshiva’s DNA: the explosion of modernist architecture in the then-still-new State of Israel. Evidenced in the magnificent Bauhaus structures from Tel Aviv’s Rehov Rothschild to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Katamon, its white stoned cantilevered balconies and clear brick inlays made Central European modernism a statement of ownership and rescue of the best of a culture that had so viciously turned upon the Jewish people. In the context of our own little campus, modernism becomes more than a straightforward way to build a functional structure. It becomes a statement of hope and faith that elements of that very material culture could be at the same time tools of construction and redemption – no less than a reclamation of hope in human progress, this time as a continuity of the ancient story of the Jewish people in its own land.
Which brings me to Glueck, the newest addition to our little uptown campus.[v] This showpiece building, completed and opened in 2009, Glueck continues once more the dynamic sweep of its sister structures. In the description provided by the architectural firm, HOK New York’s Kenneth Drucker, the building was consciously designed as a “contemporary yet contextual design” that “used channel glass, recessed sidelights and Vetter Stone (very similar to Jerusalem stone) in the composition of the façade while simultaneously blending a very efficient building into the fabric of the campus.” My interpretation of this, and of my experience in Glueck, is that the designers had in mind the same goal of capturing and entering the temporal dynamic of a Jewish past, present and future as imagined at Yeshiva University. Glueck is the home of our central beit midrash, a magnificent room whose lightness of space and visual light and its state-of-the-art electronic (if invisible) infrastructure are grounded in the hoary brown and gold covers of sacred sefarim that are the basic tools of our limud ha-Torah. It is at once uncompromising in its commitment to the foundation of our Jewish tradition and joyfully contemporary in its use of angles, shapes and, especially, light and glass. While it might seem counterintuitive given the postmodern aesthetic that is the building’s inspiration, in its way Glueck is the perfect counterpart to Zysman, its sister around the corner. More specifically, its design is an inversion of Zysman’s past-present-future historical dynamic that tells the same story in a way relevant to the 21st century. Rather than place its homage to our history demonstrably on the exterior as historicist ornament, Glueck locates it in its heart in the form of its beit midrash; rather than encase its treasure in brick and stone, it displays it in glass and light – but the essential meaning is preserved: Here we take our history seriously, we embody a present that seeks to construct our best selves for a better world, and look forward to our future of possibilities both in the United States and in the State of Israel.
Daniel Liebeskind, designer of the monumental Jewish Museum in Berlin, observed that “to provide meaningful architecture is not to parody history, but to articulate it.” Applying this standard, there is no doubt that our campus is a site of meaningful architecture. Yet I would suggest that the shortcoming of Liebeskind’s observation is highlighted by our campus as well. Not only does it articulate history, our history, an important part of the history of American Jews, but it, like truly meaningful history, also tells us the story of who we are, and who we wish to become.
Dr. Jess Olson is an associate professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva College and the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. His areas of research include the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, history of Zionism and Jewish nationalism, and the intersection between Jewish Orthodoxy and political engagement.
[i] I am grateful to Shulamith Berger, Paul Glassman and Deena Schwimmer for their generous assistance in helping me assembling the historical details contained in this piece.
[ii] For a detailed discussion of historicism in Jewish architecture, see Jess Olson, “Emancipating Jewish Sacred Architecture: Reimagining the Synagogue in the 19th and 20th centuries,” unpublished, forthcoming in History of Jewish Architecture, Brill Academic Press.
[iii] The details regarding Zysman Hall in this section are drawn from the essay by Eitan Kastner, “Yeshiva College and the Pursuit of Jewish Architecture,” American Jewish History, 96, 1 (June 2010), 141-161.
[iv] Details on Furst Hall are drawn from Kastner, “Yeshiva College and the Search for Jewish Architecture,” an unattributed pamphlet, “Blueprint for the Sixties,” and finally an article, “Yeshiva Marks 75 Years,” New York Mirror (9/24/1961). The latter were provided by Shuli Berger and Deena Schwimmer of the YU archives.
[v] Details about Glueck Hall are from Adrian Welch, (2016, December 14), Glueck Center for Jewish Study New York: Wilf Campus, retrieved from: https://www.e-architect.co.uk/new-york/glueck-center-jewish-study