Charleston, Charleston

streets-wm2I arrived last week in Charleston, South Carolina to begin a semester teaching as the Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.

It will be an adventure, as I have never taught a course before…. I’ve taught my first two classes and so far, it seems to be going well: engaged students (a mix of undergraduates and community auditors), interesting discussion.

Meanwhile, I’ve been exploring Charleston — where I have never been before. So far, I have not been off the Peninsula, or old town; but I’ve spent hours walking around the streets. And, of course, stopping off in some of the excellent restaurants….today I had my first “she-crab soup” and “shrimp and grits.”

As it happens, I love grits. I often bring them back from the states to Europe with with me. Oddly enough, the first time I remember eating grits was not in the south — but on the French Line ocean liner the SS Liberté, sailing from New York to France, when I was about 12. We had them for breakfast; it seemed a rather exotic dish.

Today, I visited the Slave Mart Museum, whose small exhibition space was quite crowded with visitors (I’ll be writing about this more); also I made a second visit to the central market, a sort of covered crafts market non unreminiscent of the Sukiennice in the main market square of Krakow, though of course with different merch.

And I took pictures of the paving.

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Pilgrimage to Lipot Baumhorn’s grave

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At the end of September I made one of my occasional pilgrimages to the grave of the architect Lipot Baumhorn in the vast Kozma utca Jewish cemetery in Budapest.

Baumhorn designed or remodeled about two dozen synagogues in central Europe: in Hungary, and in what are now Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia. You can read about them in a travel article I wrote some years back. He is reckoned to be the most prolific synagogue architect in Europe before World War II.

I wrote a section of my 1994 book “Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today” about him and his work.

Baumhorn's gravestone bears a carving of the great dome of his masterpiece, the synagogue in Szeged, Hungary, and also a list of more than 20 other synagogues he designed or remodeled. It also has a very flowery poetic epitaph.

Baumhorn’s gravestone bears a carving of the great dome of his masterpiece, the synagogue in Szeged, Hungary, and also a list of more than 20 other synagogues he designed or remodeled. It also has a very flowery poetic epitaph.

 

In the course of research for it, in 1992, I discovered his gravestone, totally overgrown with vines.

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Cleaning it was a spiritual — or at least highly emotional — experience.

Photo © Edward Serotta

Photo © Edward Serotta

This is what wrote (in “Doorposts”) about cleaning the grave: “I felt like a liberator, and I guess I was, restoring to the light of this cold, gray day the chiseled memory of this man. It was a highly personal liberation. For more than three years I had followed a trail of monumental buildings whose style number and significance had made Lipot Baumhorn successful in life and more than just a footnote in the history of his profession. His synagogues were his survivors; he was honored on gilded plaques in their entryways …. the person was here, shrouded in ivy. I tore at the clinging vines…”

Lipot Baumhorn

 

My section about Baumhorn in “Upon the Doorposts” is called “Synagogues Seeking Heaven.”

The name derives from  the complex poetic epitaph on his gravestone. In the chapter I tell how various Hungarian friends of mine tried, with difficulty, to translate it for me. The end version was:

Our inspired artist: His inspiration and heart gave birth

To the lines of synagogues that look toward heaven and awaken piety.

Above his peaceful home hovered devotion;

The soul of a father and husband gave birth to heaven-seeking consolation.

 

Some years back I was delighted to find a monument to him outside one of his synagogues, in Szolnok. The monument is positioned so that Baumhorn seems to gaze at the synagogue, which is now used as a concert hall.

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My new favorite building in Budapest

My new favorite building in Budapest is the National Pension Insurance Administration Building on Fiumei st, which was built in two stages, 1911-12 and 1929-31. The chief architect was Marcell Komor — with Dezso Jakab and Aladar Sos. (Komor & Jakab designed the synagogue and other buildings in Subotica, as well as many other great buildings.) The Pension building has a series of 24 wonderful relief sculptures by several wellknown sculptors of the period, illustrating workers getting injured on the job and then being cared for (by social insurance, natch).
I stopped to photograph the reliefs yesterday, after attending services (and having post-services unch) at the Teleki ter synagogue around the corner — a little pre-war shtiebl whose congregation has been revitalized (and premises renovated) in large part due to the efforts of brothers Andras and Gabor Mayer.
The post-services lunch boasts some of the best sólet (cholent) in the city…..
 Here are some more pictures of the reliefs. See detailed info on the building, and more pix, HERE