Silent Witnesses - Susan Shender & James Stone Goodman

In our series on artists participating in our current exhibit Silent Witnesses: Synagogues Transformed, Rebuilt, or Left Behind, we focus this time on a team of collaborators from St. Louis: Susan Shender and James Stone Goodman.
Silent Witnesses is Collaborative Art Exhibit organized by the Cultural Heritage Artists Project, the Jewish Art Salon,  JWalks and the Holocaust Memorial Center. February 22 - April 14, 2012 at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Metro Detroit.

The Scrolls of the St. Louis South Side Congregation

In this project, influenced by talismanic and incantational Ethiopian scroll art, Goodman and Shender tell the story of a synagogue and two communities in three scrolls of poetry, prose, and visual imagery. Previously they collaborated on several projects exploring hybrid art forms including interior architecture, mosaics and story, Yemenite text preservation and story telling. They also created a small gallery in a synagogue space exploring the intersection of visual art, story, song, and performance.

The South Side Congregation project began with Goodman, a native of Detroit, who moved to St. Louis. Out of an experience with a found piece of synagogue stained glass, he came to know a community that was little documented in his new home. In 1995 he wrote the story of the glass window, the synagogue where it was once installed, the community that occupied the space, and the return of Jewish prayer to that space in a combination prose and poetry form. 

In 2011, they updated the story through research, visits to the site, and interviews with former Jewish residents of the neighborhood, with the new pastor and his wife, and with the neighborhood’s developer. They were drawn to the Ethiopian prayer scroll concept because it involves text and images with an improvised, unselfconscious quality.

The result is the intersection of poetry, prose, story telling, history, architecture, urban design, prayer – the story of a synagogue and its passing -- the evolution of a community told in sacred form through visual arts. The scrolls track the mystery tale of an urban neighborhood long abandoned by Jews; a neighborhood now struggling to recreate itself, trying to preserve its story.

More info on the exhibit here. 

Texts used in the art work:

Send a Jewish rabbi my way
I stand before you in the Blaine Avenue Church of God
On the front a Star of David
On the windows     A Star of David
Send me a Jewish rabbi       Tell me this story
                           -- Pastor Elmer Wilson, 1981

You may redeem me
I am buried in back of an antiques warehouse
Cherokee Street, St. Louis, Missouri
It is 1981 and you just moved to this city.

I am not particularly notable
I am a faded green stained glass transom
A window Fallen out from some abandoned

A Magen David in my frame    I am small & unnoticed
No one has redeemed me

I collect dust    You hold me      Turn me
But I am unremarkable as         Art
I have a Story and you are        Curious
But you do not redeem me        You leave me on
Cherokee Street.
                                         -- July, 1981

New to this place. Born in Detroit,
I was drawn to study with the masters in Jerusalem,
making stories in music and poetry.

Moved to St. Louis. On a street full of used furniture,
a knick-knack neighborhood
I saw a panel of stained glass. It had a Magen David
set into it, pale green. It would attract no attention
on a mantel or on a wall.

I held it, turned it and turned it, I passed.

What building does the window come from?
Inventing stories assuming I would never know.
Something here in the heartland, the heart line,
the omphalos of America would not let go of me,
this notion of redemption,
and two weeks later I returned to the store.
The piece was gone.
            Rabbi James Stone Goodman July, 1981

I tell stories in poetry    And song
Shirah [Heb.]: song and poem both

I am a diwan      The songbook of a community
From Najara the first diwan    I am the community’s verses

In Yemen     I am the length of a forearm
Poet singer teller    Balancing me on the arm    I speak

In Ethiopia    I am a magic scroll
Healing scrolls with the shared symbol

The seal of Solomon       a Shared symbol

Mantic tale     Prayer       Magic     Healing and Divination


I am driving through a neighborhood isolated by a freeway.

A partially abandoned factory once owned by Ligget & Myers
tobacco company is a city block long with a half-buried
railroad track and two prominent smoke stacks.

I researched. A synagogue was active on Blaine and Klemm
from 1929 to 1944. It is a small south side community,
not known as a Jewish area.

The synagogue was listed variously in directories as

Tiphereth Yisrael, Tipheris Israel, South Side Congregation.

Few records remain.

I saw a small church with an unusually shaped roof
like the old wooden synagogues of 18th & 19th century Poland.
On the front, a Star of David [seal of Solomon]
that replaced the Cross. And around the building –east-
the windows with the pale green stained glass transom
with the Star of David I remembered from Cherokee Street.
            At the back of the building, a missing one.

I met the pastor. “I’ve been praying for God
to send me a Jewish rabbi,” he says.
            Inside it looks just like the shuls of my youth in Detroit.

Everything inside was the same as when the synagogue left,
1944. The benches were pre-War, facing east. I explained
where the Ark would be against the Wall,
and asked if I can come there and pray the Selichot prayers.

We made the prayers, the spirits of Jewish prayer returned
for one night.

We blessed the community
Site of the former synagogue:
Blessed are You    Making Wonders     the Work of Creation.
                                                                                    jsg, 1995

November, 2011
            I put a notice in our local Jewish paper
Ruth Balk called,
“I remember that shul     I grew up on the south side
It was a nice little area there.
There was a street of businesses     Along 39th Street.”
            Another man called -- “I was taught Bar Mitzvah there
            On long benches      I used to sleep on the benches.”
The neighborhood Isolated by Highway I-44
now re-inventing itself.
The former McCree Town      Also known as
Liggett & Myers Historic District        St. Louis, Missouri.
   I return to a new pastor    He remembers:   
            “Everything faced East.”
   I tell him the story as I know it of this Space.
  “We are trying to revive      Revive      This community.”

Blessed is this space     this community
The spirits dwelling here –
The renewal that creation is
Every day.

Susan Shender started Sukkah Soul, dedicated to creating meaningful forms and spaces inspired by Jewish text and sources. The Sukkah Soul sukkah kit is sold nationally and Susan’s cast bronze Judaica were selected for several shows. Synagogue design includes a gate to welcome the Shekhinah, ark and bimah. Current projects include a mosaic with a teaching component, jewelry, a mezuzah and additional bronze pieces. Shender, an architect with thirty years experience, is in her nineteenth year of private practice. A native of Chicago, Susan lives in St. Louis, Missouri. She honors her design teacher, Leslie Laskey, with her work.

James Stone Goodman is a rabbi who serves Congregation Neve Shalom and the Central Reform Congregation, in St. Louis, Missouri. He is a writer and musician who integrates story, poetry, and music in a performance art form, producing six CDs to date, the most recent “Eight Nights.” He recently finished an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Missouri – St. Louis. His work is included in many publications.

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