All religion is about transformation.Whether from sin to righteousness-or death to eternal life-each religion in its own way promises some form of spiritual transformation.

Hundreds of years ago, the church builders of Europe struck upon an artistic innovation that so effectively captured this belief in transformation, it has since become an almost universal element in religious buildings everywhere. Try to imagine someone building a new church today, and not including at least one stained-glass window.

Dark and colorless from the outside, stained glass only becomes luminescent when seen from the inside with sunlight passing through it. It’s a perfect religious metaphor: the glass by itself representing the human soul, languishing, gray and unformed, until it is imbued by the light of God’s spirit, then becomes vibrant and full of color.

Stained-glass windows also have a transformative effect on the building. What might otherwise seem unremarkable suddenly becomes, in the presence of glimmering colored glass, a sacred space. It was just this sort of transformation that the congregation at West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest was looking for when, in 1965, it commissioned artist William Gropper to design five 25-foot-tall stained-glass windows for its community hall. “It’s going to look like a Temple,” one congregant wrote at the time, “not like a bowling alley.”

Works of art

In the fall of 1964, the Har Zion Board of Governors formed a committee, and selected as its co-chairs two long-time congregants and River Forest residents, Samuel Kaplan and Maurice Lipschultz. Kaplan, according to meeting minutes, was in charge of raising the money (a gigantic goal of $40,000) and Lipschultz of finding the artist. They proved an effective team, reaching both objectives within a few months.

Lipschultz, who died in the early 1990s, was a successful entrepreneur and serious art collector. In the minutes of the many committee and board meetings dealing with the windows, he comes across as the driving force behind the project. In his numerous memos, letters and notes (all preserved in carbon copies), he laid out a bold vision. The goal, he said, was not simply to install a new decorative element in the temple, but “to obtain a work of art (emphasis his) which will lend character to the building, religious significance to the institution and esthetic joy to the community.” He wanted the synagogue to commission a work that would not only be part of the building, but also stand alone as a separate, unique artistic expression-a work created by “an artist of renown” that would have broad enduring appeal and would “remain an addition to the art of this area … appreciated in its full beauty long after we have been forgotten.”

Lipschultz clearly wanted to use art as a means of putting the temple on the map. Several years earlier, Har Zion had installed a large sculpture by Milton Horn on the outside of the building. The stained glass windows were meant be the next step in what Lipschultz hoped would become a series of major acquisitions. In the spring of 1965, with the money raised and the committee behind him, Lipschultz contacted William Gropper, a 66-year-old painter, who had never before worked in glass and seldom in religious themes.

The artist

Though largely unknown today, William Gropper enjoyed considerable notoriety during his lifetime (he died in 1977). Like many artists of his generation during the 1920s and 30s, his work often dealt with social issues. Much of his initial fame, in fact, came from his political cartoons. His strong liberal views and expressive graphic style fit well with a number of left-leaning (some might say socialist, or even communist) publications of the day. His work appeared regularly in the Daily Worker, the New Masses, The Daily People’s World, and New York’s Yiddish language daily, the Morning Freiheit.

Political cartooning doesn’t typically lend itself to subtlety and Gropper’s work was no exception. Blunt, opinionated and forceful, Gropper’s cartoons consistently championed the cause of the poor and oppressed against the forces of political corruption, greed and violence. The stock characters he developed early on-ugly, neckless politicians, arrogant capitalists and bloodthirsty fascists-became repeating motifs in his drawings and paintings throughout his lifetime.

In 1935, Gropper received his first national notice when Vanity Fair magazine published a group of his drawings depicting “highly unlikely historical situations.” In one of the drawings, the Emperor of Japan, having received the Nobel Peace Prize, is shown hauling it away in a rickshaw-like cart. The government of Japan, outraged over the offense to its emperor, made a formal diplomatic protest and forced the U.S. Secretary of State to issue an apology.

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In 1946, Gropper painted a map of the United States depicting scenes and characters from various folktales, titled, “William Gropper’s America: Its Folklore.” It was a quaint, innocuous bit of Americana that was printed and distributed around the world by the U.S. State Department. In 1953, however, Senator Joseph McCarthy came across a copy, and claiming that it was inspired by communism, subpoenaed Gropper to appear before his Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Like many other writers and artists who appeared before McCarthy, Gropper refused to answer any questions, and found himself blacklisted in an arts community that had previously embraced him.

By the late 1950s, Gropper’s career rebounded. Though no longer working as a cartoonist, his paintings, drawings and lithographs were shown widely by galleries across the U.S. and in Europe. He may not have been in the vanguard of contemporary American art at the time, but he was nevertheless considered an important artist of his generation, sought after by many museums and private collectors, including Maurice Lipschultz.

As a Jewish artist with an international reputation, Gropper was exactly what the committee at Temple Har Zion was looking for. Here was a chance, they reckoned, for the temple to acquire Gropper’s first and perhaps only monumental work. If everything went right, the result would be a masterpiece that would capture the attention of the art world and bring people from around the country to the corner of Harlem and Thomas in River Forest.

The windows

Gropper was never an observant Jew, and with the exception of a series of drawings and paintings memorializing the Holocaust, very little of his work could be considered strictly Jewish in content (even the left-leaning Yiddish daily that he worked for was almost entirely secular). The window project at Har Zion was the first major work he undertook on biblical themes. According to his contract, Gropper was to choose his subject matter in consultation with the Temple’s rabbi at the time, Joseph Tabachnik. Although the obvious choice might have been to depict the five books of Moses, one book for each window, Gropper chose, with Tabachnik’s approval, to devote all of the windows to a single book, Genesis.

Throughout his career, in his commissions and especially with his cartoons, Gropper had always insisted on total artistic freedom. “The only place where I have been able to get that freedom,” he explained in a 1947 newspaper interview, “is in the ‘left wing’ press. But I would draw for [William Randolph] Hearst if he would use my work.” Unfortunately for Gropper, Har Zion would make him answer to a higher authority than Hearst-the Second Commandment.

For millennia now, Jewish artists have grappled with the second commandment. Its injunction on graven images, not only of God, but of anything in heaven or on earth (or even in the sea) may be the single most all-inclusive act of artistic censorship in history. Characteristically, Jewish authorities through the centuries have interpreted their way in and around the commandment to suit the needs and tastes of their respective communities. Temple Har Zion was no different. Gropper was given but one limitation on his images: no human faces.

The hand of God

In the best of Gropper’s paintings and cartoons it’s the faces of his subjects-the twisted, bloated, ugly, laughing, sneering or screaming faces-that form the expressive core of his art. In depicting the character-heavy narrative of Genesis without faces, Gropper had to find a different “human” motif, one that could convey the sweeping emotional landscape of the story. The image he settled on is the hand, or more specifically, the outstretched arm.

If you’ve ever been to a Passover seder (or read Exodus), you might be familiar with the “outstretched arm of God,” the one that delivers both redemption (to the Israelites) and devastation (to the Egyptians). The divine-and human-hand that both gives and takes, blesses and curses, and strikes down and raises up, is a powerful religious symbol and one that Gropper used in each of the five windows to chart his course through Genesis.

The first window, depicting creation, shows a golden sun at the top shining down upon what Gropper called “the tree of life.” Inside the tree is the Garden of Eden with all of its plants and animals. Step back from the window and you’ll notice the shape of the tree is really an arm. The base tapers upward to a wrist from which extend long palm fronds that form the fingers of a hand. Like a work of art, Gropper’s Eden is shaped quite literally by the Creator’s hand.

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Genesis, it turned out, was a fitting subject for Gropper. It’s a story about creation, divine promise and hope, interspersed with jealousy, hatred and violence. Gropper found his favorite themes: mythic heroes of purity and goodness versus real-world corruption and evil. In each of the five windows, these themes are interwoven-at times morphing into one another. Here, instead of Paul Bunyan, it’s Noah in the second window, hooded and faceless, stretching his arms upward imploringly from the midst of the deluge-the righteous man surrounded above and below by the evil, bloody thuggery of the world. In this case Gropper uses animals, ripping and tearing at one another, to stand in for the fascists and fear mongers of his own day.

At the top of the third window it is Abraham’s turn to stretch his hand upward triumphantly into the star-filled sky-a dramatic image depicting a pivotal moment when God promises Abraham his descendents will be as numerous as the stars. Yet just two panels later, Gropper’s image of God’s promise changes into the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah-green hands writhing within fire and brimstone. In Gropper’s original design, he had included two hands shaking, against a red background at the bottom of this window. Rabbi Tabachnik, however, nixed the idea, claiming “it looks like the symbol of the old Socialist Party.”

The Genesis windows don’t fit the traditional stained-glass mode. They were formed from a different technique, called “faceted slab glass,” in which thick pieces of colored glass are chipped and shaped, then set into an epoxy resin that binds them together. They were fabricated by Valeska Art Studio in Chicago, which labored for over a year and a half executing Gropper’s extremely complicated design. In many parts of the windows, different pieces of colored glass were melted together to form new colors and patterns. In some places, Gropper painted directly on the glass.

The overall effect differs from stained glass in part because the epoxy forms a black background that accentuates the brightness of the individual glass shapes and gives the images a kind of floating three-dimensionality. The drawback is that the images, at times, become fragmented and hard to read.

Stretching almost from the floor to the ceiling, and entirely unobstructed, the windows at Har Zion, installed 40 years ago, are gigantic in scale. Oddly, they are not located in the temple’s sanctuary, but in the social hall directly behind the sanctuary. Only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the building is reconfigured to handle a larger crowd, do the windows actually appear in the service. The social hall is an enormous empty space that frames the windows as if it were built just for them, rather than the other way around. If you stand in the room on a sunny afternoon, with the interior lights off, it’s like being in a movie theater, the entire film unfolding at once in a glowing mass of color.

In 1953, Gropper wrote in his statement to Joseph McCarthy’s committee, “A people without art is like a house without windows, living in darkness.” Fourteen years later, Gropper would bring those windows to River Forest. The light that would shine through them would dispel the darkness, and the people would see that the place no longer looked like a bowling alley, and they would know that it was good-very good. n

Marc Stopeck has a degree in art and works at Wednesday Journal as advertising manager and editorial cartoonist. He is also a member of West Suburban Temple Har Zion

Shining a light on stained glass

William Gropper’s 30-foot-high, stained-glass windows, which depict scenes from the book of Genesis, are being commemorated in November with a series of events at West Suburban Temple in River Forest.

The temple hopes to raise funds to restore the brilliant slab-glass panels, which were installed in November 1967.

A number of events are planned:

An exhibit of paintings and drawings at West Suburban Temple on loan by arrangement with the artist’s family. Docent-led tours available Nov. 2-30.

Concert and champagne reception featuring Chicago a cappella, Nov. 8, at 7 pm. Columbia College faculty member Ilya Levinson will perform a work he composed, commissioned for the occasion. Columbia colleague and congregant Peter Saltzman also will perform.

Storytelling, “Through the Windows of Time: Tradin’ Tales from Around the World,” by Susan Stone and Oba William King on Nov. 16 at 1 pm. They will share stories drawn from around the world.

Artist in resident and bus tour: Chana Zelig will share reflections as a designer, painter and Jewish artisan during a weekend program on Nov. 22- 23 that will culminate in a tour of notable art glass in the Chicago area.

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