Treasure in the attic: Woman steps up to save long-lost mural of 1800s Jewish immigrant congregation

Moving the mural at the former Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams to the Yiddish Museum in Amherst is estimated to cost $450,000.

Moving the mural at the former Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams to the Yiddish Museum in Amherst is estimated to cost $450,000. S GRUBER/COURTESY CAROL CLINGAN

A mural at the former Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams dates to the 1890s. The synagogue moved to a bigger space in 1920.

A mural at the former Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams dates to the 1890s. The synagogue moved to a bigger space in 1920. S GRUBER/COURTESY CAROL CLINGAN

Part of the mural in the attic of the former Congregation Beth Israel on Francis Street in North Adams.

Part of the mural in the attic of the former Congregation Beth Israel on Francis Street in North Adams. S GRUBER/COURTESY CAROL CLINGAN

A detail of the mural at the former Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.

A detail of the mural at the former Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. S GRUBER/COURTESY CAROL CLINGAN

A detail of the mural at the former Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.

A detail of the mural at the former Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. S GRUBER/COURTESY CAROL CLINGAN

A detail of the mural at the former Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.

A detail of the mural at the former Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. S GRUBER/COURTESY CAROL CLINGAN

CAROL CLINGAN

CAROL CLINGAN

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 02-19-2024 7:11 PM

Forgotten and gathering dust in the attic of a North Adams apartment building for more than a century, a mural that’s a part of eastern European Jewish immigrant history may soon see the light of day again.

If it does, it will be thanks largely to the efforts of Dedham resident Carol Clingan, who has been working on a plan to preserve and display the artwork since she rediscovered it by happenstance almost 10 years ago.

“I just felt like we can’t leave it there — it’s so much a reflection of the culture of the immigrant community,” Clingan said.

She reached out to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, which has agreed to display the mural.

“It’s going in the lobby inside the front door, where 10,000 people a year will see it,” she said.

First, though, Clingan has to find the money to pay a team of people who can stabilize, protect and transport a delicate 25-by-5-foot, 1,500-pound work of art.

The estimated cost is $450,000.

Left behind

The mural’s history starts in the 1890s when Congregation Beth Israel, consisting of people who had come to North Adams from the Lithuania-Belarus border area, hired a Lithuanian immigrant named Noah Levin to paint a mural typical of Lithuania’s wooden synagogues for their synagogue on Francis Street.

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It graced the peak of the sanctuary inside the three-story building for more than 20 years until 1920, when the congregation moved to a bigger building. The mural was left behind and hidden from view when the old synagogue was converted into apartments.

Clingan, who described herself as “basically a genealogist” since retiring from her 40-year career in communications, spent years taking photos of yahrzeit plaques, a Jewish tradition of marking loved ones’ dates of death.

A publication called “Our Fathers” wanted to enlist local genealogical societies in a search for records in the United States, and Clingan volunteered to do the synagogues.

There turned out to be 582 in Massachusetts alone.

“I’d call up, ask about records, mergers,” she said. “The only two things I know that were kept when a synagogue went out of business were plaques and Torahs.”

By the time she got to western Massachusetts, Clingan was tired of driving. She asked a friend in Adams if she would go photograph plaques in North Adams.

“She came back and said they didn’t have them,” she said.

Using her research skills, Clingan got in touch with Vermont resident David Towler, who grew up in North Adams and had a special interest in the Jewish community there. He told her about the mural.

So she made a date to go out and see it.

Moving a wall

The 25-by-5-foot mural fills the apex of the building’s attic, itself barely more than 5 feet high. Drawn in Conte crayon, it depicts the Tablets of the Law flanked by two lions holding American flags in their paws. Other Jewish symbols include a Star of David, priestly blessing hands and the Crown of the Torah.

The inscription on the top reads “Know before whom you stand,” while the one at the bottom preserves the name of the congregation, Havurah Beit Yisrael.

There was no question in Clingan’s mind that it needed to be preserved and moved somewhere it could be seen. But it would be a daunting task.

First off, it’s in the attic of a building where people live.

“The landlord has been a treasure,” Clingan said. “He felt a sense of stewardship about it. He’s been very nice about letting people go in.”

The mural, backed with lath, is not in perfect condition and will need to be stabilized before it can be moved. This involves carefully covering it and building a cage around it.

Clingan said Rick Kerschner, the former supervisor of Shelburne Museum in Vermont, is overseeing the process and identifying people who can do the work.

“It’s a pretty amazing project,” Clingan said. “There’s a lot of steps involved.”

Then, there’s the question of paying for it. Against her natural inclinations, Clingan has become a fundraiser.

“I’ve got $300,000 so far,” she said last month.

She has sought out people involved in the preservation and restoration of Jewish things. Towler gave her a list of the founders of the North Adams congregation from 1904.

“I’ve been tracing them until I find living relatives,” she said. “You have to appeal to people’s sentiment and pride.”

Nothing will happen until all the money is in hand, she said. It’s an uphill slog and it has taken longer than she expected.

“I just turned 81 and I can’t do this $36 at a time,” she said, referring to the fact that many Jewish people donate money in multiples of 18.

“By the end of February we’ll know how close we are,” she said.

The Yiddish Book Center is looking forward to displaying the mural prominently, president and founder Aaron Lansky said in a statement.

“The mural will feel right at home at the Yiddish Book Center, where it will be viewed and enjoyed by visitors from around the world,” he said.

Very few people in North Adams remember about the mural, and some who did wanted it to stay in town. The Jewish congregation is still active, but it’s small, Clingan said, and its members are happy that the mural is being rescued from obscurity.

“It’s so important to me that we save it forever, and it’ll be in a place where people can see it,” Clingan said.

The Mural in the Attic campaign can be contacted at atticmural@gmail.com or 617 816-7171.