21 April 2008

Ohio: Family history in synagogue curtain

The Cincinnati Inquirer's story on linking a family's history to a parokhet (curtain for the Ark - the cabinet that holds Torah scrolls), is here.

Siegmund Gutman always felt he had a relatively small extended family because of the toll the Holocaust took on his Russian, Polish and Austrian ancestors.

Recently, the Cincinnati Hillel Jewish Student Center in Clifton brought Gutman's family history into focus and that led the Los Angeles attorney to dedicate an artifact in the center's collection.

Rabbi Abie Ingber and others at Cincinnati Hillel discovered a connection between Gutman and the original purchase of an ark curtain in 1885 for one of the largest synagogues in Europe. The Viennese curtain, used to cover the area in a synagogue where the Torah scroll is kept, survived World War II.

"When I spoke to my grandparents, there was a richness of history they taught me about my Jewish heritage," said Gutman, 40. "Learning about this ark curtain has added to that richness and given me an opportunity to pass that on to my daughter."

Gutman and his wife, Stephanie Hertzman, visited Cincinnati this week to dedicate the ark curtain in honor of their 1-year-old daughter, Micah. It is displayed in Cincinnati's Hillel chapel. The center has more than 400 other Jewish artifacts and pieces of history.

A local resident bought and donated the velvet cloth cloth to Hillel. The embroidered inscription reads in part: "donated graciously by Mr. Isak Zev Ritter von Gutmann and his wife ... as a remembrance before God of the day that their beloved son Moses became a Bar Mitzvah."

Rabbi Ingber mentioned the cloth to a Hillel supporter whose son-in-law had the same last name. Research revealed Siegmund Gutman was a descendant of the same Gutman family in Vienna who were Stadttempel (City Temple) members where the curtain was from. It was the only Viennese synagogue to survive the 1938 Kristallnacht.

"If this ark curtain could speak, how would it feel to see the descendant of the family that gave it life? And how would it feel to hear Schubert, the music that dedicated its synagogue?" Ingber said.

For Gutman, the passion for dedicating the piece again is rooted in preserving this piece of Jewish and family history.

The curtain and other Hillel artifacts may be viewed at the congregation.

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