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Handcrafted History of Polish Jews

In ‘Raise the Roof,’ two UGA grads bring a lost masterpiece back to life By Penny Schwartz


JANUARY 30 ▪ 2015

ow often do you get a chance to reach deep into history and bring it back? That’s the question that inspired Laura and Rick Brown to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime, decade-long journey into the nearly lost world of Poland’s 17th- and 18th-century wooden synagogues. With their three-tier roofs and gloriously painted interiors, the synagogues were architectural gems built during a period referred to as the golden era of Polish Jewry. Nearly 200 wooden synagogues lasted into the 20th century, but none survived the Nazi occupation of Poland. Along with the buildings, the knowledge of the synagogues was nearly lost. The Browns’ unlikely odyssey to bring back to life one of the most magnificent of these synagogues is told in “Raise the Roof,” a documentary by the award-winning father-son filmmaking team of Cary and Yari Wolinsky. The film will make its official world premiere at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival with four screenings from Feb. 3 to 13. The Browns and the filmmakers will attend postscreening discussions Feb. 12 and 13. “Raise the Roof” follows the Browns and their international team of artisans and hundreds of students as they re-create the roof and painted ceiling of the Gwozdziec Synagogue in what is now part of Ukraine. The re-created structure, built by hand using methods and materials that would have been used for the original, is once again a gem and available for the world to see as the centerpiece exhibit of the new Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened last fall in Warsaw with great fanfare. The exhibit includes a full-size, hand-carved and hand-painted bimah, the prayer podium that stood in the center of the prayer hall. “The recovery of this lost object is an epic story,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the program director of the core exhibition of the Polin Museum. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, one of the scholars interviewed in the film, described the painted ceiling as a “celestial canopy,” reflecting a rich period of Polish Jewish history that 26 contrasts sharply with the stereotypi-



B “One of the most rewarding aspects of the project was nurturing the hundreds of students who participated,” Rick and Laura Brown said. “Creating this project brought together people of all ages, faiths, backgrounds and nationalities.” Laura Brown added: “It is nice to be showing in my hometown, and I hope it’s significant to Atlanta as well.” ■ A: Rick Brown holds the photo of Gwozdziec Synagogue that inspired the reconstruction.

C cal images of impoverished shtetl life. The Browns, who are not Jewish and have no Polish ancestry, are artists and inspired educators who have ties to Atlanta. Laura Smith Brown was born and raised in Atlanta in a Catholic family devoted to and active in Christ the King Ca- D thedral on Peachtree Street. She met Rick, who grew up in Virginia, when they were students at the University of Georgia. Growing up, she said, she had a few Jewish friends but never visited a synagogue in Atlanta. The Browns, who live in Boston, are longtime faculty members at the Massachusetts College of Art. In 2000 they founded Handshouse, a nonprofit educational organization producing hands-on interdisciplinary projects that explore history by re-creating large objects nearly lost to history. The Browns’ passion for traditional methods enables the artists and students to learn about the culture that created the synagogue, Laura Brown says in the film.

B: Laura Brown measures a trim board made to cover the seams between the dome and pendentive panels. C: Meticulous work by the Browns’ team goes into re-creating the synagogue’s beauty. D: Rick and Laura Brown review details on photographs of the Polish synagogues that no longer exist. Photos courtesy of Trillium Studios

Seeing the Film

Film producer Cary Wolinsky, an award-winning National Geographic filmmaker and photographer, told the Atlanta Jewish Times that making the film was a “roots” journey in which he discovered that Polish Jewish history, including his own Jewish ancestry, was not only a story of the Holocaust, but also a “vibrant and creative Jewish culture” that existed for 1,000 years. The film captures the dynamic learning process that the Browns inspire in their students, who, along with hewing logs, grinding paints and mastering medieval brushstrokes, become history detectives. Several University of Georgia students participated in workshops to build the synagogue.

“Raise the Roof” ( is showing four times during the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Screenings Feb. 8 at Regal Cinemas Avalon and Feb. 12 at Lefont Sandy Springs are sold out, but tickets are available for two screenings (visit for tickets): • Tuesday, Feb. 3, at 2:50 p.m. at GTC Merchants Walk in East Cobb with Rabbis Without Borders’ Rabbi Pamela Jay Gottfried and Emory history professor Ellie Schainker discussing the movie afterward. • Friday, Feb. 13, at 11:10 a.m. at Lefont Sandy Springs with postfilm appearances by the Browns, the Wolinskys, student Lindsay Pennington, Camp Ramah Darom art director Dafna Robinson and the Telluride Film Festival’s Shelton Stanfill.

Atlanta Jewish TImes Vol 90 No. 3, January 30, 2015  

Negev, Ben-Gurion, Argentina's Jewish community, Kehilla Fest, Modern Tribe