All God’s Griffins Got Wings at Cleveland Synagogue

Winged lions at a Cleveland synagogue. Credit: Matt Klein

Winged lions at a Cleveland synagogue. Credit: Matt Klein

The ark at Cleveland’s Orthodox Green Road Synagogue looms on an intimidating platform above the congregation. Alternating tan and umber rays — evocative of the divine lights that emanate from the sun in ancient Egyptian art and of St. Francis’s stigmata in Christian paintings — culminate in diamond-shaped niches above the chairs reserved for synagogue officials. There is, as one would expect, an eternal light, and beneath it, a depiction of the Ten Commandments: the double-humped variety recalling the McDonald’s logo.

But the two fierce beasts guarding the ark in the synagogue — which traces its roots back to immigrants from Marmaresher Sziger, Hungary, who built a congregation in Cleveland’s Woodland Hills neighborhood in 1910 — are unusual.

Instead of naturalistic lions, symbolic of the tribe of Judah and of the rabbinic injunction to be “strong as a lion” for morning services, Green Road’s ark features a pair of winged lions. (I initially mistook them for Gothic-styled griffins, but Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion at Vassar College, corrected me; they are Beaux Artes, art nouveau, or Victorian neo-Gothic, and they lack the eagle heads one expects of griffins.)

Read my article “All God’s Griffins Got Wings at Cleveland Synagogue” in the Jewish Daily Forward.

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