Archtecture in Time

Milestone is an old word, as solid as a pillar marking distances along an old post road. In contemporary use, the meaning is temporal; a milestone is a significant event, the beginning or end of a stage in life — the stuff of memory.

I was married in the sanctuary of Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley — the same place my baby daughter was named, became bat mitzvah at 13, and graduated from the temple high school program. It is the only place she can imagine her own wedding.

I’ve been in that room for 30 years’ worth of holiday observances. I’ve wept at the funerals of friends there. I laughed and sung and studied there. On occasion, I’ve sat alone and savored an unusual but comfortable silence.

According to the fire marshal, 240 people are permitted in the sanctuary at any given time, but there is no legal limit on the number of memories. Sometimes when I walk in, I feel embraced by the past; other times, ambushed.

This has nothing to do with the temple’s architecture, which is unassuming, even artless. Beth El was built in 1970 by a local prefab construction company at a cost of $135,000. The sanctuary’s best feature is the vaulted ceiling, 25 feet at its peak, made of bare wooden planks stained a dark walnut color. It looks like an inverted boat and makes me think of Noah’s ark, which landed well. I remember someone looking up and making the imaginative leap to another biblical vessel: the waterproof basket that floated baby Moses down the Nile.

The west-facing windows look out on a meditation garden dedicated to remembrance; inside the names of our dead are etched on panes of frosted glass the size of business cards and displayed in a white wooden lattice near the altar, the bimah.

The custom of placing stones on a loved one’s grave is reprised within the grid by a supply of polished black pebbles. I place one beside my father’s name on the anniversary of his death and whenever I want to draw closer to his memory. A few spaces above, my friend’s infant son is memorialized, his untimely death a family tragedy that becomes fungible and communal in the company of this congregation.

The word “remember” appears 169 times in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. For Jews, the methodology of remembering is ritual, which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described as “the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.” Passover rehearses the story of Exodus to make that memory personal in every generation. The annual tributes to loved ones gone recall entire lifetimes.

The sanctuary is redolent with sense memory; the smell of warming casseroles, the taste of a hundred thousand bagels, the press of handshakes and hugs, the echoes of spontaneous harmonies, the afterglow of smiles from my groom, my daughter, my father, and 240-plus faces who remember me.


This article appears in the current issue of Boston Architecture Magazine.  

Leave a Comment